The usual reason that print sales are low is that there are very few print copies of a book in a bookstore. If a major chain takes one copy per store and shoves it on the back shelf, guess what? Sales are 99.99% likely to be terrible, and it doesn’t matter how good the book is. Once that happens, there is almost nothing an author can do to recover. Even if, against all odds, you sell a good portion of your meager print run, no store is going to be impressed by your luke-warm streak of selling 200 copies more than anticipated. They’re going to see a book that sold 700 copies total, and since they’re shrinking shelf space again, by the time your next book comes out, they’ve decided they don’t have room for books that sell under 1,000 copies in their chain. Your print career was finished before your book even hit the shelves.
That’s the reality for most authors who get squeezed out of print, and there are a a lot of historical romance authors who are getting squeezed out of print right now–not just Jeannie. The major bookbuyers are just not giving a lot of new historical romance authors shelf-space.
So I see a lot of blame going on for how this author lost print distribution, but nobody’s mentioned the fact that historical romance shelf-space, in general, is falling precipitously. There are other amazing authors who are having the exact same thing happen to them as we speak.
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I wrote books for HQN–historical romances that were set in England, books about a marquess and about a man who was going to inherit a dukedom. Books that had amazing buzz and fantastic reviews in all the trade journals.
I know there’s a narrative out there that suggests I was hugely successful for Harlequin before I walked away to self-publish. The Code of Being Nice about your publisher means that you don’t bitch about stuff in public. You put a good face on things and smile and say, “I’m so happy with how things are going!” I’m about to break that code, a little bit, but I’m going to try to do it nicely.
Every year I was with Harlequin, I felt sick about what was happening to my career. Everything Jeannie described in her post about her print sales happened to me. I felt sick to my stomach, and all I could do was keep swinging as hard as I could and hope that something connected. When I wrote Unveiled, I had a handful of people email me saying that this was my break-out book, the book that was going to put me on the map. I had amazing online buzz.
So what did that look like in print?
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I give Harlequin all the credit in the world for good intentions. They did a lot of things to build me as an author, and reallywanted to do so. But good intentions don’t matter. I could draw a straight line through my print sales with every book, and they were going to hit zero sometime in 2012.
So before we talk about why Jeannie’s next book isn’t getting a print run–please try and keep this in mind. Harlequin sold less than 6,000 US retail print copies of Unclaimed in 2011, after I had hit the New York Times list with Unlocked.
I know that this post could potentially annoy people at Harlequin, and I hope it doesn’t. They tried to tell me my books were at fault, but…I think I’ve demonstrated that they were wrong about that. People do want to read my books. Lots of people. My print sales did not reflect that. I hope that Harlequin takes this criticism for what it is–not my attempt to say that they suck and I hate them, but that they need to recognize that they have a problem selling historical romance in print. They’re not good at it, and I hope they figure it out before they run more print careers into the ground.
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[And here's from a response Courtney left for a commenter]
I wonder what the correlation is of print book sales to in-store sales. I mean, you CAN buy print books through online sellers (I did it, back when I still read print), but how many readers do?
I’m not sure if this answers your question, but here is some data that is vaguely in the shape of the question you asked.
I’ve sold 1,059 print copies of Unraveled (versus the 5,816 copies of Unclaimed). That book’s available essentially only through Amazon/online booksellers/special ordering. Some of that might be driven by Unclaimed/Unveiled being in stores and people wanting to finish out the series, but I’ve sold 875 copies of The Duchess War in print–and the difference between that and Unraveled is essentially the extra year that the book’s been out. That’s with a $12.99 trade paperback versus a $7.99 paperback.
So that’s my best guess–that for someone at my level, online distribution is worth about 1,000-ish copies for the first two years.
And my guess is that that is a reasonable floor–if your publisher can’t sell significantly more than 1,000 tradepaper copies of your book, they’re not getting you crap for print disribution.