May 15, 2018 marked the five-year anniversary of the publication of Walden on Wheels.
While my career as a writer has had its ups and downs, WoW has been, in my eyes, a complete success. Some stats…
It has sold 44,000 copies, not including foreign sales or audio sales. This means it’s probably just under the 50,000 mark.
It’s been translated four times (South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Turkey).
It has 1,180 reviews on Amazon and 5,300 votes on Goodreads (4.5 stars and 4 stars, out of 5, respectively).
At exactly the five-year mark, I paid off my advance, which means I now get to collect monthly royalties. This means I get 35% of each Kindle sold, 10% of each audio, and 7.5% of each paperback. (From these royalties, I will however have to give 15% to my agent, 10% to charity, and about 25% to the federal gov’t, so I won’t be getting rich anytime soon.) But I should be getting a few hundred dollars each month if the book continues to sell.
A publishing company called New Harvest published WoW. New Harvest, owned by Amazon.com, was the only publisher to offer me a deal so signing with them was a no-brainer. There were a few perks to New Harvest, namely a generous advance (they were just starting up so they were trying to lure authors), and they said I’d have an advantage over non-Amazon authors when it comes to sales on Amazon’s site.
Initially, however, there were unanticipated drawbacks. Just before my 2013 publication, Barnes and Noble announced that they would refuse to carry books associated with Amazon-owned publication companies. This would hurt my potential sales because WoW, now, could only be sold over Amazon and in a few indie bookstores. (Several of these indie stores, I’m guessing, also had issues with selling Amazon titles, further hurting sales.) The New Harvest publishing staff (perhaps as a consequence of this setback) underwent a shake up, so I went through a few editors and publicists before the book even came out. It was all very disorienting.
It seemed like my book was coming out just when the publishing company was at its messiest. Bookstores like Borders were going out of business and publishing companies were in turmoil. E-readers were changing how people read books and Amazon was changing how people bought books. Walden on Wheels seemed right in the middle of all of this. I wasn’t sure if I’d benefit from these industry-wide changes or if I’d be harmed. I set aside all ethical thoughts over the Amazon vs. brick-and-mortar bookstore debate. I was just starting out as an author and I didn’t have much of a choice anyway. I merely hoped there’d be a favorable wave that I’d get to ride.
Despite the Barnes and Noble bookstore ban, WoW got good press and good reviews and it sold well. Sales, over the next couple of years, inevitably dropped, and it seemed that WoW would soon go to book heaven and be gradually forgotten. But Amazon, to their credit, has done an exceptional job featuring it in daily deals and special sales, which have kept WoW selling, sometimes bringing the book into the top-100 best sellers ranking on Amazon.
I stopped looking at my sales ranking a long time ago, but in the fall of 2017, as a result of a special Amazon advertisement, it started selling well again, and I began excitedly checking the book’s sales ranking every day. (This may all sound like I’m obsessed with sales and money, but when it’s one of your goals to make “the writing life” pay, you can imagine why I’d be so engrossed with an unexpected sales surge.)
I now see that the major perk of working with Amazon is their ability to sell Kindle editions well, which they’re ideally suited to do. Let’s look at my Kindle vs. paperback sales over Amazon.com for just the first half of the month of June in 2018:
As you can see in the pie chart, over Amazon.com, for the first half of June 2018, I sold 533 copies of Walden on Wheels. 531 copies have been Kindles and two have been paperback.
This stat is somewhat misleading because I do in fact sell paperback copies. The pie chart doesn’t include Walden on Wheels copies that have been sold in a handful of indie bookstores (about 311 copies sell in indie bookstores a month), so, when factoring in bookstore sales, my paperback-to-Kindle ratio isn’t nearly as disproportional as the pie chart suggests.
While indie bookstores have sold a decent amount of Walden on Wheels copies, Amazon has especially helped me pay off my advance. They’ve helped me to do this because, as a publisher, Amazon offers authors 35% of royalties for every Kindle book sold. This contrasts with a traditional publisher, like my publisher for This Land Is Our Land, which offers me 25% of every Kindle book sold. This means that, for every Walden on Wheels sold for $6 on Amazon, I get $2 in my bank account. Not a bad deal.
The larger consequence of the success of WoW has been that it’s made getting subsequent book deals easier. My second book, Trespassing across America, got offers from three publishers, and This Land Is Our Land was effortlessly sold to Penguin Random House.
I suppose this is a story of fate and luck. Maybe things would have worked out better if WoW got to be sold in big bookstores. Maybe it would have made a bestsellers list. Or maybe, in the long run, it was the right choice to sign a contract with Amazon because they’ve figured out novel ways to advertise and sell the Kindle edition over a long period of time. Digital books, of course are not going away anytime soon.
In just the five years since the publication of Walden on Wheels, the book industry has changed in unexpected ways. For one, the use of digital books has plateaued. Print books are experiencing a slight comeback while audios are booming. Barnes and Noble bookstores are on the brink of disaster while the number of indie bookstores has increased by 35% between 2009 and 2015. (Read this Pew article for a general update of book industry trends.)
Perhaps the moral of the story is: You can’t predict how the publishing industry will change and you won’t know if those changes will be in your favor; you have little control over the success of your book; the most you can do is write the book as well as you can, take any interview you get, and hope for the best.