How Many Books Did You Sell This Year?

crater kentuckyI’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with sharing my experience in seeing a book manuscript through to publication.  Some of you have been with me since 2007, when I first announced that I might have the opportunity to publish what was then only a Master’s Thesis.  As I got closer to publication I wondered about sales.  I knew going in that the book would likely appeal to a fairly narrow audience.  The Crater is not the most popular Civil War battle and the study of historical memory is perhaps an acquired taste.  My decision to sign with one of the smaller academic presses also tempered my optimism, which is not to say that I in any way regret going with the University Press of Kentucky or that I am disappointed with their work thus far. Far from it.

On occasion, however, I did allow myself to speculate as to how a strong social media presence might translate into book sales.  Since I have no frame of reference it was always difficult to arrive at a number, but I thought that my ability to promote the book through my blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed might provide a model for other authors of academic titles who hope to reach a wider audience.  OK, so I thought that somewhere around 1,000 books sold by Jan. 1 was not out of the realm of possibility.

At this point, I am disappointed to admit that this apparently has not happened.  My publisher informed me that since the book was released in early July 2012 it has sold 621 copies.

Now, it could be the case that this is a pretty good showing for a book such as mine.  As I said, I have no frame of reference.  And I should note that overall I couldn’t be more pleased with how the book has been received by many of you as well as by both magazine and journal reviewers.  That I was able to contribute anything at all to a body of scholarship that has taught me much and provided me with countless of hours of enjoyment is sufficient.

The experience has left me with much to think about as I consider future projects.  I see the book format as one tool in my arsenal through which to share my love of history with the general public.  We will have to see whether I have another one in me.  I certainly hope so.  Working with an academic publisher forced me to respond to my peers, who assisted me in improving both the narrative and various interpretive elements.   It is an invaluable aspect of the writing process and having the stamp of approval from such a publisher hopefully gives me a certain legitimacy as I move further.

That said, I can’t help but wonder whether I might be able to take the experience of working with a traditional publisher and apply it to another approach that might result in greater reach – perhaps self-publishing?  I am willing to consider all options.  After all, I don’t need to publish for tenure or promotion.  As an author I want to produce a product that has integrity and see it in the hands of as many people as possible.  What’s the point of suffering through the process of researching and writing if no one is going to read it?

In the meantime, I recently got the go-ahead from the publisher to sell my book directly.  I’ve been buying books with my author’s discount to sell at speaking events.  I am still in the process of setting up a PayPal account, but once it’s you will be able to buy the book for $25 + shipping.

Thanks again to all of you who have bought the book.

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33 comments… add one
  • reavessw Feb 12, 2013 @ 10:56

    It is very hard to sell academic works. I have recently published but not for an academic audience nor with an academic press. Because my topic was to appeal to park visitors and I wanted to educate the common person I chose a small press specializing regional subjects. I also did not want a book that I could not afford myself. In the first 6 months my book has sold around 600 copies. Not bad for a topic that deals with the history of the battlefield. Royalities- I have yet to see a royalty check. I realize that my academic career will not advance going with an non- academic press, and I will be snubbed by other academics. However- my goal was to educate the public and make the information available to Joe Public. So I feel I have achieved my objective. I think when publishing you need to decide why you are publishing the material.

  • Nick Sacco Jan 13, 2013 @ 17:58

    Kevin, do you feel that your digital transparency throughout the project affected the overall total of books sold, one way or the other?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 13, 2013 @ 18:32

      Yes, even if sales were lower than what I anticipated.

  • dudski Jan 13, 2013 @ 6:36

    Getting your first book published, and with a university press, is a good start for whatever you decide to do down the road. Self publishing might not be a bad option for your next effort. You could, for example, synthesize what you’ve done on the blog and elsewhere into a series of essays on the topics which have been flashpoints.

    There are advantages to a book of essays on civil war memory. First, you would be writing about what you are most interested in and passionate about. Second, you would be explaining what civil war memory is (I think it is commonly understood by people who read alot of history but less so elsewhere). Finally, you would be in an area which isn’t as played out. If you go to Barnes & Noble’s website, for example, your book on the Crater is listed with five others on the same topic. Most of them were written in the last twenty years.

    At the end of the day you’ve still got something which is hard to put a price on. You’ve got a nice looking book from a university press with your name on it. It’s a real and tangible reward for the effort which goes beyond anything you can get from your digital efforts. And you have the knowledge it was well received by people in the field who you respect. I hope you enjoy all of that, and if you can sell a few more books along the way that will be nice, too.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 13, 2013 @ 7:35

      I’ve thought about taking a few topics from the blog and working them up into more coherent essays and making it available through Amazon. Thanks for the comment.

  • Jazzeum Jan 12, 2013 @ 22:58

    Fwiw, this is one of the better books I read last year. Couldn’t put it down. I’m only sorry I didn’t pick it up sooner. When I see the name Petersburg I think of this book. Thank you for taking the time to do it and doing some impressive research.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 13, 2013 @ 3:52

      Thank you very much for the kind words. So glad to hear that you enjoyed the book.

  • TFSmith1 Jan 12, 2013 @ 14:17

    Kevin –

    First off, congratulations.

    As far as the sales numbers go, as others have said, that is quite respectable for what is an academic work based on a MA thesis. If you double the numbers for your dissertation, you are doing very well. Trust me…trying to do the above while teaching is admirable, if somewhat quixotic…piled higher and deeper, indeed.

    I think the e-publishing model is something to explore; realize that monetizing anything there in scope enough to pay the return on your time is an open question.

    Now, what could you have done differently?

    “Next on AMC’s Quentin Tarantino Presents: “War as Murder”….In a world gone mad…she was beautiful southern belle turned spy…he was an African-American soldier digging his way to victory…their fates, and those of a nation torn apart, would be entwined….as their forbidden love would entwine them….remembering the Crater!….starring Jamie Foxx as Sgt. Christian Woodfleet, and Uma Thurman as Scarlett Boyd….”


    • Kevin Levin Jan 13, 2013 @ 3:55

      Thanks. I agree that there are any number of issues related to e-publishing. For me one of the most important elements is in preserving the quality of a monograph produced by an academic press from grammar/clarity to the argument itself.

      My guess is that story line is already available in the Romance section of your bookstore. 🙂

      • TFSmith1 Jan 13, 2013 @ 11:35

        If JStor opens itself up to public access, that could be a model…although the monetary reward issue is still in play.

        Basically you are loking for peer review, but without the copyright issues of an academic journal or a popular history magazine, that offers some sort of monetarization. A members only blog, maybe?

        Unfortunately, I think this gets to the point where one needs to make the choice between a day job and what amounts to a pasttime…not sure how to make that work.

        I was thinking you and Ms. Chastain could co-author…

  • Pat Young Jan 12, 2013 @ 14:10

    A friend who has urged me to publish added that an academic bestseller is a book that sells a thousand copies in its first year. She has written the seminal work in her field and it is still in print 15 years after publication. She says she dines out at a midprice restaurant once a month on the royalties.

  • Kenneth Noe Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:40

    University presses have to be subsidized because the average book sells around 300 copies, or so a publisher told me once. You’e doubled that in seven months.. Relatively speaking, that’s well ahead of the curve.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:59

      Hi Ken,

      I’ve heard the same from people in the industry. I definitely don’t want to see this post interpreted as some kind of pissing contest.

      I certainly understand the constraints that I am operating with given my decision to go with an academic publisher. Given that I have an audience and ways to grow it through various channels I can’t help but wonder whether this is the best way to reach them. Perhaps working with any 3rd party is already to miss the boat as opposed to selling directly through my website.

  • bummer Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:37

    Bummer’s site has your “Crater” spinning on Amazon daily. It receives several hits every day. The interest is there, catchy cover, some should buy. I did. Don’t get bummed over the small change, you have a lot to offer. Thanks for the read!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:40

      I appreciate that, Bummer, but please keep in mind that I am not looking for pity. I am an extremely lucky guy and I have been the beneficiary of some wonderful people, who have gone out of their way to support my endeavors.

  • Steve Light Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:04

    Thanks for this insightful look at the publishing world Kevin. Your book is on my to-read list and I look forward to purchasing it once you have it all set up to buy from you direct.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:26

      I appreciate that, Steve. Will let you know when it is available. Thanks for the support.

  • John Hennessy Jan 12, 2013 @ 6:50

    Kevin: While the process of reading is changing dramatically, it strikes me that the process of writing has not. What we produce could still be as well done (though not as easily) with pencil and paper; the end product isn’t much different than it was 100 years ago. As I work through my present project (an essay on FJ Porter for a BOOK of essays), I have reflected often that I ought to be doing this in a way that takes advantage of the digital world. There needs to be a a bit of a revolution in writing that parallels that going on in reading–one that puts to use the amazing things that can be done in the digital environment. I am interested in that too. Levin and Hennessy LLC: Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Books No More.

    My old editor at Simon & Schuster told me that 80% of books sell fewer than 5,000 copies. Any time he saw a book that promised more, he was on it. I suspect the percentage under 5,000 is higher now with alternative means of publishing.

    I figure Return to Bull Run took me about 4,000 hours of work to produce. That’s nearly two years of full-time work (interspersed over many years with a real job). It’s been out a long time and has done pretty well compared to most books, but calculating the hourly rate or per-year return for my two years of work is an exercise that would NOT make my wife very happy. The annual checks are mere consolation, not profit.

    After a while, you start judging your friends on how they acquire your book:

    – Those who love you buy it at full price from the publisher (or, better, direct from you, if your publisher allows). Full royalty.

    – Those who don’t love you but don’t object to being associated with you buy it from the History Book Club (average about $1 royalty per book).

    – Those who care little about you OR history wait till it gets remaindered to the $2.95 rack to buy it as a cheap gift for someone else (maybe 20 cents royalty per book in the remaindering process). (I don’t think that happens with books from University Presses, so you’ll never have to suffer that ignominy).

    – Those who actively dislike you and won’t be publicly associated with you–but are interested in history–get it out of the library.

    For the record, I bought yours at full price (and since have had two copies sent to me, so now have THREE).

    • Paul Taylor Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:02

      “The annual checks are mere consolation, not profit.” — I agree wholeheartedly and suspect that for most Civil War authors, we do what we do primarily as labors of love and not for any financial gain.
      As for that 80% number, I would have guessed 1000 copies.

    • hjs21 Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:22

      Hey John – can you send me one of those three copies? I friggin’ HATE Kevin 😉 And, by the way, I have seen MANY university press books remaindered at my favorite and oft-visited Half Price Books store.

      • hjs21 Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:30

        On a related note re: changes in writing – I agree that “books” are on the path of the dodo, but don’t think it’s a bad thing (though I’ve got 2,000+ volumes glaring angrily at me as I type.) Note that Hartwig’s Maryland Campaign volume has no bibliography included. Given that the book is 600+ pages and Scott previously published a bibiliography of the campaign as a separtate volume, I’m sure the addition of an extra 150 pages or so of bib would have priced that thing out around Venus somewhere. So they decided to make the bib available on the web for free. Can footnotes, indexes, maps be far behind? You can see where this is going. But the possibilities, including hyperlink text, are endless. It’s kind of exciting, but a little depressing. Books are buggy-whips, as much as I love them.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:38


          I am still primarily a print book reader, especially when it comes to research. I simply work better having the books and documents strewn out on my desk and/or office floor, living room, etc. 🙂

          • hjs21 Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:57

            Me too, Kevin. But I’m old. Time waits for no one.

            • hjs21 Jan 12, 2013 @ 9:02

              I don’t think we should hold on to print books with a death grip, or look at alternatives as “destroying” the reading experience. I do believe that the reading experience will change to an extent that what we now view as that experience may be unrecognizable. Consider the lowly foot (or end) note. Right now we pretty much take the author at his word – not just because we prefer to, but because checking each note is a chore, and if we don’t happen to own the book it’s logistically insane. But imagine reading on a topic with which you’re very familiar. You may own most of the published works on that topic yourself. In the future, notes may feature links whereby, if you happen to have that work in your personal inventory, electronically, a simple click might take you to the source, instantly. Ebooks are only the tip of the iceberg – we’ll remove the covers from “books” and enable them to exist, and be experienced (rather than “read”) in a different information cloud, as it were. Far out. Damn, I’m hungry…

              • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2013 @ 9:06

                I get a headache just trying to envision what all of that might look like. One step at a time, Harry. 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2013 @ 7:37

      Hi John,

      I’ve been thinking a lot about what you’ve had to say about the experience of writing and possible alternatives. At this point I have no preference to how readers acquire the book. I did not sign with an academic press with dollar signs in my head. It was really the experience that I was after, but now that I’ve done it I can’t help but think about the next step. I don’t mind admitting that what was important was the approval and credentialing that comes with peer approval. It’s nice having a blurb by David Blight on the back cover and a positive review by Caroline Janney. I respect their work.

      Now that I’ve got that under my belt I want to concentrate on how best to reach people, which has always been at the center of what I do from teaching to blogging. I assume it is fairly easy to utilize a digital platform to make our work available. What I would like to know is if there is a way to do so that preserves some of what we value in the traditional publishing path.

      • John Hennessy Jan 12, 2013 @ 8:14

        I am quite serious about this as well. I am sure the bright minds of the publishing world have pondered this some, but I think going at it from the other end–the writer’s end–might be more useful. The challenge is: how to use the technology without destroying the reading experience, while monetizing it too. I think the latter is important, and a sticky problem. We work in a rare world where people routinely think that because their hobby is our profession, we should be do what we do as if it’s our hobby, and thus give it away (This is especially true when it comes to speaking, though history magazines also survive by paying rates that in the end amount to a dollar or two an hour). I don’t mind this to a degree and for good causes (or self interest), but when a wealth-management company comes to you, asks for an evening of your time to spend with clients, and then expresses surprise that one might expect to be paid…. Happens all the time. One of my pet peeves.

        By the way of consolation: I edited the Thomas Mann memoir for LSU press in 2001 or so. Though it’s quite good, I don’t think it’s sold 500 copies since. Worse, I had to split royalties with the descendants. Maybe, maybe I made $150 from that effort. Learned a lot from that….

    • Kenneth Noe Jan 12, 2013 @ 8:11

      John, don’t forget the seductive power of used books on Amazon. I think that says “I like you, but let’s just be friends so my money can date others.”

  • Paul Taylor Jan 12, 2013 @ 6:49

    Kevin – I would say 621 copies sold from a small university press is a very respectable number. My last book, a biography of Orlando M. Poe, did not sell nearly that many in its first year. This despite being published by a well known Civil War-oriented university press and garnering three nice regional awards.

    In my case, I have no doubt whatsoever that price was a key. While I was delighted in my dealings with the press and with the book’s production values, I was floored to learn at publication that it had been given a retail price almost double that of similar previous offerings. This resulted in numerous booksellers sheepishly apologizing to me that they would not be able to stock the book due to cash flow issues, etc. As a publisher that we both know explained to me, a university press knows that it will sell “x” number of copies to other university libraries pretty much regardless of price. Thus a higher price targeting that market will help the press recoup their costs faster. While this may be a shrewd strategy for the press, needless to say it does not bode well for an author.

    But as you point out, and I agree with you, being published by a university press does bestow a certain level of instant credibility to a new author.

  • Rob Wick Jan 12, 2013 @ 6:29

    Barnes and Noble has required it to be pre-paid and allows no further discounts (even for members) so the people I’ve mentioned it to have preferred not to order it since they can’t see it beforehand. But that’s BN’s policy for a number of academically-themed books.

    When James G. Randall published “Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln” in 1926 he had to pay to get Appleton’s to publish it. In two years he sold 332 copies. His sales were mediocre even though the book was well-received by his colleagues and critics. Contrast that to Carl Sandburg’s two-volume set “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years” which sold 48,000 in the first year of publication.It’s just a different world where academic titles are concerned.


  • EricWelch Jan 12, 2013 @ 5:53

    The publisher has priced the book ridiculously high. I’m waiting for the ebook to drop, frankly. I plan on reading it and suspect that if they priced the ebook around $10-12, it would sell better. $19 takes it out of the impulse buy range. I have a feeling the market at the current price in hard cover is appealing only to libraries.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2013 @ 6:11

      I appreciate the comment, Eric. It is a high price, but I knew that going in. I wanted an academic publisher behind my name, but now that I have it I am considering how to utilize it for future projects that may follow a non-traditional path.

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