I just got my first royalty check for Mastering Perl, a book I wrote mostly in 2006, that I finished in February 2007, and that went on sell in July 2007.
That's the book business, though. This royalty statement is for the third quarter of 2007, the first time is was available for purchase. I don't get the money at the of the quarter; I have to wait another quarter as the publisher accepts returns and any other accounting is adjusted. At the end of the succeeding quarter I get the report for the previous quarter.
I've been a bit anxious about this report for a while because it would be the first indication about how well the book was widely received and how many copies I could expect to sell. Many advanced books never sell out their first printing, and many authors never "earn out" their advance. Some of the books that I find most valuable to me never sold more than a three thousand copies. Along with that, I know the relative sales of Learning Perl and Intermediate Perl. There's a drop off; beginner books are almost always better sellers. I figured that the drop off to Mastering Perl might be exponential (perhaps following Zipf's Law).
Not to be disappointed, I told myself that if I sold 3,000 copies total over the life of the book, I could live with that. That's for all time and history. Considering that Learning Perl, 4th Edition sold about 12,000 copies in its first quarter and had three previous editions, I wasn't expecting Mastering Perl to do so well commercially. The only measure I had was the Amazon Sales Rank, and that's an almost useless number if it's greater than 100. I tried to explain that to odinjobs about their Learning Perl sales estimates which are too low by more than an order of magnitude.
Normally the royalty statements show up right at the end of the quarter. This one was a week late, and every time I got my mail for the past week I was a bit disappointed. I just knew that the number of copies sold would be low, but how low would it go? The first quarter is most of the money: few books are going to get more popular with time without appearing on Oprah or being optioned into a movie starring Tom Hanks (and, if anyone wants to make either of those happen, please contact me).
The royalty report normally comes in two pages (or more, I guess, depending on the number of books you have an interest in,). One page is the check and one is the spreadsheet of sales figures. This one had three, and the first was a cover letter. I hate those because they almost always mean bad news, like "You're book sold so few copies that we're removing it from the catalog".
I look at the check first because I don't want to know the bad news. Anything bad about Mastering Perl will be hidden in the numbers by the royalties for the other books. I should get the usual amount (sales are steady for the other books) or a little more.
The check is huge; not by Grisham or King standards, but by anything a computer book author would measure. I get the same feeling from the big government checks I used to get: someone is going to come looking for this money because it's all a big mistake. Now, I know I should be getting a bit more because I don't share the royalty income for Mastering Perl with anyone, but book authors already only get about 10% of what the publisher gets, which is about 45 to 50% of the full retail price.
Now I want to see the sales numbers. It's a new format that's easy to read, but doesn't break down domestic and foreign sales. That was the news in the cover letter. So much for bad news. Everything still fits nicely on one page, but I have to adjust my royalty database a bit for the new categories so it includes the new numbers in my overall sales summary.
I can't tell you the absolute numbers, but I'll give you some relative measures: in Mastering Perl's first quarter, it sold two thirds of all sales of Intermediate Perl since it came out in 2006. Mastering Perl sold slightly more copies than Learning Perl did in the same quarter.
The most important measure, however, is that the check is large enough to give me time to finish Learning Perl, Fifth Edition and keep working on Learning Perl 6 without working too hard to find teaching gigs. That's the real problem in being a book author: getting to the point where you have enough out there to carry you through the next book.
Don't think this means that any of you can just sit back though. Other people have already done their job buying Mastering Perl.