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By Nick Taylor

How's the Book Doing???

Uploaded: May 28, 2014

I have plenty of writer friends, but I live on the Peninsula, so most of my daily interactions are with Silicon Valley people: engineers, managers, marketers, financiers... For better or worse, these are the people in my neighborhood, and when they ask about my work, they all have the same question: "How's the book doing?"

We live in a community named for the guts of adding machines. Here, nothing is allowed to exist unless it can be quantified and measured. I remember several years ago when Facebook issued regular press releases updating us on their "seven-day actives," or the number of users who'd logged into the service in the previous week. Every tech company has its key metrics, and I know from talking to friends that many offices even have video screens showing live, up-to-the-minute tallies. Dashboards, they call them.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, as I'll explain in a moment), there is no dashboard for book sales. A book's ranking on Amazon, which is updated several times a day, may look like a proxy for overall sales, but it only counts sales on Amazon, and Amazon is a pretty unique environment (browsing the shelves, for example, is impossible). For brick-and-mortar stores, Nielsen, the TV ratings company, has a product called BookScan that purports to measure 75% of retail sales. Nearly all publishers and literary agencies subscribe to BookScan, but everyone admits that its figures are incomplete.

What about the publishers themselves? Surely the publisher of my book knows how many copies I've sold, or at least how many boxes of books they've shipped to stores. It turns out that yes, they do keep track of shipments, but the publishing industry is extremely lenient with returns: bookstores may send back unsold inventory, at publishers' expense, for many months after the book goes on sale. Author royalty statements make allowances for returns, often waiting six months or more to declare a book "sold," lest it show up as a return in the next day's mail.

How many copies has The Setup Man sold since it was published in March? The truth is that I have no idea. I won't get my first royalty statement for at least another quarter. And guess what? I don't want to know.

This really baffles my Silicon Valley friends. "You don't want to know? Are you afraid it's bad news?"

Look at it this way: if the book is not a New York Times bestseller (and I would know that!) then we can assume sales have been modest, which means that a more useful indicator of success might be the tenor of newspaper reviews or reader testimonials. This isn't sour grapes; my publisher is looking at the same signals right now, as it decides whether to buy the second book in the series.

Publishers know that sales follow advertising. Remember that old game for the Apple II, Lemonade Stand? I remember from playing that game that I could sell as much lemonade as I wanted? if I bought enough advertising and/or cut the price. But I had to be careful: if I earned less from sales than I spent on advertising and raw materials, my lemonade stand would go out of business. For The Setup Man, the publisher bought almost no advertising and held prices high, even for the eBook editions. So even though the book hasn't been a bestseller, it has probably made some money for the publisher. I'm sure they have their own internal "success metrics" that take these restrictions into consideration. I have no idea what that number might be, but I'm pretty sure it's not displayed on a dashboard.