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How to Forecast Self-Published Book Sales

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Heidi Thorne discusses how to forecast sales for your self published book.

Heidi Thorne discusses how to forecast sales for your self published book.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that my rule of thumb for forecasting book sales is about one percent on your author platform. But how do you calculate the size of your author platform or fan base?

There is no standard for figuring out how many fans you have. But I will tell you that it is not your number of followers on social media or your YouTube or email subscriber numbers. Those are mere vanity metrics.

Let’s discuss what metrics matter and how they are used for self-published book sales forecasting.

Metric That Matters: Engagement

Many of your followers and subscribers on social media and email are dormant. They may have followed or subscribed because they liked something you did. But due to information overload, algorithms, or lack of genuine interest, they quit paying attention to you. Plus, there are always spammers and scammers that follow you for no apparent reason.

So we have to look for a way to screen out the noise and dead weight from your fan base. Engagement level benchmarks can provide insight. For some social media networks, which we’ll call channels in this discussion, engagement metrics are either not reported or are quite cryptic. Social media profile views can provide a proxy for interest and intent. If someone is taking the time to visit and interact with your profile or its content, that can signal a fan or potential fan.

I would also suggest using your stats for the past month or 28 days (depending on what time period is offered for analysis on the channel). Many of the social channels don’t offer historical engagement stats. The most I’ve seen is around 90 days back.

Using monthly stats is a good measure of your reach on a consistent basis. Going with a cumulative stat, such as adding all monthly stats together to get a number for the whole year, could unrealistically inflate your estimates because of fans who return to view your content, sometimes visiting every month.

If you have monthly stats that vary widely throughout the year, such as you’d experience with seasonal content, your monthly numbers will fluctuate dramatically. In that case, you could add all monthly stats together and get an average for your forecasting.

You should be posting on your social channels and email regularly, at least weekly, every week of the year. This consistency will also help you get more accurate stats when evaluating your audience.

Note that insights and analytics reports for all the sites to be discussed can change over time. So check each site for insights available and how to access them.

Email and Blog Subscriber Fan Count

Email marketing is, in theory, an effective marketing method. However, it is not the marketing powerhouse it used to be. Even if you’ve used publishing-oriented platforms to offer reader magnets, subscribers obtained may not be with you for the long term because they just wanted the freebie.

The one engagement metric you will want to monitor for your email list is the open rate. As I’m posting this, email provider Mailchimp’s benchmark stats show open rates across 45+ industries as 21.33%, with media and publishing at 22.15% (October 2019 stats). So if your open rate is near those numbers, nothing’s wrong. That’s just the state of email marketing. This also tells you that you shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that because people subscribe, their fan engagement potential isn’t assured.

To determine how many potential engaged fans are on your email list:

Total number of email subscribers X Open rate = Engaged email or blog subscriber fans

YouTube Fan Count

YouTube’s analytics features for channels continue to improve and provide granular, almost too detailed, information on traffic and engagement. But which analytics really tell you how many truly engaged fans you have?

I used to tell authors that the number of subscribers might be a good indication of fans on YouTube because subscribing could signal intention and interest. But I’ve since revised that. Over time, I’ve found that YouTube mirrors the situation we have with email subscribers. Many subscribe, but most are dormant.

To determine your YouTube channel’s fan base potential, go to your YouTube Studio Channel Analytics. Click on Audience and look at the Returning Viewers for the past month. This is a new report for YouTube that started in 2021. It represents people who have watched your past videos and returned to watch more. I think they’re engaged, even if they don’t subscribe.

Monthly returning viewers = Engaged fans on YouTube

Facebook Fan Count

Just a reminder that you cannot use your Facebook personal profile to promote your books or your business, even if many of your friends are potential book-buying fans. You need to have a Facebook Page for your author business. Sadly, visibility for Facebook Pages has been declining steadily for years, meaning that your non-promoted organic content will rarely show up in followers’ news feeds.

Your Facebook Page Insights will provide you with the number of people you reach with your Page. Currently, stats are available for the past 28 days, which is close enough to a month for our purposes.

Number of people reached in 28 days on Facebook page = Engaged Facebook fans

Instagram Fan Count

I love Instagram. Not only do I like the variety of content creation and sharing options available, but their Insights reports are even better than those of its parent, Facebook. Insights are only available for Instagram business accounts, which I recommend if you’re serious about posting for your author business.

On your Instagram business profile, click Insights which will bring you to your Insights Overview. You then want to click on the Accounts Engaged report. Select either “Last 30 days” or “Previous Month,” and then click Update to see your stats. It will tell you how many Instagram accounts you engaged in the time period selected. It will also show you top cities, countries, age ranges, and gender. What a treasure trove of info!

You’ll also want to note engagement from both follower and non-follower accounts. This is similar to YouTube’s subscriber versus non-subscriber views; you can choose to use either the total accounts or just the followers in your sales forecast calculations. I’m using the total accounts engaged since I think they are genuinely engaging with me and my content, even if they don’t follow.

Number of accounts engaged (use either total or followers only) = Engaged Instagram fans

TikTok Fan Count

Newer to the social media game is TikTok, an app featuring short videos that are no longer than 3 minutes, with many being in the 15- to 60-second range. Like YouTube, TikTok video content does not disappear. It does have some similarities with Instagram, particularly with Instagram’s Reels.

Like YouTube, it can be difficult to figure out how many of your video viewers and followers can be counted as fans. TikTok’s analytics are not as good as Instagram’s, but worth considering converting to a TikTok business account to get them. Their analytics do show gender breakdowns, top territories, etc. But does it show many followers are engaging with you? Nope.

For TikTok, I use my number of profile views as the measure of engagement. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to figure out how many people are true fans on TikTok.

Number of profile views for past month = Engaged TikTok fans

Twitter Fan Count

In the early days of Twitter, say from 2008 to 2014, it was my primary social channel. That was then.

With all the noise on Twitter today and tweets being mere blips of content, how to measure engagement is a big question. Since there aren’t any good insight metrics on Twitter that I know of, I’d use profile views as a measure of engagement. Go to your profile and click on More > Analytics to get your profile view numbers for the past 28 days.

Profile views for past 28 days = Engaged Twitter fans

LinkedIn Fan Count

LinkedIn is my least favorite social channel, and it has been since the beginning. Analytics is one reason why.

You can see analytics for individual posts. Posts! But for overall engagement, it’s not available for personal profiles. Visitor analytics are only available for company pages. While many self-published authors do indeed have companies for their publishing work, I haven’t seen it being used extensively for this purpose by authors because their personal brand is their brand, not a company’s. LinkedIn is truly built for the corporate world.

Unlike the other social channels discussed here, profile views may also not be an accurate measure of engagement. Many of your views are not people that want to truly connect with you, except for the purpose of selling you something or because they’re headhunters scraping LinkedIn for candidates.

Profile views are about the best we can hope for when evaluating fan potential on LinkedIn. But you can’t filter by date, and it’s for the past 90 days only.

Number of LinkedIn profile views = Engaged LinkedIn fans

Podcast Fan Count

Podcasts are a hot new content format. But they’re really not so hot in terms of engagement. It is difficult to measure true engagement since listeners can’t click on a link while they’re listening to the audio. The only metrics you really have are downloads and subscribers. And many podcasts have few to no downloads or subscribers.

Of the two primary metrics, I’d use subscribers to measure fan interest since it does take some effort to subscribe. Go to wherever you are hosting your podcast and find the number of subscribers or followers (however your podcast host refers to them).

Number of podcast subscribers = Engaged podcast fans

Calculating Your Book Sales Forecast

I’ve estimated that one percent of your potential fans may actually end up purchasing your books, and even that might be optimistic these days. But you need a point to start forecasting, and one percent is a conservative number until you have enough historical sales and author platform data to make more accurate projections.

Add up all your engaged fan numbers, as discussed here, and multiply by one percent.

Total number of engaged fans X 1% = Annual Book Sales Forecast

Understand, too, that your forecast is not a goal, although it may feel like it when you’re struggling with book sales. Self-published authors may have optimistic goals that are way above this 1% level. Nothing wrong with that. That’s a North Star to shoot for. But just realize that you should also have a forecast of what’s realistically possible.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne