One thing that every writer naturally wants to know is how many copies of their book they can expect to sell. But clear answers are hard to come by.
It isn’t just that book sales numbers for an individual title are dependent on so many different factors ranging from what kind of book it is, to who is publishing it, via a good dose of sheer luck. It’s also that industry figures for all book sales can be opaque and confusing. Making sense of it all is a considerable challenge. But hey! That’s why this guide is here. I won’t be able to make definite predictions for you in what follows, but I will be able to give you a good idea of how book sales are calculated, and how to make sense of book sales data. Along the way, I’ll also provide some useful benchmarks.
Book Sales Sources
First of all, let’s look into why book sales tracking is such a difficult business and why it’s hard to get reliable book sales figures.
When people ask how to work out how many books they can expect to sell, the temptation here is to invoke the old cliché about working out the length of a piece of string. But the truth is even that analogy won’t cover it, because there isn’t a single reliable measuring device for book sales data.
In the UK, for instance, print book sales charts generally rely on a system called Nielsen Bookscan (the US equivalent is called NPD Bookscan), which compiles point of sale data for bookshops. Which is to say, it counts how many books go through the tills. But it doesn’t count all books sold because not all shops that sell books are signed up to the system. It also doesn’t count sales from all websites, including the increasingly numerous and successful direct sale webstores on publishers’ sites. It doesn’t count ebook sales either.
This already out-of-focus picture is made even fuzzier by the difficulty of getting reliable sales figures from major online retailers like Amazon. And that’s before you get to the problem of working out audiobook sales figures once you factor in the complexity of all the different streaming and ‘credit’ systems used by platforms like Kobo and Audible. It’s also before you get to the essential points that publishers and retailers don’t tend to make sales figures public anyway – and that you have to pay a healthy subscription fee to access Nielsen’s figures.
See? I told you it was complicated.
What are Average Book Sales?
Now, to add to the confusion… You might come across a few websites discussing average sales figures here and there on the internet. One figure that often crops up is that the average traditionally published title can expect to sell 3,000 copies in its lifetime.
Another famous figure is that the average annual sales figures for literary fiction are lower than 250 copies in the UK. Because I’m a publisher, I sometimes give talks to ambitious students on creative writing courses and have to share that melancholy figure with them. You can imagine how it goes down. And then I have to make things even worse. I don’t want to encourage too much cynicism about the average sales figures you might read online, but I do want you to think about how useful they are.
Once I’ve depressed those students with the 250 books figure, for instance, I remind them that this is just the mean average. And you have to know more than that to really understand books sales statistics. The mean average sales figure is calculated from the total number of books sold divided by the number of titles. Which is to say, if 100 books were sold, and there were ten different books the average sale of each book would be 10 copies. The trouble is that different books sell in vastly different numbers. That literary fiction figure includes hard hitters like Hilary Mantel and Booker Prize winners who may be selling close to a million copies in a given year. Which makes that 250 copies start to feel like an optimistic estimate!
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
Here’s another way of thinking about it.
Let’s go back to that figure of 100 books sold. Out of those 100 books, one book might sell 10 copies. Another couple might sell five. Then, three or four might sell four copies. And so on, down the list. If you extrapolate that out into the real world, it means that while the small number of bestsellers might skew the average figures, there are other useful calculations to make.
It’s often a good idea, for instance, to look at the median figures as well as the mean average.
Just a reminder – the mean is the total of the numbers, divided by how many numbers there are. So, for example: (4+4+6+15+100) ÷ 5 = 25.8
To find the median, you order the numbers and find out which one is in the middle of the list. If we look at the following list: 4, 4, 6, 15, 100 then the median is six.
(Just for statistical completeness, the mode, meanwhile, is the number that appears most often. In the example just given, it’s 4. It’s harder to relate this directly to book sales since the figures vary so much – but I mention it here in case you’re ever looking at figures that can be usefully rounded up or down.)
There’s a useful article written by Lincoln Michel over on Electric Lit explaining that out of the books to hit the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list in 2014, mean sales were 737,000, a figure which was heavily skewed by the 8 million copies of 50 Shades Of Grey that were sold. The median was 303,000. Michel also notes that these books probably made up 75% of that year’s total print sales, which gives you another impression of how skewed the market can be.
More Cause for Optimism
Confession time. I’ve kept something back from you. So far, I’ve been talking about annual sales figures. That’s distinct from the weekly sales figures that are used to compile book charts. And also, crucially, for the lifetime sales of a book. These, you’ll be glad to hear, tend to be higher. Indeed, if you’re lucky enough to have a book that comes out in both hardback and paperback, you could find yourself selling more books in your second year than your first. And even if you don’t, you can hope for some accumulation as time goes on.
What’s more those average figures I’ve been quoting may be on their way to being out of date. The book industry has been growing. In 2020 print book sales rose by 8.2% in the USA. For the year ending on Jan. 2 2021, units rose to 750.9 million, from 693.7 million the year before. (I know! That’s a lot of books!) In the UK, meanwhile, there were also reports of increases in 2020, even if the Nielsen Bookscan system wasn’t operating as usual. The Publisher Association reported that fiction sales income rose 13% to £285m, sales of digital consumer books rose 26% up to £125m and also said ‘there was a 47% rise in UK sales of audiobooks (up to £39m), while the value of consumer ebook sales rose 18% to £86m.’
This may be a blip. 2020 was a highly unusual year after all and books became a source of comfort as well as a very good way to fill time during lockdown. But there’s hope that plenty of people will have re-acquired the reading habit. It certainly seems that shops that have reopened have been enjoying brisk sales as people have also rediscovered the joy of browsing*.
*Another interesting fact – it’s very hard to talk about overall annual sales figures until after Christmas. I’m writing this article in October 2021. Plenty of stores will still be hoping that more than half of their annual trading will be done in the next few weeks. Christmas is the big time in book world. In fact, many of the top selling books each year aren’t even released until October. So we won’t know about the top selling books of 2021 for a while.
Most Popular Genres
Time for another confession. Literary fiction may be the genre that most interests students on creative writing courses – but it is not the only game in town. In the UK, in 2017, Nielsen Bookscan figures showed the crime books had become the bestselling fiction books, with 18.7 million sold, compared to 18.1 million general fiction titles. Statistica have also put out research showing that the mystery/thriller/crime was most popular genre in the USA. 47% of their survey respondents said they had read a crime book up to July 2015. Meanwhile, a writer called Geoff Affleck did some useful number crunching on the US Amazon store back in 2019, for instance, and discovered that a mighty 25% of the top bestselling ebooks on Amazon were Romance, Women’s Fiction, and Teen novels (and, he noted, a good proportion of those were “the kind with ripped, bare-chested hunky men on the cover.”)
Perhaps the best way to sell books is to become a writer of ebook romance?
Meanwhile, adult nonfiction sales have also continued to grow. Affleck also provided the following top list for print books (with the number in brackets being the average Amazon ranking of the top five books in each category):
1. Biographies & Memoirs (10)
2. Self-Help (15)
3. Religion & Spirituality (20)
4. Health, Fitness & Dieting (22)
5. Politics & Social Sciences (24)
He also did a breakdown of ebook sales using the same method:
1. Religion & Spirituality (61)
2. Biographies & Memoirs (96)
3. Business & Money (123)
4. Self-Help (146)
5. Cook Books, Food & Wine (171)
Best Selling Books of All Time
Let’s carry on in an optimistic vein and look at the top ten best-selling fiction books of all time. It’s fun to dream, after all.
1.The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
140.6 million copies
2. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
120 million copies
3. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
100 million copies
4. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
100 million copies
5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
100 million copies
6. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
85 million copies
7. She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard
83 million copies
8. The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le avventure di Pinocchio) by Carlo Collodi
35-80 million copies
9. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
80 million copies
10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
77 million copies
A few caveats. These figures are estimates. This list doesn’t include older titles like Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote (which some estimate at having sold 500 million copies), or Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities (some say 200 million copies). JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings isn’t in there either, because of the confusion over the fact it’s been sold both as a single book and with its three parts separated out.
Okay. Back to reality. Not everyone gets to sell 100 million books. Sometimes, you might be lucky to reach 100 people. And, okay, we don’t hear as much about those books at the lower end of the spectrum. We don’t, as this article has explained, even get to hear how many copies those books have sold without subscribing to expensive aggregators like BookScan. Publishers only really tend to share those figures with their authors and agents. Not because they’re trying to hide anything, but because there’s no real demand that they should.
There are also the feelings of the writer to consider. I can tell you, for instance, that I am not keen for anyone to know the sales figures of some of my own worst-sellers…but, I hope with time, I’ve also grown realistic about these things.
The main lesson here is that you shouldn’t just measure success in terms of hard sales. Bringing a book to completion is a victory in and of itself. It takes skill and dedication – and if you touch only one reader with your work, that still means you’ve had an impact, which has to count for something.
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