Writing: a fools errand

Are we fools to think that we can succeed at writing?

With prompting from Tom-Being-Tom, and my own curiosity over the last two years I thought I’d throw together a spreadsheet that tried to rationalize the numbers involved with publishing a novel.

You can find it linked here:

Such a pursuit is fraught with errors due to assumptions and biases. But I like to have some idea of what the world looks like regarding numbers.

Bottom line, if you can get traditionally published, you might sell between 70 and 120 copies.

The process:

• From the total US population take the number of adult readers.
• From the est. number of books read: 5 (REF) per adult per year,
• Arrive at the total read events per year.
• Assume 500k (REF) books published (traditional only) in 2017, assume that the prior 19 years are also included in the total reads for the year.
• Reduce the published total for each year going back 20 years.
• Sum this total published for the 20 years.
• From this total take the percentage of each year and apply it to the total yearly reads.
• This will give us our total reads for those books published this year.
• From this number take 75% as actually purchase (not library or loans).
• From that number take 75% as fiction reads.
• From that number remove 50% as books that are best sellers (the lion’s share of reads) We’re going to look at the remainder after we remove this portion. We’re looking for average authors not NYTimes bestsellers.
• This will give us the total number of reads for the year for the average book.
• Divide that number by the total number of books published.

Result: 82 (using the median of 5 books/adult or 197 using the average of 12 books/adult).

These are pretty conservative numbers. But if you want to play with the numbers, you can copy this spreadsheet and fiddle with the inputs.

Foolish to think one can succeed at getting published and selling more than 100 copies? Yes, that’s my take.

Some of the data is presented here:

US Pop. 325,000,000
% Readers 80.00%
Reader Pop. 260,000,000
Median # Reads per year 5
Total Annual Read (events) 1,300,000,000
% of Reads are Purchased 75.00%
% of Reads are Fiction 75.00%
% of Reads are Best Sellers 50.00%
Annual Fiction Sales 731,250,000
Yearly % Pub Count Increase 10.00%
Year Pub Count % Reads # Of Total Reads # Best Sellers # Remaining Med # Sales
2017 500,000 11.23% 82,109,319 41,054,659 41,054,659 82
2016 450,000 10.11% 73,898,387 36,949,193 36,949,193
2015 405,000 9.10% 66,508,548 33,254,274 33,254,274
2014 364,500 8.19% 59,857,693 29,928,847 29,928,847
2013 328,050 7.37% 53,871,924 26,935,962 26,935,962
2012 295,245 6.63% 48,484,732 24,242,366 24,242,366
2011 265,721 5.97% 43,636,258 21,818,129 21,818,129
2010 239,148 5.37% 39,272,633 19,636,316 19,636,316
2009 215,234 4.83% 35,345,369 17,672,685 17,672,685
2008 193,710 4.35% 31,810,832 15,905,416 15,905,416
2007 174,339 3.92% 28,629,749 14,314,875 14,314,875
2006 156,905 3.52% 25,766,774 12,883,387 12,883,387
2005 141,215 3.17% 23,190,097 11,595,048 11,595,048
2004 127,093 2.85% 20,871,087 10,435,544 10,435,544
2003 114,384 2.57% 18,783,978 9,391,989 9,391,989
2002 102,946 2.31% 16,905,581 8,452,790 8,452,790
2001 92,651 2.08% 15,215,023 7,607,511 7,607,511
2000 83,386 1.87% 13,693,520 6,846,760 6,846,760
1999 75,047 1.69% 12,324,168 6,162,084 6,162,084
1998 67,543 1.52% 11,091,751 5,545,876 5,545,876
1997 60,788 1.37% 9,982,576 4,991,288 4,991,288
Sum 4,452,905 731,250,000 365,625,000 365,625,000

• Missing from our calculations thus far are, reads from books printed in previous years; what number of books are actually sold; number of fiction books sold.
• Let’s be conservative and say that we’ll only include books from the previous 20 years, in a descending ratio such that for every year in reverse we take 90% of the current number. (Seeing how Harry Potter was first published in 1997 and it remains in the top sellers list year after year, this does not seem out of line.)
• Additionally, let’s assume that 3/4’s of the total reads are actual purchases (not library, or loaned reads), and let’s assume that 3/4’s of those remaining are fiction reads, and finally, 1/2 of the reads are for best sellers.
• No self published novels are included.

Relevant cites:

Slightly fewer Americans are reading print books, new survey finds

Practice by doing


I’m a full subscriber to the philosophy of learning by doing. Practice, in my book, is just another name for doing a shitty job because your skills are poorly honed, you’ve got less experience than you need to get the job done, or you’re trying out some new technique or method and need to feel out the boundaries.

Practice for the sake of practice, to me, means you’re not really trying. You could just as easily dial back the effort of a full-on production run, focusing on some specific nuance of your skill set because you need the pressure of production to force yourself to learn that skill.

I used to shoot a rifle competitively — in high school and my first year of college. Yes, such things exist and no they’re not alt-right-NRA-drum-beating-neo-cons. It’s just like archery or darts or curling or hell, shuffleboard. And I used to “practice” all the bloody time. (Like 3-4 nights a week, 1-2 hours a night, with matches on weekends and all summer long.)

But I never took practicing seriously. Matches? Those were intense situations. You put money down (not the high school variety – the club variety). Had we only shot in matches, all the time, I’m sure I would have improved considerably more quickly than I did.

The same, I believe goes for writing. Practice writing? Hell no. Write for some venue. Either high end, medium or like here, low end. But write to publish. Write for production. Practice is for losers.