The cliché that word people are different from number people has a certain amount of truth. Yet I continue to see word people chasing numbers. Let’s talk about some of numbers.
1. The Number Of Reviews on Amazon
Yeah. Social proof. Sure, whatever.
It’s a common misconception that if you have more reviews, you’ll get more sales. I ran into it this week here in the community. The argument is demonstrably false because if it were true then old books with thousands of reviews would be selling better than newer books with maybe ten.
That doesn’t happen. The issue is structural with a bit of superstition for icing.
In numbers terms, the relationship between reviews and sales is directly correlated, which is where the superstition comes in. Correlation only means that as one thing changes the other thing changes. Directly correlated means that they both change in the same direction.
That doesn’t mean that one causes the other. That requires something else – unimaginatively named – causality.
The causal connection between reviews and sales is from sales to reviews. Restated: Sales drive reviews. Reviews do not drive sales. Think about it. If nobody has read the book, you can’t get a review. Somebody can read the book without giving a review. (Giving it away is a zero-revenue sale.)
Chasing reviews is fun. It feels like it must be important because so many people do it. Ultimately it’s not worth the time because if you want more reviews, the answer is “sell more books.” To the degree that you spend time trying to sell the last book by trying to convince people to review it instead of actually doing the thing that matters, you’re working against the numbers.
The superstition comes in because a lot of new self published authors (and no small number of traditionally published) have a big push around the release. The big day comes and they get a couple of reviews and panic because somebody somewhere told them that you need 50. So they agitate. They angst. They work the crowd. The go on blog tours and buy advertising. When they check again, yes! They have more reviews. It worked! Because look! They have more sales.
Yeah. No. They have more reviews because all the effort they made talking up the book drove sales. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but numbers are funny. If you’re counting the wrong thing, you wind up going broke or drowning in a stream that's, on average, only two feet deep.
About one out of every hundred or so readers will leave a review. Maybe even one in two hundred. My average runs about one in a hundred over the 200k sales in the last decade.
Except for the book they hated. I got a lot of reviews on that one.
2. The Average Income
About every few months, somebody bemoans the current state of literature and how it’s impossible to make a living as a writer now. Most of them then point to a badly flawed statistic that trumpets the dire news that authors—on average—only earn $3000 or maybe it’s $5000 or maybe it’s euros or pounds.
The problem with that number is that it’s based on a logical flaw—assuming that the average (arithmetic mean) is valid when applied to a population set that is not normally distributed.
Remember the old “bell curve” thing? Yeah. That. That’s a normal distribution. It’s really useful in statistics (like arithmetic means). The difficulty arises when that statistic gets applied do a distribution that is not the “bell curve.” It’s actually meaningless. Like asking “How does oxygen breed?”
Because sales, and by extension earnings, are not normally distributed. They follow a different but well known and recognized curve. Some know it as “the long tail” but technically, it’s a “power law” distribution. A few people at the very top earn the vast majority of the money.
Not just a lot. Most.
The statistic that makes sense in this instance is the “median.” Median marks the point where the number of people who earn more equals the number of people who earn less than that median value.
So the next time somebody mentions that the median income for authors is some pitifully small number, remember that for every person who’s earned zero there’s one who’s earned more than that median. That those ten people at the top who earn 80% of the pie get balanced by just ten authors who haven’t earned their first penny.
When you think of how many authors must be below the number, remember that there’s the exact same number above.
Also remember that all those authors are sharing the 20% of the pie that’s not being eaten by the few on the tall end of the scale.
But it’s a very, very large pie.
3. The Number of Books
It’s five. I’m sorry.
It’s not cast in stone, but that’s the number that seems to tip the balance between “how do I sell a book?” and “oh, wow.”
Disclaimer: Fiction. Specifically genre fiction. Lightning has a better chance of striking non-fiction bottles but that’s like a whole other universe where physics changed.
With that caveat, I’m talking about revenue. How to get from side hustle to day job writing.
The general observation is: If you want to make money writing, write novels in a series in a recognized sub category of either Romance, Action/Thriller, or Science Fiction/Fantasy. Those are the top three. Romance is queen. Do not diss Romance. The other two major buckets trade places periodically. They’re both bigger than whatever is next this season. Among them they represent the majority of the trade fiction market. Anywhere from 60 to 80% of all trade fiction books sold in the US will fall into one of those three categories.
That’s not to say you can’t make a killing in westerns or get warm and fuzzy in cozy mysteries or any of the other niches. If you know your audience, know the genre, and can fill in where others aren’t already dominating, you can get very good results there, too.
But the number is still five and those five books have to be in the same niche.
Where I’m seeing new authors flame out is failing to understand that a career in fiction is a way of life. It’s not a sprint or a marathon. It’s not a race. You don’t get to win. You just get to publish the next book. And the next. And the next. Until you die or stop writing voluntarily.
New authors try to make the first book sing but get discouraged when the tune falls on deaf ears. They may try a second book but spent too much time, money, and energy on book one to pull it off. Or they try to shotgun it and throw a book into different categories, hoping that one of them will find a target.
I’m not saying it can’t work. It can. Somebody almost always wins the lottery, too. It could be you, but the odds aren’t in your favor.
I’m also not saying that when you publish five books, the heavens will open and mana from Bezos will fall like the rains in spring.
I’m saying that over the years, the people who find the most success, who earn the most, and who continue to earn reliably didn’t begin to find traction with readers until book five.
That's all the numbers for now.
Maybe next week I'll talk about risk.
In the meantime, write on.
Image credit: ianmacm., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4535430