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.]

18 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.

  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.

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