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That Viral "Most Books Sell < 12 Copies" Claim Again
Yet another post on confusing book sales statistics
Last year, I wrote an article debunking a viral claim that half the books published by big publishers sell less than twelve copies. A year later—to the day, strangely—this claim has gone viral again, which has prompted people to share my 2022 article as well as a very informative comment left by Kristen McLean from NPD BookScan debunking the stat. Since I’m seeing people share quotes from myself and McLean with some missing context I thought I’d write a quick follow-up.
First, let me recommend this smart thread by Silvia Moreno-Garcia that delves into the topic and gives Moreno-Garcia’s personal experience as someone who has published a lot of books on a lot of different sized presses.
As for the above claim, it doesn’t pass the smell test from a football stadium away. You don’t have to think publishing is perfect to realize that publishers would go out of business if the majority—or even a significant percentage—of their books sold essentially no copies. Ignore author advances for a second. It costs a lot to publish a book. (I speak from experience.) Paper, printing, proofreading, layout, cover design, etc. All this costs money. Big publishing is a business. Poorly run in some ways, maybe, but not that poorly run.
No one can predict what books will be bestsellers. If a publisher could, they’d only publish those. There’s a lot of randomness in publishing. Sometimes the hot book on the market will be an obscure (to Americans) 1930 Japanese novel that gets popular on TikTok because an anime character has the same name as the author. Still, publishers do have a rough sense of what different types of books are likely to sell what amount. If the answer was “most likely less than 12 copies,” they wouldn’t pay money to acquire them.
A lot of the people latching onto the 12 copy claim are either self-publishing evangelists or small presses arguing authors are better off skipping the big presses. In some ways, they might be! I love small presses and have published books with them. Small presses are better at certain things than the Big 5. But if we’re being honest they aren’t better at selling lots of copies of books. If they were, they’d be the big presses. (Indeed, what’s great about small presses is they’re often non-profits or otherwise funded in a way that allows to them to publish unique works that don’t sell well but deserve to exist.)
Let’s get back to the 12 copy claim. As I mentioned, Kristen McLean very helpfully responded with better data. But even this data is being shared on Twitter without some important context. Let me repost part of McLean’s comment here:
So, McLean found nowhere near 50% of books selling less than 12 copies. But the above is not a look at what the average book sells per se. (Again McLean explains this in the full comments, but that part isn’t being shared.) First, McLean was trying to recreate the statistic that went viral rather than trying to show what the average book sells. This meant restricting the data to books with one to fifty-two weeks of sales rather than lifetime sales. Secondly, the above is only print sales and not audio or ebook sales. Even among print sales, BookScan doesn’t track everything. McLean again: “But that data does not include direct sales from publishers. It does not include sales by authors at events, or through their websites. It does not include eBook sales which we track in a separate tool.”
When you add all that up, especially ebook and audio sales, most books sell a significant amount more than BookScan’s print number. The sales of my novel The Body Scout are hardly Stephen King level but they’re several multiples what BookScan shows, at least according to my publisher’s author portal. This is common. Every author I know sells more copies than BookScan shows. How much more? I’m afraid it all depends. Indie publishers often hand sell a larger % at festivals and conferences. Certain genres, like science fiction, sell a larger % in ebook form. Etc.
There’s no simple stat.
The last bit of crucial context is what a “book” is. I’m not trying to be Derrida with the scare quotes, but it is really important to understand that “book” covers a wide range of material. What the average novel sells is a completely different question from what the average book sells since the latter includes coloring books, MadLibs, niche academic titles not sold in stores, and countless other things. E.g., McLean’s data above includes publishers like Wiley, which publishes lots of textbooks and training manuals. That’s probably not what you think of when you think of the average book.
Additionally, most people think of one work as one book. The Great Gatsby or whatever is one book, right? But in these publishing statistics, a book is anything assigned a unique ISBN. Each format counts as a different book. The paperback, the hardcover, the large print format, library editions, and any other formats each count separately in these statistics.
If you’re an aspiring novelist, the above stats don’t really let you know what your novel might sell. It’s like wanting to open a pizza slice shop and looking at a stat of pizza consumption that includes elementary school cafeterias, frozen pizza, homecooked pizzas, and microwaved bagel bites.
The people I’ve talked to in publishing think the original statistic—if it was accurate at all—might have been referring to backlist sales and was misspoken or misheard. It does seem likely that most older books sell 0-12 copies a year. Most books stop selling after a couple years. But an old book that sells 12 copies in 2023 might have sold 1,200 copies in 2003 and 12,000 copies over its lifetime.
What does the average, say, novel published by a non-scam trade publisher sell? That statistic doesn’t exist anywhere. At least that I can find. I imagine the percent that truly sells less than 12 copies is close to zero. When I had a BookScan account, I spent a long time looking up the sales of different books to try to get a sense of the market. The lowest I ever saw was a couple hundred copies and those were for experimental works on indie presses.
I’d guess the average novel on a Big 5 publisher is selling somewhere in the thousands across formats. Almost certainly far closer to 1,000 than 999,000, but nowhere near 12 copies.
The one thing that is accurate—and indicated by McLean’s stats—is that book sales follow a curve where a few sell A TON and most sell comparatively little. Of course, this is how it is with any artform. There’s a similar curve for album sales, box office tickets, and gallery painting prices.
If you’re an author debating between self-publishing, small presses, and big presses, the best thing to do is research. Learn how those different forms of publishing work and what types of books they’re the best for. If you’re a reader, the best thing you can do is champion the types of books you want to see more of in the world. And no matter what you are, it’s always best to treat viral social media statistics with a healthy amount of skepticism.
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