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Valona
10-18-2005, 06:45 PM
I've read that "85% of all the books published every year sell less than a thousand copies. Only about 5% sell more than five thousand copies." This is according to an agent who calls herself "Miss Snark" (I don't know who she is).

Is there any truth to this? Are we all just wracking our brains and writing our heads off for a pitance?

victoriastrauss
10-18-2005, 07:45 PM
Far be it from me to question Miss Snark, especially when her figures put me (a pretty obscure writer) in the top 5%. I wonder, though, if the picture can really be so grim. (I'm assuming she's talking only about trade publishing here, and not including the wacky world of Internet-based indies, where authors are lucky to sell in the low three digits.)

Writing is not a lucrative profession. There was a survey done back in the 1980's (?) that showed that the average writer's income was under $5,000 a year. If you're in it for the money, you're likely either to be disappointed, or to have to work much harder than you ever imagined. I know writers who make a living at it, but they really have to hustle (and these are writers who sell way more than 5,000 copies).

A far more pressing concern than money is satisfying your publisher's sales expectations, so that you can sell another book.

- Victoria

Andrew Jameson
10-18-2005, 09:05 PM
Can you point out where she said that, Valona? I searched her blog (admittedly not very efficiently) and can't find it. I was wondering about the context.

I did find that 85% of compact disks (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jun2001/tc20010621_567.htm) sell less than 1000 copies: enough of a numerical coincidence that I wonder if she's got her media switched up.

Jamesaritchie
10-18-2005, 10:45 PM
I've read that "85% of all the books published every year sell less than a thousand copies. Only about 5% sell more than five thousand copies." This is according to an agent who calls herself "Miss Snark" (I don't know who she is).

Is there any truth to this? Are we all just wracking our brains and writing our heads off for a pitance?

I sometimes wonder about Miss Snark. These numbers came from a recent The New York Times report. Trouble is, that report mixed apples and space shuttles. You can't look at ALL books published and get any sort of meaningful numbers.

A book issued by a small press that sells 5,000 copies is wildly, spectacularly successful. A book issued by a large, commercial publisher that sells 5,000 copies is usually a major flop.

Even though only 5% of ALL published books sell more than 5,000 copies, it's a completely meaningless statistic. What you need to know is how many copies sell on average from a publisher of a given size.

It's about expectations. Small presses do not expect large sales numbers, and keep distribution, marketing, employment and similar costs down because of this. Large publishers expect much larger sales, and, in fact, need much larger sales on average to cover overhead.

Most successful publishers operate on an 6-8% profit margin, regardless of size, but this means the larger the publisher, the greater the costs of running the business, and the more books need to sell to justify keeping that writer around.

So how many books you have to sell to be considered successful depends on the type of book you write, and on the size and expectations of the publisher that releases it.

victoriastrauss
10-18-2005, 11:06 PM
James, do you have a link to that NYT report? I'd like to read it.

- Victoria

Tiaga
10-18-2005, 11:15 PM
You also need to look at comparable sales per genre as well as publisher size.
A Romantic novel or YA or Scifi might sell well over 5,000 and be considered average in sales.
But a Horror or Mystery might be considered wildly successful at 3,000 sales from the same house.

Jamesaritchie
10-19-2005, 07:06 AM
James, do you have a link to that NYT report? I'd like to read it.

- Victoria

I'll see if I can dig it up. Another writer showed it to me a couple of weeks back. I read it, but didn't keep the link. But I may be able to find it. Now if I can just remember where and when. . .

Jaws
10-19-2005, 06:08 PM
The NYT report was based upon the entire universe of published books, for 2003 if I recall correctly (but may have been 2004). That includes everything for which an ISBN was issued—all 195,000 or so items. Considering that what we call "commercial publication" accounted for less than a third of that number, one can reasonably multiply the "per title sales" in the report by three to get a rough estimate. That would imply that the relevant numbers are 3,000 and 15,000 copies respectively—and that is consistent with my own data.

The number is as low as 3,000 not just due to small presses, but to professional and other restricted-audience books, which together form a substantial segment of the market. Consider, for example, law-school casebooks. There are, at present, five casebooks with any real market penetration (that is, they're used anywhere other than the author's own school). The total number of law students taking a basic copyright course—the only place in which the books will be used—is probably around 3,500 to 4,000 in any given academic year. Assuming that every student bought a new book, and that each law-school library in the nation also bought a copy, that means that the total market each year for copyright casebooks would be under 4,300. Even if one book were dominant (at present, that's not the case), at least four would fail to meet that 3,000-copy criterion. And, considering that about 30% of law students show up with a used casebook…

Jamesaritchie
10-19-2005, 06:49 PM
The NYT report was based upon the entire universe of published books, for 2003 if I recall correctly (but may have been 2004). That includes everything for which an ISBN was issued—all 195,000 or so items. Considering that what we call "commercial publication" accounted for less than a third of that number, one can reasonably multiply the "per title sales" in the report by three to get a rough estimate. That would imply that the relevant numbers are 3,000 and 15,000 copies respectively—and that is consistent with my own data.

The number is as low as 3,000 not just due to small presses, but to professional and other restricted-audience books, which together form a substantial segment of the market. Consider, for example, law-school casebooks. There are, at present, five casebooks with any real market penetration (that is, they're used anywhere other than the author's own school). The total number of law students taking a basic copyright course—the only place in which the books will be used—is probably around 3,500 to 4,000 in any given academic year. Assuming that every student bought a new book, and that each law-school library in the nation also bought a copy, that means that the total market each year for copyright casebooks would be under 4,300. Even if one book were dominant (at present, that's not the case), at least four would fail to meet that 3,000-copy criterion. And, considering that about 30% of law students show up with a used casebook…


Yes, and once you take all the non-commercial books out of the mix, you still have to break things down according to type of book, expectations for same, and size of publisher. I wish I'd read the article with a little more care, but it didn't make a lot of sense to me. I wasn't sure what the point of the article was because, to me, it seemed to be trying to make a point about book sales in a completely illogical manner. Maybe even a dishonest manner. So I found myself skimming, and it may be I shouldn't have.

I can't find a link to the article, and I got it through a forum that is now a paid access forum, so I can't get back in there.

But I'll say this for restricted audience books. What they lack in volume, they make up for in cover price.

Valona
10-19-2005, 07:18 PM
Here's another perspective. A lady I'm friends with, just sold her third novel. Her first sold 30,000 copies, her second has sold 90,000 so far. She knows a thing or two about writing and the publishing industry. Here's what she had to say about this:


There are a whole lot of variables here.... I think an average print run for a first YA novel is 10,000. Why would a big house take a chance on a book that would only sell 1000 copies? It wouldn't be economically feasible. An average advance for a first children's or YA novel is $5000-$8000... for an adult novel, you'd have to increase those amounts. An exception would be those little romance novels, which are usually work for hire (meaning you get a flat fee for them, not advance against royalty).

An interesting figure I heard when the last Potter came out (it sold 50,000 copies in its first hour) is that only 1% of all books published ever sell 50,000 copies. And the vast majority of all books never earn back their advances. Which explains why publishing is so hard to break into. For a big house to take a chance on a new author is a huge step.

What I know to be true is that a big publishing company will offer as an advance what they believe an author can make back in the first year.

This doesn't sound like the doom and gloom I'm hearing around the industry either. Assuming you can get a large publisher to buy your work, you then stand a pretty good chance of success. Granted, most first novels don't sell enough to earn back their advances, but larger publishing houses have that all figured in and count on a second and third book from the author to make up the difference.