What is a “best-selling” author?
August 19, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor
Recently I got behind on a bunch of questions readers sent in, so I’m going to try and catch up by offering shorter answers to a host of questions…
Someone wrote to say, “I’ve seen a number of writers call themselves ‘best-selling’ authors. Quite a few are self-published. What exactly does it take for a book to be considered a bestseller?”
That’s easy — if an author has hit a bestseller list, they can legitimately call themselves a bestselling author. So if your book hit the New York Times list, the LA Times list, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Denver Post, CBA, ECPA, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any other bestseller lists, you can promote yourself as a “bestselling” author. The problem that’s come up recently is that authors will rise up the Amazon sales ranking, notice they’re in the top five or ten in their sub-category, and suddenly start telling everyone they’ve become a superstar. Um… Let’s just say that rising up the Amazon rankings are great, but they segment things so much it’s considerably easier to make their list than, say, the New York Times Bestseller list. And editors and agents aren’t stupid (no matter what you’ve heard). If your book spent an hour in the top ten of Amazon’s “inspirational historical fiction” category, that won’t really impress editors. Stick to the major lists, and you’ll figure out who is a legitimate bestseller.
Another writer wants to know, “How many words are in a standard romance novel? A thriller? A literary novel? What about a novella?”
At Harlequin, a contemporary category romance is 55,000 words, and a historical romance is 75,000 words. At other houses (those that aren’t selling to a subscriber list) those numbers are larger. Most contemporary stand-alone novels are in the 70 to 80,000 word range, and some publishing houses prefer they stretch to 90,000 words. Thrillers tend to go long — 90,000 words. Spec fiction goes longer — often closer to 100,000 words. And while literary fiction can be as short as 60,000 words or as long as 105,000 words, I’d say a novel in the 80′s is relatively common. Family sagas go longer; women’s fiction shorter. Your word count is going to depend on your publisher and the expectations of your readers. Novellas are almost always less than 35,000 words.
On a related note, someone asked, “Are short stories making a comeback in today’s market?”
Absolutely. In fact, short form fiction is one of the fastest growing categories in digital publishing (far less so in print publishing). Many houses are asking authors to produce a short story that can be sold very cheaply, or even given away for free as a means to identify new readers. Short stories are my favorite form of fiction, so I’m delighted to see an interest in a genre that’s been dead to most publishers for more than a decade.
Another reader asked, “What royalty percentage is an industry norm?”
Stay with me as I answer this… I work in both the general publishing market as well as the CBA market, and they differ. In the general market, most authors will receive 10% of the sale price of the hardcover book on the first 5000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies, and 15% thereafter. For paperback, it’s often a flat 7.5% royalty, based on the sale price of the book. BUT most CBA houses don’t pay on the retail price — they pay on net (which, if you think about it, makes much more sense — the publisher simply pays a percentage of what they are paid by retailers). So royalty rates on CBA contracts are nearly always negotiable — sometimes starting at 14% or 15%, rising to somewhere between 18% and 22% at various thresholds, depending on the publisher. (This is one of the places a good agent will help you — negotiating advance, royalty rates, and thresholds.) For gift books and children’s books, the royalties are much smaller, since the production costs are higher for each book. And mass market books will range between 4% and 8%, depending on which publisher is doing the deal. Does that help?
Finally, someone wrote to ask me, “Am I better off self-publishing or going with a traditional publisher?”
That’s like asking a realtor, “Am I better off selling through a real estate company, or on my own?” The fact is, the answer will depend on a number of factors… Is there a clear audience for your book? What’s the best way to reach them? Who can best reach that audience? Does the publisher have a plan for reaching them? Will they commit the resources to it? If you self pub, do YOU have a plan? Are you willing to put in the hours to make it work?
Again, a print publisher is going to pay you a royalty of about 15% of the cover price for each book sold. They’ll pay you 25% of the net for each ebook sold. But one of the new, up-and-coming micro publishers may very well offer you a 50% royalty on ebooks — a better deal financially, but only if they can move copies of your book. If you choose to self-publish, you’ll take home roughly 70% of each digital book that sells — but selling each book is totally on your shoulders. There’s no one backing you up or helping get the word out, so if you don’t promote it yourself, you’ll join the ranks of the million other authors who have posted a book on Amazon and watched it sell a couple dozen copies.
Back to your question… Are you better off self-publishing or going with a traditional publisher? The answer depends on your book, your expertise, and your expectations. Best to talk through all of those things with an experienced person before making the decision. Both can work; both can fail. But you’ll feel better about the entire experience if you’ve thought through what you want, defined what “success” is, and given yourself wholeheartedly to making that plan work.
Got a question about writing and publishing? Send it along — we’re starting to catch up on the questions!