Tuesday, November 08, 2005

What are your chances of writing an online bestseller?

If a first-time novelist sold 5000 paperback copies I guess that might be considered a best seller in the world of traditional publishing.

In the brave new world of online read on demand however that readership sounds a trifle modest. Let's say we need 10,000 readers to be considered a success. We are, after all, giving our book away for nothing.

How are we going to hit that sales figure?

Coca Cola talk about "share of throat" in relation to the proportion of the total drinks market capture by their brown fizzy concoction. What we're after is share of mind.

Let's assume right away that our book is indeed a work of genius. I'm sure you'll agree that is a fair assumption having read the first few chapters of A Half Life Of One. Would that every unpublished writer could be so lucky with his/her product.

It seems to me we're going to derive our readership from 3 main sources:

1 The most important category from our pooint of view is readers who are already pre-disposed to buy books. Let's say they have a high degree of attention stickieness. These are the kind of folks that regularly visit The Grumpy Old Man and Maud Newton for example. Just the kind of people, in other words, who in the real world pop into Borders in search of a certain kind of literary novel.

The questions that concern us here are: what is the size of this readership and what percentage can we attract?

I've no idea how many visitors GOB and Ms Newton get but let's say it's 500 a day. Let's also assume I can lure 50 (10%) of these good folk over to this site using my now-notorious guerilla marketing techniques. Remember, these hijacked readers are by definition well-disposed towards my book. So let's assume I can convert 50% of them into readers of A Half Life Of One. I've now "sold" 25 free copies.

2 The second category of potential readers that we need to target is anyone with an interest in books generally who happens to be surfing the internet in search of a good read. The only way I can reach this potential audience is by getting myself a high ranking on the search engines. This takes time. It also explains why I've been inserting some relevant names into the titles of my posts (ie Me and Oscar Wilde, Me and Hemingway, Me and Dan Brown etc). Anyone looking for these authors might, with any luck, end up on this site if they Google "Oscar Wilde" for example. Try it and see what happens.

Okay I'll save you the effort. If you Google "Oscar Wilde" you'll get 4,880,000 references. I worked my way through the first 240 and there's no mention of The Pundy House in any of them. Narrowing this request down to a blog search gives 27,104 references but still no mention of The Pundy House.

You see the problem. Let's be optimistic though. The number of referrals I get from the search engines will increase exponentially as I hone my marketing skills. In addition, with increased longevity, and by building up my links to this site, I'll automatically increase my visitors from this source.

Let's take a guess and say I get 100 people with a general literary interest coming this way in the next month. These are internet equivalents of people who wander into Borders in search of a good read. Let's assume they recognise a masterpiece when they see one and half of them subscribe to the book. That's another 50 readers.

3 My third category of potential readers is the great mass of casual surfers with a diverse range of interests who populate cyberspace in their millions. These are the online equivalents to the crowds of shoppers that stream down the high street every day. Not particularly literate they usually walk past Borders and wouldn't dream of going in unless it was to buy a present. In which case they would usually stick to the best sellers. Dan Brown readers in other words.

I order to see where these people are going on the web we can visit Technorati and check out today's top searches. I've already done it for you and here they are:

"Paris Riots"
"West Wing Debate"
"Steve York" (who he?)
"West Wing"
"Ajax" (the Greek guy?)
"Panthers Cheerle...." (search me)
"France" (isn't that where Paris is?)
"Web 2.0"

To attract these people's attention we could construct a post about, say, what a riot of colour Paris is in the Springtime and how it was Hemingway's favourite city and did he ever meet Steve York while he was drinking Grokster and debating the best bookshops in the West Wing (or should that be the West Bank?) while he was on a bender with a guy called Ajax.

Or any other nonsense that pressed the right search buttons.

As it happens a guy called Gav at Gav's Studio did something similar when he wrote about Live8 at the time it was the top search item on Google. As a result he got 2192 visitors in place of his normal half dozen. Let's say we get 2000 additional visitors following our supercharged post. Very few of these people are going to be interested in serious fiction so lets say we attract 5% of them as readers of A Half Life Of One. That's another 100 readers.

So. After all out efforts we have attracted a grand total of 175 new readers. despite its brilliance, probably less than half of them will read the book to the end. So we might end up with 100 readers. Dan Brown - you can rest easy for the time being.

Now you can quarrel with some of the numbers here -either up or down depending on how much you know about the dynamics of the marketplace - but I'm pretty sure the business model is valid. In fact, I'm certain that with a little research I could construct a robust econometric equation that would allow me to predict pretty accurately exactly how many readers I'm likely to attract in my first year of publishing. In fact, I've already done the calculation.

The answer is six.

Oh dear. Not quite the bestseller I'd hoped for when I embarked on this experiment.

On the other hand, if someone had promised me half a dozen readers for my book when it was languishing forgotten and unloved at the bottom of my desk drawer I'd have kneeled down at their feet and kissed them.

And I'd have been weeping tears of gratitude as I did so.


  1. Pundy, blogger is owned by google and therefore blogspot posts get a higher priority within the search results. So you've chosen an excellent host as far as the search engine conduit goes.

    The Carolina Panthers cheerleaders? Two got arrested after having lesbian sex in a bathroom stall in Tampa Bay. Other women were mad about waiting so long for their turn to use the stall and an altercation broke out. There. That oughtta be worth a couple more hits.

  2. Bottle Rocket, you're worldly knowledge is a little worrying for one so young.

    Lesbian sex, eh? It's a shame I can't give it a try.

  3. Oh, fuck. How do you edit these comments? Previous comment should read .."your worldly..."

  4. Anonymous7:19 pm

    In the world of traditional publishing, if a first-time novelist's paperback original only sells 5,000 copies, that book has tanked. When you're estimating sales of a proposed paperback, if your most optimistic estimate shows it selling through fewer than 15,000 - 20,000 copies, the project's a non-starter.

    If you know what you're doing, you can profitably publish a hardcover or trade paperback that barely scrapes its way into the five digits. In that regard, hardcovers are considerably less demanding than paperbacks.

    Either way, though, you're nowhere near the kind of numbers you need to be considered a bestseller.

    Teresa Nielsen Hayden

  5. Hm. That's extremely interesting, thanks, Teresa.

    Of course, the economics of the two forms of publishing are completely different, but even so...

    Let me think about the implications of your figures with regard to online publishing and I'll post a full response in a couple of days.