Tuesday 17 March 2009

Sales Statistics

There's a very useful analysis of self-publishing via the POD route on the Writer Beware website. While this extract discusses sales statistics, the complete article is far more extensive and essential reading for everyone who is considering self-publishing their work.

Sales Statistics

Despite some highly publicized successes, the average book from a POD service sells fewer than 200 copies--mostly to the authors and to "pocket" markets surrounding them--friends, family, local retailers who can be persuaded to place an order. According to the chief executive of POD service iUniverse, quoted in the New York Times in 2004, 40% of iUniverse's books are sold directly to authors.

POD services' own statistics support these low sales figures. AuthorHouse's online Fact Sheet, updated in September 2008, reported 36,823 authors and 45,993 titles. According to the New York Times, AuthorHouse reports selling more than 2.5 million books in 2008, which sounds like a lot, but averages out to around 54 sales per title.

iUniverse's most recent Facts and Figures sheet reports that the company published 22,265 titles through 2005, with sales of 3.7 million: an average of 166 sales per title. Obviously some titles can boast better sales (Amy Fisher's If I Knew Then sold over 32,000 copies)--but not many. According to a 2004 article in Publishers Weekly, only 83 of more than 18,000 iUniverse titles published during that year sold at least 500 copies. And in a 2008 article in The New York Times, iUniverse's VP, Susan Driscoll, admitted that most iUniverse authors sell fewer than 200 books.

As of 2004, stats for Xlibris were similar. According to a Wall Street Journal article, 85% of its books had sold fewer than 200 copies, and only around 3%--or 352 in all--had sold more than 500 copies. Things looked up in 2007: according to Xlibris's own internal reports, recently obtained by Writer Beware, 4% of its titles had sold more than 1,000 copies. However, the averages still aren't good. As of mid-2007, Xlibris had 23,000 authors and had published 23,500 titles, with total sales of over 3 million--around 127 sales per title.

Once independent companies, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and Xlibris are now all owned by the same company, Author Solutions. In a New York Times article published in early 2009, Kevin Weiss, Author Solutions' CEO, put the average sales of titles from any of the company's brands at around 150.

Lulu.com, one of the most popular and cost-effective of the POD services and still independent despite the apparent trend toward consolidation among POD services, is explicit about its long tail business model. In a 2006 article in the Times UK, its founder identified the company's goal: "...to have a million authors selling 100 copies each, rather than 100 authors selling a million copies each." A Lulu bestseller is a book that sells 500 copies. There haven't been many of them.

Many thanks to Victoria Strauss for giving me permission to use this piece.


Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

Interesting. I'd thought about self publishing but thought I'd be lousy at marketing myself and my little non fiction book. It was commissoned but I still have work on PR which I'm actually quite enjoying. The hardest thing is finding out sales figures. I could bug the publisher but might not get another deal:)

And YouWriteOn. Great peer reviews. Really helpful but yes, shame about the vanity press thing.

Sally Zigmond said...

For the purpose of comparison, Jane, could you let us know roughly the average sales figure fir a mid-list title published by a medium sized mainstream publisher--ie through books shops?

Anonymous said...

If you split the self-published books out by Fiction vs Nonfiction, the average sale per fiction title, as low as it already is, would probably drop dramatically.

Jane Smith said...

Fiona, you should get told your sales figures on your royalty statements when they come in, even if your book hasn't earned out yet: and when I was an editor I didn't ever object to talking sales figures, it was always good to know how "my" authors were doing. As for YWO... yes.

Sally, I'm working on it.

And Anon, I'm sure you're right. But I've not found a way to do that yet: it's hard enough to ferret out these figures anyway. I'm very grateful to Victoria for letting me quote her in this way, as so few people who set out to self-publish seem to realise the likely outcome.

Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

Thanks Jane and many thanks to Victoria too.

Derek said...

Sally, in round numbers, and for the U.S. market, you might expect:

Hardcover first novel - 5,000

Mass-market genre paperback - 50,000

Bestseller - 500,000

Of course these numbers can vary, but they give you an idea of the order of magnitude to expect.

Nicola Morgan said...

Great set of facts 'n' figures, Jane - thanks for putting all that together. It makes stark but very important reading for anyone thinking of s-publishing or anyone thinking of believing the occasional mis-leading hype about it.

Does anyone know what the UK equivalent of Derek's US average sales figures are? Scarily small, is all i can say.

Matador said...

The problem with most self-published books is that they are published 'on demand', printed digitally in small batches. They are thus rarely ever placed on the shelves of bookshops, so most sales will naturally be generated by the book's own author.

The only way to get volume sales is by selling through the retail books trade, and that means you need to print copies in advance to place with wholesalers and retailers. That also means that you have to take account of the fact that the retailers will take a very large proportion of your book's cover price which you have to build into your costings. So no point printing your novel 'on demand' at a unit cost of £4 and trying to sell it at £7.99... the wholesalers will take 55% so you are selling at a loss. The only way to get the unit cost down is to either write shorter books (!), or print in quantity to take advantage of the economies of scale. Ahem... lIke any commercial publisher will.

Unlike with most self-publishing companies, Matador authors generally print in bulk so they can sell through retail trade, and many do so successfully. Sales volumes vary greatly and it depends on each book (some books catch on, some don't... ahem... like any commercial publisher's offerings). We consider sales of fewer than 300 copies of a novel to be poor, between 300 and 750 copies average, and over 1000 successful.

By far the bulk of all Matador sales go through the retail trade, rather than through the book's own author. The only way to achieve volume sales is by having copies of a book out there working for you... on the shelves where readers can find them. Word of mouth and internet searches are one thing, but most books are still sold in bookshops -- that's where any book needs to be to sell.

Henry Baum said...

It's incredibly hard to market and sell a self-published book. What's missing here is what's better: having a book lay dormant in your desk drawer or harddrive or potentially reaching 200 extra readers? The point of writing is to find readers - even if it's one by one and not batches of 10,000.

Good things can happen if you release a book out into the world. I self-published - got a mention in Entertainment Weekly, got an agent, traded books and music with intensely interesting people. If your only impetus is selling thousands of books, then wait to get published traditionally. But if you want to reach people and see if a book can take on a life of its own, release the book yourself.

Jane Smith said...

Matador wrote, "The only way to achieve volume sales is by having copies of a book out there working for you... on the shelves where readers can find them. Word of mouth and internet searches are one thing, but most books are still sold in bookshops -- that's where any book needs to be to sell."

Absolutely. The trouble is that few self-published writers manage to get their books onto those bookshop shelves in any great number: sure, they place them locally; but they don't manage anything like nationwide coverage, they can't even approach it. And so they don't sell decent numbers of their books. And to reach the sales numbers that you describe, I bet they have to spend quite a lot of their time selling the book into bookshops, rather than concentrating on writing their next book--which means that once they've exhausted the bookshops within easy-enough reach and their first book has sold all it's going to, they don't have another book ready to get things started again.

This isn't to say that self-publishing is All Bad: I believe it can and does work for some writers. Just not for most.

And Henry: I'd rather keep my work languishing on my hard drive for ever than let it be poorly published.

If all I wanted to do was to reach a handful of readers I could email work out, stick it up on a blog (in fact I've done that), or even print it out and stick it in the post to whoever was interested, all for a lot less money and effort than self-publishing involves. But it's no substitute for being published by a solid mainstream publisher in terms of readership and financial reward.

Meredith Gould said...

I quickly ditched POD as an option after looking at the poor design and print production quality offered. Instead, I set up Plowshares Publishing to publish a very niche title that my publisher (Doubleday) thought was too...niche.

Loved having total control over quality. My self-published title has a seasonal sales cycle and does quite well. I'm well into pure profit on the enterprise.

I recommend self-publishing for authors who know the biz or are willing to hire a project manager to keep everything moving.

Christine Tripp said...

What's missing here is what's better: having a book lay dormant in your desk drawer or harddrive or potentially reaching 200 extra readers? The point of writing is to find readers - even if it's one by one and not batches of 10,000.

The best thing about keeping a book that did not find a publisher in your drawer or hard drive is... you can go back to it later, perhaps years later, see it in a fresh light and perhaps work it into the best thing you have ever done. Of course, I don't see the point of this business as finding readers, I see it as getting published, getting paid and the readers finding me!

Anonymous said...

The problem with the statistics quoted above is that they don't seem to differentiate between types of books and reasons for the author/owners having put the books into print. There's no differentiation between fiction/non-fiction, between children's books, YA books or adult books. More importantly, there's absolutely no differentiation between those books that were NEVER meant for widespread distribution: books that represent a collection grandma's favorite recipes, or grandpa's best fishing advice -- or a private family history that someone wants to package well and give to family and friends.

I have experienced both avenues of publishing: I've had an agent and been published through a large publishing house. I've also been self-published. I can tell you right now that BOTH avenues have pros and cons.

Large publishers have the advantage of getting your books into bookstores. Yes. But according to the Authors Guild, most books in bookstores merely serve as "wallpaper." The books that sell are the books that are up front, or face out. These are the books the publisher has laid out extra cash for in order to secure better placement. Also please remember that the shelf-life of most books is six to eight weeks. That's right. After six to eight weeks, the book is off the shelf. It has to be. With the amount of books being released all the time, bookstores can't afford to keep the same books up week after week, unless they're really good sellers. That's common sense.

What do you really get through traditional publishing? You get prestige, acknowledgment. You can't put a price on that. You get assistance with marketing before the launch date. You get cash in your pocket to help pay for advertising. But most of all you get external affirmation.

What do you get with self-publishing. There's no external affirmation other than the emails from readers. If you value your readers, however, then that's enough. You don't get widespread distribution and people look down on you. You also have to foot the bill entirely for publication.

However ... you get to keep what you kill. You have transparency. You will know exactly what your sales figures are. You can sell your rights as you wish. You can always move toward traditional publication, if you wish. You have freedom.

As for marketing: Within two months of publication, your average author, whether published traditionally or independently, is sitting in the same boat. They both have to set up their own blog tours, book signings, keep up a blog, update their website, pay for books, send out postcards, sign up for conferences, etc. Two months after publication, neither author will see his or her books in chain bookstores. Both will have to tell those who are interested to have the bookstore order the books.

So I reiterate: Either avenue can be taken. It's a choice for each author to be, realistically knowing the advantages and pitfalls of each.

Milton Davis said...

I think two things are missing here. One is the average sales per book for major publishers. The other is the true difficulty in getting published by major publishers. I self-publish and I'm fine with it. The deeper I get into the business of writing the more I'm reminded of the music industry. There's a host of people out there ready and willing to take advantage of an unsuspecting writer. I know published friends of mine who have never received royalties, have had books published just to see the company go out of business before the book was released, waited years after a book was bought by a publisher before seeing it in print. With all the sharks swimming these waters I'm amazed at the writers who actually make a living writing full time.

I like self publishing because I'm in control. I make more money and I have a closer relationship with my readers. If my book does well locally you can be sure the publishers and distributors will show up. Then I can work a better deal. Not a perfect deal, but a better one. Major publishers and agents don't like self publishing because they lose some of their control over the industry and miss dollars when a writer chooses to go on his or her own. A writer has to understand it's not the POD company's job to sell your book. That's your job. You have to do it even if a major publisher sells your book.Check the PODs out for the one with the best deal. Get reference from other writers. Yeah, its work, but what isn't?

Thanks for sharing this information. Based on these numbers my sales are above average.

Milton Davis

Tom said...

According to Publisher’s Weekly (July 17, 2006), for books sold in stores and traditional online booksellers, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million (80%) tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 (18%) sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 (2%) sold more than 5,000 copies. The average 'traditional' book in America sells about 500 copies.

Jane Smith said...

Tom, I've just tried to track down the article that you refer to and can't find it. Here's a link to the archive for that issue:


Can you let me know which piece it was? Or did it not appear online? I'd like to have a look at the original and see what else I can find out from it.

Tom said...

The article is "A Bookselling Tail", a Soapbox column.

Chris Kinsey said...

As far as I know I'd agree with the sales figures in that article that Tom quoted. I've seen data from Nielson which said that over 50% of all titles published in the UK in 2000 sold less than 250 copies. That was before POD really took off, so I guess it's even less than that now.