Sunday, October 10, 2010

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sell-Throughs, But Were Afraid To Ask

Quote to ponder: “We should be as quick to compliment as we are to criticize.”


Mitchell P. Ejnik

Can words that sound exactly alike, but spelled differently confuse your readers? Here is a tale of a one-day trip that is still in motion. To help demystify this short video, Morrow is a small town in Ohio. Enjoy.

Sell-Through by Literary Agent Denise Little, Literary Agent with the Ethan Ellenberg Agency. Ms. Little is a new agent at the Ethan Ellenberg Agency. She is not new to either the publishing community or being a top-notch agent. Read her full profile HERE. Submission guidlines HERE.


September 7, 2010

by Denise Little

I always find it interesting to listen to writers talking about the business of writing. Part of the fun is that any such discussion is likely to wind down into metaphysics or ratchet up into verbal battle before it’s over. Even the simplest issues, issues that are basic to the industry, can ignite a firestorm, because there are no clear answers, no absolutes to be found in publishing.

Nowhere is that more evident than in what should be the cut-and-dried subject of sell-through. A sell-through, as virtually every writer knows, is nothing more than a mathematical formula indicating percentage of books sold. Or, in terms, my various math teachers would have reduced it to:

Sell-through percent equals Copies of books sold

             --------------------------------------------------    X 100

Copies of book printed

It sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? There shouldn’t be any question as to what a sell through is or what it means. And it should mean the same thing in every case, right? A high sell-through is good, and a higher sell-through is better, right?


Like everything else in publishing, sell-through numbers are open to interpretation. While a high sell-through will only rarely hurt a writer’s career, and a low one frequently can, the interpretation of sell-through figures is an art, not a science. There are actually times in a writer’s career where a low sell-through can be a sign of publisher commitment, and times where a high sell-through means that the publisher goofed up. We’ll get to that later.

So, keeping in mind that we’re dealing in an art form, not a science, and that everything here is opinion (my opinion) rather than fact, here are some of the nuances of sell-through analysis I’ve picked up in my twenty years in the book business.

First off, let’s deal with the fact that even the formula itself isn’t as ironclad as any of us would like to think, and start with a primer on how the numbers are arrived at. Some publishers compute sell-throughs using the number of copies shipped from their warehouse, rather than total copies printed, as the divisor. This can change the sell-through number substantially. Most publishers compute their sell-throughs based on stripped covers or unsold copies returned to them by their various accounts, rather than on actual copies sold. Typically, publishers use the following formula:

Sell-through percent = Books shipped – Books returned

                  ---------------------------------------------------------        X 100

     Copies of book printed

Because of this, the information takes at least eighteen months to accumulate—the same amount of time it takes the majority of covers to land in publishers’ warehouses. Any figure you get from a publisher earlier than a year from the publication date of the book is a guess, not a real sell-through. They’ve got enough experience to guess well, but surprises are a part of the business and always have been. In addition, the publishers’ reliance on stripped covers or whole copy returns as sales indicators means theft, miss-shipments, and losses due to the sort of thing insurance companies call an act of God count as sales—usually only a small percentage of total sales, but in some rare cases that percentage can be substantial. In the eighties, a book on graffiti art “sold” well enough to trigger a sequel. It was only when the publisher was presenting the sequel to accounts that they discovered that virtually the entire print run of the first book had been shoplifted, incurring large losses for the booksellers, and making the stores resistant to ordering the new volume. In another case, a flood at a major warehouse destroyed several months’ worth of accumulated stripped covers and artificially boosted publisher sell-throughs of mass-market books across the board for the period. In the early nineties a major national account changed its return systems and, in the process, lost about six months worth of stripped covers forever, raising sell-throughs for that period substantially. There was also a case of a wholesaler who forged stripped covers and returned them, artificially depressing sell-throughs for a while. Sell-through figures, while they’re the best indicators we have for what works in the marketplace, aren’t always foolproof.

The next installment will cover sell through from the bookseller’s point of view and the sell through of the eBook Think about this one).


  1. “We should be as quick to compliment as we are to criticize.” I couldn't agree with that more.

    Most interesting post.

  2. Thanks Wendy for the comments. I am glad to see you are back and will visit your blog/web page today. Like you, I have been away from my blog due to the harvest season in my area and I am working on designing a web site for my novel. I will also set up a Fan Page on Facebook.

    Ms. Little’s article on Sell through opened my eyes and I wanted to share it with my readers. I will post the next section tomorrow and continue to post every Sunday and Wednesday.