Sunday, 29 November 2009

Self-Publishing Sales Statistics Clarified

When I appeared on The Write Lines last week I mentioned that the average self-published book sells between forty and two hundred copies, depending on which set of figures you consult. Compared to mainstream publishing, where sales of three thousand copies for commercial fiction are considered by some to be disappointing, these figures are terribly low and the reaction from the other studio guests (a literary agent and three successful mainstream-published writers) was obvious: if you listen to the recording you can clearly hear them gasp.

After the broadcast I caught up with the reaction on Twitter, and found that a few writers were discussing the figures I quoted and reaching some rather unsound conclusions. While I'm not going to quote anyone here (it’s just not appropriate to single anyone out), I do think it’s important that I respond to their points. But first, a very quick primer on how sales figures are usually gathered in the book trade.

Nielsen Bookscan collects the sales figures of various online and physical retailers, then collates those figures and reports them to the book trade (it’s Nielsen which produces the best-seller charts we're all so envious of). However, as relatively few copies of self-published books are sold through bookshops, and quite a few self-published titles don’t even have the ISBNs which are essential for books to be tracked by Nielsen, the majority of self-published sales aren't included in Nielsen’s sales reports: therefore, if you rely on Nielsen to provide sales information about self-published books, you’re likely to be way out of whack with the real picture.

The Tweeters seemed to assume that I was relying on Nielsen, and that therefore my figures had to be way off.

They would have had a very valid point if I had relied on Nielsen’s reports for my statistics, but I used a far more generous source for the figures I quoted on air: the publishers themselves (there’s an obvious difficulty here: my figures came from companies which style themselves as self-publishing service providers, which many consider to be vanity presses: but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll ignore that issue, which is a little off-topic here. I shall return to it at another time, have no fear).

As most publishing service providers of this type offer only print-on-demand services, copies of the books that they publish are only ever printed in direct response to an order; a copy printed is a copy sold, no matter who buys it. So long as a book is printed and sent out from their premises they consider it a sale—when these companies report sales what they’re really reporting is the number of copies printed. You can see that there is not going to be a hidden stash of sales which fail to get included in the sales statistics: if anything, these companies are likely to over-report, rather than under-report, their sales.

As the sales figures I quoted came directly from POD-based self-publishing service providers, not only do those figures include all copies sold in bookshops or by Amazon, etc.; they also include all copies subsequently returned by bookshops to their authors (because with self-publishing the author is the publisher, and so they have to credit the bookseller’s account for those returned books even if they’re no longer in a sellable condition); they also include as sales every single copy that the authors bought and then sent out, for free, to reviewers, or gave away to family and friends; and every single copy which all those hopeful authors ordered, only to have them left mouldering away in their garages when they found they couldn't sell them—of which there are far too many.

Which means that it’s impossible for the sales figures I mentioned to be under-reported: unlike Nielsen's figures, they are going to be higher than the sales which really count in an author's career: the sales made to interested readers who considered the books potentially good enough to pay their hard-earned money for.


emmadarwin said...

That's a lovely, clear analysis - thank you! Worth mentioning, too, that Neilsen figures if anything under-report, particularly for certain kinds of book, so if the figures for self-published sales are 'too high' because they include unsold books and review copies, then BookScan figures are arguable 'too low'. Which makes the apparent gap between the two smaller than the actual gap.

You'll have plenty of blog-readers who know FAR more about this than me, but I understand that since BookScan chiefly reports sales through retail tills, library suppliers' sales, for example aren't reported. As an extremely unscientific guide, (just conceivably erring on the generous side to encourage the averagely despondent author ;-) ) my editor increases the Neilsen figure by about a third, for an estimate of the total sales.

Daniel Blythe said...

One of the most interesting points of many you made in the programme is that the number of self-published titles now exceeds the number of properly published books for the first time! But, of course, with the added killer piece of info you gave - that the "conventional" market still accounts for the vast majority of *sales*.

Somebody once tried to justify Lulu to me on the premise that "they sell a lot of books." Well, they have a lot of *titles* - not quite the same thing!

Miriam Wakerly said...

I spoke about my self-publishing experience on the Write Lines last Sunday, 22 Nov.
What is meant by a 'sale' does become a bit of a grey area. For me, sales have been through local bookshops, mostly Waterstone's; other bookshops eg Borders; on Amazon; through my website; direct sales at talks and events; and to local authorities for use in education and training. I have also given away about 60. Total - nearly 600 so far, but you would never be able to find this figure via Nielsen's Bookscan.

I am so glad I did not use one of the companies that provide the 'self-publishing' package.

Also, with print-on-demand I would have struggled to break even, never mind make a profit. It is vital to remember the discounts expected by wholesalers, retailers and Oh yes, particularly Amazon - a whopping 60%.

There are many hidden costs in self-publishing and it is important to have your business hat securely pinned onto your head. See my tips on blogspot, Miriam's Ramblings.
Miriam Wakerly author of Gypsies Stop tHere

Maxine Clarke said...

While I agree with you about some of the fluctuations and uncertainties about the Nielsen figures, I think you may be over-reporting the other figures. As I understand your post, you are relying on the publisher for numbers. Surely, an independent number is needed? For example, we know not to believe anybody's download statistics unless they are verifed independently eg by COUNTER. I know several people who self-publish and I'm very surprised that you cite 40 to 200 copies as an average! I'd think it is much, much lower than that. (As you say, there are lots of variations depending on type of book, obscurity of author, etc).

(Note, I neither heard the programme nor commented on this matter on Twitter.)

Derek said...

Jane: We need to distinguish here between the average number of copies sold ("arithmetic mean") and the number of copies sold by the average title ("median").

The arithmetic mean of 40 copies is likely inflated by the few titles that sell over 500 copies, thus bringing up the overall average.

The median, on the other hand, is likely much lower. I'm guessing around 3 copies.

In other words, I'm saying that of the 18,108 titles mentioned in your previous post, 9,054 probably sold 3 or few copies. said...

It's great to see this spelt out so clearly. I think a lot of authors believe that sales channels such as Amazon will lead readers to their books. This is rarely the case. Online retailers certainly make distribution easier for self-published authors, but translating this into sales is another matter entirely.

There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule, but the vast majority of self-published authors end up disappointed. In order to succeed, you need to have produced an exceptionally good book (as, rightly or wrongly, readers remain suspicious of self-published work), and you also need to be an extraordinary salesperson. The time commitment alone is mind-boggling - and that's on top of the stuff that conventionally published authors have to do, like maintaining an online presence and working a day job (!). I think the question authors need to ask themselves is, 'Did I get into writing to do all this?'

Karen Carr said...

What are your thoughts on a solid-mid list author, one that already has a following, self publishing? I'm thinking that if an author already has a good-solid following that maybe self-publishing is a better option for them? Do you think we'll see more of this in the future, especially with electronic rights? Curious.

Jane Smith said...

It would be very useful if anyone would care to give hard statistics for the numbers of copies they've sold--whether by self-publishing or mainstream (and if you'd rather do this anonymously, that's fine--or you could email me figures and I'll stick them here, without your names attached).

Derek, you make an excellent point: if you take a look at the articles I linked to you'll see the original figures I worked with. I wondered how many books only sold a copy or two, and what effect this would have on the figures: if you'd like to play around a bit for us, I'd be pleased to put it up as a blog post.

And KFran, if I were such a mid-list author I'd certainly consider self-publishing a collection of unpublished shorts, and any books I'd written which had subsequently gone out of print, and making them available (perhaps as an e-book) from my website. It would be a way to make a bit of extra cash from something that wasn't working for me, and a way of rewarding loyal readers.

But I wouldn't self-publish new works in preference to taking a mainstream contract for them: the return just isn't there, and the work required to effectively promote and sell the book would stop me writing the next.

Derek said...

Well, it's hard to say without more information, but given the numbers in your previous post, it's possible the distrubtion is something like this:

Average sales = 44 copies

But median sales (i.e., sales of the "average" title) = 10 copies

Don't forget #thewritelines everyone.

Jen Flynn said...

Great Post. Thank you. For those who do choose the self publishing method it is so imporant to market your book well and constantly. It does make a tremendous difference in overall sales.
Jen Flynn

Jane Smith said...

Thanks, Derek, that's very interesting. Sad, but interesting. I hope writers who are considering self-publishing take note.

And Jen, you're right: to sell a decent number of copies, self-published writers have to market themselves constantly (much as you are doing by posting your comment here...). I have a question for you: if they are doing that, when are they going to get the time to write their next book?

Marion Gropen said...


I'm so glad you're out there telling people these truths. I tend to see them only when they're already in over their heads and looking for help.

It's very, very hard to make money publishing books. The so-called self-publishing services make it that extra bit harder.

In the US, there are more than 400,000 new titles published every year. I haven't checked this, but I believe we passed the "half from vanity press" mark some years ago.

As for whether a mid-list author would do better self-publishing, the answer is almost always no. It is true that publishers take a cut (for how much, do take a look at the post on my blog laying out a trade P&L), but the skill set is very different, and it takes some time to learn how to earn that money.

More than that, it's a lousy investment. The average trade book takes more than $20,000 to launch. True self-publishers can substitute time for money to some extent, but the ROI is still far less than you'll earn in most years in the stock market. (Maybe not last year!) And those who use the vanity presses are usually going to lose most of their investment, rather than making a dime.

In short, most of the myths about this new trend are just that: myths.

Henry Baum said...

These sales statistics are meaningless, as someone selling 3 books is going to bring down the average for all self-published books, and there are a great number of self-publishers who only sell a couple copies. If you average out all traditionally published books, the sales figures aren't great either. Basically, it's hard to sell any type of book. Furthermore, why should I base my desire to publish based on someone else's sales figures?

Jane Smith said...

Henry, I'd love it if we had more detailed statistics to work with, but as these are all I have, these will have to do. If you know of any better ones, I'd gladly write a new analysis.

You're right when you say "there are a great number of self-publishers who only sell a couple copies": that's a very important point for prospective self-publishers to bear in mind. They aren't all going to do as well as you appear to have done (and incidentally, I'm glad you've commented here: I read your piece in 3AM with great interest and wish there was a way to comment on the articles there, as I'd like to have congratulated you on it and also to have pointed out an error you made--I didn't write the post that you attributed to me; while it did appear on this blog, it was written by Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware: you might want to correct that).

You wrote, "If you average out all traditionally published books, the sales figures aren't great either." It depends on how you define "great", though. When I worked as an editor for a packaging company my lowest-selling book sold through to the tune of about 1,600 copies, while my highest-selling title shifted over 120,000 copies. I can't remember how many books I edited in that time but whether you assume that it was 10 or 200, the sales statistics are still "great" when you compare them to the ones I've analysed here.

Dan Holloway said...

Jane, I 100% agree that self-published sales are likely to be overreported for this reason. Can I also make it clear that this is one reason I break my sales figures down as I do in my monthly "hold a self-publisher to account" column ( et al). I state how many copies I have bought direct from the POD but I do not report them as sales - my sales are made up of orders direct from the POD, and, separately, those made direct by me and through retailers with whom I have left stock. I felt this was necessary as I made the initial offer/pledge to post screen shots of my Lulu account if requested - and I was aware that these may look overinflated. The fact is that the number of review copies (including one for a column that reviews self-published books, ahem) I have sent out is in double figures, and likely to grow - likewise several orders are accounted for as proof copies I wouldn't let near a member of the public.

I so wish I could have been on that show representing a self-publishng collective with, i hope, a balanced view of things.

I would like to reiterate a point I have made a few times in relation to the self-publishing figures, whcih is that I'd like to see the data presented with some relevant analytic criteria but I fear this is practically impossible. To wit, my "intuition" is that most people write a book, self-publish it, don't sell many, give up OR write a book, self-publish, sell to family & friends & keep doing the same happily. What I would like to see is the progression of sales from serious self-publishers, because with any kind of a stats hat on it has to be pretty much impossible to judge success or failure until at least the third book. Suppose my first book sells 40 copies, my second 80 - there is no way of knowing whether the increase is the start of an arithmetic or geometric growth pattern. The most effective way to self-publishing success is to create a geometric growth curve over a number of books through word of mouth (having found the right initial readers) over a fantastic product. Sadly I think practicalities (people changing printer, a general lack of transparency, and people giving up too soon or, indeed, going mainstream in some cases) means that such data are unlikely to be available. All I can do is to offer my books and their sales progress along with other potential significant factors (such as dates reviews are published) as raw data - albeit for a statistically insignificant sample.

I would encourage other self-publishers to do the same.

Dan Holloway said...

Maxine, I agree there is a problem verifying stats - whihc is why I always offer to provide screenshots from the various sites my work is available. I have come across some heinous reporting methods from self-publishers (mainly ebook self-publishers for reasons that will become clear). When I started self-pubbing & making my ebooks available, I was almost put off at stage one because people I had read "bigging themselves up" were reporting minimum downloads of 20,000 and up to 500,000 of their work. how on earth was I going to match that? Well, having spent some time now in the smashwords community (where, after a very short space of time, my novel is apparently the 52nd most downloaded ever out of over 6000 with, as of now, 1132 downloads - and I know the number 18 book has only around 2000), I am 90% certain that the high figures are the result of reporting "page views" or, on Scribd, "reads" as opposed to downloads - which is like doing the bestsellers list based on the number of people who touch the spine of a book on the shelf. Of course, I am willing to be proven wrong, but I'd like to see proof.

@Katherine - "'Did I get into writing to do all this?'" Maybe I'm atypical, but I got into writing to tell stories and try to create something of artistic value at some future point and that means going out and meeting readers and other writers, in any way I can - in real life or online, and most of all at performances and other events where I get to tell those stories "live" - for me the mechanics of putting words on paper is great, but it is the grind that puts me in a position where I can stand in front of an audience and see their faces and hear their reaction as I tell them stories. So yes, I guess "all this" is exactly why I got into writing. Being a self-publisher means when I put on a gig I get to design the poster (or rather I get to feed vague mood boards to Sarah who then does her alchemy), I get to choose the venue; I get to choose a line-up to perform with, I get to forge personal bonds with the venue management, and I get to publicise the event how I like without a publisher saying "ooh you can't say that". "All that" for me is a prime reason FOR self-publishing. On the other hand I know for many people it isn't. I also know that no matter how much I love doing it, I need a product of the right genre for the kind of audience I will reach this way - and I'm aware that because of its double niche appeal (I find readers who engage with the mother as well as the daughter), my current novel, songs from the blah blah blah is only A2 in terms of suitability. I will be fascinated to see how I get on with SKIN BOOK, which is about as nichy as one could wish.

Emilie said...

Thanks - that makes me feel better. My self publish book - Chenda and the Airship Brofman - has been out for three months now and has sold almost 200 copies. I'm just beginning the rounds of appearances and book signings, so I feel great about what I've got so far. But - I will say that I spend about 2 hours a day working on promoting the book. and pour most of what I make back into promoting. It's really a lot of fun for me regardless.