When It Comes To Book Sales, What Counts As Success Might Surprise You

Sep 19, 2015
Originally published on October 19, 2015 6:43 pm

Whenever you read about book awards you hear they help boost sales. But what you might not know is just how much those sales need boosting. Two prestigious awards announced nominees this week; in the U.K. the Man Booker unveiled its short list and in the U.S. the National Book Awards announced its long lists.

The awards news came on the heels of a survey from the Authors Guild about the sorry state of author incomes. So what happens to writers who never get anywhere near an awards ceremony?

Washington Post critic Ron Charles reviews the kinds of books that get nominated for literary awards. These are not the blockbusters, the books written by the likes of Stephen King and Nora Roberts that make millions.

Charles knows that. Even so, he was dismayed when he saw a story about the sales figures for the novels long-listed for the Man Booker. The list included The Green Road by Irish author Anne Enright, who's won the award before.

"When I saw that Anne Enright — [who] I think of as giant in literary fiction, beloved around the world — could only sell 9,000 copies in the U.K. I was shocked, that's really low," he says.

According to Nielsen Bookscan, U.S. hardcover sales for five of the six Man Booker finalists were no more encouraging. (One of the books is not yet available here). Leading the pack, not surprisingly, was Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler, the only writer on the list with six-figure sales for her book A Spool of Blue Thread. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara had sales between 15,000 and 20,000. Tom McCarthy's Satin Island sold 3,600 copies.

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma's debut novel, The Fishermen, sold just under 3,000 copies, which Charles says is not too bad.

"For an unknown writer?" he says. "Twenty-eight years old, no presence on social media. We're not talking Mindy Kaling, here. He's not sending his tweets to millions every day. Three thousand's not bad."

So what is a good sales figure for any book?

"A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies," says literary agent Jane Dystel. "Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the publisher's attention for the author for a second book."

But if that second book doesn't sell, says Dystel, odds are you won't get another chance. And that brings us to the Authors Guild survey. Just over 1,400 full- and part-time writers took part in the survey, the Guild's first since 2009. There has been a 30 percent decline in author income since then and more than half of the respondents earned less than $11,670 (the 2014 federal poverty level) from their writing related income.

"No one likes to see the word 'poverty level' on a survey that has anything to do with people you know," says Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild. "You used to be able to make an absolutely living wage as a writer. You wrote essays and you published them in journals. You wrote magazine pieces and you got paid very well for those. And you wrote books and you got good advances. So being a writer, it didn't usually mean you would be rich, but it had meant in the past that you could support yourself."

Robinson says the landscape for writers has changed in many ways. They have to do more self-promotion, sometimes even offering their work for free online. The Authors Guild blames the decline in writers' income on a combination of factors: online piracy of digital material, consolidation within the publishing industry which has led to more focus on the bottom line, the dominance of Amazon and the rise of self-publishing which has cut into the market for traditional publishers.

"I mean, there are lots of writers ... thousands of writers who are making a good living from self-publishing," says best-selling author Barry Eisler.

Eisler is a self-publishing advocate who says the Authors Guild doesn't represent all writers. Its membership skews older and it is mostly interested in maintaining the status quo of traditional publishing. Self-publishing may not be for everyone, he says. There is no question writers have to be more entrepreneurial. But he says it also offers them a choice when it comes to money and control — and the end result isn't really all that different from traditional publishing.

"Yes, it's absolutely true that most self-published authors aren't able — at least not yet — to make a living from their writing," he says. "But that's also absolutely true of legacy publishing. It's always been true."

And here is the other thing that is absolutely true: Writers will write, says Roxana Robinson, even if they don't get paid for it.

"We can't tell people not to write for free," she says. "It's not to their advantage to do it. But if they want to do it, they will do it."

And maybe — just maybe — next time they'll get paid.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's literary award season. And this week the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award announce their list of nominees. Once again, B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music, was not among them. Awards help sell books, and sales badly need a boost. The announcements come after a survey from the Authors Guild about this sorry state of U.S. author incomes. How do you make a living as a writer these days? NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Washington Post critic Ron Charles reviews the kinds of books that get nominated for literary awards. These are not the blockbusters, the books written by the likes of Stephen King and Nora Roberts that make millions. Charles knows that. Even so, he was dismayed when he saw a story in the Bookseller, an online British publication, about the sales figures for the novels long-listed for the Man Booker. That included "The Green Road" by Irish author Anne Enright, who's won the award before.

RON CHARLES: When I saw that Anne Enright - I think of as a giant in literary fiction, beloved around the world - could only sell 9,000 copies in the U.K., I was shocked. That's really low.

NEARY: According to Nielsen Bookscan, U.S. hardcover sales for five of the six Man Booker finalists - one of the books is not yet available here - were no more encouraging. Leading the pack, not surprisingly, was Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Tyler, the only writer on the list with six-figure sales. Two others had sales between 15,000 and 20,000; the bottom two - less than 4,000. Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma's debut novel, "The Fishermen," sold just under 3,000 copies which, Charles says, is not too bad.

CHARLES: For an unknown writer, 28 years old, no presence on social media - we're not talking Mindy Kaling, here. He's not, you know, sending his tweets out to millions every day. Three thousand's not bad.

NEARY: Really?

CHARLES: No, I don't think so.

NEARY: So what is a good sales figure for any book? Literary agent, Jane Dystel.

JANE DYSTEL: A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies. Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the publisher's attention for the author for a second book.

NEARY: But if that second book doesn't sell, says Dystel, odds are you won't get another chance. And that brings us to the Authors Guild survey. Just over 1,400 full- and part-time writers took part in the survey, the Guild's first since 2009. There's been a 30 percent decline in author income since then, and more than half of the respondents earned less from writing than the 2014 federal poverty level of $11,670.

ROXANA ROBINSON: Well, no one likes to see the word poverty level on a survey that has anything to do with people you know.

NEARY: Roxana Robinson is the president of the Authors Guild.

ROBINSON: You used to be able to make an absolutely living wage as a writer. You wrote essays and you published them in journals. You wrote magazine pieces, and you got paid very well for those. And you wrote books and you got good advances. So being a writer never - it didn't usually mean that you would be rich, but it had meant, in the past, that you could support yourself.

NEARY: Robinson says the landscape for writers has changed in many ways. They have to do more self-promotion, sometimes even offering their work for free online. The Authors Guild blames the decline in writers' income on a combination of factors - online piracy of digital material, consolidation within the publishing industry, which has led to more focus on the bottom line, the dominance of Amazon and the rise self-publishing, which has cut into the market for traditional publishers.

BARRY EISLER: I mean, there are lots of writers who are making a good living - thousands of writers who are making a good living from self-publishing.

NEARY: Best-selling author Barry Eisler is a self-publishing advocate who says the Authors Guild doesn't represent all writers. Its membership skews older and it's mostly interested in maintaining the status quo of traditional publishing. Self-publishing may not be for everyone, he says. There's no question writers have to be more entrepreneurial. But, he says, it also offers them a choice when it comes to money and control. And the end result isn't really all that different from traditional publishing.

EISLER: Yes, it's absolutely true that most self-published authors aren't able - at least not yet - to make a living from their writing. But that's also absolutely true of legacy publishing. It's always been true.

NEARY: And here's the other thing that's absolutely true. Writers will write, says the Authors Guild Roxana Robinson, even if they don't get paid for it.

ROBINSON: We can't tell people not to write for free. It's not to their advantage to do it, but if they want to do it, they will do it.

NEARY: And maybe, just maybe, next time they'll get paid. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.