Eric Choi, one of the editors of The Dragon and the Stars, emailed all of us a while ago to let us know that this anthology sold over 6,000 copies in the first two months. That is a very impressive number, and Eric and Derwin, the editors, have done a fabulous job promoting it. They've sold out on a couple of publicity occasions and continue to work on getting the anthology's name out there. Anthologies can be a hard sell, and Eric and Derwin are, at this particular moment, new to the world of anthology editors, but I hope this isn't their last project.
Now, to someone not from the publishing world, 6,000 copies may or may not sound like a lot. Many people ask how much an author makes per copy, and the answer often shocks them. Writers make between 8-12% of the cover price usually, more on later printings and quite a bit more if they can hit the stratosphere in sales (i.e. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer). In real money, this means roughly a dollar a book. If that sounds piddly, head over to any vanity publishing site and look at how much money it costs to print and bind a book, and then the number will make a little more sense. Authors make a slightly higher percentage on hardcover, but even there, a lot of people need to be paid, first and foremost the printers, then the publishing team, etc. Publishers rarely get rich off books either; they have to publish a lot of them to eke out those few hits that will put them in the black.
As I've said before, the average book sells 3,300 copies, which also tends to shock people. Bear in mind, this is every book in the national market, including tiny volumes of obscure poetry and academic treatises with a limited audience. This is not an easy way to make a living, and nearly any author can tell you that they'd have made more money sticking with whatever their day job was.
There's a lot of moaning in the publishing world that making a living as a writer is harder nowadays than it was before; I'd have to take people's word for it. I wasn't publishing back in the day, but a couple of things have happened to the booksellers market that have slimmed it down. One was the destruction of the midlist in the eighties, when a lot of regional distributors went under or got bought out. It used to be more common to have a regional bestseller, meaning one distributor in one part of the country moved a lot of copies of the book. Now there aren't hardly any regional distributors. Books are distributed nationally or not at all, which makes the dichotomy between hits and misses more stark. Another is the decline in the number of booksellers. In the US, books are distributed primarily by Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. The other chains have all gone belly up or been absorbed. These two sales outlets have what any economics major will recognize as monopsony power. Since a book virtually must be sold by them, they have tremendous say in what does and doesn't get to the public, and they can set the price per copy they're willing to pay. Obviously, they want to pay as little as possible, so that can make it hard for a publisher to turn a profit and the writer to get a decent cut.
As with all general rules, there are exceptions. Some authors move enough copies in Costcos and WalMarts to make a living that way, etc. But in general, this is what anyone looking to break into publishing is facing. The moral of the story? Be informed, be smart, be patient, but don't make excuses. I've outlined why it's difficult to make a living, not why it's impossible. This is the market you have to crack. That doesn't mean you can't do it. It'll just take a lot of work. I suppose I can take a moment here to point out to potential book buyers, that if you can afford the four dollar coffees at B&N, consider instead finding a little independent bookstore. Their books cost more, but they're passing on more of that to the people on up the supply pipeline. Besides that, as hard as it is to make a living as a writer, it's every bit as hard, if not harder, to make it as an independent bookstore owner. It, again, isn't a job a person goes into for the money. They are more passionate about books than just about any of us. They may not serve Starbucks coffee, but they can often serve up service and a knowledge of their stock that is priceless.