Understanding book sales

Writing books is hard enough, but selling them is an entirely different challenge. While I’ve learned much, I’m no expert. What follows are my experiences which hopefully will interest those who know less and simultaneously attract the opinions of those who know more.

With that in mind, here’s part 3 of a series I’ve been doing on the sales life of my books (part 1 and part 2, were about my first book). It’s almost three months into sales for my 2nd book and that’s focus of this post.

Sales summary

Through use of the ever-handy rankforest.com, here are the first three months of sales rankings on Amazon.com for my latest book. Of course amazon.com rankings tell you nothing about what goes on at physical bookstores or over at bn.com, but it’s an easy, free indicator of how well a book is selling.

The Myths of Innovation, Amazon.com sales 5/15-8/15:


And for comparison, below are comparative sales rankings for The art of project management for its first 3 months of sales. The graphs aren’t to scale, but it’s easy to see that my first book (below) had slightly better amazon sales rankings than my 2nd (above). Both sets of numbers are respectable: both books have hovered on and off various amazon and O’Reilly bestseller lists, but the question is, what explains the difference in sales? Shouldn’t a successful book aimed at a bigger audience generate more sales?


PR summary – For Myths of Innovation:

  • Lectures, talks & book tour. I did ~25 lectures promoting the book, including speaking at conferences like OSCON, Adaptive path MX, and E-Tech, and book-tour style gigs in the Bay area at places like Google (video here), Apple, Adobe and E-bay.
  • O’Reilly support. O’Reilly’s Sara Peyton sent out over a hundred promotional copies of the book, pinged and re-pinged reviewers, schmoozed various people of influence on my book’s behalf, and helped line up speaking and interview opportunities.
  • Blog & Mailing list. I (ab)used the full reach of this blog and my mailing lists to drive interest in the book, from related essays, blog posts on innovation, to blatant requests for support from readers.
  • The book has received amazing reviews : 16 amazon reviews (4.5 avg), major positive reviews from digital-web, slashdot and lifehacker. I was also fortunate to get over 20 rock star endorsements for the book from the likes of Guy Kawasaki, Tom Kelley of IDEO, Don Norman and others.
  • Radio & Podcast. I work worked with O’Reilly on a radio tour: I’ve done nearly 30 radio interviews and podcasts, including high profile time on IT conversations and NPR’s Think.

By comparison this is more than twice the amount of PR effort, in terms of my own time, than for The art of project management.

The surprise has been that despite the increased effort, a better written book, and a higher profile / sexier topic, the new book has sold well, but trailed The art of project management by comparison for their respective first 3 months of sales.

Assumptions / Lessons learned:

  • No one fully understands sales. Everyone has an opinion, sure, but no one can predict what happens or explain why (but watch them take credit after the fact :). There are too many factors, many beyond the control of the author or publisher. I’ve yet to get expert advice that didn’t contradict advice from another equally reputable expert. Remember, some great books fail to sell, and many awful books make bestseller lists. Most editors / agents / publicists require several rounds of cocktails before they’ll admit what happens is beyond their control or, at times, their comprehension.
  • Sales oversimplified is easy. The only productive formula is: quality of book + ability to connect the book to interested people with cash to spend. That last part is important: it’s not TV ads you want, it’s finding people naturally interested enough to buy. If you’re writing about widgets, odds are high you know better where to find those naturally interested in widgets than your publisher or publicist does, and you know what messages are most likely to entice them. For Myths, as a more general audience book, the messaging and targeting was harder to develop.
  • Assumption: bigger topics sell better. I assumed the Myths of Innovation would have a larger audience than the art of project management, since the topic of creative thinking and innovation are much broader, and more compelling, than the topic of managing projects. The book is a much better read on a more important topic, written in a journalistic, fast paced, comical style. But I’ve learned the broader the topic, the more competition there is. To make a dent in a bigger category requires more effort, more word of mouth advocates, than a niche book. There are fewer writers writing about project management, and the bar for scoring a sale is lower. I’m convinced Myths can outsell The art of pm, but it may take longer to happen.
  • Is PR for web/blogs more effective than PR for mass media? Looking back over my PR hours, my bet is that on a per hour basis, time spent pitching bloggers and online writers paid off in more sales than radio, podcasts or other mass market PR did. The data is better too: I can track the day a major blog review hit to spikes in amazon.com sales, but I can’t say that for any podcast, book tour lecture or printed review. This post by the current holder of the NYT bestseller list #1 slot goes further, claiming his success was entirely based on attracting online attention.

Overall, my plan is to keep learning. My goal is to be a career author so any positive PR, even PR that doesn’t translate directly into sales, may pay off for the next book or for the next speaking gig. But if you know something I don’t, have advice from experience or your own war stories to share, please chime in.

19 Responses to “Understanding book sales”

  1. Sean Harding

    “The broader the topic, the more competition there is.”

    I think that’s key. One of the reasons I ran out and bought The Art of PM as soon as I could is that I was having a really hard time finding good books on the topic, especially from people who understand modern software project management. There are a lot of books on innovation, some of which I’ve read, most of which I don’t think I’ve benefited much from. So I’m much less likely to buy yet another book on innovation, even if it was written by an author I like…

  2. Scott

    Hi Sean:

    Thanks for confirming my hypothesis. Tell you what: E-mail me your address and I’ll send you a copy of Myths. Only obligation: if you do read it, and do think it’s one of the best books you’ve ever read on innovation, you’ll say so on your blog.

    Deal? :)

  3. Donald Jessop

    “… the topic of creative thinking and innovation are much broader, and more compelling, than the topic of managing projects.”

    Yes and no. Yes, for people who are interested in innovation and interested in the creative thinking process then this book hits the mark. No, because I personally do not believe that this is actually a larger market than a book on Project Management. The Art of Project Management transcends project managers and allows everyone on a project to better understand the complexities of project management. The book has sound advice that can be applied at all levels of the project hierarchy and gives people much needed insight into everything that is going on. Given that a large number of people are involved in projects, either leading them or as part of a team, the market is actually quite large. The Myths of Innovation, unfortuately, seems more of a (no offense intended) “coffee table” book that you read, glean some interesting information, but don’t readily apply it to your daily life.

    For example, I have The Art of Project Management on the corner of my desk so that everyone who drops down in the visitor’s chair sees the book. Many people pick it up and look through it. A couple have even copied down the information so that they can buy their own copy. The Myths of Innovation, however, when it was on my desk, was rarely picked up and never for more than a few seconds. The topic seems somewhat esoteric in nature and doesn’t seem as applicable to daily life as The Art of Project Management.

    So, while the concept of innovation should concern all of us, only those of us who see “failures” with regard to innovation are concerned about the entire innovation process. And, boy, are there a LOT of failures out there!!!!

    Either way, I’ve enjoyed both books, but I’m not surprised at the results.

  4. Scott

    Thx Donald.

    > The Myths of Innovation, unfortuately, seems
    > more of a (no offense intended) “coffee table”
    > book that you read, glean some interesting
    > information, but don’t readily apply it to
    > your daily life.

    Aaaah! Coffee! Run for the hills! Just kidding.

    I wonder how Gladwell’s “Blink” or “Tipping point” would have faired on your desk. There are plenty of books that fit the lighter reading / airport bestseller genre, a genre that Myths fits into, that kick ass sales wise.

    At the risk of reading too much into two data points, I wonder about the inverse relationship between the depth of a book, and its sales. For a book to be practical it has to have simpler ambitions. Art of PM (IMO) is a book about how to manage work, but Myths is a book about how we think, or at least how we should think about Innovation. As a writer it was a *much* larger challenge to write. Not that readers should care about how hard it was to do, but there are much heavier ideas at play in Myths than in Art of PM, and make it a fun read took way more work.

    I see how it can be more defuse to visitors to your office, but I guess the point I’m wondering about is this: that any book that takes on more important topics, say “The meaning of life explained” will always seem esoteric to some by comparison to practical books like “How to get promoted in 4 weeks”.

  5. marrije

    The weblogs of authors I read often mention that Amazon ranks don’t really mean all that much in terms of real-world sales: Amazon sales are still a really small percentage of overall sales, and quite skewed in their audience.

    Project management might have done better on Amazon since it’s more in line with Amazon’s geeky customers, and the audience for Myths may perhaps be found more in the airports mentioned before (which is good! airporty people should read this!).

    Does you publisher already have a notion of how well the book has been doing in the Real World?

  6. Donald Jessop

    As a followup to my previous comments, the vast majority of people I deal with, both internally to the organization and externally are very busy people trying to get their work done in a reasonable amount of time. As you mentioned, Art of PM is more “practical” in that the majority of people I deal with (Project Managers, Team Leads, etc.) see more relevance in the book than they do in Myths.
    A strange measure, but one that helps me, is whether or not the book is a good read on the commute to work. I spend 30 – 45 mintues on the bus on the way to work every morning and another 30 – 45 muntes on the way home. For me, if the book is easily digetstable in 30 minute segments then I am more likely to read it and remember it. Art of PM was such a book. For some strange reason Myths didn’t fit the same category. Maybe it was because it was making me think where as Art of PM was more of an emotional response. Perhaps the triggering of an emotional response, rather than an intellectual response, is the difference between a good book and a best seller?

  7. Scott

    Great feedback Donald – thx for taking the time.

  8. Mark Colburn

    Another thought: Need v. Interest.

    There is a need for better project management skills. People recognize it and are willing to pay for it. The results are tangible, and therefore improvement is clearly motivated. More importantly, there are a number of pay-for-performance metrics around project management, and real need for people who can execute well.

    For innovation, there may be interest, but in most organizations, there is not the same pay-for-performance around innovation as there is for project management. Many organizations relegate innovation to a small segment of highly paid “creatives”, and quite frankly those people already know how to innovate (or have convinced others that they do.)

    Therefore, while there is may be a desire, there is not necessarily a need for innovation that would inspire many to buy the book. Besides, while people can quantify project management skills (the project shipped on time, on budget, with the right feature set), people have a much harder time quantifying innovation. It’s hard to answer the question, “What is the ROI on improving my innovation ability–and will anyone else notice?”

    Therefore, in the end NEED is going to sell more books than INTEREST because people have to gauge what they are going to do with their money and their time, since reading a book requires both. Peopplw will almost certainly make the investement in time and money for something that they need, but maybe not for something that they are interested interested in, unless they have lots of free time, the topic is more than a passing interest, or they know the author.


  9. Scott

    Great post Mark.

    The sobering thing, as someone who writes novels too is that there the things I most want to write will often be things that people don’t need to read, making them harder to sell.

    But I guess this is the difference between writing as an artistic pursuit and writing as a popularity contest.

  10. Mark Colburn

    It’s also the difference in where your book is shelved. When you are Stephen King, or Robert Ludlom, or Arthur C. Clark, your books are shelved in fiction and or literature and primarily purchased for interest.

    When you are Scott Berkun (at least at the moment) your books are shelved in Management or Computers and are purchased primarily for skill development and job improvement.

    I still like them though. When you and Mr. King get together to do your first movie, let me know… :)

  11. Sarah Moffett

    As a first time author, I found this article extremely insightful. I even forwarded it to my publisher, who said “exactly.” A man of few words. Anyway, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m linking to this article in my next blog. Let me know if that presents any problems. Cheers.

  12. David Christiansen

    I think one of the differences between The Art of Project Management and Myths of Innovation is the likelihood the title is going to come up in an internet search. Someone who has a project management question is going to use those words in a query, but someone who is interested in the topic “myths of innovation” might use any number of different words to search for it, like “assumptions about inventing” or something like that. This is one of the reasons specific topics might sell better – they have titles with very searchable terms.

  13. Joe Spooner

    I agree with Mark Colburn that the location of your book is important. I would also argue that your graph was just a slice of time. The immediate question I come up with for this post is: Was your Myths book marketed the same as The Art of PM?

    One market already kind of new your name, and as mentioned in a previous comment was looking for fresh material on the subject of Project Management.

    I would ask how the Myth book was promoted and also to do a small test with a few random people. The test asking the question “Where do you think you would find this book in a bookstore?”

    I think the answer to your problem is somewhere between place and promotion. Not price and product.


  14. Stefan

    Art of PM:
    – Clear USP/purpose
    – Title has positive connotation (BTW, that is why changing the title for 2nd ed. will definitely hurt)

    Myths of Innovation:
    – No clear USP/purpose
    – Title has negative connotation

    Conclusion: Art of PM conveys a must-have feeling, whereas the Myths are only nice to have.


  15. Dave

    Hello Scott:

    I must say that I am coming at this topic from two angles. One is that I am a project manager by trade and the other is I self published a book through Lulu.com and am just getting into the game of marketing it. I tried to pick a topic that would appeal to the masses and is relevent to today’s world. So, for my book I chose the topic of “email”. I am also tossing in a cause because I am donating any and all proceeds to colon cancer research.

    I face the same dilemma you do of what should the target audience be and how do I reach them? In my short time out with the book I have found blogs like this one help to get the word out. Hits on the website, perhaps out of curiosity, go up the night of submitting the comment. Sales seem to be a bit more fickled. I think the age old attempt to try and grab the readers attention by letting them sift through a few pages online works very well. Driving folks to the site where they can make the purchase is the first step and having something of value and of interest for them to purchase is the other. So, I’ll purchase your book on project management if you go purchase mine of email. Deal? Go to http://www.lulu.com, seach “ziner”, and find a book called “Z-Mail 101 or the Psychology of E-Mail”. It is an attempt to explore this modern form of a communications medium that I am, in fact, using right now! Thanks for your insight, tips, and this forum.

  16. muthu

    This article is extremely insightful.I recommended to our publisher.i will add this article in my blogs.Cheers………….to all.

    Business Sales



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