A few years ago Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill starred in a movie called "Moneyball" based on a nonfiction book of the same name. It was the story of Billy Beane, the head coach of the Oakland A's, who in 2002 became one of the first people in sports to embrace the concept of sabermetrics.
I'm not a big sports fan and I'm by no means an expert in sabermetrics, but my dumb-dumb layman explanation is that if you analyze enough statistics you can stack the deck of even something as complicated as competitive sports in your favor. So if you know which player statistically will get on base the most often against a certain pitcher, or you know which team is statistically the worst fielding in a certain weather type, you can plan a mathematical strategy rather than just relying on gut instincts and superstitions.
The movie made a point of comparing the old method of scouting - where old men dipping chewing tobacco would make decisions based on how ugly a player's girlfriend was, say, to determine whether he had confidence - with something like how often the player gets on first base. Because ultimately, you can never score a run unless you get on base.
So what does this have to do with writing? Well, they may never make a movie about it - God, what a boring fucking movie that would be - but statistical analyses are causing a similar revolution in publishing today as they did in baseball a decade and a half ago. A lot fewer decisions are getting made in smoky boardrooms by guts than are getting made based on spreadsheets and number-crunching.
So what are the metrics that you should be aware of as a writer? Let's break them down.
I know a full-time writer who has between 75,000-100,000 readers. Every book he releases sells that many copies like clockwork. That's a known quantity. That means he's able to base his income on that, and his publishers are able to base what they'll pay him on that.
I don't want to jinx it but I think I have around 50 readers. That's just a guess. But I think there are about 50 people who, every time I have a release, buy my book because it has that big long K-name stamped on the front. I'm not ready to retire from my day job yet. But that's also a known quantity.
My goal is to get closer to my friend's number. I've heard it reasonably argued that a person with 10,000 loyal readers can make a full-time living as an author. Bullshit math tells me if your titles go for $5.99 that's $59,900 per title, so if you get 50% royalties, discounting Amazon's 30% cut, that means you'd bank about $20,965 gross per title. (For brevity's sake, from here on out I'm just going to refer to "Amazon" as meaning all distributors, and if you like you can replace every instance of it in your mind with "Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, etc.") So if you release a book a quarter (which is, admittedly, a pretty intense schedule) less taxes, you're probably making a comfortable $60,000-$70,000 a year.
Yeah. So we're all reaching for that 10K number, or probably higher in all likelihood so we don't burn out. How can you tell how many readers you have? You can't, really, except by gauging your royalty statements.
A slightly less arcane metric than your readership is your sales. One presumes, for instance, that there's a major difference between Dan Brown's readership in general and his sales for mega-hit THE DA VINCI CODE. So how do you measure sales?
Well, the easiest way is by checking your royalty statement. Your publisher should break it down for you, or if you're self-published then Amazon should be breaking it down for you. You should crunch the numbers yourself to determine those "Moneyball"-type statistics you're interested in: how many copies of which books you sell per month or year, which titles sell more consistently, how discounts affect sales, etc. etc. And from that you'll start to gauge your readership as discussed above.
But what about comparing yourself to other authors, that most important of all things that we're never supposed to do? Well, there's a quick and dirty method for that as well. The only gauge that's going to be available to you (unless you go dumpster diving outside Simon & Schuster headquarters or something) is Amazon bestseller rank. You can use a Kindle Best Seller calculator like this one to make an educated guess about how many copies your peers and/or competitors are selling. But Amazon's ranking algorithm is proprietary and they're not sharing exactly how it works, so take any such calculator with a grain of salt.
Aside from using a janky internet calculator the rule of thumb is that a Kindle e-book with a rank of 100,000 (remember, you want to be #1, just like in the Olympics) has had one sale today. And books with better sales in the past tend to retain a higher ranking. So if you come across a book that's been out for four years and is ranking 9000 overall in the Kindle Store, this is a book that has had lots of sales. If you come across a book that's been out for two weeks and is languishing at a million, well, that probably sold one copy to Mom once.
Reviews are indicative of sales but you need to beat it into your head that reviews are a separate metric from sales. About 1% of people who buy a book will review it. So, naturally, a Stephen King book that sells 5 million copies will have an organic baseline of 50,000 reviews. One of my books that sells 500 copies will probably have an organic baseline of 5.
Now notice I say organic. Reviews are one of the few metrics you can have any effect on. You can't really control sales, but with a little elbow grease, you can drive up your review numbers. It's unseemly and unethical to pay for reviews, but you can solicit honest reviews from book bloggers and reviewers online. Expect to exchange a courtesy copy of your book (it's up to you whether you want to shell out for physical copies or just stick to e-books and audiobooks) in exchange for an honest review. And that review may never come. And if it does come and it happens to be negative, guess what? You still improved your metrics.
Now, I've written entire blogposts about reviews, and I could probably write an entire book about them, too, so I'm not going to cover all of that ground here. Just suffice it to say, toss out your concept of negative and positive. Fuck your ego, to put it succinctly. Don't worry about getting bad reviews; worry about getting no reviews.
Accepting (or ignoring) criticism with quiet grace is a necessity for public figures. Could you imagine how ridiculous and pathetic a public figure would look if they whined and complained and fought back every time someone expressed a mildly negative opinion of them? That person would look like a complete and utter ass, and ultimately undermine their own authority. You're a public figure now, so shut the hell up about those one-stars, and in time, learn to love them.
How many Twitter followers do you have? How about on Facebook? Instagram? Do you own a website? Write for a blog? Write for a group blog? How many subscribers are on your mailing list?
Your social media platform can feed your sales - which can feed your organic reviews - but, again, it's a separate series of metrics. It's good to have a million Twitter followers. But it's likely only about 1% of those will buy you book. So, yeah, that's 10,000 sales, which is amazeballs, but there's also 990,000 people who saw your tweet and ignored it.
For good or for ill, you will now be judged (at least in part) on your platform. Yes, if you write a brilliant book it will sell, regardless of platform. But the reverse does not necessarily hold true. Not to pick on them, but the Kardashians have been known to sell a book or two. So having a platform does not mean you necessarily have to have written a brilliant book.
Now, despite my going on about the importance of statistics, I do not have any regarding to what degree agents and publishers worry about platform. I do know that they all admit to considering it, which means it is probably far more widespread than the better angels of my nature might hope. I also have an anecdote. I was once told by someone in the industry that he loved my writing and was ready to take on my manuscript, just as soon as I doubled my Twitter followers.
Well, there's a difference between knowing an unseemly thing takes place and being told an unseemly thing just happened to you. I did not respond. I did, however, double my Twitter followers. Then I doubled it five more times. Not for him. He'll never get one of my manuscripts, I guarantee you that. I increased my Twitter followers for me. I don't intend to be rejected again because I don't have enough of a platform.
And finally, perhaps in the wrong order, but I'd rather close with this than open with it, we get to the "who gives a shit" portion of this post.
My friend with the established fan base thinks it's funny that I keep track of all of this sort of thing. Because to him, it just doesn't matter. He can keep a roof over his head, so what difference does it make how many reviews he got on thus-and-such?
On the other side of the coin, you may not give a shit about making a dime in this industry. You may write simply for pleasure, and publish because it's an easy option these days. I know someone who wrote and published a book to have a nice favor for her daughter's birthday party guests.
There are things worth caring about and there are things that aren't. No amount of books I've sold or reviews I've gotten mean quite as much to me as the lunch I had with Jack Ketchum or the kiss Brian Keene planted on my head. I hope someday to win much acclaim and many awards, but I don't know if any of it will touch me as deeply as as Sheilah Randall declaring herself my first fangirl or Dave Sharp calling me the next Bradbury.
So my real advice, as much as this has been a primer to give you an idea of what sorts of things you could keep track of...is to only keep track of the things you want to.