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How Many Copies Does it Take to Become a “Bestselling” Book?
2023-10-19 Invite Champions Weekly
Most authors have figured out that they’re not going to retire on royalty checks. But what exactly should you expect when it comes to book sales? This may be the most commonly asked question I hear, and it’s not easy to answer.
Part of the problem is confusion about what things even mean. So first, a few definitions:
Book - Any unique ISBN. Seems silly, perhaps, but defining a book can be confusing. One title can have several editions, such as hardcover, paperback, ebook, and so on. A public domain title can exist in several formats across several publishers.
Frontlist - Any book published within the last 12 months, or 52 weeks of reporting data.
Backlist - Titles older than 12 months.
Sales - Most figures come NPD BookScan, which is like Nielsen TV ratings—extrapolations drawn from sample data. They are not 100% representative, but what they call “directionally accurate”, based on statistical analysis of retail sales of print units and self-reported publisher data on ebook and audio. Critically, BookScan is not aware of digital copies, direct publisher sales, and Christian Book Distributors (CBD), which may add 20% to their figures. For example when Invite sells bulk copies of a title directly to a church, this information doesn’t reach BookScan.
10 Sales Trends Impacting Your Book’s Future
With that, here are some recent trends, with source links, to give you an idea about what to expect when you publish a book in the 2020s:
The average lifetime is 500 units, according to Publisher’s Weekly. Or, as Lincoln Michel writes, “most traditionally published novels that you see on bookstore shelves or reviewed in newspapers sell several hundred to a few thousand copies across formats.” A self-published book may be half of that, while a traditionally published book may achieve 1000 units.
Here is a breakdown of sales on printed frontlist titles in 2022, from the top 10 publishers, according to McLean:
0.4% or 163 books sold 100,000 copies or more
0.7% or 320 books sold between 50,000-99,999 copies
2.2% or 1,015 books sold between 20,000-49,999 copies
3.4% or 1,572 books sold between 10,000-19,999 copies
5.5% or 2,518 books sold between 5,000-9,999 copies
21.6% or 9,863 books sold between 1,000-4,999 copies
51.4% or 23,419 sold between 12-999 copies
14.7% or 6,701 books sold under 12 copies
Note that only about 1% of new releases from the top 10 publishers sold more than 50,000 units, and roughly 66% of books sold less than 1,000 units over their first year. While all books combined sell 500 lifetime, you’d perhaps expect the big publishers to hit much better numbers than the industry as a whole. Yet 2/3 aren’t making the basic benchmark of 1000 units sold.
Incidentally, the median Invite Press release is well above this mark. Obviously we’re still new. While over 50% of our entire catalog has been on the market less than one year, nine titles have broken 1000 units sold, and our median first year sales average is already over 1200 units.
The market is still incredibly large. A breakout hit like The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold over 30 million copies in 20 years and still appears on the bestseller lists, is still possible. For industry comparison, the average NYT number one bestseller sold over 700,000 units in 2014 (the market has grown, not shrunk, in the last decade). The new Mark Levin book sold 130,000 units in its first week (PW, 10-3-2023). The aggregate Christian trade market sells about 100 million books a year.1
Lifetime sales for most books occur in the first 6 months. Our approach is that the life of a book occurs in three phases: pre-order, the launch window (~30 days), and bulk sales, which usually kick in in the third or fourth month, once initial buyers have had time to read and hopefully share. The books that become “bestsellers” maximize their third phase. In our view, trade success (think strangers finding you on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble) is just a bonus. From a marketing standpoint, it’s about targeting a book to provide solutions to specific audiences. More on this soon.
Over half of lifetime sales occur by the end of the first month of release. Between pre-order and launch day, expect an average of 250-500 units sold. Average first week sales may be 200 units. One publisher reports median first week sales as 175 units; we have seen about double that. You’d need to sell about 7,000 units in one week through retailers such as Amazon to appear in the Publisher’s Weekly Frontlist Nonfiction bestseller rankings.
Backlist now constitutes 81% of all publisher revenue.2 When I first began to learn about the business 25 years ago, that number was 40%. The steep rise is partly because of changes in technology: in the pre-digital era, when you had to print large quantities and keep them in a warehouse, titles that didn’t sell went out of print quickly. With Print on Demand, a title can stay in print forever. Regardless, perennial sellers are now more important, and it’s even harder than it used to be for a new title (frontlist) to break through.
Audiobooks and ebooks are still a fraction of the market. McLean’s numbers do not account for audiobooks and ebooks, but audiobooks make up 15% of the market and ebooks even less. Audiobooks are rising, but ebooks have been in decline for several years. Printed books account for 79% of revenue.
A self-published book will likely never find a customer the author doesn’t personally know. Over 3 million new titles appeared on the marketplace in 2021, compared to 300,000 titles in 2010. Self-publishing has saturated the market, to everyone’s detriment. About 500,000 of titles that are released annually get enough attention to sell at least one unit in a channel tracked by NPD BookScan. The rest presumably appear on Amazon through their KDP program, sell a few copies to friends, and that’s it. 90% of self-published books will sell under 100 copies during their lifetime.
Books have a less than 1% chance of appearing in a brick and mortar store. There are just too many titles, and not enough bookstores.
In summary, traditional publishers operate on a bestsellers (read: gambler’s) model. The market is incredibly stratified, and no one knows what will sell, so the Big 5 publish thousands of titles each year and wait to see what takes off. (They typically don’t market much until it shows signs of life, either.) As McLean notes, “Most of the revenue that keeps publishers in business comes from the very narrow band of publishing successes in the top 8-10% of new books,” along with a strong backlist.
A Note on Money and Ministry
One more note, about the reason we publish. When you consider that a healthy royalty rate is 10% list, and if list is $14.99, then 500 units at $1.50 equals a $750 royalty. When you consider that a book might take 500 hours to create, that’s about $1.50/hour for your labor. Why bother?
The money reason is that most authors make more on nonbook writing related income than on the books themselves, according to a new Author’s Guild survey.3 As an author, I can attest to this. I have already made considerably more on speaking and consulting gigs than on royalty for my recent book, Greater Things.
The more important reason, however, is ministry. At Invite, we bring a ministry mindset to publishing. What we mean is tha in the daily work of running a publishing company, something has to be the deciding value—either ministry or money, or as someone said to be once, “God or gold.” Christian publishers that are built on profitability may find themselves in a real bind when it comes to decision making. As publisher, if our highest value was profitability, I’d make very different decisions on some of our relationships and projects.
As we value ministry the most, and are structured as such, sometimes we publish a book because the author has something to say which we think will help fulfill our mission to share the promise of Christ’s New Creation. It doesn’t mean that we ignore good business, but it does mean that we don’t let money be our highest deciding value in the decisions we make.
Next week, we dive into marketing a book. We will begin to share how we are doubling the industry numbers, and what you as an author can do to partner with us in the work of the New Creation.
Kristen McLean, workshop, Evangelical Christian Publishers Association C-Suite Symposium, San Antonio, TX, September 19, 2023.
“A Tough Way to Make a Living,” Publishers Weekly, October 2, 2023.