WRITING: Blank books, book sales, and expectations

A blank book reaching #44 on Amazon? Yep. It happened. A blank book — blank — became a top seller.

They spend years writing a book, then even more years trying to get a literary agent and publisher to back it and then, when their book finally comes out, the author breathes a huge sigh of relief and assumes that their book will be discovered, widely read and will sell around the world in bucketloads.

Well, any new author needs to wake up and smell the rankings. Most books, however well written, hardly sell many copies at all.

And that’s the reality most people don’t see (including, sadly, many aspiring authors). For most folks, the world of books and publishing and authors and the like is an alien one. It’s the stuff of movies, where we see alcohol- and coffee-fueled writers banging away at typewriters and raking in the dollars for their efforts. They struggle, they finally get published, and all is well with the world. People hear you have a book on the shelves and they think you’re swimming in extra dough.

For the vast majority of published authors, that is a fantasy and little more.

The reality is, most books sell very little and most authors make close to squat on their work. Even when you do hear about authors getting a big advance — and those stories are more scarce than ever these days as publishers are increasingly gun shy about dishing ’em out — you’re hearing about it because it’s Man Bites Dog. It’s unusual. It’s news.

I’ll avoid specifics because I’ve always thought it rude to talk about pay, but take A Year of Hitchcock, the book I coauthored with Jim McDevitt. We earn royalties on the sale of that book. Those royalties are in line with typical industry numbers. It’s a niche book by a small academic publisher, and it’s also pricey (the upcoming paperback will thankfully be very affordable), but hey, it’s a great book and it did fairly well for its niche, so we did okay, right?

Not really. Last year earned us each about enough to make a car payment, based on 2009 sales. This year, based on 2010 sales, enough for a couple of nice dinners out with your significant other.

Not exactly the great windfall of cash people expect when they hear you’re a published author.

So back to the blank book. How do you take that? How do you accept the idea that a book filled with blank pages can outsell 99.9% of the others books out there? Well, you just do. The truth is, when it comes to getting paid your marketing strategy and potential audience is more important than the actual work. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s just reality. Authors should know that. They should know they’re doing the work for love of the work. Any money that comes of it is gravy.

Because rest assured, in most of our cases there won’t be much money coming from it at all