Thursday 11 October 2018

So how are your book sales? - Kelly McCaughrain

The latest instalment in my series ‘Weird things people ask me since I wrote a book.’

This one is right up there with ‘so what are you working on now?’ in terms of making a writer reach for the nearest steak knife.

Just stop a second and think about what you’re actually asking here. What’s the subtext? as we writers say (we do this with your text messages too).

We know that what you mean is, how’s it going/are you ok/I’m interested in your life. The sane part of me gets that. But to the other 99% of me, what you’re actually asking is something along the lines of:

  • How good a writer are you anyway?
  • How much money do you make?
  • Was it worth spending two/five/ten years writing that book I skim read on the train?

If I came up to you at a party and asked how much you make or what your last employee evaluation said, or why you haven’t been promoted recently, you’d probably be like

But if you want to know, the answers are all and any of the following:

1. I don’t know. I don’t sell the books personally out of a suitcase in my car and I don’t have an app on my phone that bings every time someone buys one from a shop. (if you think Facebook is destroying your self-esteem, just wait till that app is invented).

2. I have practically zero control over that so you’re really asking the wrong person.

3. I don’t care. Obviously I care, but only because people keep looking at me like it’s important and I don’t want to let anyone down. But it’s not why I wrote the book and for me the journey basically ended the day it was published. Writing the book was great. Caring about sales figures can only ruin that for me.

4. I’m still celebrating/recovering from the mind-blowing fact that I even wrote a book. Is that not enough for you? I have to be a bestseller? I have to be working on the sequel?

5. I don’t want to know. I think at some point the publisher might send me some deets on this but honestly I’m not looking forward to that. It’s not that I had mega hopes for a debut romcom from a Belfast nobody, but whatever the figure, it will:

a) be meaningless to me because I have no idea what is a normal amount of books for a Belfast nobody to sell and

b) could always be more so it’s not like getting an A on your report or anything.  

So I can’t give you numbers but I can tell you that there’s an inevitable trajectory for pretty much all books. They’re on the shelves for a while, then they’re in the back store for a while, then they’re orderable for a while, then they go away. Thanks to eBooks, things don’t technically go out of print anymore, but they’ll stop producing hardcopies sooner or later. You might get one print run, maybe two, maybe more, but it doesn’t go on forever. There are books I loved as a child that I’ve recently bought on eBay because they’re long out of print.

Remember this? I loved this!

How do I sum all that up in casual conversation? I usually say, ‘Don’t know, don’t wanna know,’ and then reach for the wine.

I’m not saying sales figures are meaningless. They mean a lot if you’re a publisher or a marketing person. They can mean you do or don’t get another publishing contract. But since we’ve pretty much established that making a living by writing is out of the question these days, maybe writers should come up with other ways of measuring success (see my last post). If we focus on sales figures, we might miss other things that also mean a lot. Like messages from readers. I think those have been the absolute highlight for me, they can literally make my day, and they’re the only thing that make it feel like that journey does go on and those characters still live, which really means a lot to me.

And can we just bear in mind that this way of working is actually a pretty recent thing? Writers did not used to have Amazon rankings and Good Reads reviews and Twitter conversations about their books by which to judge their own success.

How on earth did they manage? Well, as the always brilliant Anne Enright says:

“When I started out, information was hard to acquire. It took a year before you knew how a book had been received. There was no other way to work, except blind. There is no shame in thinking strategically about the public aspects of the business – this is not an immoral, soiling, or unartistic thing to do – but this is not where the real work happens.”

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds. She has no idea how well it's selling.

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Penny Dolan said...

A great attitude to have towards the writing & the publishing, Kelly!

Unknown said...

What a great article - sums it all up. I'd like to quote it if I may at my writing group's AGM because I get asked pretty much the same things and your responses are spot on, Kelly. One question you possibly havent been asked but I have, doing a school visit: "How old are you?" I think it was the grey hair that did it.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post. I was talking about the exact same aspect to a writer friend yesterday. It's not that we don't care about what we earn but the whole process is so convoluted and so in arrears when you do finally get a payment, that its truly not worth the hassle of actively checking sales.
I think what most non writers are astounded that we get so paltry an amount for the sale of a book. I found a single copy of a pic book of mine in a Books of Wonder in New York last week... was I delighted? Yes. But when a friend asked if I was doing cartwheels I had to remind her of what I would earn if that one book ever sold.... in New York not even the price of HALF a cup of coffee!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Penny!

Quote away, 'Unknown'! I've never been asked how old I am but it's only a matter of time. I hope it was a child who asked and not a teacher.

Dianne, it is SO complicated! I think most people are surprised by how little I know about what's going on. But that is largely my fault because contracts and shizz make my eyes bleed so I ignore them. Would be so cool to see your book in a NY bookstore though!

Moira Butterfield said...

Yes! People have been asking me that exact question in my choir since I was daft enough to admit I just had a book published! They were astonished that I didn't know the answer. Someone also said, when I yawned - 'Oh you must be tired after writing a book.' I didn't know what to say to that one. I did a picture book performance workshop yesterday with the wonderful Kat Wetheral, and she said she was always being asked how old she was. One day she replied 'Why do you ask that?' and a boy said 'Because we want to know how long you've got left.' !

Sheila Corbishley said...

Moira Butterfield that bit about Kath Wetheral is hilarious. I suspect that was probably what the boy who asked me was also thinking. Kelly, thanks for letting me quote you. It'll make me sound less defensive, which I always feel I'm sounding when I try to explain why so far I've failed to be put forward for the Nobel prize for literature on the basis of my one very short chapter book.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Ha! Brilliant.

Defensive, definitely. We're being compared to a version of 'writer' that exists in people's heads based on one article they read in The Times about JK Rowling. It's like dieting while reading Vogue, of course you feel defensive.

Dan Metcalf said...

Yes! This! I have some people ask me this constantly and look askance when I say I don't care! I want to earn money, sure, but I'd rather know that the book was being read by one special person and that they loved it. Thanks for this post!

Rowena House said...

Spot on, as always, Kelly. I was talking about a variant of this on Twitter a day or two ago, in reference to the questions, "When's your book going to be a movie, then?" I often feel the sub-text of that question is, "Well, you're only a writer. It's not like you're in the big league." But maybe that is defensive of me or overly cynical. Two other authors thought people who asked this were genuinely excited about their books and believed they should be made into films. Who knows. I do agree 100% that we have to define success in a way that keeps the demons away.

Unknown said...

I'll happily get your books into some NY book stores if you send some over! ;-). They actually have wee mobile libraries here that look like we dolls houses where you can put books in and take ones if you want. One outside the school round the corner. I'd put urs in to get it on the circuit but but I'm not giving away my signed copy!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Absolutely, Dan, totally agree with you on that.

Thanks Rowena! Ha, I wouldn't assume anyone who asked me that was serious so I'd probably take it as an effusive compliment.

Ross, you can buy it on! Which I only realised the other day. Pretty cool.

Tracy Darnton said...

I was asked this very question about book sales in the pub last night and wish I'd read this before then rather than the spluttering apologetic rambling answer I gave!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I ramble every time, Tracy. I'm much more eloquent on paper than in person unfortunately.

Enid Richemont said...

Oh the first question, the one that hurts if you're NOT working on something, and then if you actually are, the last thing you want to do is to talk about it. If you're a children's author, you'll inevitably be compared to J K Rowling and asked if you're yet 'rowling' in it (joke, but not funny.)

Kelly McCaughrain said...

*laughs bitterly*

Emma Barnes said...

Not quite on topic but - Tunes for a Small Harmonica - what a great book!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Yay, Emma! I loved it. I read it over and over when I was about 13. And when I reread it as an adult, I realised I'd forgotten half the plot, but I remembered all the funny lines word for word.