Challenge,  publishing

Bestselling Books

Quick Post After The Earlier Sales Information…

Remember, that dozen copies sold information came from a trial from a president of a big five company under oath.

What he said was that half of all the books published by the big five traditional publishers sell under a dozen copies. So let’s look at that from other data sources.

Here is another piece of data I found quoted from different studies. The average number of copies a book sells is 250 from the big five traditional publishers.

Assuming everyone knows the definition of average. Now when you average in Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Koontz and the other hundred top sellers, plus all media books that automatically sell more with all the under a dozen sales writers, it can easily get an average of 250. Sounds about right. Those studies back up the fact that half of all big five traditionally published books sell under a dozen copies.

(How many dozens of book sales does it take to bring King’s 2 million copies sold down to 250 copies average?)

Another data point, over the last few years New York Times Bestseller list started saying that it took 5,000 copies to make the list. They have been saying that like it is a hard fact. You see it posted everywhere these days.

Four or so years ago I saw one Times list that had #15 at just at 2,000 copies (when they were still posting sales numbers with the list). I have a hard time believing that if only six books sold above 5,000 copies, the list that week would only be six books long. So that flat 5,000 number is just hype, clearly.

So to make the Times List you have to at least pretend to have sold 5,000 books. Why is it so hard to realize that half of all books published by the big five publishers sell less than a dozen copies when the very top 15 each week only need 5,000 copies?

And remember, big five publishers are putting $15.99 prices on electronic books. Yeah, that encourages sales.

Sorry, just playing with numbers after getting that testimony from the trial earlier on. And more than frightening, all the numbers I find add up to the fact that half of all traditionally published books sell under a dozen copies.

Thank heavens we have indie these days. Wow.



    • dwsmith

      Amy, since way before I came into the industry in the 1980s, publishers have paid for the bestseller slots in bookstores. It helps keeps the bookstores afloat and promote the books publishers want promoted. Nothing to do with any bestseller list other than the depth of a publisher’s checkbook. Even heard of a couple indie writers buying spots on those shelved lists. Both said it was not worth the money.

      • Amy

        I’m surprised it’s even legal! You’d think there’d be general laws against deceptive advertising but maybe those offices are too busy with life-threatening breaches of trading standards.

  • Philip

    This reminds me of back in 2015, when I first got into writing and publishing, I told my writing group how happy I was that one of my short stories sold 38 copies the first month I published it. I was met with gasps and snickers. They refused to analyze it in context. I threw a story into the void with zero advertisements, not even a blog post or social media announcement, and nearly 40 strangers across the globe decided to PAY to read it.

    Dean, I’m also interested in this from a Critical Voice perspective–there’s a lot to look at there. For one, I think a lot of writers fear their work judged negatively by millions of readers OR they fear too few people will read it. Zero understanding of what constitutes success or failure (realistically).

    • Jason M

      This. Some reality checks and hard data are sorely missing in those writers’ lives.
      Selling 38 in the first month, cold, is terrific. For a few years, I was selling 15 per month of each of my three or four titles, cold, and it never dawned on me that that should be cause for celebration. I realize it now.

  • Peggy

    Hm. If the average is 250, I wonder what the median is?

    Regardless, these last few posts you’ve done should remove any desire to go trad pub in the normal course. (I’m sure there are narrow, specific reasons/times that trad pub makes sense, but I can’t think of any.)

  • Vincent Zandri

    None of this surpsrises me in the least. About the only real shot a writer who wants to go “tradtional” has at selling well is to nail an Amazon imprint, since they can manipulate the algos accordingly. That is, if they “like” you. I’m not kidding about this last part, and I should knoow I did ten books with them under 4 “very nice” separate contracts. But they have a revolving door policy with both authors and eds, so it’s just as likely a new editor will come in and not relate to your work. Oh, and even if you sell hundreds of thousands of units, which I did, you won’t make any of the lists because they hate the Zon. I made the lists with indie books.

    Funny story about all this. Just the other day, my agent sends me a photo of a royalty check from a trad pub for 2.40 cents (this is about identical to Scott Fitzgerald’s final royalty statement just before his heart gave out, btw, so maybe none of this is all that new). I send him back a photo of my indie royaties for that month. He sends back a note, “Next time I’m in NY, you can buy me a steak.” Hahaha. He’s told me more than once, he no longer makes money on books, but does okay with multi media. The authors he reps who make a living have gone “indie.”

    12 books. If I want to sell 12 copies of one of my indie books in any given morning, I send out a note on Substack reminding my followers that Book X is out there and it’s reasonably priced, so if you haven’t picked it up…I’ll get sales.

    250 books. If I want to sell 250 books of any given title, I’ll put it in a Bargain Booksey or maybe a Bookbub (if I can get it) and also send notice of it to my 8K subscriber list. I’ll sell the 250 over the course of a day or two for a decent price. Of course, you sell at least 1K with Bookbub…

    That’s the beauty of indie. Control.

    But none of this is possible with a traditional contract. They simply can’t and/or won’t give your book the attention it deserves. And then they tell you not to write so much…OMG!!!

  • Linda S Fox

    This is a case of a statistical concept called outliers being important.
    If a group of data has a long range, with very big numbers at one end, and/or very small numbers at the other, using the mean in your analysis give very misleading results.
    Instead, use the median. That’s the point where half the data is on one side, and half on the other. I suspect that the median would be even smaller. The many authors who sell almost nothing drag that median down make it so.
    The thing the publishers should focus on is: of the authors posting more than five sales, what’s the median?
    That number would give you a much more accurate picture of the income of working writers.