A simple question authors hate
As an author, one of the questions I’ve grown to hate is: “How are sales of [insert latest book] going?”
You’d think that was a reasonable question, and all things being equal, I’d say you’re right. In most businesses, you’d probably have a pretty good grip on how sales of your product/service are going; if you don’t, you’re winging it and you may not be in business for much longer.
But authors don’t know the answer to the question - not necessarily, anyway. I receive a statement, which gives me my sales figures (and what I’ve earned from them) twice a year only. I know some publishers do it more frequently, but also that there are many authors out there in the same position as me. So while my book was published in November, I have no idea, in March, how many it’s sold to date. Unless I pester my publisher, which I try not to do.
There is a reason for this, which is the rather antiquated practice of sale or return by bookshops. As a hypothetical example: if a shop takes, say, ten of my books, they might expect to sell them within a specified time (I’m not sure how long). If they don’t all sell, then they have the option of returning the remainder to the publisher. So my publisher hasn’t actually ‘sold’ ten books at all. To me, it seems like an odd way of doing business. But it seems it’s what they’ve always done.
The second problem is that many people have an unrealistic idea of what constitutes ‘good’ book sales. You might be surprised, even shocked to know, (as I was when I embarked on this new career of mine) that even award-winning novels of a high literary standard might only sell a few thousand in their first year. Five thousand, perhaps. And from those sales the author will earn a tiny proportion of the retail price.
You can see how, even if we’re lucky enough to know what sales we’ve had, we might be reluctant to answer that question, in case you conclude that our books must be no good. And we don’t want you thinking that, not at all.
So please forgive us if we prevaricate, or wriggle a little, when asked certain questions - there’s usually a good reason for it.