Let’s Talk About Sales, Baby

by Jennifer Hillier

“I really think I can sell it,” my agent said to me back in 2010, “but my job is also to manage your expectations. It’s very difficult to sell fiction, especially debut fiction. And even if we do get an offer, a typical advance is between two and five thousand dollars. So don’t quit your day job.”

“I don’t have a day job,” I said.

“Good. Then you can start writing the next book. Because this one may not end up anywhere. Just want you to be aware of that.”

That was a weird conversation to have six years ago. After all, I’d been euphoric ten minutes earlier when she called to offer me representation. It was a brutal – but necessary – reality check.

The book did sell, and we did better than five thousand dollars. I’d tell you the amount, but for some reason, nobody ever talks about exact dollar figures in this industry. Writers – who’ll say anything within the pages of our books – suddenly get weirdly secretive when it comes to money and sales. We pretend we don’t hear you when you ask us how many books we’ve sold. Because in fairness, there’s no good way to answer the question. If you say some large, impressive number, people will think you’re bragging and instantly dislike you. If you tell them some small, sad number, people will feel sorry for you. And if you tell them some in-between number, they don’t know what it means.

All of the advice I read before I got published was to not worry about the numbers. You can’t control who buys your book, so your only job is to write the best book you can, blah blah blah. It’s solid advice before you’re published, but it’s not entirely realistic after you’re published. You have to worry about the numbers at least a little bit. Or, if you’re me, and have taken up residence in the Land of the Midlist Author, you have to worry about the numbers a lot. Because how much you’re selling matters to your publisher, even if it doesn’t matter to you.

“But I’m not in it for the money,” you say, and I nod wisely, because I know you aren’t. But guess what? Your publisher is. And they definitely care whether your numbers are good, bad, flat, or on a “declining trajectory.”

But we don’t talk about that, remember? Because everyone’s sales are fine, everyone’s happy with how it’s all going, and we’re just glad to be here, blah blah blah.

And what exactly are “good sales,” anyway? While some of my writer friends are obsessed with checking their Amazon book rankings, it’s only a part of the picture, as books with low rankings on Amazon might actually be selling decently in bookstores, drug stores, and box stores. I stopped checking my Amazon rankings a long time ago, because those numbers fluctuate more than my weight. I remember thinking that based on my Amazon rank, Creep (my first book) must not be doing very well, until a friend in New York texted me that he had seen Creep for sale in every Duane Reade drugstore in the northeast for the past three months. Sure enough, when I got my royalty statement, my paperback sales reflected that account.

But were those numbers good? I have no idea. Good in relation to what? I can’t tell you whether my books are doing better than my friends’ books, because I have no idea how my friends’ books are doing. Because my friends don’t tell me. We don’t talk about it.

I did an interview a few months back, where the last question was, “Are you happy with your sales?” I had never been asked that question before, and was actually quite impressed that someone had the balls to ask me. And I figured that if he had the balls to ask, then I should have the guts to answer honestly. And my honest answer was no. Which, I get, isn’t the PC response. You’re seen as an ungrateful asshole if you’re disappointed that your book didn’t make the New York Times or USA Today list (or in my case, any list), and you’re not supposed to want to be financially successful. Because wanting financial success doesn’t jibe with the creative creatures we’re supposed to be. Sales aren’t supposed to matter.

But they do matter. This doesn’t mean you write for the money – and I think it’s very important to make that distinction. But I do want to make money in this business. There, I said it. I want to make money because if I’m making money, that means my publisher is making even more money, which means there’s a good chance they’ll publish me again. Plus, I really want to buy a pony.

If you’re reading this and you’ve just released your first novel, I heartily congratulate you. You’ve worked hard to get here, and you deserve to soak up every glorious moment. Because you, my debut author, are hella sexy. You’re new. Untested. You get to walk around for the next year, fueled by buzz and optimism, radiating that sweet, sweet scent known as Unlimited Potential and Could Be The Next Big Thing.

And I want you to enjoy it, because when you transition to midlist (assuming you’re unable to make that leap straight into bestseller-dom) that lovely aroma goes away and is replaced with a custom blend we like to call Writing On A Deadline and My Sales Are Great, Thanks. It smells exactly like sweat and coffee.

JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.

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  1. Holly Raynes

    Well said. My debut novel NATION OF ENEMIES released last fall and I have *no idea* how it’s doing or what else I can be doing to get sales. My husband and I laugh at the “tens of dollars” I’m making. But you’re right – of course I’d like to quit my day job to write. Alas, I did not win Powerball.

  2. Wendy Tyson

    I wish I had this piece back in 2013, when I first got published. I’m still optimistic enough to believe that hard work + perseverance will pay out in the long run, but it may be the very long run. The sad truth is that it’s really hard to make a living as an author. Refreshingly candid, Jennifer. Great article.

  3. Bryan Robinson

    Jennifer. This is the second blog I’ve read of yours. Both are amazing. You have a true gift for getting to the heart of the matter. Awesome column!! Thank you for sharing your gifts with us!!

  4. Rob Brunet

    Terrific cut to the heart of the beast, Jennifer. Wonky as sales numbers are, they’re a measuring stick. Once you ditch the outliers–inexplicable bestsellers and brilliance ignored–everyone in the middle is either developing a readership or not. If you are, it’s reasonable to expect it’s going to show up in sales. It may not be why we write, but surely it’s why we seek publication.

  5. Brendan Rielly

    Jennifer, as a Green Bay fan, I have real trouble with the fact that you like the Seahawks, but I’ll put that aside to say what a great post! Like Holly, my response is always: “I have no idea how the book’s doing, so buy more copies!”

  6. Dougie Brimson

    Excellent article and after 15 books, exactly the kind of thing I say to almost everyone who contacts me asking if they can follow in my footsteps.

    If you want to earn a living as a writer these days, you have to know who you are aiming your books at and, just as importantly, how best to connect with them.

  7. Maegan Beaumont

    Excellent article, Jennifer! Almost exactly what I tell every aspiring writer I know… the life of a midlife (or in my case lowlist) author is a glamorous thing. 4 books in and all I can say is, I’m happy to be here (and I am!).

  8. Jennifer Hillier

    Thanks, guys! Glad this resonated.

    Brendan, my husband was born and raised in Green Bay, so you can imagine what football Sundays are like at our house. 🙂

  9. Carolyn Wohlgemuth

    Kudos for a very sensitive and candid post!

  10. Jenny Milchman

    Ha ha ha, you are so funny. And real. And right.

    I hope you get your pony.

    Till then, drink up and mop away the sweat at the end of the day.

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