by Steve Laube

We recently received the following question:

“What does the average book sell today? An industry veteran at a writers conference recently said 5,000. What??? I know it all depends….but … nowhere near 5K, right?”

My simple answer?

It’s complicated.

It depends.

HAH!

Average is a difficult thing to define. And each house defines success differently. If a novel sells 5,000 copies at one publisher they celebrate and have steak dinners. If a novel sells 5,000 copies at another publisher you find staff members fearing for their jobs and in total despair.

Let me give you some real numbers but not revealing the author name (and there is a wide variety of publishers represented):

Author 1: novelist – 3 books – avg. sale = 8,300

Author 2: novelist – 12 books – avg. sale = 19,756

Author 3: novelist – 3 books – avg. sale = 7,000

Author 4: novelist – 7 books – avg. sale = 5,300 (Two different publishers)

Author 5: non-fiction devotional – 5 books – avg. sale 10,900

Author 6: non-fiction – 2 books – avg. sale = 5,300

Author 7: novelist – 4 books – avg. sale = 29,400

Author 8: non-fiction – 3 books – avg. sale = 18,900

Author 9: fiction – 7 books – avg. sale = 12,900

Author 10: non-fiction – 5 books – avg. sale = 6,800 (three different publishers)

So you can see it *DOES* depend. Depends on the author and publisher and topic or genre.

If you take the above 10 authors and their 51 titles, they average 12,455 copies sold for every book published.

Thus I usually say that the average book sells 10,000 copies with a major publisher.

But I’ve intentionally left authors with much higher numbers out of the equation because, in general, they are the exception to the rule.

Be aware that the word “average” means that for every book that sells 15k there is one that sell 5k. And for every book that sells 20k there is one that is a disaster.

I know of an author with a major house whose novel has sold, in its lifetime, only 946 copies in two years. But I also know of others who have sold over 100,000 copies. Thus the word “average” can be problematic.

Read my follow up post which answers this question even further.

Sent us your questions! Just click the big green “Ask Us a Question” button in the right hand column and we will do our best to address your questions in the future.

Interesting. For the most part, I have thought about Best Sellers, and even those who have books that flop, but I haven’t given much thought to the average (of course we all want to be the exception to the rule, but that is not possible, then it wouldn’t be the exception would it?). I still plan on thinking BIG, but it’s nice to know some average figures. Helps put things into perspective. Thanks!

Guess it just proves that average really doesn’t guarantee anything. I think it should make us feel better about climbing into the publishing trenches. Knowing that even if one book does poorly there is always the chance that the other will work out. Publishing is a chance game I believe, they grab a book and hope it does well, but the ones they forecast to do well don’t always pull through like they expected.

What a complicated profession to be in. And yet, I’m still willing to pursue and persevere to through it all.

Steve, Great information that will probably 1) depress unpublished authors a bit, 2) make published authors with truly average sales feel they aren’t alone, and 3) point out that Jim Bell got it right when he said that you might make more as a greeter at WalMart than as a writer.

Seriously, I appreciate your sharing these figures. This information is hard to come by in the industry, and it’s good to know.

Looking at quartiles rather than averages would be a lot more informing…what percentage of books sell less than 5,000, for example!

Jane,

That question is impossible to answer unless we know the sample from which the percentages are derived.

If you mean a percentage of all books with ISBN #s that is one thing.

If you mean books published by Thomas Nelson that is another.

If you mean reference books or textbooks, again the percentage changes.

Sorry I can’t help.

Ultimately the question about book sales is nearly impossible to quantity definitively.

Steve

Sorry, but the math isn’t quite right for those numbers. There are indeed 51 books represented and 124,556 total average sales. But 124,556 / 51 = 2442.2745098039215686274509803922.

That’s about 2,500 average sales per book so the 10,000 figure you quoted is off by a factor of 4.

Perhaps there is an error in the data as listed?

Daniel,

Your math is wrong.

The grand total sales of all 51 titles is 649,772 books. Divided by 51 titles = 12,740 average.

For example: Author #2 has 12 books that each sold an average of 19,756 or a grand total of 237,072 copies (then divided by 12 to get the 19,756 average).

Steve

This is good information, even if it’s not terribly precise. At least it let’s us know the order of magnitude. I think most people who ask, “What does an average book sell?” are asking if it’s more like ten copies, a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred-thousand, etc. Knowing it’s close to the 10,000 range is very helpful.

Ahh! That’s what my mistake was. I was thinking the sales numbers were totals, not averages for each book. Thanks for clearing that up and sorry for the trouble.

I’ve heard 10,000 as a rule of thumb for several other things. It’s nice to know that holds for book sales as well.

Steve,

Great food for thought. Although, I’m curious how this might equate for ebooks and sales?

Thanks.

Cory,

Ebooks are less than 2% of these totals. Partly because they are more recent.

But as a general “rule” if 5%-10% of total sales are ebooks we think that is pretty amazing.

In other words over 90% of all our authors sales are still in hard copy.

My mom would be so proud to know I’ve finally been the norm in something. ;p

Though, I guess, my oddness is still intact as my ebooks have 25% of my sales so far and the percentage is only going up from month to month.

In my experience, book sales has more to do with how hard the author is willing to work after the book is published, than anything else. Too many writers think once their book is available, their job ends. In fact, that is when the real work begins.

They also don’t understand what it takes to make a living as a writer (novelist). Unless you’re with one of the Big 6 publishers you must produce at least two successful full-length novels per year. That means not only do you have to constantly self-promote, but keep writing as well. There is zero down time.

Still, if you manage to break through it’s a wonderful way to make a living.

Brian D. Anderson

For many aspiring writers the information is both exciting and overwhelming. I write because I feel compelled to tell a story and I want my world to be encouraged by it. The process after the writing can be discouraging.

Thanks. I’ve been curious about the numbers, especially for regular books that don’t top the sales charts. I hadn’t realized hard copies outsell eBooks by such a wide margin. Appreciate your follow-up comment.

This article would be a lot more useful if you ever bothered clarifying whether sales numbers you mention are referring to per year, or over the lifetime of the book. Every time sales were mentioned, it was entirely necessary to include this information, and the failure to do so renders this post more or less useless. Pretty sloppy language for someone dealing in books!

The examples I presented here were lifetime sales.

But since they are averaged together some of the titles are many years old averaged against titles much more recent.

Sorry you felt this to be a useless article.

You may find the followup article helpful… or not.

http://www.stevelaube.com/more-about-book-sales/

Interesting figures, but it makes you wonder if the 10k average stays like that, as these are life-time sales. Because the longer the book is on sale, the higher this number should go… and contrary to paper books, ebooks have an “eternal” life.

I feel I must make the obligatory “what do you mean by ‘average’ comment.

Suppose there are 10 books. 9 of them sell 100 copies each. 1 sells 100,000 copies. Average sales per book = 101,000 / 10 = 10,100 copies. But 9 of the books sold much less than that. The nature of the book market, I think — don’t have any stats in front of me but something like this — is that there are many books that sell 1000 copies or less, a bunch in the 1000 to 10,000 range, a relatively small number in 10,000 to 20,00, fewer still in 20,000 to 30,000, etc, up to the very tiny number that sell hundreds of thousands and the miniscule percentage that sell millions. The small number of best sellers drag the average up. And you got what sounds like a joke or a paradox: Almost everyone is below average.