Chip MacGregor

November 16, 2012

What makes a second book successful?


An author wrote and said, “I’ve been told that you’ll never sell your second book in New York if you don’t do well on your first. Just how well do you have to do? How many copies is considered a success?”

I don’t really think this is a hard-and-fast rule. Many authors have started small, done a good job, sold a modest number of their first book, then gone on to build an audience. Sure, it’s harder to do another book if your first book completely tanks, but sometimes that’s more a reflection on the sales expectations than the quality of the product. And while there’s not a magic number to hit that makes you automatically “successful” in the eyes of publishers, for years we’ve known that a novelist who can routinely sell in the 12,000 to 20,000 range can expect to publish for a long time. Now, however, that number seems to be rising. Expectations are greater, and I think most larger publishers of trade fiction really want to see a basement sales number of about 14,000 for an established novelist (that number is much higher for a major author, for a book that had a big advance, or for a mass market or subscription house, of course). And that’s a bottom number — the expectation may well be in the 20’s, depending on the size of the house (keep in mind economies of scale — a small regional publisher will have a very different definition of “success” than HarperCollins, for example). Still, if you can create a couple books a year, and sell in the mid-to-high teens, you can expect to have very steady work for a long time.

I have an author who wrote a good first novel, then spent months promoting the book. The author did everything the publisher asked, and sales numbers for the first year were about 8500 copies sold. Not great — but not an awful first start in an industry that often sees first novels sell 3500 copies. And the author’s attitude was so good that the publisher figured the next book would build on the modest success and sell 10-to-12,000. I expect that’s very possible, and by the third book this author should be in that mid-teen range. Then the question will be how to bust out of that typical area and move up into that next category of novelists selling in the 30,000 range.

And a writer friend added something to the previous question by asking, “Does your second book often pull up sales of your first book?”

As I said in an earlier post, your second novel will be your most important. No matter what your first book did, you want your second to do better, garner more attention, get your name noticed. You want to establish a positive trend line with your publisher, showing that your readership is growing. There’s nothing automatic about your second book helping sales of your first, but here’s the thinking: If you make sure and create a great second novel, you can bet all the people who liked your first novel will try the next one. They’ll tell their friends, and even more people will buy your second novel. And some of those readers will go back and buy your first book. At least, that’s how it works in theory. The lesson? Don’t race through that second book. If you do, you’ll not only lose the people who enjoyed your first book, you’ll scare off all those new folks who were told you were a good writer based on your earlier work. I say it all the time: your second novel is your most important.

Another writer wanted to know, “Assuming a first book does moderately well, is the advance on future books usually the same, more, or less than that of the first book?”

If your first book does well, and you don’t already have your second book contracted, it’s fair to assume the advance on your second book will reflect the sales of your first. (Of course, it’s also fair for the publisher to assume the advance on the second book will reflect the salability of your second story.) If your second book presents a huge story, you can expect a healthy advance. If your second book offers a weenie story, well… you know what comes next. So yes, if your first book does well, your advance on your second book may very well go up. 

And someone asked, “Is it acceptable to have a second book that is written in the same style fall into another category or genre?”

This is tough in the marketplace, and doesn’t move your career forward. Retailers hate it, since they can’t shelve the books beside each other. And readers are generally loyal to genres. Doing a great suspense novel, then suddenly moving your characters into historical romance, is a recipe for disaster. I’m not saying it can’t be done (we all know of successful writers who publish in multiple genres), but when you’re getting started, you want to “pick and stick” — that is, pick a genre and stick with it until you’ve had some success. 

Happy to answer any questions you have about publishing and writing careers.

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  • Lavocate says:

    Does the apply to self published works in terms of the numbers?

  • I have finished my first MS, and am about to ruin the lives of my main characters in the sequel. (I won’t KILL my darlings, but I’m sure going to reduce cardiac function and oxygen saturation).
    Soooo, let’s pretend I’m repped by a scone and haggis eating person with a bit of authority, a person not afraid of a good tartan or a pair of knee socks..and I’m about to submit my second MS to the editor.
    Okay, Obi Wan MacKenobi, do I start the sequel the moment the first book ends, or do I use a well crafted prologue to catch the reader up to speed. Which type generally does better, or does it even matter in terms of sales and reader loyalty? Or is it all about style and voice?

  • Charity Hawkins says:

    I LOVE the specifics of the numbers. Very helpful. Thank you! It lets me know what I’m shooting for, and what’s realistic.

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