The Unpredictability of Book Sales

While browsing at a bookstore on Sunday, I found a copy of Audrey Niffenegger’s HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY shoved carelessly between two picture books in the children’s section.   The sight of it got me thinking about how unpredictable book sales can be.

Just this past March, Niffenegger got an advance of $5 million for HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY (here’s the New York Times article on the sale).   Then I saw an article in late October by Kate Ward in Entertainment Weekly about “Bookselling Blues.” Here’s the quote:

Some books are outright flops, not to put too fine a point on it. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger’s follow-up to The Time Traveler‘s Wife, has sold only 38,823 copies; the new Mitch Albom book, Have a Little Faith, is at 148,974 copies. But despite numbers like these, the industry remains hopeful.

We won’t know until late January and February how book sales did this holiday season.  Sometimes a book starts off slow, then builds momentum, so perhaps HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY will follow that path.   I’ll be checking out the sales numbers for 2009 to find out how various big-name authors did.  How much effect will the recession have?

But it’s always disconcerting to realize that one can get a huge advance, such as the $8 million Charles Frazier got for his second novel, and then have the book do poorly in sales despite having a large marketing budget from a NYC publisher.  Sure, the money is nice (needs to be carefully invested though), but having a book undersell is no fun, especially when it’s time to try and sell the next manuscript.  These days bad Bookscan numbers follow an author around like a bad credit rating.

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