Episode 20: Todd Sattersten on The Magic Number

In the first episode of 2022, Todd Sattersten, Publisher at Bard Press, discusses his research on The Magic Number: the number of units a title has to sell in the first year in order to go on to be a greater success. This conversation was inspired by Todd’s insightful blog post from April 2021 on this topic, which I highly recommend you read.

Todd’s research into self-help and business books shows that if a title does not sell 10,000 copies in the first year after publication, there is only 11% chance that that title will ever sell more than 10,000 copies. However, if a title does sell 10,000 copies, it has a 40%-50% probability of selling enough copies to move into the next lifetime sales target of 25,000.

This research sheds some light on a particularly important topic that publishers should be aware of, and Todd and I were able to dig into some of the strategies that he uses at Bard Press to ensure that every title gets the support it needs in the first year, and beyond.

You can follow Todd’s thoughts on publishing at the Bard Press Blog, and on LinkedIn.

Transcript

Joshua Tallent 

So in this episode of the BookSmarts podcast, our first episode for 2022, I am very excited to chat with Todd Sattersten, who is the publisher at Bard Press. Todd’s been around in publishing for a very long time, he’s got some really interesting thoughts and ideas. Todd, thanks for joining me,

Todd Sattersten 

Josh, thanks for having me.

Joshua Tallent 

So this is really cool, because you and I have chatted a little bit over the last month or two. And we actually go back a lot further than that. But you recently in the last couple of years, took over as the publisher of Bard Press. And tell me a little bit before we dive into—I want to talk about The Magic Number today—but before we dive into that, tell us just a little bit about who Bard Press is, what kind of books do you publish? What’s your publishing model? Because I think that sets up a little bit of the conversation we’ll talk about.

Todd Sattersten 

Yeah, I think you’re right. So, Bard Press helps authors who want to use books to change the trajectory of their business, and we do that through creating global bestsellers, one book at a time. So the what’s really unique about us is we only publish one book a year—or we—I should say we acquire probably one book a year. And then, you know, it’s one to two books a year depending on the publishing schedule with those books. And so what’s very important to us around that is—usually when I say to people that we only publish one book a year, they—their face gets a little contorted. And they think that “How could you possibly do that?” And we do that through very focused efforts around singular titles, and it’s around building books that are going to have a strong backlist capability. We want books that are going to obviously launch well, but we want a book that we’re thinking about 12 months, 24 months, 36 months after that book comes out. And finding a spot unique in the marketplace that an audience wants to keep going back to and recommending or using in some way around their work. So, we publish kind of in this interesting intersection between business and self help, so that’s another important piece for us. So kind of “inspirational how-to” is what I tend to call it. And we think that that space, that kind of “inspirational how-to” space is really where so much of what people are reading, when it comes to that sort of professional work. So that might be a good starting point.

Joshua Tallent 

Yeah, that’s great. It’s it’s a very unique type of model doing one book a year. But like you said, this is—you’re setting up a book, not just for launch, but really for the backlist. You’re setting up titles that you know will successfully engage with readers minds and with readers needs 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 years down the road. So in the course of doing this, you’ve been doing research trying to figure out, okay, what’s one of the determining factors and what makes a backlist title really successful? What makes a title a good backlist title in the first place. So, tell us just a little bit, kind of a brief overview of the research study you did kind of on The Magic Number. And this is for those of you who are interested in reading Todd’s article on this. It’s from April of 2021. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes so you can read the whole thing. But give us just a general idea of where did the idea come from? And what was your methodology in doing this research?

Todd Sattersten 

Yeah, so it started with the idea that we—the backlist rules, and anyone who doesn’t think it does is not looking at the right data in book publishing. And I think almost every publisher would probably go, “Yeah, the backlist matters.” They will probably also be able to tell you yes, the trend is growing where the impact of backlist is growing. You know, in the overall market we’ve seen a shift of 10 points in the last 10 years. In business in our category, we’ve always been heavily backlist driven. The 2020 numbers were something like 86% of sales in 2020 were backlist titles.

Joshua Tallent 

Yeah, and that’s compared to 69% in the general market right now.

Todd Sattersten 

Right. Yeah. And so we see that in the back—we see that in the bestseller list. If you look at the bestseller list, you know, 8 titles out of the top 10 are going to be books that we see over and over and over. I think the other interesting data point that we pulled out of 2020 was that I think there were about a dozen books that sold over 100,000 copies in business, and none of those were published in 2020. Right? So there wasn’t even a launch that kind of could get us to that point. Now, COVID times, you know, always put the asterisk next to that piece. But even in 2021, we’re probably only going to see one, two books that have exceeded 100,000 copies, even in this year. And I could say the COVID asterisk, and I could also put we are going through the strongest book market in the last decade. So, you know, I’m not sure putting COVID next to trying to explain why that’s the case necessarily make sense either. So the backlist rules, but as an industry, we are crazily focused on the front list. So, you know, it’s like we’re ignoring what’s true, and when we look at all the effort that we put into what it is we’re trying to do, we put all this effort on the front list. And that makes no—I don’t want to say it doesn’t make any sense to me, I think there is certainly something unique about books, books can get a lot of attention around a very particular window. A lot of media can’t actually do that. We’re like movies, probably less like music. And so I think the front list does matter, and I think we should actually try to launch books in a big way. Because using time as scarcity is a good method. But to think then that we’re going to be done with that book, 12 weeks, 8 weeks after it’s done, that’s where we get into trouble. And that’s the problem a lot of times with a publishing program that has 20 titles, or 30 titles, or 50 titles is that you have to move on to the next book. And so one of the advantages, we think, in our model at Bard is that we don’t have to. So at 12 weeks, we’re going okay, “What’s the next 12 weeks like?” We’re looking at what’s happened and we’re saying to ourselves, “Okay, what’s the next set of activities that we need to engage in to be successful?” And so this frontlist versus backlist thing—super important. There’s one other piece that was important next to this in terms of why was I interested in this, this topic in the first place is authors can also be frontlist driven. I mean, it’s one thing for publishers to be frontlist driven. And we sort of all understand that. I envision a lot of people listening to this will, you know, have a book publishing background and are very interested in it. But I think authors can also have a very recency bias to themselves that they’re thinking, “Well, after 12 weeks I’m going to know whether or not this book’s gonna work.” It’s a new product, your book is a new product that has never existed before in the marketplace. You’re opening a storefront, we’re not going to know after 12 weeks whether or not this book is going to make it or not. And so part of what I wanted to do was be able to actually bring better data to the authors that I work with, to further encourage them to say, “Hey, listen, this is why we have this really long view around the effort that we want to put into your books.” So those are kind of the spaces that we were kind of starting with as we were beginning the research.

Joshua Tallent 

Okay, great. And so you looked at sales for 6,700 titles over the course of three years, just to determine how those titles—How did you pick the titles, the dataset that you were working with?

Todd Sattersten 

Yes, 6,700 titles, what we were interested in was books that we could pull at least five years of data on, because what we wanted to do is we wanted to be able to look at really two things. One was: How many copies did a given title sell in its first year. So that’s the first data point that we were interested in. And then the second data point we’re interested in was what was lifetime sales? You know, five years, six years, seven years, eight years worth of sales data—we can say something about that book, I think pretty definitively by the time we get to that point. We chose business and self help. And frankly, we used BookScan. We just use POS sort of retail sales, nothing—you know, same sort of stuff anybody who’s got access to the Nielsen data could—or to NPD data—could go and get. But we were comparing that full first year worth of sales. Again, I’m not as interested in the launch cycles. Matter of fact, we did some sampling that said launch—that 12 weeks after publication—is not a good predictor, actually, of longer term sales. We kind of stopped there because we were finding it wasn’t particularly predictive, where we found looking at that full year of sales, that first full year of sales told us more interesting things about what happens to books longer term.

Joshua Tallent 

Good. So you came up with a couple of findings and I think these are really important. And obviously there’s the caveat here this is business and self help products. So it’s not necessarily going to apply to, you know, genre fiction or something like that. But I think the interesting points are really well made. The first thing you found was that you have to sell 10,000 copies—more than 10,000 copies in that first year, or it’s going to be difficult to ever get over 10,000. And then another finding you found was that if you do sell more than 10,000 copies in your first year, you have a 40%, or even 50% probability of selling enough copies to move into the next category, the next level of sales—25,000, 50,000, whatever it is, through the lifetime of that book. So, those are really interesting ideas. Really interesting. Yeah. And if so if you’re at 9,000 titles, or you’re at 8,000, or 5,000, and you’re like, “Wow, we made 5,000 sales in our first year,” you have a very, very small percentage of chance of actually getting to 10,000 after that first year. And that’s in business, which again, has a very high backlist priority. So, the launch gear does matter in that if you can get 10,000 in that first year, if you can work your marketing and advertising in such a way that you’re able to get to that level, then the book, it seems like it’ll just be kind of accepted. Is that what you’re thinking that will just kind of be accepted as a as a solid title at that point, somehow?

Todd Sattersten 

Yeah, I think there’s two things, right? To drill down to that 10,000 copy level that you just mentioned, if you—there’s only a 1-in-10 chance that you will escape the gravity well of less than 10,000 copies. One-in-ten, so like there’s only a 10% chance that if I can’t get more than 10,000 copies sold in that first year that I will ever sell more than that. I think that there’s probably a whole set of things that that sort of piece indicates. It probably indicates that there’s probably something to the topic. You know, I certainly think that subject matter always matters and how you frame that subject into the marketplace. Did you address a big enough problem? Right, that, you know, is there literally a big enough market? I think it also plays to this—again, we’re looking at that whole first year. So it’s one thing to sell a couple thousand copies when the book comes out, but then think about the fact that you probably need to sell 500 copies a week. Now think about that. Yeah, I mean, 300, 400 copies a week, every week for those next 40 weeks to get yourself to that 10,000 copies. That’s a tall order. I mean, I think it’s a tall order for almost any book. And so if you know that to be true to start, what does that mean for what you need to have planned for that entire year? Is the book built into your business? Do you have a set of speaking events that are going to engage? What additional promotions could I be doing in connection with key events around the topic that you’re publishing into? Are you using the holidays? Are you—like, suddenly, there’s this whole—frankly, to me, it gets super interesting, because you actually open up a whole set of things that you may not have thought of before, where you’re like, “Oh, well, if I really need to make this kind of activity happen, I’m going to do all sorts of things across that year to be successful.” I think to this next piece, that if I exceed 10,000 copies, there is a 42% chance that I will get to 25,000 copies. Okay. That is equally crazy fascinating to me, because what it says is that if you can build enough momentum into the success of your book, that you can get to a point where you can make investments into marketing and sales around that book that are predictable. You’re not just saying, “Gosh, I don’t know if this is gonna work, like, Am I just throwing money out the window and not know what’s going to happen?” No, like, I’m telling you that, you know, kind of flip of a coin chance, you know, 40 to 50%, that I can get to that next level. I’m willing to take those odds, I don’t know any publisher who wouldn’t be willing to take those odds, knowing that there’s a 40-50% chance that we’re going to see that next step function to move the book to the next kind of point in the marketplace of, you know, popularity. I think that’s an incredibly important piece to this equation as well. And again, it’s something else that again, very self-serving for me as a publisher is, I love being able to bring that data to authors to say, Hey, listen, I want you to put all this work in because this effort is going to pay off and as matter of fact your marketing dollars, frankly, are going to get more efficient, and they’re safer to put into because we know the data tells us that by getting to a certain point of momentum that we can get to the next point.

Joshua Tallent 

Yeah, it speaks a lot to the need for a really concerted effort that first year as you were discussing, and a concerted effort after that first year as well, where you’re not just letting things sit and just relying on the momentum itself, but actually putting effort into that. So, talk to me a little bit about how you do this at Bard, when you’re looking, you know, second year, third year, fourth year down the road, what kind of efforts are you doing to maintain those products and to encourage the backlist to continue to grow?

Todd Sattersten 

Yeah, I think the, the first thing I think about is that, again, this might be unique to business and self help, but I don’t think it is, I would bet you that anybody else’s publishing and other categories could say, could create similar versions to what I’m about to describe. The first one that’s really important to us is that, that first year that a books out, lots of people are going to be exposed to the book. And a lot of times, they’re not making decisions on that book that could really impact what you’re doing ’till the next year. So the decision to bring you in to speak. The decision to adopt this book as something I’m going to read with my team, something I’m going to read with my division. Am I going to engage the author/their company in some other consulting coaching, speaking—you know, there’s a budgetary cycle that sometimes kind of plays into it, or there’s a, this was our idea this year, we’re gonna move on to this idea for next year. Academic, you know, people who publish into academics know the same thing. It’s classroom adoptions, their version of that. They know that what they do in that first year, is monumentally impacted by the effects that they see in that second year, third year. So I try to tell authors that all of that work is a play towards that second and third year effects that you’re going to have happen. I think that the second piece here, like “What do we do different? How does it change over time?” as, frankly, the reader changes over time for a given book. And I think this is the same for almost—again, everybody could come up with their analogy for this. But in business, what you have is, when I publish a book—we’re publishing a book next year in the leadership space. Big space evergreen, probably the largest space in business 15-20%, of the market in a given year. So when I put that book out, next year, I’m going to focus on people who I know are going to read leadership. That’s where I’m gonna start. I’m gonna start for the leadership geeks who like they want—they’re gonna read three or four books on leadership, maybe more in a given year. And I want this to be one of those. And then I want them to help me get it to the next set of people. Talk about it—a very common word of mouth kind of strategy. But what I also know is that there’s a set of people one layer out from those, and those are always the ones that you don’t know—you don’t know, what, where might this book hit. And you can kind of guess, but until the book’s out there, until you start getting data until you, you know—oh, my gosh, this particular, you know, this particular consumer packaged goods picked up this book, and they’re all talking about it, because there’s something in there that really fits their language, what they’re dealing with at a given time. And so we tend to try to watch where’s that next layer of people, and then go run in that direction of trying to create a beachhead in those, you know, whatever you want to call it—some kind of psychographic normally, right, whether it’s a industry, a way an industry, that it might work in, a function within business, that it might work in whatever the case may be. And then the third one is—and I think this is where it’s hard to do. But I think more publishers should do this, is that they should realize that in year two or year three, you’re trying to make your book be the one book that people are going to read. It’s the, you know, these folks are—there’s a lot of folks that are going to read one or two business books a year, or read one or two novels a year, or whatever the case might be. So what we’re trying to do over time is then say, how, how can I build more and more and more credibility for that title so that when that person goes to make that decision, they think, “Oh, you know, I’ve heard enough about this book, I really need to go get that one.” You know, in the business space right now, it’s a book called Atomic Habits right now by James Clear. It’s the fastest book to a million copies as far back as we have data. There’s twice as many copies as the number one book from three years ago. This is clearly a book that is being driven by the people are saying, “The one book I’m gonna read this year is Atomic Habits.” So I think our job is in that two or three years to be the one book in whatever category that we can make that work in. So, those are, you know, it’s—how do I get—the audience changes for a book. How do I move as I need to get beyond the crazy innovators up front to the early majority, late majority, two and three years on?

Joshua Tallent 

Yeah. And that’s—like you said, this is valid for any kind of publisher, any kind of product. Even in categories where backlist doesn’t sell as much or backlist isn’t as prominent as it might be in self help and business. You know, there’s still a ton that a publisher can do at the beginning of the process to you know, hit that first 10,000 in that first year—to hit the Magic Number, in other words—and to after the fact, after that first year is done to continue focusing on that book or coming back to that book. And, and it’s one of those things I keep preaching left and right, I keep telling people looking the backlist matters, you know, it matters so much more than the frontlist in many ways. But what you do in that frontlist, what you do in that first year is going to have a huge impact on what happens in that backlist in the in the later years. So, this is this is great. Any final thoughts or anything else that you—let me ask this: anything that you’re thinking about right now, in looking at your titles, looking at your backlist, looking at what’s going on the marketplace? What are the things that are top of mind for you right at this moment that you think other publishers should hear as well, things that you think we should be thinking about and considering?

Todd Sattersten 

I think that—I think it’s getting harder, not easier to launch books. And I think everybody feels that. And I don’t think that’s just like, you know, grumpy publisher talking here. I think that—I think it just appears in number of titles, like literally number of ISBNs and there’s lots of people have talked about that. In my space, it’s very interesting to see that there are authors who can self-publish using a system like Lightning Source successfully enough to get on to the bestseller list in a given week without a publisher. So, there are certain dynamics here going on about—our competition isn’t—it may not even be anymore, you know, is it another big five house? Or is it even another business book publisher. It’s has an author using the tools that are available to them to actually put their books out into the marketplace? And frankly, with a big enough platform to start can have success? Now we could spend two or three more podcasts as to whether or not that’s the right decision for that author, or could they have done more had they been published. There’s a million things there. But my, my point underneath this is that what I’m thinking about a lot is what activities—and I might even go as far as saying products—what additional products might you want to produce or publish next to a title to give it additional credibility? So, I think we’ve traditionally thought of that as, “I’m going to do an ebook.” Now it’s like I wouldn’t even think about not doing an audio book, right? And even our backlist, you know, AI-driven audio is coming. And I think that—okay, so that’s like how we traditionally think of it as a publisher. But what other things could help that book gain more momentum, if we knew there was a broader set of things around that idea—because a book’s just an idea—that would help someone go, “Oh, they’ve done additional stuff with this, there’s, there’s more that I can I can get.” And that could be both in the form of book could be—Should I have a video course on Skillshare? Should I have a card deck that supports it? Is there a journal or planner? Is there a—and I could keep going on and on and on. Write down the, you know, exactly what a book publisher could totally do with the capabilities they have or in some other places maybe need to build new capabilities that they haven’t necessarily had before. So I think I’m very interested in a bigger beachhead for the products that we do publish. And what does that mean? What does that look like?

Joshua Tallent 

Yeah, that’s good. And that’s, that’s one of those things to where, you know, publishers are not just book publishers, publishers are content people, right? We know content, we we make content, what it is, and we turn that content into usable items, products wherever those happen to be. So that’s great, you know, taking advantage of those ideas, like you said, and using those the way they need to be used. So that’s, that’s really awesome. Todd, where can people follow you to read your amazing, interesting thoughts, all these all these great things that you’re thinking about?

Todd Sattersten 

Sure, the best places to find me are certainly at bardpress.com, we have a blog there. And you can subscribe to our email newsletter at the bottom of any page on our site. And then the other place that’s a really good place for me is I use LinkedIn a lot. And so it’s really easy to follow me there. All of the links and articles I always make sure to share with my followers there.

Joshua Tallent 

Okay, thank you very much, Todd. It’s been great. I loved chatting with you. We’ll bring it back on another time. I know there’s always going to be more to talk about. So, thanks a lot for joining me today!

Todd Sattersten 

Thank you so much for having me. This was great.

Joshua Tallent 

That’s it for this episode of the BookSmarts Podcast. If you like what you’ve heard, please leave a review or rating in Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you listen to the podcast. And also please share this podcast with your colleagues. If you have topic suggestions or feedback for the show, you can email me at joshua@firebrandtech.com. Thanks for joining me and getting smarter about your books!