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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.]

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