Programming Book Profits

As I begin working on my second book I’ve gone back and realized that there’s a lot of things that I wish I knew before I started writing my first book way back in March of 2006. One of the big ones was the volume of book sales and the amount of profit made. Namely: Programming books (by-and-large) are poor sellers, thus, don’t expect to be buying a new mansion anytime soon.

I recently received my quarterly update from Apress for the 3rd quarter of 2007 (the fourth quarter of the book’s existence). This was the first quarter in which I actually broke a profit (received money in excess of my advance) so I was quite pleased. Here’s a scan for those that are interested.

Publisher Revenue

Here’s some things that I learned about book profits, in no particular order:

  • When you negotiate a contract with a publisher, and you receive an advance, that’s an advance of your future profits. I had no idea why I never realized this until after I received my first statement and saw -$3000 listed as my payout. It makes a lot of sense, in retrospect – but it was just a silly thing that never quite clicked with me.
  • Advances are distributed in even chunks based upon milestones. (Finish X number of chapters, get 1/4 of the advance – get the last 1/4 when the book is complete.) I negotiated a higher advance than what’s typical as I wanted to use it to live off of post-college, Apress was nice and accommodating.
  • Advances are usually pretty low (I think Apress’ typical one was $5000 for a first-time author). In talking with authors at other publishers you can usually expect something in that range – maybe slightly higher.
  • No one buys eBooks. You’d have to be pretty… special… in order to not be able to find a free ebook of Pro JavaScript Techniques.
  • Ever wonder how an author tracks how many books they’re selling? Guess what, he dosen’t! It’s a massive mystery! When I chatted with my editor, on a number of occasions, most of the conversations just ended with him making a sad face and saying “just watch your Amazon numbers.” So that’s what you do – you watch your Amazon page like a hawk, trying to divine some special meaning from the crazy fluctuations in your sales rank.
  • A couple rules of thumb that Chris Mills (my editor) taught me for tracking your Amazon sales rank (for programming books, especially) is: If your rank is < 10,000, you're doing fantastic, < 20,000, you're doing very well, < 100,000, reasonable, anything else and you're effectively dead. Tracking my ranking over the past year it's been consistently in the 10-20,000 range, with occasional dips into the < 10,000 range. JavaScript: The Definitive Guide is always < 5,000 (for comparison).
  • The vast majority of technical books will never sell more than 4000 copies. Unless you’ve really tapped into something good, are targeting a huge audience, or have done a really outstanding job, it’s likely that your book will sell around the same amount.
  • Publishers do very little promotion of your work. I guess, unless, you’re going with a real powerhouse like O’Reilly (where they can rope you into conferences and all sorts of promotions) most technical publishers have little leeway outside of “sending free books to influential people and praying that they’ll blog about them.”
  • I really like the tiered payout structure that Apress provides – it rewards authors who put a lot of work into the promotion, and quality, of their work.
  • Releasing your book before Christmas is awesome. Geeks love to add books to their Christmas lists (they’re cheaper than gadgets and safe for family members to acquire). The book was released December 11th and yet it still sold over 2,000 copies in the remaining 20 days of the quarter, in 2006.
  • Don’t force your friends to buy your book, authors always get a massive pile of their book to give away at user groups, etc. – hang on to some and save your friends $30.
  • I’m not 100% sure what the “licensed rights” are, mentioned in the printout above, but I think it relates to translated copies of the book (I’ve been told that there’s a Chinese version – there may be others).
  • When you go over a certain amount of profit publishers will hold some in “reserve” as a measure to counter-act returned copies, from the distributors. I’m not sure how much of a real concern this is, but it seems sketchy to me.

I’m not sure how useful all of this will be for would-be-authors but I wish I knew these tips back before I got started, so very long ago. I hope to drop some more of these tid-bits, as I remember them, throughout the rest of the authoring process.

Posted: January 21st, 2008

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