Signing books at Books & Greetings in July, photo by Angela Schuster
“How’s the book going?”
If someone, somewhere had bought a copy of my book every time I’ve been asked that question then Michael Lewis would be quaking in his boots. My stock answer is: “Oh, not a bestseller, but pretty well.” The truth is that it’s actually hard to say. Measured how and relative to what?
Well, now that I’m at the six month mark since Heads I Win, Tails I Win was released in hardcover, it’s time to take stock. The information about industry sales is pretty patchy, but what I found surprised me.
According to Steven Piersanti of publishing house Berrett-Koehler there were 256 million adult non-fiction books sold in the U.S. in 2013. That sounds like a big number but, even before counting self-published titles, there are an awful lot of new books per potential reader. He says the average U.S. nonfiction book sells less than 250 copies a year and fewer than 2,000 in its lifetime. That nonfiction average is pulled higher by bestsellers, many by celebrities. The median probably is lower. (For example, Tina Fey’s Bossypants sold 3.5 million copies as of last year). That jibes with what my editor at Penguin/Random House told me – that most books they buy don’t make them a profit. Mine has. It doesn’t even come out in paperback until this summer and I’ve nearly outsold “Hooking Up” by Tia Tequila.
So I guess I should be pleased. According to my publisher’s partial tally of sales, my book sold a combined 5,207 copies in six months including e-books but not audiobooks. Nielsen BookScan data, which Amazon breaks out on my author page, says that 3,397 physical copies have been sold in the United States. Of those, 499 were purchased in New York, my leading market by far. Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco also were pretty good.
The “be cheap and lazy” brand of investing advice sold less-well in the Midwest, but I’m happy to say that there isn’t a metropolitan area where no one at all bought a copy. If you’re the one person who bought it in Toledo, Ohio, South Bend-Elkhart, Indiana, or Davenport-Rock-Island-Moline, Illinois, thank you!
Should I care about this? Isn’t it the quality that matters? I wish life were so simple.
It’s true that I poured my heart and soul into the book and that it got really nice reviews and mentions in Forbes, Money, Barron’s, USA Today and The New York Times and was excerpted by The Wall Street Journal, Marketwatch, and others, along with some great advance praise. Book-writing is a business, though.
So am I in it only for the income? Samuel Johnson famously said that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Consider me a semi-blockhead, then. Completing a book is an ordeal for the author and his or her family and I would never write one with no expectation of remuneration. On the other hand, the “how’s the book going” crowd would be shocked if they knew the effective pay per hour that a moderately successful author such as myself earns. I try not to think about it, or to guffaw when people ask if I’m planning on retiring to write books full time!
Publishers pretty much count on people like me who have more passion than common sense. They’re much less sentimental, which is fine – they have families to support too. Even if the prose sings and the subject matter is groundbreaking, they won’t publish a book that they think will sell only 800 copies.
In that sense, then, the book is doing pretty well. It would have to sell a lot more copies for me to see any income beyond my advance on royalties. On the other hand, the more copies I manage to flog the greater the odds of my next project finding a publisher.