Book Sales, Or Math for English Majors

Sit in a room full of English majors long enough, and you will eventually hear someone groan, “Ugh… math.” The topic may be differential calculus, or how to split the tab, but the sentiment is always the same. Why, the lover of words bemoans, do we have to take a break from talking about books to do things with numbers?

But perhaps your high school algebra teacher told you, as mine did, that math is everywhere. As an adult, I’ve been gratified to learn that she wasn’t pulling one over on a room full of fourteen-year-olds. Math is not only in calculus complexities and restaurant bills, baking and budgets; it can also be found in nature, arts and sciences, and even books. Because those English majors currently dividing their pizza into dollars and cents also bought the books they stayed up too late reading last night. They probably also bought the stack of books currently sitting on their nightstand, and the other stack that’s waiting on the bookshelf beyond that. Publishers know which of their books are in those stacks, and they use that information to make decisions about every part of their publishing process.

This may seem obvious. Publishers create products, so of course, sales are their guiding principle. However, as with other creative industries, workday conversations are often framed differently. During the editorial process, we talk about making the book the best version of itself. During design, we talk about reader appeal, and throughout marketing, the focus is on helping the book find its audience. One of the only places we explicitly talk about sales is during the acquisition process when we are gauging the sales potential of a new project.

Large publishers have the luxury of sales staff—entire departments that do the math of book people. Here at Ooligan, our small teaching press, we have to collaborate and integrate our understanding of sales figures and production into our learning curve.

This time last year, my colleague Elizabeth and I were in training with our publisher’s assistant predecessors, an educational process that memorably included an afternoon (little did we imagine it would be the first of many) kicking up dust in a basement room full of beautiful books. That was the first time I remember wondering, “How many books are there?”

Now, a term spent packing up our basement storage room has better equipped me to understand Ooligan’s inventory, a new interface has introduced me to the movement of books through our distribution, and I’ve received crash courses in royalties, returns, and special sales. These spreadsheets and sales reports may not be the glamorous editorial pursuits or intricate design work we pictured publishing to be, but they keep the wheels turning through every part of the publishing process.