We like to get a figure in here for the overall sales you are hoping the book will achieve in its lifetime. We are not going to be put off by a low figure, or overly impressed by a high one. It does not go out to the sales people or the shops. But it will help focus your attention on the market, and ours on the book.
If all authors met their goals civilization would collapse because nobody would be doing anything other than reading. Occasionally we surpass expectations. More often, we don’t. We live in hope. Let’s work out what we would like to achieve, and how we should go about it.
If you have published before, please enter here sales recorded on your royalty statements. If you do not, the publisher will have to judge the sales potential on the trade figures we get from Nielsen in North America and the UK.
- Average sales of all new titles: Most people unfamiliar with the industry overestimate book sales by factors of ten. Estimates of the number of new titles published each year in English that sell over 5000 copies vary from 1000 through 5000 to 25,000, depending on the criteria applied. Either way, out of millions of new titles each year (in 2010, 2.5 million new ISBNs – book-identifying numbers – were issued), that is not many. The average sale of all new titles has been variously estimated at 10 or 250 or 500 copies, depending on who you listen to, which year they’re talking about, and whether you include self-published titles or not – nowadays around a million or two new titles per year, depending on definitions. The most commonly quoted figures are around 30 for a self-published book, and 250 for a traditionally published one. In a recent interview (2015) with the founder of MyBestseller, he quotes 95% of books as selling less than 100 copies. The industry guru Mike Shatzkin talks of Now it is not uncommon for books to sell in the very low triple digits, even on a big publisher’s list. So the sales are not evenly distributed, with a small number of "brand name" authors taking the lion's share. This is particularly so in fiction, where about 0.01% of titles account for 50% of the sales, 0.1% account for around 80%, etc.
- Average sales of “properly-published” books: The average sale of traditionally-published books, outside the roster of top brand names, reduces each year. It is not the "fault" of publishers, that they cannot or do not want to sell books. It is a straightforward equation between the number of readers (roughly static) and the number of titles (always increasing, and through online sites etc. all increasingly available – several million on sale at Amazon, and the number of books Google had digitized passed 130 million in 2010). The math is simple. Most shops stock around 5000 titles, the large chain stores, around 30,000. Say an average of 10,000. About half of that is strong-selling backlist. Half of the remainder will be new titles from strong-selling authors with a track record. The booksellers will choose a couple of thousand new titles to stock, mostly fiction, from the other few hundred-thousand or million new ones that are coming out next year. They will look for the "widest-common-denominator" type titles. It is extraordinarily difficult to get a main bookstore-chain buyer to scale out copies of a book by a first-time author, however strong the information sheet. We present the books, but we cannot force shops to take them.
- A category example: Looking at the latest Bookseller analysis of sales in 2013: in the kind of non-fiction specialist areas that we mostly publish in, a sale of 3000 copies in a year in, for example, "popular philosophy" (rather than academic philosophy, where good sales are in the hundreds), would easily get you into the top 20 titles in the UK in 2008, into the company of authors like Julian Baggini, Alain de Botton and Bertrand Russell (yes, he still sells). In the MBS (Mind Body Spirit) category it is 4000 copies. In the larger area of "popular science," a sale of 6000 copies would get you into the same top 20 as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, or in Fitness & Diet, it's 25,000. In a smaller area like environment/green books, 300 copies gets you into the top 20. Sales needed in the USA would be a little higher, but not in a different ballpark. Given the tens of thousands of new titles coming out in each of these areas each year, these achievements are rare. It is one reason why it makes sense for us (and you) to publish for all markets around the world, despite the extra costs of servicing more than one.
- An award example: The Man Booker prize for new fiction is the most important and prestigious in the English-speaking world. In 2007, when the shortlist was announced for that year, selected from the cream of thousands of new fiction titles that had been submitted, the sales of the selected titles had been, since publication in the previous 12 months: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, 101,137; The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, 1,519; Master Pip by Lloyd Jones, 880; The Gathering by Anne Enright (the eventual winner), 834; Darkmans by Nicola Barker, 499; Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, 231. All had enjoyed excellent reviews, and all had been bought out with substantial marketing and loads of hype by major publishers, and pushed heavily through the shops. Of course, after being shortlisted, their sales went up. But these kinds of figures are more characteristic of good book sales (and of really good books) than the millions you read about in the press. Sales in the low hundreds, or even dozens, are common in fiction. Six months’ hard work on the marketing and $10,000 spent might push it up from 100 to 150. It might, of course, do a lot better. But do not bank on it.
- There's a useful recent Huffington Post – What authors should expect to earn. a sale of 25,000 copies is described as "sensational".
- JHP average sales: Our average so far is around 2000 copies (over the life of the book). But it is an "average," not "median," it reduces every year. And it follows "Pareto distribution," not a "bell-curve," i.e. if you plot it across 1500 or so titles, there's a few in 6 or even 7 figures, more in 5, loads in 4 figures, but most new titles sell in hundreds, and, increasingly, in the low hundreds. Some sell in dozens. We have several new titles over the last three years that have sold in tens of thousands; we have not had a recent one in the adult area that has sold in hundreds of thousands. We are usually factors of ten above self-published books, and factors of ten below Harry Potter. With the majority of titles there is usually a correlation between how much the author uses the database and adds to it, and how well their books sell. Much more so, for instance, than if the author or we passed the work on to a freelance publicist, one who we don’t know and who works outside our systems. But the link is not an inevitable one. There is more in Chapter 9, in Marketing Introduction.
- Spread of sales: About half our overall sales are in North America, most of the rest in the UK, with some in Australia and South Africa, and a sprinkling elsewhere. For this reason we tend to use American-English spelling and punctuation in books (as in this document), though this is not a hard-and-fast rule (more on this in Chapter 8, in Preparing the Manuscript.
- “1,000 readers for any book is bloody good these days.” And that was way back in 2010, in brighter times, from Scott Pack, publisher of The Friday Project imprint (Harper Collins), ex-head buyer of Waterstones (equivalent in the USA of B&N and Borders together).
- Bestsellers: “Bestseller” status is not based on cumulative or lifetime sales, and there is no set threshold, nor any single authoritative “list”. It is based on which titles sell the most copies in a particular time period, which could be a week, or a month. It could be a bestseller in a sub-category on Amazon for a day which might imply a sale of a handful of copies, or at the other extreme it takes about 20,000 books ordered during a week at some chosen bookstores to have a chance at the New York Times bestseller list. To get onto Amazon’s Bestseller Top 100 radar across all titles you’re usually looking at about 1,000 sales of your book within the first few days following its release. To reach Amazon’s top five at any time probably means around 500 copies sold per day. More traditionally, though, “bestseller” is synonymous with a book being listed in a recognized print medium. "National bestseller" means that the print medium has national distribution. Many years ago the term in the USA, for instance, was used only with books on the major national papers. So to ensure a spot on The Wall Street Journal’s Bestseller list, you need to sell about 3,000 books in the first week and to hit gold and the New York Times Bestseller list, you’ll need 9,000 copies sold in the first week. But that line was erased long ago and that's why today there are so many books that are bestsellers. The print medium could be any local paper. So almost any book can be called a bestseller. If the author's local newspaper hears from the only bookstore in town that the new book is selling well, even if it’s three or four copies, and the paper puts that in print, even though it is not positioned on what could be described as a bestseller list, then the publisher can call the book a "bestseller." So the term is a fluid one. All you need is an objective, respectable source to quote, rather than inventing the term for yourself. We use the term infrequently, because it can easily be devalued by overuse. We do though consider publishing a bestseller to be aspirational, so at JHP we use the word to describe any book that reaches sales of 5000 (print and ebook combined). We send out a notification to the author advising when this has been achieved.