When Does Your Literary Novel Become a Success?

By Neal Comment


Over at the Editorial Ass blog, the pseudonymous Moonrat takes a question from a reader about how many copies a work of literary fiction needs to sell before it’s considered a success, and the answer’s simple: 7,000 in hardcover. Drawing upon her publishing industry experience, Moonrat offers consoling advice for authors who haven’t done quite so well:

“If you’ve sold between 4,000 and 7,000 copies, in hardcover, of your literary novel, you did a damned good job… If you sold between 2,000 and 4,000 copies of your literary novel, you sold pretty strongly. You’re still in a good position to have your publisher want to take on your second project, or to comfortably find a home elsewhere.

“If you sold below 1,500 copies, your publisher is probably disappointed, although they will never tell you that. Instead, they will tell you that debuts are hard, and literary fiction is nearly impossible. Both these things are true.”

“Your publisher might also be happier or sadder with your numbers depending on how much they paid for your novel,” she concees, “but odds are, if it is in fact literary fiction, they bid with these kinds of specs in mind.” And then, in the comments, she explains why switching debuting authors to trade paperback isn’t necessarily a solution: “We need to sell literally 4-5 times as many paperbacks of a book to make the amount of money we would have off of a hardcover, and while MORE books sell in paperback, in the case of MOST books the discrepancy isn’t that great. That means that if national accounts are denying us hardcover placement, there ARE going to be books we’re not going to be able to afford to publish.”