Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Nielson's Numbers

You’ve probably seen this on other blogs since it’s old news and all over the Internet, but for those of you who haven’t, these are interesting statistics that really show what we’re all up against in this business.

In 2004, Nielsen Bookscan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the United States and here’s what they came up with:

  • Of those 1.2 million, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies.

  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.

  • Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.

  • Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies.

  • Only 10 books sold more than a million copies each.

  • The average book in the United States sells about 500 copies.

Now, my opinion . . . these numbers are skewed somewhat. When most of us think of books published in the U.S. we think of the major publishers—Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, etc. To come up with these figures, I suspect that smaller publishers, academic and professional books, and even gift/art books were included, which is going to bring the average down considerably. However, that being said, the statistics still show that only 25,000 books sold more that 5,000 copies. And that’s not a lot.

Strangely, I find these statistics enlightening, discouraging, and, hold on, encouraging, all at the same time. By looking at this you know why publishers are so picky when buying books, and so cheap when paying for them. You also know why it’s so hard to be published. It’s discouraging to know that so few authors have success even after making that much-dreamed-about sale, and it’s encouraging to know that most of my clients are seeing some real success, and that everyone has sold more than 99 copies.

To put this even further into perspective, I’m going to extract some numbers from the "On Sale Next Week" column published regularly in Publishers Weekly. Keep in mind these are first print runs and not final sales numbers, and that publishers are only going to share the big-number books and not the average or midlist numbers. However, what interests me about them is that sometimes the numbers aren’t as high as what you might expect them to be. At least that’s what I think. . . .

The following are hardcover books released in 2006:

  • Motor Mouth by Janet Evanovich, 1,000,000 first printing

  • Strange Candy by Laurell K. Hamilton, 150,000 first printing

  • Culture Warrior by Bill O’Reilly, 975,000 first printing

  • Under Orders by Dick Francis, 192,000 first printing

  • The New Adventures of Curious George by Margret and H. A. Rey, 150,000 first printing

  • The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer, 350,000 first printing

  • Dark Angels by Karleen Koen, 250,000 first printing

  • After This by Alice McDermott, 125,000 first printing

Unfortunately, publishing is a business and business is a numbers game. However, the first printing means nothing if you can’t sell more than 99 copies. Which of course brings us all around to the importance of promotion and publicity on behalf of the author.

Oh, and how is it that Curious George only has a first printing of 150,000 copies?!



elysabeth said...


How interesting that this is a numbers game (but as mentioned before by you, it is all about the numbers) - Those numbers do seem skewed a bit. If that Curious George was a first print run, then when it first came out that would about right (those are printed copies, not sold copies right?)

Just because they run a print of so many copies doesn't mean they will sell - or so I understand from your postings before this. Wow - a million copies on a first print run - is that name only or is the book really expected to sell more than half those in print? Or is that print run for international numbers as well?

I just keep thinking that the sales and print runs just don't match - but then again, I'm not on the end of the publishing aspect and have no clue how to figure out how to do a print run - I'm sure you explained it before. I will be happy just to see my friend's books run in any print run and be on the shelves (I know you probably think I am making up this friend I keep talking about but I'm not - if you check your recently received mail, y ou will find a submission from Batya Deene, story is called Out of Balance) - I've helped her edit and polish and worked on the query letter and the synopsis with her - so hopefully soon for her (had a "dream or premonintion" take your pick about her books)

Anyway - more power to these authors to sell all their first print runs. E :)

Maria said...

Useful post. Thanks.

Stacia said...

I seem to recall reading recently that the big NY pubs combined publish about 17,000 books per year (I could be totally off, but I swear I did just see this.) Which means if you have a good publisher, your chances are very good indeed.

Virginia Miss said...

I found this information useful and interesting. Thanks for the post.
I'm assuming the 1.2 million included the self-pubbed stuff, too?

Cynthia Rayne said...

That is really depressing (looking at the numbers game of it all.)

Anonymous said...

I am proud to say I have sold 374 copies of Nobody's Investment.

Anonymous said...

For those of you depressed, you have to realize, Nielsen is only one part of book sales. If you take to the road and do speeches, book signings, craft fairs, etc. those sales are not counted in these figures.

Just as Ingram numbers aren't the same as Amazon numbers, Bookscan isn't the same as direct sales numbers.

And no, print runs have nothing to do with books sold. There was an interesting article in the WSJ a couple of years ago about how most big publishers destroy huge amounts of books. That's why Print on Demand is the saving grace of the industry if used right.

So don't get depressed. If you do your own marketing these numbers mean nothing.

And if you are just starting out, if an average book sells about 500 copies, now you know what to expect and what to shoot for. You no longer have to be lulled into thinking if you print up 5,000 copies of a book...

Instead you can use print on demand to sell that first 500 and not loose your shirt.

Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

Another interesting number from those same stats: the number of separate ISBNs published in the US in 2004: 181,189. It actually went down to around 171K for 2005--the first drop in many, many years--but still, the trend is seriously upward. Only a few years ago, only 50,000 or so books were published in the U.S. in a year.

--Shel Horowitz, author, Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers

I discuss some other stats and implications from this report at

Cindy said...

This is really surprising to me. I always thought that the bestsellers were selling millions and millions of copies around the world. Which lead to my assumption that if the author was getting over $1 in royalities, then most "successful" novelists were millionaires.

You're breaking my heart.

Anonymous said...

A couple of notes:

Bookscan catches about 80% of all sales through bookstores, as I understand it, but seems to drastically under-report books that sell outside the traditional distribution chain. (One of my clients told me that only about 20% of her sales are shown on Bookscan, for example.)

Announced first printings have very little direct correlation to ACTUAL first printings. They're a signal to the rest of the industry, but we all understand that the real first printing will be decided after the advance orders come in, and is usually smaller. Still, this gives the buyers and your reps an idea how "big" the house thinks the book is, and what kind of support it will be given.

Remember also that returns run between 30% (hb general interest) and 50% (mass market), and that publishers need to print those extra copies. There's a whole bunch of reasons for the returns situation, and it can actually benefit the author and publisher to have a certain level of returns, believe it or not.

For whatever it may be worth

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