Publishers, Open Your Books! We Know the Numbers Lie

A few years ago, I met with a prominent editor at a major house on a kind of “go-see” to introduce myself as a publishing reporter and tell her about the kinds of stories I would be writing. I told her how I planned to report the advances paid for books, how many copies were going to be released and, later, how many were sold. She shook her head. “You’ll never get those numbers,” she said. “No publisher will release them, and there’s no place to get them.” Instead of arguing with her-I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to break the wall of silence within the industry-I asked her why publishing,aloneamongthe “entertainment industries,” was so closed-mouthed. “Well,” she said, “writers don’t want their neighbors, their school boards, their friends to know what they’re making,” adding that the publishing industry isn’t interested in blowing its own horn.

Even back then, before the recession, that response seemed disingenuous. Here’s what I thought, then and now: Nobody talks about publishing numbers because they are so unbelievably low . How many authors really make a living wage from their advances? How many books actually earn out, or pay their authors anything beyond the initial advance? And how many copies sold turn any particular book into a best-seller? Those are the questions all people interested in publishing think they want to know-and their answers are the ones publishing executives go out of their way not to reveal. A book can be on the best-seller lists for a couple of weeks and have sold 30,000 copies. Within publishing, that’s a reasonably good showing, but compared to, say, the music or movie or magazine business, where sales are measured in millions, it seems like nothing. When told, for example, that last year’s hit novel, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated , sold about 100,000 copies in hardcover, one editor of a huge-circulation monthly gasped and said, “If I only sold 100,000 magazines, I’d get fired.”

The fact that very few people in this country read books is publishing’s dirty little secret, and it’s one executives are, understandably, desperate to keep. Hence the stony glare you get when you ask for hard numbers. And the “best-seller” lists protect them: None contains actual sales figures. Instead, they merely indicate how one book does in relation to others in its general category. (And most lists are weighted by region and type of store, and compiled in such a complicated, indecipherable way that even the publishers can’t figure them out.) That may explain, for example, why Queen Noor’s Leap of Faith tops the New York Times best-seller list this week. During a terrible time in the business as a whole-sales are down double digits across the board-it has simply sold more than anything else.

“A book’s success is a lot about the perceptions people have about its success,” as one longtime publisher put it. So a big part of a publisher’s job is to manipulate that perception-a process that begins with the decision about how many books to print.

That’s a figure some publishers do announce-except that they rarely tell the truth. Last year, for example, Knopf showed its belief in Stephen L. Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park by noting on galleys that the initial print run was 500,000-a huge number, especially for a first novel, even one that had so much advance hype.

“We really, really, reeeeally like this book,” they were saying. When published, the book did well-but today, even a Knopf spokesman admits that that 500,000 first printing was only “somewhat truthful,” and that the real number was more like 300,000.

Which is good to know, since the book’s total sales so far in hardcover total just under 350,000-and that’s after Knopf went back for five more printings.

If Knopf had really printed half a million copies before seeing the book take off, they would have been stuck with what publishers hate most: remainders and returns, those visible public reminders of dashed hopes.

But like New York private schools with an investment in getting their students into good colleges, virtually all publishers get caught up in massive grade inflation: Their survival depends on making sure their books get noticed by reviewers and reporters and booksellers who will then further the “buzz.” A large first printing can do that, and it also makes authors feel appreciated, as if the house is behind them. But by now, the savviest publishing watchers know to take one-third off the top of an announced print run. So what’s the point? Wouldn’t it make more sense for publishers to release real hard numbers-of print runs, and of actual sales, for that matter?

Just last week, Random House became the largest trade publisher to sign up for BookScan, the only service that tracks and reports nationwide book sales. (HarperCollins and Penguin are the only major holdouts left.) But will executives soon begin to pass along those hard numbers to authors, booksellers and the public? It’s one thing for everybody to recognize that publishing is, after all, a lot like Hollywood-nobody knows anything. It’s quite another to break the lifelong habit that has made you the bookish version of the State Department, where everybody lies.

Sara Nelson is the author of the forthcoming book, So Many Books, So Little Time, published by Putnam in the fall of 2003.