How Many Books Does A Tour Sell Anyway?
A look at real live numbers
Wash your hands.
I planned this entry before we started cancelling events because of coronavirus. I wanted to calm anxious debut authors who were upset they weren’t getting a book tour, to show what the numbers could be, to show that there are more feelings than facts wrapped up in this side of book promotion. I think this will do that, but now, it will hopefully reassure all authors with books coming out in the next few months that all is not lost if you can’t have an average, in-person event. If you were planning to sell out a 500-person venue then, yeah, this is going to have some kind of impact on your book launch. But I don’t think that is very many of you, and if it is, please tell your readers about this newsletter.
A while back, I was talking with a (non-client) friend just back from a book event. Their book had come out weeks before, and they’d just gotten a lovely note from the manager of the bookstore. The manager was thrilled with the turnout and sales from the event. Over 100 people showed up and they sold over 30 books.
They were thrilled! And when I’ve mentioned this anecdote to other editors, they said, that’s great! too, in a non-placting way. As industry professionals—an agent, the author, an editor, a bookseller—we are all happy about one event selling 30 books.
Let’s look at the finances behind these 30 books. I’m estimating because I don’t know this person’s royalty rates. Let’s say we’re working with standard adult hardcover royalty rates, which are 10% of the retail price.
What does the author make in royalties here?
10% of $24.95 x 30 = $74.85 in royalties, applied to earning out their advance.
So, what did the bookstore make? They buy books from the publisher at a discount, but they can return any they don’t sell. I don’t know what that discount was, but let’s say 45% off the retail price, or $11.22 off each book. That means the bookstore paid $411.67 for 30 books and kept $336.83 from the sales.
So, the publisher takes home $411.67 - $74.85 in author royalties so then has a net income of $336.82. But they paid for the author’s travel, hotel, and meals, and I estimated that at about $700—no plane ride for this event. So for this one event, with a popular author, that everyone thought was a rousing success, put the publisher in the red roughly $363.18.
Here’s what these numbers don’t reflect: that this isn’t all profit in basically anyone’s pocket. Taxes. Everyone here has overhead, including the author. The store and the publisher have marketing and payroll and keeping the lights on among so many other things, and the author likely has an unearned advance and the value of their time taken away from doing things like writing more for their living.
These numbers also don’t reflect the intangible benefits of an event. The social media posts—from the author, publisher, bookstore, and attendees—that help spread the word about the book. Maybe there were write ups in a local paper or blog. There was advertising, by all parties, that put the author’s name and the bookcover out there, which promotes more than just the event. People probably bought other books, notebooks, coffees, wine, muffins, whatever at the event, which benefits both the store and publishers. Maybe some bought the author’s previous book, not reflected in this number. Maybe someone happened to be in the store when the event started, sat down to listen, and became a fan. Maybe someone brought their friends and now this author has 3 new fans. Maybe someone at home saw an Instagram story of the event, thought oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to read that and went and bought the book on Amazon or put it on hold at their library.
This is just one event. Any author is just thinking about their one or three events. But as you can see, this is why publishers are loathe to send authors on tour, especially to venues where they might not have a big support network. (Do you go to random book events of authors you don’t know much about? Do you go to book events at all, if they happen in your city? Do you have free time/childcare/transportation/access?) Authors think but why not just send me to one or two places? It doesn’t cost that much! And it doesn’t. Even $2000 for one author to go to 2 or 3 cities is not that much money for a large corporation. But if they have 20 books in a season (not to mention 30 or 40), and all those authors gets “just” 2 or 3 events, and the publisher could lose almost $400 a pop, if not more, well do I need to do that math? Some events will sell a lot of books to make up for other deficits. That’s how the system is built. But that means the publisher has to be careful because there isn’t infinite money, large corporation or no, and tours just do not sell books.
Dont’ forget that the publisher’s job is to sell books. That’s how they get money to buy more books from authors so they can publish them and then sell more books.
I am SURE someone is going to come into my email or mentions and be like “well I sold 500 copies at my first event!” and I will be happy to tell them congratulations! That’s amazing! That is not the norm!
Now that coronavirus is causing real alarm in the US and tours and events are being cancelled, I don’t want you to freak out that your debut book is doomed, that you’re never going to publish again, that your career is over. Events are just not make it or break it for book promotion. And later, when we’re not dealing with a global pandemic, remember that book tours are not a beauty contest. The lack of one for you doesn’t mean your publisher hates you and thinks you’re going to fail. It doesn’t mean you’re not imporant and a nobody. Don’t let your vanity get in the way of promoting your book effectively. Throw yourself a party in your hometown (when we’re in the clear, quarantine-wise) and invite all your friends. I bet you could sell 100 books there, incure no travel costs, and get on the radar of your local indie, who might invite you back for a panel or a local bookfest or something, which could actual raise your profile even more.
And if your event is cancelled/you’re not going on tour, what do you do? Well, where are your readers? Client extraordinaire Erin Hahn had a great thread on twitter of bloggers looking to spread YA book love. Maybe your readers are on Twitch or TikTok. Maybe you can Skype into a library book club or school. Maybe get back on your true crime reddit. You know your specific reader better than your publisher, most likely. Use your resources, even if they feel meager. They might not be as meager as you think.
Stay safe, everyone. Don’t hoard supplies and take them away from those who really need them. (Why are you buying all that bottled water?) Wash your hands, cough into your elbow, protect the vulnerable around you. Tell everyone online about the great books you’re reading.