Copyright 2006 by Morris Rosenthal
Do Subsidy Published Books Sell?
Sales of AuthorHouse, iUniverse and Xlibris on Amazon
Why Look at Amazon?
I call Amazon the "free market" of bookstores, simply because they "shelve" most in-print titles, and make it easy (if not always highly profitable) for the self-publishers to play. As with the other methods for gauging demand we reviewed above, there are some peculiarities to the Amazon data, first and foremost that they sell by mail order. This causes titles that do well front-and-center in bookstores, including eye-candy and impulse buy books, to be under-weighted by Amazon data. On the other end of the spectrum, titles not stocked in bookstores will be over-weighted in Amazon data, since the majority of sales for that book could be generated online. There's no doubt a broad spectrum of the American book-buying public shops for titles of all genres at Amazon, making it the best one-stop source for publicly available book industry information. Note that the following analysis of Amazon sales ranks is unauthorized and in no way sponsored by Amazon. It represents my personal observations and estimates based on six years of closely following the sales ranks of my own books, both trade and self-published, and data points other authors and publishers have shared with me over the years. For a more detailed description of ranks along with a curve for estimating the daily online book sales for any given rank, see Amazon Sales.
Amazon Browse Category Bestseller Lists
Another tool to research the relative success of titles sold through Amazon is through their category lists. Amazon assigns books with substantial sales (or persistent self-publishers) to Subject Categories, which are listed near the bottom of the page for any give book under the heading:
Look for similar books by subject:
Browse for books in:
Each list starts with the word subject, followed by a category, subcategory, and often several subdivisions after that. Some lists may contain just a couple dozen books, while others encompass tens of thousands. The keywords in the Browse for books in: and the Search for books by subject: classifications associated with a book are taken into account when Amazon generates search results. Once you click on a category to get the listings, the new window offers the options Featured, Recommendations, New Releases and Top Sellers. These can also be reached through the Sort By box that appears just above the first book cover on the list. The bestseller lists for categories are not generated in real-time, or at least, they aren't generated from real-time sales ranks. The rankings in these bestseller lists appear to change every few days, though if there are no new strong sellers in the category, they may remain to be carved in stone over long periods of time.
The lists aren't foolproof. Some lucky titles get stuck in the top spots of a list and never budge, even if they've been outsold by any number of books in the category. This means you should always click on the top ten books in any bestseller list and look at their sales ranks. If they are really out of whack with the list order, check again the next week and the week after that. If, for example, you see a book with a sales rank worse than 50,000 consistently ranked above a bunch of books with sales ranks under 10,000, just ignore the anomaly. It takes a little time to develop a feel for how these lists actually work, so don't try doing all of your research in one night, or you're likely to come up with the wrong answers.
Amazon Custom Bestseller Sorts
Custom bestseller lists can be generated directly from the standard Amazon search box or via the screen accessed through the search tab. However, since the addition of Search Inside to their site, the resulting bestseller sort may not be very useful, since it will probably include innumerable books that contain your search phrase. Instead, click on the Search tab to get a form that supports a set of choices, including Author, Title, Subject, ISBN and Publisher, and you can use one or more keywords in any of these (except ISBN) to narrow the scope. The idea is to be as specific as you can be while not excluding relevant results.
Another useful field when generating lists is the Publication Date. If you want to check what's selling for a rival (or friendly) publisher, just put the publisher name in the Publisher box, the current year in the Publication Date box, and select Bestselling in the Sort Results By box. It's also a good way for authors to check how their books are doing relative to other books their trade or subsidy publisher has brought out.
The Power Search is my favorite Amazon feature. You can fill in the form to generate bestseller lists for Boolean searches, such as multiple publishers. I occasionally run a sort on the big POD subsidy publishers and include our little Foner Books, because we usually have one or two books in the top 10 on a bestseller list of over 30,000 titles. I just put the following query in the Power Search box and sort the results by Bestselling:
publisher: ( AuthorHouse or xlibris or iuniverse or foner )
Note: 1stBooks was renamed AuthorHouse in 2004. Also note that I actually recommend subsidy publishers for authors who don't want to go into the publishing business for themselves and can't land a trade contract, though I prefer a low cost provider with a simple contract, like Booklocker. It's also increasingly possible to start with a subsidy or self-published book and end up with a trade bestseller (assuming you don't give up your rights), but it doesn't happen very often.
All of these techniques give you the relative strength of a given title versus other related titles on Amazon. If you want to get an idea of how big the market is in the absolute sense, in other words, the total number copies a given title sells in a year, you can start from the sales that the chart on our website predicts based on the Amazon sales rank. Just make sure you check the ranking over the course of a few weeks to eliminate sales bubbles and temporary glitches at Amazon, and don't even bother unless the title is in the top 100,000.
Once you have a sales estimate for Amazon, you can make an educated guess as to what percentage of the title's total sales are through Amazon and extrapolate. If the title is modeled at one or two copies by the big chains, I'd multiply the Amazon sales rank estimate by five. If the book is also carried by independents, specialty shops and book clubs, I'd multiply by ten. If the book isn't stocked anywhere, but is available through Ingram, I'd multiply by two. Keep in mind that this reflects domestic U.S. sales for moderately selling books only. If a book is piled up at the front of every bookstore or in the aisles of mass merchandisers, the Amazon sales rank isn't going to be very useful for an absolute estimate.
Since the vast majority of titles published by AuthorHouse, Xlibris and iUniverse don't get stocked in bookstores and sell relatively few books overall, trying to estimate total sales from the Amazon rank for the slower sellers isn't likely to produce a very useful result. Some subsidy publishers have tie-ins with book chains, such as iUniverse with Barnes&Noble, but only a few authors will actually end up in the iUniverse Star Program program. If the the title you're looking at isn't in the top 100,000 on Amazon, I wouldn't bother with estimating. Keep in mind that all estimation methods will fail to account for direct selling by the authors if they are obtaining books directly from the publisher.
All of the subsidy presses offer marketing packages to authors, and this is where the real sob stories come in. AuthorHouse and others will up-sell authors on marketing programs that cost thousands of dollars! Books from unknown authors do not benefit from cookie-cutter advertising, it's a waste of money. I've literally heard from authors who were ready to mortgage their homes to feed the advertising arms of subsidy publishers. Xlibris has promotion package offerings ranging from a few hundred to a couple thousand bucks, which really add up if you go for them all. However, Xlibris did just mail me an advertisement stating that they've published over 10,000 books and sold over 1 million copies. If you do the math, that comes to about 100 copies per book, and most authors probably buy a few dozen for friends and family. Search on Google for iUniverse and PRWeb, Xlibris and PRweb or AuthorHouse and PRWeb, and you'll find that they all use this press release service that's available to anybody for free! If you want PRWeb to enhance your listing and get you into some more prestigious places, you can pay them directly yourself, and it's quite cheap. An author doing a first book with an Xlibris or AuthorHouse has almost no chance of seeing significant sales unless the author puts more effort into selling than into writing. See my book marketing and author website design articles for more info.
Self-publishing can definitely serve as a stepping stone to trade publishing, providing you still want to go that route after having success as a self-publisher. There's nothing publishers love more than a sure thing, so a book with steadily increasing sales that's succeeding without the benefit of a trade publisher's backing is always a likely candidate. Publishers do shy away from niche books that have depended heavily on a single marketing channel, particularly if they believe that the market in question has already absorbed most of the demand. A book that can sell a couple of thousand copies a year on the backlist of a trade publisher will always be viewed as an asset, but they aren't going to get excited about acquiring a book they think will only sell a couple of hundred copies a year.
Whether or not you want to sell a successful self-published title and whether or not a trade publisher wants to buy it, you'll have something to put in your future book proposals aside from your participation in the local writer's club. Acquisitions editors love to hear from authors who are as knowledgeable about book marketing as they are ignorant about publishing contracts, and self-publishing a book is a great way to educate yourself. Print-on-demand is the best way to get into self-publishing because it solves the riddle that even the most experienced trade publishers can't answer, namely, how many books is a new title going to sell? Rather than tying up all of your cash and credit in boxes of books, not to mention every inch of available space in your home, you can run a business with no inventory. If you absolutely need the extra quality an offset press offers, buy the shortest print run you can, usually 100 copies, even if it means you'll barely break even selling the books. You can always order a larger print run if they start selling like hotcakes, and if your book is a runaway success, the minor hit to profits from the early break-even sales won't cost you a minute of sleep. On the other hand, thousands or tens of thousands of dollars of unsold books can cost you many sleepless nights and make it that much harder to pick yourself up and try again.