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.]

30 Responses to What Are Average Book Sales?

  1. Avatar
    Paul Shepherd June 24, 2019 at 5:29 am #

    Great analysis Steve. Would be great to catch up

  2. Avatar
    Maco Stewart June 24, 2019 at 5:47 am #

    I was going to make a comment about Oh, noes, you mean I’ll NEVER be able to lease that new Beemer?!? but what your post gave me was compassion for publishers (to paraphrase the Jerry Maguire line, they are the enemy, but we love the enemy).

    If so many of them accept so many marginal projects, God bless them. May our motivations always be the writing, good writing. Ever better, the best we can produce. That’s where the true satisfaction lies.

    Important post, thanks for revisiting the topic, Steve.

  3. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell June 24, 2019 at 6:00 am #

    This is cool to know. Thanks!

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 24, 2019 at 6:17 am #

    This writing gig is savage,
    and when you do the math
    to see what sales are average,
    it looks a perilous path,
    Your publisher doth mortgage
    their future to your skill,
    and if their castles crumble
    you’ll face more than ill-will.
    Your rep will be as ruined
    as Humpty-Dumpty’s shell,
    doors will close to you, and
    you’ll be back in transom-hell.
    Know when to fold, and when to leap,
    hopin’, like The Gambler, to die in sleep.

    • Avatar
      Judith Robl June 24, 2019 at 6:39 am #

      Praying your day today will be easier, Andrew. May God fill you with his grace and peace.

  5. Avatar
    Judith Robl June 24, 2019 at 6:38 am #

    Thank you for the reality check, Steve. Most helpful. And thank you, Tina Radcliffe for the suggestion he revisit this post. I seem to have missed it the first time around.

  6. Avatar
    Pat Butler June 24, 2019 at 8:49 am #

    Very good info. Thank you. Training for the climb.

  7. Avatar
    Lillian June 24, 2019 at 9:08 am #

    Just wondering what the “average” stats for books published by non-traditional publishers? Are those numbers even available?

  8. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka June 24, 2019 at 10:52 am #

    Thank you for the reminder that, though publishing is about the numbers, the said numbers vary depending on a number of factors. As with most things in life, we can’t create a formula and expect it to work in every circumstance. This is an enlightening post, Steve.

  9. Avatar
    Tina Radcliffe June 24, 2019 at 9:36 pm #

    Once again. Good info. Thank you.

  10. Avatar
    Terri Gillespie June 25, 2019 at 7:15 am #

    Thank you.

  11. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson June 27, 2019 at 7:34 am #

    Steve–I’m late here, but am curious if these numbers are sales to final consumer, or to retailers?

  12. Avatar
    James July 6, 2019 at 8:37 pm #

    Good article. I’m about to debut so I’m kinda nervous on how well it may sell. I guess I should suspect somewhere between 3,000 and 30,000 sells. Honestly if rather be on the higher end, but I’ll be ecstatic to get one person that really likes it. Either way I should expect a few thousand at least. Kinda scary. I’ve never been in the light before. Hopefully it sells well.

  13. Avatar
    Harry Hough July 30, 2019 at 7:47 am #

    I would like to publish my fourth book which is now ready for editing and formatting. It is to be sold by my company, American Purchasing Society, Inc. which is a professional association of buyers and purchasing managers for business. It may be sold by other distributors. The name of the book is “Buying for Business – Managing the Purchasing Function and the Supply Chain”. Can you help us find a commercial publisher who will be interested?

  14. Avatar
    Andre Michael Pietroschek August 12, 2019 at 10:39 pm #

    If that analysis is anywhere close to the truth, then authors couldn’t ever-again fund the professionals to produce audio, video games, or movies.

    So the markets can be considered:Destroyed. Another dying industry, no big surprise.

    Thank you.

    • Avatar
      David J Bartlett June 4, 2020 at 10:19 am #

      Thirty years ago I set out to write my first novel. I had long conversations with other authors of the same genre, publishers and book store owners and the general consensus was that the average novelist in those days sold about 5000 copies and earned about fifty cents per copy for a total revenue of about $2500 per novel. The average novelist wrote one novel per year and published about 75% of the novels they wrote meaning that the average novelist was earning roughly $1875 a year at their craft and worked full time at a profession that required a Bachelor’s degree with college English professor among the professions with the highest representation in the fiction writer’s craft. That is how Stephen King started out. A few years later a writer of non fiction informed me that he had three books published and the most successful one earned him a net of $1000 after ten years. A professor who wrote the textbook that is required for the course he teaches informed me that he sold approximately 150 copies a year of his textbook to students and earned about $10 per copy gross and after taxes he cleared about $1200 per year but he had to revise his textbook every 3-5 years to keep up with developments and so he rarely ever sold more than 800 copies per edition. His textbook at the time was retailing in the college book store for around $95 a copy. As of that conversation he was unable to convince any other colleges to add his textbook to the curriculum.

  15. Avatar
    James Watkins August 22, 2019 at 6:13 am #

    I used to quote a PW survey that “average” book sells 500 copies. A 2010 update now states 250 copies with lifetime sales of 3,000. You’re obviously representing better than average authors.

  16. Avatar
    eprivate January 1, 2020 at 8:10 pm #

    Thanks, Steve. Came across your article trying to figure out how am I doing after two years of writing / publishing. I assume the figures cover tradpub authors. If they are, then I guess remaining independent is a no-brainer for me. Happy new year!

  17. Avatar
    Johnkasaona@gmail.com January 6, 2020 at 6:09 am #

    You start the article off by posing the question: “what does the average book sell?” The answer, of course, is a single number. There is a basic method by which you compute an average – it is standard math. As a result, it is not a difficult thing to define.

    But what you do is conflate average with “how each publisher defines success,” which makes no sense at all, as these are two very different things. How a publisher defines success has nothing to do with what the average book sells.

    If you don’t know the answer because you don’t have the information to compute the average, just say so. Otherwise, rename the title and the question you pose to readers in order to actually align with what the article is about.

    Keep it simple and straightforward bruh.

  18. Avatar
    Sebastian January 31, 2020 at 6:47 am #

    Could you please tell me how many books very small indie publishers sell – particularly fiction in translation?

  19. Avatar
    Olivia May 9, 2020 at 2:39 am #

    I am an author who writes under a pen name and I only self-publish. I published my first (of seven books) less than three years ago. My 7th and most recent book was published 5 months ago.

    Total book sales for all seven books total over 418,000 (this is only my ebooks sales, does not include my audio sales or paperback). That’s an average of 59,768 sales per book.

    You would think I would be considered a big selling name or something, but I am not a big deal in my genre.

    • Avatar
      Hanyane Chrispen May 12, 2020 at 10:01 am #

      Ok. Am putting my self-published children’s picture storybook to the market in about 2 months. Thanks for showing there is life in self-publishing.

    • Avatar
      Miralee August 3, 2020 at 11:13 am #

      Olivia…but at what price point? I’m guessing Steve may have been quoting print books, not ebook, although it may have been both print and ebook (something I’d like to know as well?). I know a lot of Indie authors have big sales at .99 per ebook and/or give them away to draw readers to the next in the series. If you’re counting .99 books sold or give aways, that’s going to skew the numbers a lot. Yes, traditional publishers do count books sold that are on sale, but it’s much more rare for them to drop the price super low…and they don’t count books given away in sales.

  20. Avatar
    Edmund May 12, 2020 at 8:52 pm #

    Sales would depend also on the genre. Some fields are really crowded – romance, fantasy, science fiction, mystery would be at the top.

    But if one looks at Amazon, erotica books sell a ton. Erotica… now that’s an understatement.

  21. Avatar
    Sarah De Mey May 23, 2020 at 4:54 am #

    Interesting analysis.

  22. Avatar
    Jack June 4, 2020 at 10:54 am #

    At a book store I will sometimes see a brand new novel by a top author in the first hardbound edition with a price tag over $30. The author might be getting as much as $5-$10 for that. A top author of fiction will likely sell far more than the average so you will see sales sometimes top a million copies. But not everyone is J K Rowling. She’s actually a billionaire but I don’t know how much of that is what she got for movie rights. I wrote a little years ago but found my lack of success disappointing. I didn’t earn as much as I was working in a factory as a machine operator. So I changed my focus to art, painting specifically and I learned some lessons in that field that I think could be applied to the world of publishing. As a fledgling artist I thought I would earn my living by painting portraits, get famous and have collectors pay millions for my work and I could retire wealthy. As with writing and in fact many fields like singing, acting, sports etc. few artists earn enough to live on that. There are just so many people doing the same thing and only a tiny percentage find success as super stars. But I learned how to leverage what I did. My original business model was to hang a shingle, display a portfolio of my work and take commissions. My first year I got three commissions and earned $1500 yet that was more than I made from my novel. Then I got some really good advice. It generally took me about a week to complete an oil portrait working about 50 hours on it. The average portrait sold for about $1000 but I was starting out and could only charge half that. So I was earning a gross of $10 an hour and was about to give up on that. I had a conversation with an artist who was doing quite well but he, I was sure, was a lesser artist than myself and people I knew agreed with me. But the advice he gave me was to put far more time and effort into a handful of “master pieces” and take no more commissions. He advised me to keep my factory job for now and then when I had about 6 pieces that I had poured my heart into then I should go around and enter them into art shows and regional contests to see how many awards I could get. After that he advised me to have the works scanned by a quality printer and then have them print out poster size limited editions and sign and number them. I followed his advice. I derived the majority of my income not from the sales of original oil paintings but from the sales of limited edition prints. To break even selling original works I would have to charge $2000+ given the time and materials (art supplies are ludicrously expensive). But by creating a limited edition of 100 and selling those signed and numbered prints for $100 each I was able to earn five times as much. I now never sell my originals though occasionally take a commission. This is how I learned to leverage my creative power. J K Rowling and certain other highly successful authors will certainly earn a good living from book sales but they derive most of their income from leveraging their creativity beyond the initial creativity process. She gets most of her income from movies and licensing. Same with Stephen King. Most other authors will never see that kind of success and so won’t be able to leverage what they do into movie and licensing deals. However, they can often leverage what they do in other ways. A professor can write a textbook but never sell more than 1000 copies per edition. But by making it a required text for his class and charging $100 a copy he can earn far more per book than the author of a novel who sells twenty times as many copies and never more than one edition. An author can derive a hundred times as much money going on a speaking tour than from book sales. A friend of mine is in a band. They made three CD albums of their music and sold their CD’s for $15 but only sold about 1000 CD’s per year. That was no where near enough for the Band to live off of. The band derived most of their income from touring. They also sold T-shirts which actually made them more money than the Albums did. Learn to leverage what you do.

  23. Avatar
    D. J. Irvine June 10, 2020 at 11:58 am #

    Great advice. I’ve been publishing my poetry books on Amazon a self-publisher. I sold a few books to friends and family at first. I did a little Amazon sponsored ads and didn’t get much back. I nearly gave up. However, I stuck with it after getting some great feedback from the small number of people who purchased the book. After 2 months of driving organic traffic from my blog and continuing with Amazon, I’ve started selling at least 1 book every day. Some days I get 6 sales or sometimes 4. My point is, a book can grow, it might take some time but if your feedback is strong and sales start picking up, it might be worth the climb to the top of the mountain. Well, I fell like I’ve climbed the first 100 meters.

  24. Avatar
    Anastasia Simonds July 16, 2020 at 7:28 pm #

    I feel very encouraged. I’m a new author and recently released a SUSPENSE ebook called Irrevocable Consequence. I’m hoping one day I can be like you all and reach a climax in sales. It’s a pretty good book; it just needs to grow traffic. Check it out here if you guys are interested. It’s on Amazon too. Irrevocable Consequence by Anastasia Simonds. May we all have success!

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