No, Most Books Don't Sell Only a Dozen Copies
A little post on why publishing statistics are so confusing
One thing the PRH/SS merger trial revealed is that publishing has a lot of problems. This is very true! At the same time, many of the problems seem to have mutated into unbelievable chimeras as they made their way around the discourse. Today, for example, much of the literary internet was debating a claim that 50% of books published sell fewer than 12 books.
This claim took off with the usual suspects—conservative pundits claiming publishing is too “woke” and self-publishing evangelicals saying every author would make a fortune if they ditched traditional publishing—but the publishing professionals I know said this claim is very fishy. (I’m pretty sure publishers would go out of business if 50% of their books sold less than 12 copies!) So this statistic isn’t true. Or at least it isn’t true in the way you might think.
But publishing statistics are often not what you think. This extreme 12 copies claim joins a couple others that have gone around the internet recently: “98 percent of books sell fewer than 5,000 copies.” “90 percent sell fewer than 2,000 copies” “Most books sell fewer than 99 copies.” Etc.
Are all of these true? None of them? Part of the problem with evaluating claims of “most published books sell [X] copies” is that it—[apologies for the Derrida voice]—it all depends on what you mean by “book,” “published,” and “sell.” No, I’m not playing postmodern games here. It really is confusing.
What’s “a book”?
The Platonic ideal of a book might be a collection of text printed on a few hundred paper pages. But the term encompasses much more than that, including books that have almost no text at all (for example the “adult coloring book” craze of the 2010s). Publishers publish novels and memoirs as well as cookbooks, puzzle books, Mad Libs, etc. But it’s even more confusing than this when it comes to those statistics.
Last year, Orbit published my debut novel The Body Scout. I wrote one novel, so published one book. Right? Not exactly. From a sales tracking perspective, books are published in multiple formats, each with different ISBNs. I wrote one novel, but from a title count POV I actually published 4 books: hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook. Other books have even more formats (mass market version, movie tie-in editions, etc.) and because they all have different ISBNs, they all have different sales figures.
When it comes to classics that are in the public domain, like Pride and Prejudice or Shakespeare, there can be literally hundreds of editions in existence (put out by various publishers) each of which could be counted separately.
A published book can refer to a newly written and released book—aka frontlist, or a novel published for the first time in 2022—or it can refer to anything a publisher puts out in a given year, including a reissue of an existing book. But sometimes “published” means any book that exists in any format available for purchase. A hundred-year-old novel that no longer can be found bookstore shelves yet sits in cardboard box in the back of a warehouse somewhere is “a published book.” Some books are never published in print at all and exist only as ebooks and/or audiobooks. And many books exist in “print on demand” form in which a physical copy doesn’t exist until someone purchases it. In the old days, books would go out of print when people stopped buying them. But in the modern digital age books can exist “in print” for forever.
It’s also worth pointing out here that publishers range from tiny micropresses run as a hobby in someone’s garage to multi-billion dollar companies. If you’re counting books by ISBNs, this would also include many self-published books.
What’s “a sale”?
When people reference book sales, they’re typically talking using NPD Group’s BookScan numbers. Think of BookScan as the book industry version of Nielsen TV ratings. Briefly, BookScan is a “point of sale” tracking system that counts the number of print copies sold at participating retail locations. BookScan allegedly tracks about 75% of retail sales including lots of indie bookstores as well as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Walmart.
It’s a fine tool for what it is, but from a data perspective it’s only partial. I already mentioned the issue with multiple formats above. BookScan also only tracks print so doesn’t include audiobooks or ebooks. (There is a Nielsen ebook estimator, but it’s rarely included in these statistics. And ebook sales are tricky since prices fluctuate wildly.) Even restricting ourselves to print books, BookScan misses plenty. Sales to libraries, for example, can be a significant portion of a book’s sales. Many small press and self-published authors might sell directly via an author’s website or in-person events. And so on.
Additionally, there are dramatic differences between 1) lifetime sales, 2) sales in the first 12 months after publication, and 3) sales in any random calendar year. Most books sell most of their copies in the first year or two after publication. Some books are perennial sellers and others might break out later—e.g., when there is a TV or film adaptation—but most sell the bulk of their copies early. Any statistic based on 3) is going to give you a completely inaccurate impression of what a book has sold. Imagine a 1998 novel that sold 6,000 its first year and 10,000 copies to date. It might sell only 12 copies in 2022, decades later, but that hardly means it was a failure.
Okay, so what does all the above mean? Mostly it means these statistics are completely meaningless unless we know what’s being included. Are you counting lifetime sales or one year’s sales? One year’s sales for frontlist titles or backlist titles? Only Big 5 books or anything with an ISBN?
Take the statistic that most published books only sell 99 copies. This seems shocking on its face. But if you dig into it, you’ll notice it was counting one year’s sales of all books that were in BookScan’s system. That’s quite different statistic than saying most books don’t sell 100 copies in total! A book could easily be a bestseller in, say, 1960 and sell only a trickle of copies today. In the same way, most old movies and albums aren’t frequently watched/listened to in 2022. It’s only a small percentage of past works that remain popular. Most backlist books selling fewer than 99 copies doesn’t tell you anything about how much newly released books sell.
(If you’re wondering—as people did on Twitter—why publishers keep books in print that don’t sell, remember that a book being in print doesn’t mean a publisher is actively spending lots of money on the title. It doesn’t break the bank to keep one box in the corner of a warehouse. And as I noted above a book can be “in print” these days and exist only in a digital form or awaiting “print on demand.”)
In terms of the dozen copies statistic, I can’t evaluate it because it is unclear what it’s referring to. Fifty-eight thousand books is more books than PRH publishes in a given year, but far less than their entire backlist. Is 58k all new books published with an ISBN, including self-published books? Is it something else? I really don’t know and none of the publishing professionals I follow seem to know either. (Editing to add: Jane Friedman, who posted this number originally on Instagram, noted there was no source given in testimony. Friedman gives her own guess in the comments.)
In my experience, and with the data I’ve seen, most traditionally published novels that you see on bookstore shelves or reviewed in newspapers sell several hundred to a few thousand copies across formats. Many sell much more of course. I’ve seen some flops that sold only a couple hundred. And of course not all traditionally published novels appear in bookstores or reviewed in newspapers. Is it possible someone has published a Big 5 novel that sold only 12 copies over its lifetime? I suppose. But I don’t think it’s 5% much less 50%!
Then again, I’m talking about novels published by established presses that appear in bookstores. How many copies do self-published poetry chapbooks sell? Print on demand public domain classics? Backlist sudoku puzzle books? I couldn’t begin to guess.
One thing that’s true is publishing works on a blockbuster model. Most books sell relatively few copies and a handful sell millions. The statistics about the vast majority of traditionally published books selling fewer than five thousand are likely true. It’s the bestsellers that keep the industry afloat, financially. And it’s true that publishers often have no idea what will sell. It’s a throw-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks industry. Are there are lot of problems with it? A lot of things that could be fixed? Ways that publishers could better market the backlist or frontlist? Yes! But it’s not quite as dire as some of these statistics suggest.
UPDATE: Kristen McLean from BookScan very nicely provided data in the comments so please look below from some illuminating if depressing data!
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