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When I worked for Françoise Mouly in my twenties, she told me that for every 10 books published, the expectation is that 8 lose money, 1 breaks even, and 1 makes money. That one breakout book supports all the other bets the publisher places on books that will never earn out.

The book publishing industry is not a meritocracy; it is a casino.

The New York Times recently reported on book sales during the pandemic: while bookstore sales fell 30%, actual book sales rose 10%. Unsurprisingly, consumers are buying more of their books online and from retailers like Walmart and Target.

Ten years ago, backlist sales accounted for half of book sales. Today, they count for TWO-THIRDS.

What do I mean by "the backlist"? It means books that aren't new releases. Here are some backlist titles I bought and read within the last year:

The Color of Water by James McBride (1995)
White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

You may have noticed something about these titles: they're all well-known books. That's kinda the self-fulfilling prophecy of blockbuster backlist titles: they sell more because they're already well-known.

Just because you wrote a book 10 years ago doesn't mean it's selling today. My first two books, published in 2012, sell not at all. In fact, my first two books are out of print. I earned out my advance on both of them, but I see no royalties from the publisher. Online, you can only find used copies.

If you look at the Instagram account for Penguin, you'll find a mix of new releases and the books (the 1 out of 10) by the authors that move the most backlist copies: Sue Monk Kidd, Rebecca Solnit, Jojo Moyes, Jen Sincero.

New authors are often shocked and dismayed that their publisher doesn't do more to promote their new book on social media—but if two-thirds of their sales are of backlist titles? And if you've taken any one of my classes, you've heard me talk about how essential it is to build your platform as an author and be prepared to market to your own audience.

I can almost guarantee you that I've sold more copies of Self Care through my own newsletter than through Penguin's Instagram feed.

The stat that blew the top of my head off is this one: "98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies." 

It's not the 98% part that shocked me. It's the 5,000 copies part! When I posted about this on Twitter, my editor at Penguin replied and said that Penguin Random House publishes about 15,000 new titles a year (they're the biggest of the Big Five). If I'm doing the math right, that means that 14,700 of the books they published in the year 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies.

If you're one of the readers who bought a brand new copy of Self Care when it came out last summer, I want to say THANK YOU. Because Self Care is one of those 300 breakthrough books that sold more than 5,000 copies. It never hit the bestseller list, but it continues to sell copies every week, because I keep putting work out there. I keep talking in public about the themes and ideas in my novel. As I'm typing this, I'm seeing new followers roll in on Twitter because my episode of the CBC radio show Tapestry just aired in Canada this morning.

Some takeaway lessons: buy new books by your favorite writers. Buy your friend's new book! Buy from independent booksellers. Don't wait for the paperback. (If the book doesn't sell enough copies in hardcover, it will not be released in paperback.) Keep building your network. Keep growing your audience. Talk to your audience about what matters to you. Carve out a little spot on the map—whether it's on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or in your own newsletter—where you can communicate, "This is who I am and this is what I care about."
What's this? A new Leigh Stein book? Wasn't there just a new Leigh Stein book 5 minutes ago? Yes, but I have another one coming out August 10 from Soft Skull. If you preorder, you will make my day. Email me your receipt (you can reply right to this email) and I will mail you a personalized bookplate this summer!
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