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?!