Tag s | Get Published

What Are Average Book Sales?

A writer asked me, “What does the average book sell? An industry veteran at a writers conference recently said 5,000. What??? I know it all depends …. but … nowhere near 5,000, right?”

My simple answer?

It’s complicated.
It depends.

Average is a difficult thing to define. Each publishing company defines success differently. If a novel sells 5,000 copies at one publisher, they celebrate and have steak dinners. If a novel sells 5,000 copies at another publisher, you find staff members fearing for their jobs and in total despair.

Let me give you some real numbers from real royalty reports received by our agency without revealing the author name or the publisher (note the different genres and number of books):

Author 1: novelist – 3 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 8,300

Author 2: novelist – 12 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 19,756

Author 3: novelist – 3 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 7,000

Author 4: novelist – 7 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 5,300 (two different publishers)

Author 5: nonfiction devotional – 5 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 10,900

Author 6: nonfiction – 2 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 5,300

Author 7: novelist – 4 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 29,400

Author 8: nonfiction – 3 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 18,900

Author 9: fiction – 7 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 12,900

Author 10: nonfiction – 5 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 6,800 (three different publishers)

As you can see it DOES depend. It depends on the author and publisher and topic or genre.

[Note: the numbers above combine paper and digital sales into total units sold. Breaking that down is another question for another day. Today we are only concerned with “how many books sold” not “what format sells more units.”]

If you take the above authors and their 51 titles, they averaged 12,455 lifetime copies sold for each book published.

Thus I usually say that the “average” book sells 10,000 copies with a major publisher. But if all their books only sold 10,000 copies, they might struggle financially. There have to be exceptions to the rule.

Be aware that the word average means that for every book that sells 15,000, there is one that sells 5,000. And for every book that sells 20,000, there is one that is a disaster.

I know of an author with a very large publisher whose novel has sold only 1,087 copies in its lifetime.  But I also know of others who have sold over 500,000 copies. Thus the word average can be problematic.

This difference is significant because it illustrates the nature of the commercial publishing side of the industry. If a publisher has controlled their costs in production, editorial, and the author contract, they should be profitable if they sell 20,000 copies.

One publisher told me they wouldn’t consider publishing a book unless it can generate $250,000 in net revenue in its first year. I paused for a second and did the math. If a paperback book retails for $15.99 and the publisher receives a net of $8.00 per book, then this publisher is saying that they have a threshold of 30,000 copies in projected sales before they consider publishing a book.

That may seem high to some authors, but for that particular publisher it is their base, their average. Every publisher is different in that regard. For others, that first-year average revenue goal is lower.

Don’t forget there are many different types of books. Seasonal books (Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day) sell only for a short period each year. Academic books are intentionally structured economically to be profitable with minimal sales (thus their higher retail prices). Gift books with full-color interiors are expensive to print and produce. The same with children’s picture books. Etc.

Some writers find this type of discussion depressing or claim that publishers are unfair. But others find this exhilarating because they now know how high the mountain is. And once you know the nature of the summit, you can plan your path and your training accordingly.

[An earlier and shorter version of this post ran in September 2011, yet my analysis has not changed. Thank you to Tina Radcliffe for suggesting I revisit this post.]

Leave a Comment

That Conference Appointment

You snagged one of those valuable 15 minute appointments with an agent or an editor at the writers conference. Now what? What do you say? How do you say it? And what does that scowling person on the other side of the table want? What if you blow it?

Many excellent posts have been written on this topic (see Rachelle Gardner and Kate Schafer Testerman for example) but thought I would add my perspective as well.

What advice would you give to a beginning writer about attending a writers conference and meeting with an editor or an agent?

Go in with realistic expectations.

Read More

Who Gets Paid in Publishing?

With all the talk about Independent publishing vs. Traditional publishing and the talk about how writers can get rich if they follow a certain plan…I got to thinking. Maybe we should do a quick look at the Economics of Publishing to see if anyone is making off like a bandit. Sorry for you non-numbers people, but it is critical to understand the infrastructure (i.e. the lifeblood) that keeps your ideas in print.

The detective in the movie says “Follow the money,” so we shall. But first a disclaimer. These models are estimates based on years of reading contracts, profit and loss sheets, spreadsheets, and royalty statements. Your mileage may vary.

Read More

Many Happy (?) Returns!

by Steve Laube

Every first-time author is confronted by the reality of “Reserves Against Returns” as part of publishing economics. It is usually a shock and elicits a phone call to their agent crying “What happened to my money?”

Did you realize that book publishing is the only “hard goods” industry where the product sold by the supplier to a vendor can be returned? This does not happen with electronics, clothing, shoes, handbags, cars, tires…you name it. If it is a durable good the vendor who buys it, owns it (which is why there are Outlet Malls – to sell the remaining inventory). Except for books. Somewhere along the line the publishers agreed to allow stores to return unsold inventory for credit. In one sense, publishers are selling their books on consignment. Bargain books are actually resold by the publisher (after getting returns or to reduce overprinted inventory) to a new specialty bargain bookseller or division of a chain (which buys the bargain books non-returnable).

Read More

How to Know if Self-Publishing is for You

Technology and Amazon.com have opened up the world of book publishing, making it far more “democratic” than ever before and allowing anyone with word processing software and connection to the internet, to become a published author. The traditional publishing industry is a $25 billion or more industry in the United …

Read More

Amazon Rank Obsession

Admit it. You’ve checked your Amazon.com sales ranking at least once since your book was published. You feel the need to have some outside confirmation of the sales of your book. And Amazon’s ranking are free to look at.

I’ve even seen book  proposals where the author has gone to great lengths to include the Amazon ranking for each title that is competitive with the one the author is proposing. A prodigious amount of wasted effort.

Publishers rarely pay attention to Amazon rankings unless yours gets below 1,000 or if you get in the top 100.

Read More

Promotion: Faithful or Self-full?

“What’s the difference between promotion and self-promotion? How do we promote ourselves/our books so that we honor God, respect others, and use common sense?”

The constant tension between marketing and ministry has plagued the Christian author, speaker, bookseller and publisher forever. Why? Because Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple. Because we are commanded to die to self and to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord….

And yet, our society…our culture insists, even demands, that we market and promote our message.

Read More

How an Agent Reads

I’m seldom at a loss for words (though often at a loss for something of value to say), but the question took me aback for a moment. I was on an agents-and-editors panel at a writers’ conference within a few months of becoming an agent. I’d done this sort of …

Read More

Author Says / Agent Hears

Many aspiring authors communicate things they think are positive, or at least in the spirit of honesty and transparency, but end up being understood entirely different than the intended message. In an attempt to show commitment, an aspiring author says, “I’ve been working on this book for ten years.” An …

Read More