June 18, 2012
Posted by: Gina Gagliano
Categories: Adventures in Publishing, Behind the Scenes

(photo ganked from the Library of Congress)

One of the questions that we frequently get from authors is: what makes my book a success?

This, of course, is a sensible question for any author to ask their publisher.  Who doesn’t want to know beforehand if your publisher is going to be like, ‘Well, if your book doesn’t sell umpety-gajillion copies, we plan to never speak with you again!’

You’ll be glad to know that for many publishers (including First Second), success is a bit more complicated to codify than that.  There are a number of factors that go into us deciding, yay, this book worked!  Here are some of the pieces that go into that conversation.


Awards: they’re good things to get!  Authors like them, and publishers like them too.  There’s really not much of a better point at the end-of-the-year meeting with higher-ups when you can whip an award out of your pocket, ‘by the way, the entire comics industry thinks that we published the best graphic novel of the year, as evinced by this Eisner Award!’

It’s wonderful to be recognized by the big-ticket awards – things like the National Book Awards, the big ALA Awards (the Caldecott, the Newbery, and the Printz), the Pulitzer (which I think our Editorial Director would trade his eyeteeth to have one of our books win someday), etc.  But there are also a lot of smaller awards that recognize specific things that it’s wonderful to receive – for example, it’s always wonderful to be recognized by the Amelia Bloomer List, which is for the most pro-girl-power books published this year.  I want First Second to publish books that get on that list every year!  And how great would it be to win the Stonewall Award, given to the best GLBTQ books published this year?  I want us to publish a book that wins that someday.

Of course, one of the factors of getting an award is more exposure, which tends to lead to more sales.  That is always nice!  But also very nice is the knowledge that hey, out of the whole publishing industry, we did this the best this year.  Go you, and go us.


Did The New York Times review your book in their print edition?  We may be unavailable for the rest of the day because we’re celebrating.

There are a whole lot of publications that review books; some of the print publications are so exclusive that they’ve never covered a book that we’ve published (here’s looking at you, Vanity Fair).  If your book is the book that gets us on their radar, it is time for great office rejoicing.  Your book is introducing graphic novels to a whole population that doesn’t typically get exposed to them at all!  That is a good day.

Also a life goal: Oprah’s Book Club!  We should be in it.  We just have to publish the right book. . . .


Does your book have a strong message about bullying, or censorship, or child abuse, or world affairs?  First Second is publishing your book because we believe in that message, and we want to do what we can to get that message out to the world.  These books are all about putting the book in the right hands of a specific population.  Sometimes that population is huge – we think that everyone everywhere should read Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer so that they understand more about the state of things in Afghanistan!

But sometimes that population can be measured in individuals: if just one kid reads this book about bullying and is profoundly affected by it, if it makes him think, ‘what’s happening to me is wrong, it’s not my fault, and I’m going to get through this’ – that’s success too.


When an author sells a book to a publisher, there are a number of rights that she can either keep for herself or let the publisher have for a negotiated amount of time.  These include things like first serial (getting part of your book being excerpted prior to publication in print magazines) and foreign rights (for being published in other countries than the US and Canada).

It turns out that publishers in other countries will pay actual-factual money to publish something that we’re publishing here in the US in their country, if it has enough international appeal.  And if we can sell rights in enough countries, that can entirely pay back the advance/production/overhead so that at the first copy of the book we sell, it’s entirely profit.  And on top of that, now the book that we’re publishing is available to people all around the world!  How great is that?

Also it would be great if one of our books got turned into a movie.  We’re working on it!


It would be great if your book sold a whole lot of copies.

What’s ‘a whole lot’?  Our first measure of this is: did you make back your advance?

For the new-to-publishing among you: when we buy books, we give the authors we’re working with an advance against the royalties.  What this means is, we’ve agreed to give the author XX% — say 10% here, for ease of calculating – of the cover price of every book that we sell.

So let’s say that we gave you an advance of $10,000.  You’re making a 10% royalty on every book, and we’re charging consumers $15.00 for each book.  That means you’re making $1.50 on every book, so we’ll have to sell around 6,700 copies to equal out that advance.  At that point, congratulations!  You’re not in debt to us anymore, and we will pay you an additional $1.50/book for every further copy of your book we sell.

Now, obviously these metrics are very neatened up for public consumption, as our prices typically end in .99, and these are not actual advance or royalty numbers.  But the math part of things is real!

Of course, we’d love it if books sold even more copies than this hypothetical 6,700.  It’d be great if our books all sold tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands!  Every book!  All the time!  Also Macmillan should fill our offices with ponies!

We Loved Working With You

Are you awesome?  If you’re publishing a book with us, you’re probably kind of awesome.

It is our job to come into the office five days a week and sit down and deal with authors for at least eight hours a day.  That’s a lot of hours, and we mostly work even more than that every week – because we love what we’re doing, and we believe in the books that we’re working on.

But on some extra-good days, the authors that we work with remind us exactly why we love publishing so much.  Ben Hatke, the author of Zita the Spacegirl, recently sent us small watercolors of flying angelic pancakes.  I’m still not clear on exactly why this happened, but you know what?  It made my day.  Chris Duffy somehow made it easy to coordinate marketing with the fifty different authors who contributed to Nursery Rhyme Comics – I’m still not sure how that happened; I think he may have magical powers.  Cecil Castellucci and Jim Ottaviani and MK Reed and Jonathan Hill sent me actual physical thank-you notes for my help promoting their books.  Sara Varon, the author of Bake Sale, sometimes makes us cookies and sends the best-ever Happy New Year cards.  (I note that this is not a definitive list of First Second authors who have done nice things for us.  There are more.  Many more.)

If you’re the kind of author who’s bringing happiness and excitement to our often gray and dreary NYC publishing desks (however much we brighten our desks, NYC weather for the past year can still be described as predominantly gray), guess what?  We want to work with you some more.

And that’s success.

2 Comments on “ Success Metrics ”

  • Laura Kajpust | June 18th, 2012 2:45 pm

    Man, you guys are so cool. Stay awesome and keep printing great books! 😀

  • Helena Juhasz | June 18th, 2012 4:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. This is so valuable.

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