How Few Books Must One Sell For A Flop?

Bridie Clark's debut novel, Because She Can, got raked over the lukewarm coals over at Radar yesterday for having sold only 5,300 copies since its publication two months ago, according to Nielsen Bookscan—a service that, depending who you ask, only reports sales at 70 or 80% of retail outlets. "That's very low considering all the promotion they put behind it," a publishing insider hissed to Jeff Bercovici. Is the book a failure? Is 5,300 copies (or so) really so unimpressive? What would be considered a good number of copies for a non-blockbuster novel to have sold two months out of the gate? The short and unsatisfying answer is... it depends.

The way bookselling actually works is a) shrouded in mystery and b) more boring than a lawnmower parts catalog. The most basic thing that a lot of people who don't work in publishing and bookselling don't know is that early in the game, the most accurate predictor of a book's success/failure isn't so much the number that Nielsen is reporting as having sold as the number of books a publisher has actually printed.

This first printing number is based on the response of buyers at big chains to a minute-long pitch delivered by a publisher's sales reps. This is a big part of the reason why copycat publishing is so rampant: it's easier for a sales rep (who, no matter how valiant or dedicated, might not have time to actually read every book on her employer's list) to pitch "a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and The Da Vinci Code" than to try to sum up something new and unheard of. The buyers' responses determine how many books are printed: That is, how many books are actually available to be sold.

So if Warner printed 50,000 copies of Because She Can, then Radar's so right: it's a flop, especially because two months into a book's lifespan, publicity and co-op (the money publishers pay to position the book front and center in big chain stores) is basically over, at least until the machine cranks back up again at paperback time.

But if Warner only printed 15,000 copies—which seems likelier, based on the fact that we're three years into the tortured-assistant roman a clef trend, then 5,300, while not great, isn't terrible either. "I don't think they paid her a big advance, so it's really more about how bad the returns are, because that's where you lose the most money," a publishing insider (a different one than Radar's, probs!) tells us. Of course, they also said, because of the short shelf life intrinsic to the genre, "That 5,000 isn't likely to go much higher."

Regan Roman A Clef Gathers Dust