Book Sales Expectations

Q: What kind of sales can I expect from my books? How well do Sunbury Press’ best sellers do?
A: Sunbury Press, Inc. is a privately-held corporation. Information about company performance is not made public to protect the privacy of the shareholders. Likewise, the performance of individual titles, except where available through information aggregators like Nielsen Bookscan or Amazon, is tightly-guarded so as to respect the privacy of our authors. Information from those aggregators does not capture 100% of the market. They completely miss Sunbury’s direct sales to readers and direct distribution to independent bookstores and other venues.
Book sales for individual titles range widely from near zero, to the many thousands over the life the book. About 80% of our titles do not break even over their lives. It is the 20% of successful titles that carry our business. Of that successful one-fifth, only a small portion of them do exceptionally well.
Nonfiction generally performs twice as well as fiction in our experience. Generally, only about 30% of nonfiction titles break even or better while 15% or less of fiction titles do so. Nonfiction has the benefit of SEO discovery and is more likely to be of interest to the media so as to gain earned media opportunities. Fiction success is more unpredictable.

Keys to success with fiction:

  1. The author is actively selling books – making appearances at conventions, bookstores, and other events – (as long as the author is not too shy and unable to connect with readers)
  2. The cover, description, and subject matter align with the book’s categories and quality expectations.
  3. The author is active on social media on at least one platform.
  4. The author has a website, is actively promoting themselves as an author, is building a following and an email list
  5. The author has a presence on Goodreads and Amazon Author Central and uses the features and functions of the sites to their advantage.
  6. The author is writing a series or the body of work is related in some way.
  7. The author is releasing new books at least once a year, preferably every six months.
  8. The author and/or publisher is actively seeking film or television opportunities as well as foreign translation opportunities.
  9. The publisher has placed the book(s) in the major marketplaces and channels of distribution, has priced the book in alignment with the category, and has produced the book in the demanded product forms (print and ebook at a minimum).
  10. The book wins a legitimate award or receives significant endorsements or accolades.
  11. The author is putting out content that entices readers to read the whole book and invites readers into the story

What doesn’t work well for fiction:

  1. Paid print advertising.
  2. Paid television or radio advertising.
  3. Paying a publicist.
  4. Sending press releases.
  5. Most SEO-oriented pay-per-click or (worse) pay-per-impression advertising.
  6. Most Facebook ad boosts. (If the author has a medium to large following, boosts can help)
  7. Most blog tours. (unless the author finds very relevant blogs and is choosy)
  8. Most BookBub or other free giveaway campaigns. (we’re still trying to figure out how this might work for our authors, but so far it hasn’t done much)
  9. Most book signings at Barnes and Noble or other big chain stores.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction Sales

One of the most disappointing aspects of the eBook collapse is the lost opportunities for fiction. For some years, fiction has performed better as eBooks, supplanting mass (pulp) fiction. In the past I mentioned we published 60% fiction but 60% of our sales were nonfiction. As we shifted to a 50/50 split, you would expect sales to shift to 70/30 in favor of nonfiction. Instead, it is more like 80/20.
Yes, in recent months it seems 9 out of 10 print books we sell are nonfiction. The eBooks tend to split about 50/50. Above left is the pie chart by imprint. Sunbury Press is nonfiction as is most of Ars Metaphysica. A smaller portion of Brown Posey Press falls into this category as well. All told it is 80% plus for nonfiction.
While we have seen a strong interest in the Ars Metaphysica imprint and continued growth for the Sunbury Press imprint, Milford House and Hellbender Books have lagged. Brown Posey Press is the only good story for fiction in recent months. This brings to mind some questions:
1) Has our segmentation strategy further hurt fiction sales? In other words, were our fiction authors actually benefiting from being tagged with the Sunbury Press logo?
2) Or, is it a sorting of perceived quality? The literary fiction is doing better than it ever has with its own imprint, but the murder mysteries and horror have not.
3) Or, is it the brands themselves? Perhaps Brown Posey Press and Ars Metaphysica better identify with their target markets than Milford House or Hellbender.
4) Or, maybe we haven’t marketed the brands enough. It took quite a while for the International Thriller Writers to actually recognize the new imprints (Milford House and Hellbender Books). The others had no such restrictions.
More food for thought while chewing on your turkey! One last thing I will mention is the positive response received from independent bookstores for the Brown Posey Press email that went out to them. Maybe more direct email with the other imprints will help. And, we definitely need to leverage the Lurk character (below) for Hellbender Books a lot more!

Top ten ways to sell more books

I thought I would share with you the summary of my presentation regarding selling more books. I’ll spare you all of the introductory material and get right to the point! Of course, we are already doing most if not all of these things for you — or have done them for you in the past.
  1. Reviews, reviews, reviews
  2. Distribution that allows returns and is discounted as expected
  3. Metadata / product information
  4. Direct email appeal to independent bookstores
  5. Publicity campaigns to major media
  6. Flash promotions aligned with non-fiction hooks, holidays, current events, etc.
  7. Write series
  8. Periodically refresh your backlist
  9. Sell in non-bookstore outlets / situations
  10. Build an email list to your readers
We are in an era which is dominated by Amazon with over half of all sales. Our mix is less reliant on Amazon, but Amazon reviews are most important. As mentioned previously, books with at least 1 review have sales 50% higher on average than books with no reviews. Also note, a 5-star average does not help! This is seen as suspect. It is actually good to have a few negative or critical reviews in the mix — as long as your average is better than 3.5 — 4+ preferred.
Distribution has the second biggest impact at Sunbury Press. This makes sense since it opens more markets. The key here is the return flag — while it might increase sales, it might also mean a portion of the sales might come back. Thus the additional sales might not be profitable.
Publicity campaigns are not #1! They are best suited for nonfiction books / authors. Fiction publicity is less effective. Note that publicity is a crap-shoot — one fantastic mention can make all the difference but is unlikely. You can spend a lot of money chasing it and receive little return.
I’ve provided a link to a number of other ideas that are less impactful (in our experience).

For Sale — the country’s largest bookstore chain

Well, it is finally happening. For several years we’ve been tracking the fate of Barnes and Noble. Long-time readers will recall the financial analysis I provided three years ago that showed B&N was in the midst of a slow death. Now it is certain — unless they can sell to an investor with deep pockets who will restructure and revitalize the chain. There is no guarantee that someone will step up. Motley Fool is skeptical (see below).
What are we to do? First, if you have a relationship with one or more stores and have events there — no problem. Just note we will not be investing any further in growing this relationship, like we tried earlier this year. We are securing ourselves from the possibility of a truck full of returns.
It is very likely the new management will close a bunch of stores and consolidate inventory to be more efficient. This will result in publishers receiving a lot of returns. If the chain is not sold and goes bankrupt, a good number of publishers will likely go out of business too.
We are positioned to weather this. We have curtailed returns for the vast majority of our books with Barnes. A few of you have recently asked if we would flip this flag so you could do signings at Barnes. We will not be flipping that flag anytime soon for anyone. It is too risky!

Bookstore news

Recent news about bookstores has been a mixed bag. Longtime readers of this newsletter know I’ve been on a death watch for Barnes and Noble for a couple years. We’ve recently worked out a direct arrangement with them and are trying to make a go of it, but they are also in an ever weakening position. Recently, it was announced they would be closing eight more stores in the coming year. I wouldn’t be surprised if their eBook business was sold off to Kobo and they get out of this losing business. EBook sales remain flat or down and have plateaued at 20% of all book sales. The vast majority of eBook sales are fiction titles.
While B&N is up and down, The Last Word in Charlotte, North Carolina went bankrupt this past week. While they sold mostly used books and media, they were on our list of independent customers. We’ve noticed a decided slowing in the payments coming from independents of late. Many are more than 90 days past due. We’ve recently sent another round of dunning emails, some going unanswered. I worry if I follow up I will discover a couple more bookstores exiting the business. This bears watching. In a strong economy, to still have business failures in this industry indicates there are structural changes afoot.
And here’s our culprit …. Amazon! We are all very familiar with their global online offerings. In fact, they are about one-third of our business and about half of the overall book trade (Barnes is 17% overall — the only other player over 10%). Amazon recently opened a brick and mortar bookstore in New York City near the site of a former Borders store (boy do I miss those!)

2017 was a good year

It wasn’t the best of times, nor was it the worst of times. The good news is 2017 saw an improvement of 15% in book sales. What’s really interesting about that is we only released 47 new books in 2017 – exactly equal to our 2016 output. So why the sales increase?
1) The economy improved!  As much as some of us don’t like the new leadership in the country, the economy has picked up steam. This is evident in all of my experiences in and out of publishing and as an Economics professor.
2) We changed our mix to release more nonfiction. We have had better and steadier performance from our new releases.
3) We improved our social media engagement. The steady pulse of social media has definitely resulted in increased sales of our back list books.
4) We had some breakthroughs with major media thanks to several of our authors.
So, what can improve? Sales are still below our best year of 2015. Most companies do not grow in a steady linear upward fashion. There is give and take and ups and downs. It really is more like a boat ride on rough seas than a skate across a frozen pond. 2015 was so good because we had a number of large hardcover publishing deals that were very successful. This has yet to repeat, and may never. The lesson learned is we need to keep adjusting to our readers and the marketplace.
Here are the top things we can do to improve to try to hit or exceed the 2015 number in 2018:
1) Sell more of the books we offer — especially fiction!
2) Continue to leverage new services like NetGalley, our Entertainment Agent site partner, and other opportunities to increase exposure.
3) Better coordinate our marketing campaigns. We will be attempting to coordinate our social media activity and ebook promotions — especially for fiction.
4) Continue to sign new authors with fresh material.
5) Continue to sign veteran authors with great backlists.
6) Continue to grow our new imprint brands.

Imprint update

The feedback regarding our new imprints continues to be very positive. However, sales of the new imprints continues to lag our main imprint, Sunbury Press. This is primarily due to the following efforts that are ongoing:
1) Updates to Bowker — all of the books in print — to include imprint information.
2) Updates to Ingram to apprise them of the imprint changes.
3) Updates to Amazon for the same reason.
4) Updates to Baker & Taylor and Follett.
I am repeating the following reminder since so few of you reacted to it last month. Please give the following some thought:
This is a great time to think about other updates you might want to make to your metadata. Books that are selling will receive a rebranding — change to the cover and interior. Have a look at your books and think about any improvements you might want to make:
1) Categories — is there a more targeted category?
2) Reviews — have you received any reviews from VIPs?
3) Awards — have you won any awards?
4) ECommerce — check your book on our website. Is it up to date? Do you have an author page on our site? We can help set this up.
5) Keywords — think about keyword assignments you might want to try. This could improve your book’s performance in online search.
Lastly, please be sure to like your imprint on Facebook. As we get into next year, we will be working with groups of authors associated with each imprint. Social media will be a big part of this.

Plans for expansion and growth

It’s becoming clear to me that the self-publishing revolution of five to ten years ago has hit some serious roadblocks. Many of the vanity press services have gone under, leaving authors with garages full of books and no customers. Many small presses — some for the benefit of single authors — some focused on a special category — some with progressive missions to share everything with everybody — have gone out of business. Many large presses have downsized, cut staff, and released rights for backlist or unsuccessful books. Even Barnes & Noble is about to downsize its store footprint (see below).
Why is all of this happening? Book sales are actually up! Very simply, the self-publishing boom is over. The reading consumer has figured out the difference between a self-published book and a professionally published book. They haven’t been buying the self-published books since late 2012. Self-published sales have gone the way of the declining ebook market.
What is selling? Regarding nonfiction, quality books on topics of interest continue to do well. Regarding fiction, quality books from known authors continue to sell well. Regardless of category, quality must come first — in editing, interior design, cover design, etc. Unfortunately, the vast majority of self-published books lacked these key components — and also lacked quality content. Readers have learned this and have been rejecting such books at an increasing rate. As we emerge from the rubble of this transformative era, like other times of transformation, opportunities abound. While others are waiting and hiding and biding their time, we will seize the opportunity to gain more territory. Here’s what’s in store for next year:
1) Growth through acquisition — we will be seeking to acquire other presses that are deciding to exit the business. If you know of any troubled entities where the owners are giving up, let me know. If they have quality content, we might be able to turn it around.
2) Growth through new authors — we will continue to sign new authors at our current rate. We are especially looking for authors who have had success in the past and who already have a backlist. Hopefully they have their rights returned to them. If you know anyone who has a number of publications that are looking for a new home, let me know.
3) Growth through our current authors — we will continue to develop our current list of authors, expanding your opportunities and properties. We will be focused on building our existing assets, as well as encouraging the development of new material.
At the foundation of this strategy is quality. As a decent-sized small press, we have the economies of scale to produce a professional level of quality at a much lower cost than if it was done individually. We will continue to maintain our high standards while we also seek more quality content.
Regarding nonfiction, we will continue to seek interesting material. Regarding fiction, we will seek quality content while also assisting in building the names and reputation of our authors.
Here’s to our growth and greater success in 2018 and beyond!

Imprint update

So far, so good. This whole imprint strategy seems to make so much sense! There seems to be a lot of energy behind the new brands, and we hope to see an uptick in sales over the next year, as we fully implement.
Right now, we are engaged in a huge data update regarding your books:
1) Updates to Bowker — all of the books in print — to include imprint information.
2) Updates to Ingram to apprise them of the imprint changes.
3) Updates to Amazon for the same reason.
4) Updates to Baker & Taylor and Follett, too — more on this later.
This means, before long, you will see your books listed at the various online retailers under the imprints, assuming you have been assigned to something other than the base Sunbury Press imprint.
This is a great time to think about other updates you might want to make to your metadata. Books that are selling will receive a rebranding — change to the cover and interior. Have a look at your books and think about any improvements you might want to make:
1) Categories — is there a more targeted category?
2) Reviews — have you received any reviews from VIPs?
3) Awards — have you won any awards?
4) ECommerce — check your book on our website. Is it up to date? Do you have an author page on our site? We can help set this up.
5) Keywords — think about keyword assignments you might want to try. This could improve your book’s performance in online search.
Lastly, please be sure to like your imprint on Facebook. As we get into next year, we will be working with groups of authors associated with each imprint. Social media will be a big part of this.

On bookstores and book orders

Alas, another brick and mortar book chain has succumbed to the Amazon behemoth. Here’s the article from Publishers Weekly:
Appleton, Wisc.-based Book World Inc. has announced that it is closing all bookstores in its Book World chain that operates 45 outlets across the Midwest. In a letter to its business partners and vendors as well as in a release sent to media, Book World said that liquidation sales will begin on November 2 at all 45 locations. The sales will continue until all inventory — books, magazines, greeting cards, gifts, and other sidelines – is gone. The company expects that all stores will be closed by January 15.
In the letter to Book World’s business partners, senior v-p Mark Dupont said that while the chain had been able to weather the advent of e-books, in the past 12 months sales started plummeting and still continue to drop. Dupont attributed the downturn to the national consumer shift towards e-commerce and away from large department stores. This, Dupont wrote, “has triggered the loss of vital mall anchor stores and a downward spiral in customer counts, reducing sales to a level that will no longer sustain our business.”
“We didn’t anticipate being in this situation,” Dupont told PW, disclosing that the decision to liquidate the company was made about 10 days ago. “I thought I’d be at Book World until the day I retired.”
Book World stores are located throughout the Midwest, outside of the region’s most populated metropolitan areas, most of them either in small town business districts or in shopping malls. There are 20 stores in Wisconsin, eight in Illinois, seven in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, five in Minnesota, three in Iowa, and one each in Missouri and in North Dakota. Dupont said a dozen employees in Book World’s corporate office will be laid off, as well as more than 300 booksellers across the 45 stores.
The first Book World store was founded in 1976 by William Streur in Rhinelander, Wisc.; Streur has always shied away from industry attention as he and his family built up the company over the years; the company declined to cooperate with a 2010 PW profile.
Du Pont, noting that Book World just opened a location in Jefferson City, Mo. said that some of the stores — especially those in downtown areas — are doing well, and expressed his hope that people interested in bookselling in communities about to lose their Book World outlet would open up their own bookstore, perhaps even in the same building. “Many of the stores are truly still healthy,” he wrote.
“We’re saddened to hear the news of a longstanding family business in our region closing and wish all of the employees best wishes with this transition,” wrote Carrie Obry, the executive director of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. While MIBA will be losing some members, Obry noted that “the real impact will be in the communities that have to do without a bookstore until someone opens a new one.”
Given the relatively small store count, we don’t expect this closing to have a major impact on publishers. However, it is indicative of the point we are at in this business. While the vast majority of books are still sold in print, the majority of books are sold online, through ecommerce.
At Sunbury Press, we continue to be very supportive of our local and regional booksellers, and urge our authors to select them for events over Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million whenever possible.
We will continue to monitor our risk of returns from the book trade, as we continue to navigate these choppy waters. Next year will be our 15th in business, and we hope to continue for many many more years.
We have had a number of questions recently about ordering books for events. Bookstores can order from us directly at a 40% discount, or can order from Ingram. We would prefer a direct order — or that you handle the books for your events. This month, we are once again in receipt of a large number of copies returned from book events where the stores over-ordered. These boomerang books are deducted from your royalties and build up in our inventory, when you could have just picked them up and used them at your next event.  If you are doing a series of author events, please work with the bookstores to prevent returns. They are expensive for all parties involved.
And, for those of you ordering books, don’t forget to use the A50 coupon code when checking out. We’ve had to fix a number of orders this past month. Please email orders@sunburypress.com if you have any questions.