One of the perennial frustrations of being published by one of the traditional print publishers is that it takes forever to get any hard data on how your books are selling. The typical print publishers put out royalty statements twice a year–one in May covering the previous July to December’s sales and another in December covering January to June. True, you can look at your ranking numbers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and now that Amazon is giving authors Bookscan data, you can see how many print copies of your book are selling each week. What Amazon won’t do, however, is tell you how many DIGITAL copies you’re selling, either on their website or anyone else’s. This means that if a sizable percentage of your sales are digital, you don’t have any real idea of how many copies have sold until a year after the fact.
Most digital publishers have improved significantly on print publishers by disclosing sales figures and pay royalties on a monthly basis. This means you usually know by the end of February how your book sold in January and by the end of March how it sold in February and so on. You’re still about a month behind the curve, but at least you have data soon enough to have some sense of how things are going.
But now we have self-publishing through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. If you are selling a book through THESE channels, you can find out EVERY SINGLE DAY how many copies of your book have sold. And let me tell you, checking your sales data can become an obsession.
When I put out the digital version of The Reiver back in January, I didn’t just look at my data once a day; I swear I looked at it every three hours. I’ve managed to control myself a little better in the past few weeks, and some days, I don’t even look at all. Still, it’s kind of amazing that I can say exactly how many copies of the book have sold at any given minute of any given day (as of this moment, it’s 319) when I have no clue how many total copies of anything else I’ve sold.
But there is a downside to all this knowledge. Aside from the fact that you can waste a LOT of time refreshing the page view to find out how many copies you’ve sold, there’s also the neverending need to compare yourself to other people. In the self-publishing world, there are a lot of authors reporting sales of hundreds of copies per month, if not hundreds per day. When you’re only selling 100 copies or so per month, it’s hard not to wonder WHY. Why are others selling so many books at 99 cents (or 2.99 or 3.99 or whatever), while I’m selling so few? What am I doing wrong? Why don’t people LOOOOOOOVE me more?
I’m not saying this happens to everyone who self-publishes. I do think it’s hard not to feel a little “jilted” as a writer when you aren’t selling as well as someone else. In fact, it’s pretty much exactly the same as the feeling of a writer who’s been passed over by New York time and again while watching all their friends/acquaintances get contract after contract. It’s just that now, instead of trying to get editors to buy your work, you’re trying to get readers to buy it and wondering where you’re going wrong.
For me, 319 sales in less than two months of a short story that is also published in a print anthology seems like THE BOMB. I never expected or even hoped to sell enough copies to hit a bestseller list or make thousands of dollars. I just wanted to give people who might like my writing another opportunity to discover me at a lower price point than they could otherwise. Given this, I’m not freaking out or trying to figure out what I’ve “done wrong.”
But I do worry about what will happen should I decide to self-publish something I have higher hopes for. I’m currently writing a category-length novel. It’s something I might end up self-publishing. And it’s a book I dearly love and want to see do well. Will having too much information drive me crazy? Will I be happy with a few hundred sales a month when I’m more invested? I really don’t know.
But I do know that it’s sometimes possible to know too much.