When Is a Book Sale a Sale?
Demystifying sales and returns
In the Q&A last Thursday (not a subscriber? click here!) we talked about HARD AND FAST NUMBERS for book sales. Well, we didn’t really, because their aren’t any, and each book’s sales track record, projected and actual, is different and its own. Your sales won’t equal your friend’s and you should not compare them. (Comparison is the thief of joy!!) I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. Like in many things, numbers don’t fully equal worth or value.
What I didn’t even talk about, though, are RETURNS. I couldn’t believe I forgot to mention this and how they affect how “sales” are calculated. So, let’s cover that today.
Did you know that a bookstore can just return your book and get their money back if they don’t sell it? Yup. That’s because publishing is a consignment industry. You might be familiar with consignment if you’ve sold tapes or CDs to your local record store (shout out my fellow Gen Xers) or maybe clothes or baby items to your local consignment store. You give them your stuff, they give you a portion of the amount they sold it for after they sell it. Books work the same way. All book retailers, from Amazon to your local indie (but not stores like Urban Outfitters, which I’ll cover in a second), order a quantity of books from the publisher, pay the publisher for those copies according to whatever payment arrangement they have, and if in X months they send back unsold books, they are credited for that amount. If they order 50 copies of your book and after 9 months, they have only sold 20, they can send 20 back to the publisher and just keep 10 on hand for future sales. That frees up bookshelf space for other new books, and maybe your paperback is coming out soon, and they know the hard cover sales are going to slow down. See?
The question is, on pub day, did you sell those 50 copies?
No, not really. At the start of the life of a book, there are a few important numbers. There’s the print run: how many books the publisher prints, most often dictated by how the orders look. A few months before the on-sale date, the orders from stores will start to come in, and those added up with eventually equal the shipped number: the number of copies sent out to stores, both online and brick and mortar. Good signs early on in the life of a book are quick reprints, i.e. the publisher printing more books right away, and quick reorders, i.e. retailers ordering more books right away. You may or may not be notified of either of these things, but when a book moves a lot of copies right away, it’s good news and publishers like to share good news.
Are those sales then? Not really.
If someone asks you how many books you sold your first day, you can chuckle and show off your publishing knowledge, because there’s basically no way to know that number. Your agent may have access to Bookscan, a paid service they may subscribe to that reports books scanned (see?) across point-of-sale scanners (i.e. when you check out, online or IRL), but only from stores that actually report those sales to Bookscan. And the numbers are not immediate and not comprehensive across all titles and don’t include ebooks or audiobooks (that’s a separate service you have to pay for). Your editor has Bookscan and their own internal numbers, but again, the only real hard and fast number is SHIPPED. They know how many copies have left the warehouse. And that might be the only hard and fast number you know for MONTHS. (Please do not badger your team for daily sales figures. As you can see, that’s not how this all works.)
It’s bonkers, right? My clients from the tech/online world are flabbergasted there are not up-to-the-minute metrics for sales. But that’s because of the whole consignment thing. Your local indie or B&N could hold on to your 50 books for 14 months, and then send back 49 of them. That’s not usually how it goes, but it’s possible.
Us on editorial/agenting side of things are comfortable talking about real/actual sales of a book after the second royalty statement comes out. Royalty statements come out every six months (sometimes quarterly for some publishers, but not the big ones) so yeah….that’s a year later. And the royalty statement clock does not start ticking from your pub date—it’s standard across all books for your publisher, and statements often come out April-ish and October-ish. The statement period often, but not always, runs January to June, and July to December. So, you will get a statement for books sold from July 2021 to December 2021 in about April 2022. Yah. That’s how it works. (The months may vary from publisher to publisher here, but this works as an example.)
Why does it happen like this???? To give time for returns to come in so that the publisher is not over-reporting your sales. This is also why you will see a reserve against returns on your royalty statement, which is a cushion of sales your publishers keeps in their pockets for the first few statements in case your book sees lots of returns. This way you don’t get overpaid in royalties for books that eventually come back. Publishers know that if they pay you that money, it’s not coming back to them lol.
This is why it’s so hard to talk about BOOK SALES! And why you should be just a tiny, tiny bit suspicious of anyone reporting a billion books sales four days after their book comes out. You will now think lol I bet they mean shipped, not sold, and feel a tiny bit smug in your advanced publishing knowledge. And if someone outside of publishing asks you how many copies you sold, you can launch into this long spiel about returns and reserves and consignment and bore them to tears, or tell them ONE MILLION COPIES!!!! to get them to stop nosing around your personal business.
Oh yeah—that thing with stores like Urban Outfitters. So general retailers like that, that sell a bunch of other things, often do not buy books on consignment. They buy their copies and they are on the hook to sell them. These are non-returnable copies and they are GREAT! They are REAL SALES and cannot come BACK! HUZZAH! Who gets returnable or non-returnable terms varies from store to store and publisher to publisher. If your book gets a big non-returnable buy in, you’ll know, because it’s great news your team will want to share with you. Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie used to buy SO MANY books, but that’s dried up a bit since the heyday of, ohhhhhhh like 2010. Lol. (I’ve been in this biz too long.) But they still buy and it’s still great.
I hope this info is enlightening and not too overwhelming! Just another wacky aspect of our strange, strange industry.
Did you get your shot????? Get your shot if you can!!!!