Randall Payleitner


How Do You Tell If (and When) a Book is Successful?

This success question can be asked in different ways:

  • How many books need to sell for me to be happy?
  • What benchmarks do we need to reach to be able to do more books?
  • What are your metrics for success?
  • How do you determine how much to keep investing (time, money, energy, etc.) in a book after it’s been out for a while?

I think there are four main categories where books can be placed in their lives as for-sale items:

Losing money.

These are books that cost more to make than they earned back. Being in this category doesn’t necessarily make a book a failure. A book may be here because it’s so brand-new that it hasn’t quite had a fair shake yet, or because it cost so much money to make that the publisher knew it would take a while to earn back, or because sometimes a book’s message merits its publication (for ministry reasons, moral reasons, etc.) no matter what its bottom-line is.

Then when a book’s sales get to such a place where it starts bringing in more money than it costs, it jumps over its first hurdle toward…


This happens at different levels for different books. But it is a celebratory day nonetheless. The goal (obviously) is for nearly every book to get here. Sometimes it happens in the first week, more often it happens sometime in the first year. But reaching this level means that a book has sold as many copies as your investment represented. We’re not throwing a parade or anything, but smiles abound. This doesn’t mean success or that a book has hit its mark. A book can reach profitability merely because you didn’t spend too much on it! But book publishing is a business and profitability speaks volumes. Somewhere after the magical profitability line is the most important hurdle… 

Making it into orbit.

This is one of my favorite things to talk about with potential authors and other publishing folks. What would “making it into orbit” look like for this book? The sales numbers to get here vary based on investment, genre, and competition. But this category is the one where success happens.

Picture a book launch like a rocket launch (hence the same word)—a successful rocket launch is one that gets into orbit. It gets up into the stratosphere and keeps itself going. A failure to launch is one that goes up for a certain amount of time and then comes right back down. You can make money on a failure to launch if it gets high enough fast enough… or if you spend little enough. But “orbit” is where readers are found, people tell each other about a book (not just through advertising), and where it takes on a life of its own.

Publishers and authors can affect a book’s orbital trajectory as it is highly dependent on reaching its audience, its quality, its packaging, and its timing. I will write more about all of these elements in the future.

The other thing about orbit is it’s more consistent. Books that make it into orbit often keep going and going. These are where backlist books (those that are over a year old) really shine. They just keep selling and selling and selling (think about all the classic children’s books—major orbit has been reached)! And then we reach the last hurdle, the golden goose, every book blogger’s favorite search term…

Becoming a Bestseller.

You may have noticed the term “bestseller” doesn’t have a technical definition. That’s because it’s fluid and it sounds really good; many people like to claim it for themselves. I’d define a bestseller as a book that sells many copies over a long period of time and begins to affect culture (outside of book readers) in some substantial way. I’ve seen other definitions of “bestseller” that are closer to making a certain list or reaching an arbitrary sales milestone… The thing about those definitions is that they can be bought and/or misrepresented quite readily.

The bestseller status I’m talking about can’t be bought and while it can be brought most of the way there by the author/publisher… there is some magic that happens. Most publishing people will just smile a little bit when they talk about these bestsellers because they know something pretty cool happened that can’t quite be explained.

These don’t happen very often. A publisher is pretty good if 1/100 books they publish even sniffs this kind of bestseller.


So, then, how do you tell if a book is successful? My quick answer is:

Real success = getting a book into orbit.

Helping it learn to fly on its own. A publisher/author team that does this well cannot be stopped!