Small Press, Big Data — your questions

A follow-up to this recent post, which examined the performance of thirty-one small press publications, looking at units sold vs. profit for each. Below, I answer some questions that have arisen since the original article.

Can I ask where the *other* genres, besides single-author poetry collections, appeared on your graph?

Good point — I’m so obsessed with poetry I forgot to comment on the rest! Here’s an expanded version of the chart, with novels in yellow, short story collections in orange, and poetry anthologies (i.e. not single-author) in dark green:

Tentative findings: novels generally will sell more units, but are a much riskier proposition, and short stories are generally a good bet (except for those two fiction outliers at the far end!) This image also shows that poetry anthologies sell well, but we will of course need a bigger set of data to confirm that.

This all reminds me of that day in 2013 when Salt announced they weren’t publishing any more single-author collections, because they weren’t ‘viable’. If their graph looked anything like the above, you can almost see how they’d come to that conclusion. They also said they’d seen sales decline over time, whereas if you arrange my titles chronologically:

…you see absolutely no pattern, data that averages out to a straight line. So no decline, but no growth either!

What were the values on the vertical axis?

I don’t want to get into specifics — but I will say, the chart values can be thought of as percentage changes (that’s the only way I could compare the two). Looking at the chart above, you can safely assume that the lowest horizontal line represents absolute disaster (no sales and no income), and two lines above that is a level equivalent to survival … in doing so, you can see how I survived that period.

What does the opposite graph look like, with profit values in order?

It looks like this:

This shows that income was actually fairly consistent, with most books making somewhere near the median value. It also confirms my thinking that high unit sales caused both outliers — but shows that result is not inevitable (there’s a high-units, average-profit value in the middle there.)

If we overlay our genres onto this, we can see that single-author poetry (light green, remember) looks very tempting from a profit perspective, as do short story collections … but novels (in yellow) look like a disaster waiting to happen:

Lesson here: I need to take a long hard look at my novel publishing strategy, in terms of making my money back in those first 12 months. But actually, I may have done that already — the novel off to the left is the most recently-published one in my sample group, so perhaps I’m getting the hang of it?

In my original article, I asked this question of a couple of statistics:

“I printed exactly the right number of copies, but struggled to make cash — how did I manage that?!”

I’ve looked into that, and it turns out in those cases, customers went for the Kindle edition rather than the paperback. The result was a lot of paperbacks sitting around unsold at the time I captured this data. I’d love an answer to this question: if the ebook wasn’t available, would those customers have bought the paperback instead…?

As Peter Harvey pointed out, I neglected to think about ebooks when I wrote the original ‘Big Data’ article — they didn’t cross my mind at all, in fact — but I did include ebook sales in the units and profit figures. Historically, only 4.5% of my sales turnover and 10.4% of my units have come from ebooks; next time I do a big study, I’ll attempt to separate some of that out.

Selling books at a launch event had no effect — why?

After some thought, I reckon:

  • If there was no launch, the people who would have attended bought copies anyway.
  • If there was a launch without the publisher (i.e. in a bookshop), the lost profits per unit were roughly equivalent to what the publisher would have spent travelling to the venue and/or hiring the space.

Does this mean I’ll stop going to launches? Unlikely! As I said in the original post, this is all just data-driven fun … makes you think though.

(If you’ve got any more questions, or if you’d like to contribute some data, you can get in touch with me here.)