Challenge,  publishing

What a Number… Shocking


In the trial going on between the publishers and the government to stop the merger of two of the big five publishers, this information came out, reported on the Hot Sheet.

Let me quote this exactly…

“During the trial, a couple of depressing statistics were shared: of the 58,000 trade titles published per year, fully half of those titles “sell fewer than one dozen books.” (Not a typo, that’s one dozen.) More broadly, 90 percent of titles sell fewer than 2,000 units. Even a small advance of a few thousand dollars would not earn out at standard royalty rates.”

Seriously??  I knew it was bad and that traditional publishing was all hype and smoke and mirrors and buying IP to inflate value of it for their bookkeeping, but never in a million years did I think it was THAT BAD!!

I think I need to go soak my poor head. Those statistics just hurt.


  • Heather H

    Oz, the Emerald City, the Great and Powerful…
    ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…’

    Humbug. Go home.
    We’ve got the Ruby Slippers.

    • Holly Lisle

      Yeah, that sounds about right. I went through the whole “first book sells well (or well-ish), second book prints to the net and sells a bunch fewer, third book gets a tiny run and series gets cancelled” fun for years, working through a handful of top publishers.

      Every tiny bit of what you’ve reported sounds like the bare-ass nekkid truth to me. And is the reason I walked away years ago to go indie. Have never, ever, not even once, considered going back.

  • Grace Wen

    Is it bad that I actually laughed when I read that statistic? It means that when I sell more than a dozen copies of an indie book, it’s already as successful as half of trad pubbed titles, with a LOT fewer headaches. And I keep all of the copyright!

    • dwsmith

      You get paid more per copy, also. 70% vs 8%. And yes, you get to keep all the copyright to use to make money with other things.

      • Em

        These are the books that fill up the discounters. These are the literary fiction that publishers claim give gravitas to the publishing house.

        I stopped paying attention to the trial when, in the first week, a CEO acknowledged that the successful books weren’t receiving the big advances. He said something like “over 70% of the books that make money for us did not receive six-figure advances”.

        The editors buying books are not in the job to make money. That has to be it. Publishing isn’t a business. It’s pushing pieces around on the checkerboard.

        • dwsmith

          Oh, Em, they make money, just not in the way you think, not by selling books. This is big corporation stuff. The editors, for the most part, love books, love what they do as editors. They, more than likely, as just as surprised at some of this. Editors are often the last to know if a book sells well and they have no idea if a book shipped 3,000 copies and got almost all of those came back. They are 50 books down the road by the time that data comes in.

          And as stated under oath in the trial by the big guns of the corporations, they have no clue what will sell well and what won’t. Most of us already knew that, but first time it has been stated under oath in a court. So advances are based on writer reputation, agent clout at that moment, and a “gut” feeling the book might do well. Nothing more.

  • Nathan Haines

    What? Only half of their titles haven’t sell over a dozen copies? I’ve got that beat for sure. Way over half my titles haven’t sold over a dozen times.

    Although… looking a little more closely at titles that have been refreshed, I’m not sure that’s actually true. I think almost everything’s sold more than that. And that’s just old stuff I left behind as I studied publishing with a pen name. Still very nice little cash streams I don’t worry about.

    I do wish all authors well, but I sure am glad I got so many traditional publishing myths scrubbed out of my head. (Thanks Dean… your Sacred Cows series was like a power wash for my brain!)

    • dwsmith

      Yup, early on all of us sell coffee money. The key is another statistic I am going to post, all coming out of this trial. Publishers really messed up by putting what us insiders knew right out in the open. But I honestly had no idea that over 50% of all the titles only sell a dozen copies. So their acclaimed promotion and distribution systems sure don’t work any better than the indie side, clearly. (Their magic fairy dust is losing its power, clearly.)

      Other side is say your book sells 6 copies in one year. Five years later it has sold 30, more than twice of what any traditional publishing book would sell because they just trash theirs. And ten years 60 copies, and so on. You get enough of those trickles and you can make some real money every year.

      • Fabien

        That’s crazy. Each one of my individual short stories (on average) sell more copies in just a year than the typical trad published book over its whole lifetime.

        • dwsmith

          And that is what Kris and I have been trying to tell people now for years. But took a trial and a president of a company under oath to finally get the reality out.

          • Jonathan Dunsky

            I still can’t believe this statistic. Like the previous commenter, I have multiple short stories selling more than that per year.

  • Michael W Lucas

    I strongly suspect this includes the one-person publishing houses, but maybe not. I personally know folks with great big publishers who only sold a couple hundred copies.

    This trial has been fascinating on so many levels, and watching it is an education. You have to remember that the PRH/S&S lawyers are cherry-picking facts like crazy, but still, even a jaded guy like me keeps going “Wow. It’s worse than I thought.”

  • Xander Koolen

    I’m actually also shocked about the total number of books published in the US. 58000 is a tiny number, comparing with the Netherlands, where I am from. We have only 5% the population of the US, but there are between 17000 and 18000 books published per year.

    The US is not a reading nation, it seems.

    • dwsmith

      No, that number does not count indie publishing, which is upwards of a million books at last attempt to count. That 58,000 is just the big traditional publishers, mostly called the “Big Five” but there are about a hundred or so large publishers that get counted as well.

  • Chong Go

    I’m just gobsmacked by those numbers. “90% selling less than 2,000 copies,” okay, I can see that, but 29,000 *new* books selling less than 12 copies apiece in their first year?? What are these titles that sell so poorly? Are they some kind of nonfiction, tech books, or maybe books intended for the budget racks? Could they have ever had any bookstore distribution? Did they just sit in the catalog without any other promotions?

    At what point does the IRS begin to smell a tax depreciation scam? I’d be curious to see the combined, claimed value of all those books.

    • dwsmith

      Combined claimed value for depreciation on all those books is more billions than you want to imagine.

      The sad truth of an imprint publishing list for a month, anywhere from 3 titles to 5 or 6 titles. Top of the list is the lead title, that someone spent some money on and gets some promotion, maybe, about as much as a broke indie writer could spend on their first book. (Traditional publishing spends less than 2% for promotion on their total budget in a year. So it is carefully placed on the big names.)

      Second book in an imprint list might be the second or third book in a series that had decent sales. It will be ordered to net, meaning the orders are what the computer said it sold last time, so have less and less penetration each title and thus will sell less and less each title until it is cut.

      Third book gets nothing and most of the time book buyers for bookstores don’t even see a cover on this one.

      Bottom of the list book gets nothing and often won’t even ship. These days it will be published on Amazon and a few others electronically and nothing more.

      If there is a book below this one, it is media. And that’s how you actually, after returns and such, only sell a dozen. And unlike in indie publishing, where you can kick it up, this will be the total sales for that book for its life, because in year two, it has become a banana and be tossed and forgotten on the sales side.

      • Chong Go

        Wowwww. Do you think that these 29,000 authors are mostly new authors? I would have thought that with any effort at promoting their own book (Facebook pages and such), they could have sold better than 12 copies in a year. If it was something from deep in an author’s backlist, sure, they got new stuff to promote instead, but if it’s a new author, they tend to focus on that stuff. And how many printed books do you suppose the publishers actually printed for most of those?

        At those numbers, the overly cynical part of my brain (too many thrillers, lol?) is imagining corporate “ghost” authors turning out ghost titles that never see a print run.

        • dwsmith

          Fascinating that you are having trouble grasping that this is how traditional publishing works and trying to make excuses. No excuses, just reality and authors of all levels. This is traditional publishing and remember, these was all under oath in a trial.

        • Vanessa

          As for the US not being a ‘reading nation’: some of that is true. There are people who haven’t read a book since they got out of high school or college.

          But there are also ‘whales’ (readers who read 100 or more books annually). Being a whale myself, I can tell you that Indy is the place to read. You get way more reading material for your money and lots of freebies if you know where to go. The variaty of stories is better as well.

          Traditional publishing is a dinosaur. Elements of it might make it into the next century, but they’re going to have refine their processes.

  • Patrice Fitzgerald

    In 2013 I republished in digital and print form a time travel romance for a friend who originally sold it in 1998 to Penguin. I’m not certain what her initial advance was, but I believe it to be about $2,000. The book didn’t earn out, naturally, and it was off the shelves after the typical six weeks.

    Between 2013 and today, with a very modest outlay for cover art, a couple of BookBub ads, and in-house editing, formatting, etc., that book has made $26,000 on Amazon and other vendor platforms. It’s getting another BB boost this month, and I anticipate a good surge for the book and the two other standalone time travel romances she wrote.

  • Rebecca

    The other stat I had a hard time believing that came from these hearings, is that PRH give the same marketing effort and attention to every book. We all know that they push heavily books they’ve paid dearly for the rights to. The rest get a tiny bit of attention for a few weeks and then that’s it. It’s not surprising that so many go nowhere. One wonders how this business has managed to survive and profit for so long with such a minimal amount of strategy and effectiveness.

  • Ginjer Buchanan

    Good points made, Dean, But you are off-base regarding editors not knowing how many books have shipped , how sales went, what the returns are and so on. All that info is on a data base that editors consult regularly. Sometimes it makes an editor smile to do so–though not often enough…

    • dwsmith

      Ginjer, good to know. Old me got into that (grin), since I just assumed (and heard) that major publishing still didn’t use computers that much (I had to teach the staff at Bantam one fine afternoon how to copy and paste, not kidding.) Do they still not know how many copies are printed (still in the give or take 10% realm?) and how many copies are sitting in warehouses? Thanks for the input on this. Appreciated.

      And wonderful seeing you again, at least through the intertubes.

  • Juila

    12 Copies! I would think you could get 12 pity buys from friends and family. Maybe they give them their author copies. I am amazed 12 copies could possibly be worth a publisher editing, printing, and shipping a book, especially if this is not a fluke. And 50% is NOT a fluke.

    I saw above that you said they make money in other ways, and I have you Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing that I am about to dig into, but I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around how this can be a known, accepted, and continued business model.


    • dwsmith

      It’s because they have no idea which book will break out and which book will only sell 12. So they just have to keep rolling the dice and hurting the authors shooting for the top and not making it.

      • Juila

        I have read enough of your books and articles to know you were a professional poker player. As a professional gambler, you have some techinque or strategy, right? But perhaps the Big 5 do have a strategy. Thiers is just reliant on enough “disposable” authors to make their equations work,eventually.

        I’m just appalled, and I was already pretty deep into the pit of horror over the system before these trials. Time to finish Kristine’s Rethinking the Writing Business and move on to your Sacred Cows as I develop my own gambling strategy. One that works in my favor.

        • dwsmith


          Skill always works out over any kind of strategy. In poker and in writing. So just keep learning and working on being a better storyteller and keeping up with the business and you’ll do great.

          And I suppose that is a strategy. (grin)

  • Matt

    As a small, independent publisher, I’m also shocked–and somewhat reassured–by this statistic. All of the 15 titles I’ve published have sold more than a dozen copies, and half my titles are short story anthologies with mostly unknown authors. But the longtime journalist in me smells some BS coming from this publishing president. There’s something very hard to believe about his comments, even though they were under oath. I feel like he’s playing with words somehow to make his position seem more sympathetic. I’ve not read all the testimony or know the context exactly, but something is not quite right about this.