2009-10-27 : Book Publishing - Some Startling Numbers

From The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing by Steven Piersanti, President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers:

3. Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.
Combine the explosion of new books with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title.  "Here's the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies.  Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.  Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies.  The average book in America sells about 500 copies" (Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006).  And average sales have since fallen much more.  According to BookScan, which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books, only 299 million books were sold in 2008 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined.  The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

(via ephealy's twitter)

In a year and a half I've sold around 250 In a Wicked Age books (plus an additional 400-some PDFs). It's shocking to me to think that In a Wicked Age's sales are, like, kind of below average for a book. Not a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of a fraction like I thought; just kind of below average. I figured that Matt Snyder was right and that in the real world 10,000 copies would be a modest success. According to this, though, my games reach the same size audience that any book can expect to reach.

Shocking. I wonder if it's true.

1. On 2009-10-27, Ben Lehman said:

In 2006, I compared some numbers with my mother, who published a non-fiction book, Strong at the Heart though a major publisher at roughly the same time that I published Polaris.

At the time, she had sold about 10,000 copies; I had sold about 1,000 copies. Because she turned about $1 a copy and I turned about $10 a copy, we had made about equal amounts of money.

Since then, her sales have dropped to very low and mine have dropped to about a third of the first year, but continue apace. I think at this point I've probably made a chunk more money than her.

Strong at the Heart was a modestly successful book for young adult non-fiction. It wasn't a break out hit but it did well. It also had strong support from its publisher.

Polaris, by contrast, was a very but not earthshakingly successful indie game.

My thought is that the numbers above are polluted with vanity press publishers that don't do any support and marketing work on the books that the publish (note here that I'm defining vanity press as "don't do any support and work on the books they publish," so if a mainstream publisher falls into that category well, guess what?) Anything with an ISBN is tracked by Bookscan, so that includes a *lot* of complete crap as well as wonderful books that are completely unmarketed by their publishers*.

Also, anything that doesn't sell through standard distribution (like, for instance, sells via amazon, or via walmart) is not included. So for books which primarily sell via those media, they look like they're selling less than they are.

Nonetheless, for a fiction book, 1,000 is pretty much the baseline sales figure. Yes.


*If we were speaking in person, you would hear me getting angrier and angrier each time I mention this. I consider this akin to child abandonment.


2. On 2009-10-27, Ben Lehman said:

Also, to compare further, your IAWA sales figures are basically on par with my Bliss Stage sales figures: 500-some copies (1/3rd physical and 2/3rds digital) seems about in line for a modestly successful indie game.



3. On 2009-10-27, Vincent said:

Thanks, Ben! Those numbers are a lot less shocking.


4. On 2009-10-27, Matt Wilson said:

When I first moved to NYC I worked for a small publisher that printed runs of 1500 books. Some of those books got second runs, but not usually.


5. On 2009-10-27, Jono said:

Sounds like book sales must be a power-law distribution: the top 20% of the books account for 80% of all sales, and then the graph has a long, long tail comprising a semi-infinite number of books selling practically nothing.

Here's the thing: all of our intuition about what "average" means is based on bell-curve-shaped "normal" distributions, where the mean, median, and mode are all the same number.  Intuition about averages is extremely misleading when applied to power-law distributions, where the mean, median, and mode are very different. For example, "the average book sells 250 copies/yr" makes it sound like half sell more and half sell less, but actually it means nearly all books sell less than that, while only a few Harry Potters and Da Vinci Codes sell more.

Power-law distributions are seen in everything from blog readership to the size of earthquakes to the session lifespans of web-browser tabs (my field).  So this isn't some weird quirk of book publishing - it's nearly a law of nature.  The numbers sound shockingly low, but actually they're exactly what we should expect due to the power-law distribution.

The "falling fast" part is still pretty worrisome, though.

Oh, and I just ordered a copy of In A Wicked Age, so, um, add +1?


6. On 2009-10-28, jenskot said:

Go to
Click on any book product.
Scroll down to ??? Sales Rank??? under ???Product Details???.

The Amazon Sales Rank roughly equates to:

Rank / Copies Sold Per Day
1 / 3000
10 / 650
100 / 100
1,000 / 13
10,000 / 2.2 (11 copies every 5 days)
100,000 / 0.2 (1 copy every 5 days)
1,000,000 / 0.006 (3 copies every 500 days)
2,000,000 / 0.0001 (1 copy every 1000 days)

Most of the books ranked 1,000 or higher are probably stocked in bookstores. With some in the 10,000 range and few in the 100,000 stocked as well (probably in smaller specialty book stores).

For the books ranked 1,000 or higher, my understanding is that Amazon sales are less that 10% of their overall sales. So if a best seller sells 13 copies a day through Amazon, it???s probably selling 117 copies through other means. Probably 80 copies through Borders and Barnes and Nobles. And specialty bookstores can also account for almost as many sales as you might see from Amazon depending on the book???s topic.


7. On 2009-10-28, jenskot said:

My guess is that the D&D 4E???s player handbook sells about 40-60 copies a day.

Which doesn???t count the D&D 4E Core Rulebook Gift Box Set which includes the players handbook and sells slightly better than the player handbook. And D&D sells way more than just the players handbook. Although the PHB is their best selling product. The for example DMG sells less than the PHB.

Of course sales do not equal profit. A book???s authors split around $1 per book minus 10% agent fees only after the publisher has recouped all their expenses (editing, sales, distribution, book placement, publicity, advances, production) and the authors are usually left to handle marketing on their own.

A lot of your success will depend on placement in bookstores. Which is often based on pre-orders, reviews, celebrity endorsement like Oprah, previous success, bookstore relationships, offering to pay bookstores a downside guarantee up front, and paying extra for featured spaces.

If your book sales are low enough not to be a best seller, high enough to warrant the attention of a publisher, and you have a close connection to an existing community or audience, self publishing can be very attractive. Especially if your publisher won???t get you placed in major bookstores.

If you are a best seller, self publishing side complimentary products could be a fantastic opportunity. Especially if you can take advantage of the attention gained from being sold through mainstream distribution.


8. On 2009-10-28, jenskot said:

A while back I started a thread called ???How many indie RPGs have sold 1000+ on their own???? that speaks to some of the points brought up in ???The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing???. You can find it here:

- the number of similar products released increases
- retail space shrinks
- the number of potential customers stays the same
- people???s time lessens
- competition from free alternatives increases
- piracy increases
- push to digital shrinks profits while minimally impacting audience size
- increasingly niche products splits potential audiences

Most books (not talking roleplaying games specifically) are selling primarily to the author???s existing community. The idea of a general ???mainstream audience??? is disappearing. Who the author is can be more important than what they are selling. As well as what books the community decides are mandatory to read to be a part of the community. To increase your chances of selling, you have to do more than having a quality product. You need a link to a community. Sometimes releasing a quality product with modest sales but positive reviews is the start of that link.

That said, there is a lot of talk among publishing companies that as large bookstores fail, commercial real-estate prices drop, niche products dominate, and digital options deliver under expectations??? there may be a new renewed push towards local specialty book stores. Especially stores that act as social gatherings for community members. Which would be fun!

Apologies for the information overload. It???s an exciting topic.

I also agree a lot with what Ben says above.



9. On 2009-10-28, Ben Lehman said:

John: Thank you. That amazon chart is superbly useful. I, too, think that the future lies in a hybrid of mass-market publishing (for some value of publishing: might be a column at a high trafficked website, whatever) and niche publishing directed at specific groups that the author is also a part of. I think this not because it's better or worse, but it seems to be a pretty good way to make money in publishing.

Note that this is very similar to the "webcomic model" with the comic's website being a replacement for "mass market."

One of the things which I couldn't figure out about your thread, is the idea that any product would sell anything "on it's own." Products don't act on their own: a sale requires at least a buyer and a seller, and usually requires much more community infrastructure than that (cross-promotion, AP reports, reviews, websites, IPR or other collectives, adverts in other related games, author presence on websites, a payment system, buyer played the game with a friend, etc.) I think that these sorts of community connections are going to be increasingly important for creative people to foster, as we move out of the "selling widgets" model and into the "support the artist" model.

I realize I'm probably not disagreeing with you, here. Just some thoughts spurred by your title and comments.



10. On 2009-10-28, Graham said:

I think the idea of an "average book", that sells 500 copies, tells us little. It's a strange average: rather like calculating the average salary over the world's population. It's accurate, but tells you nothing.

Much better to talk about in more detail: most books sell hardly anything, a minority sell huge amounts.



11. On 2009-10-28, jenskot said:

From Ben:
One of the things which I couldn't figure out about your thread, is the idea that any product would sell anything "on it's own." Products don't act on their own: a sale requires at least a buyer and a seller, and usually requires much more community infrastructure than that (cross-promotion, AP reports, reviews, websites, IPR or other collectives, adverts in other related games, author presence on websites, a payment system, buyer played the game with a friend, etc.) I think that these sorts of community connections are going to be increasingly important for creative people to foster, as we move out of the "selling widgets" model and into the "support the artist" model."

100% agree.

My thread was a reaction to friends who lamented that it wasn't enough to simply make a product available for sale and have it be a successes without community infrastructure and connections.

That said, to counter argue myself a bit, several iphone apps are succeeding on innovation alone from anonymous creators with no marketing. Their innovation leads to good reviews which leads to high ratings and then high downloads.

But this is becoming harder as the number of iphone apps available increases, especially ones with high ratings. And iphone apps have the advantage of having 1 place where you can get them with a strong user rating and review system and sorting options and the ability to immediately download and try a demo with no commitment.


12. On 2009-10-28, jenskot said:

More numbers.

In September 2009, the top selling comic book sold 140,786 copies. In 1 month!

These are estimated sales from distributors to comic specialty stores. Where as the Amazon sales above are actual sales to customers. But unlike major bookstores, most comic specialty stores can not return their stock back to distributors. So these estimated numbers hold more weight.

The top 10 comics sold around 80,000 copies. Again in just 1 month!

The very bottom of the top 300 comics sold around 4,000 copies in 1 month.

And comic sales were Up 12% in September.

What's hilarious is that a few years ago these numbers were viewed as poor. But as sales for most products plummet, in comparison, these numbers are amazing!


13. On 2009-10-28, jenskot said:

I would also estimate, and take this with a grain of salt (all the other numbers above are based on strong inside or public sources) that most books that are stocked in Borders and Barnes & Nobles long term have probably sold at least 30,000 copies. With many exceptions that sell less but are featured in niche / specialty sections just to keep the section viable.

In the US, there are 777 Barnes & Nobles stores and 517 Borders stores (not including the 466 Waldenbooks, Borders Express, and Borders airport stores). Most bookstores carry at least 2 physical copies of a book. So if you sold into 80% of Barnes & Nobles and Borders, that's at least 2,000+ copies in circulation. Although keep in mind that unlike comics, most bookstores can and do return unsold stock.


14. On 2009-10-28, Jono said:

Jenskot wrote:

> ... several iphone apps are succeeding on innovation alone
> from anonymous creators with no marketing...
> But this is becoming harder as the number of iphone apps
> available increases...

Same thing has been happening with indie RPGs, right?  There was a time when you could go to the Forge, see the one or two new games per year that everybody was talking about, and order those with a certain amount of confidence that they would be good.

Now I can barely keep up with all the games coming out, and with a limited amount of time to play (and more of that time devoted to exploring all the possibilities of games I already have), I am no longer sure how to find out which games are worth investing in and which ones are, pardon the expression, Generic Story-Game of the Month.


15. On 2009-10-28, Ben Lehman said:

Jono: That's not actually true. It's just that the games that weren't successful from that era ... no one's heard of.

Memory edits out failures, so 8 years ago was always a golden age.



16. On 2009-10-28, Emily said:

The Association of American Publishers has industry statistic reports.  The 2008 page gives a link to a concise report with total sales revenue for books sold in various categories. Going from $22 million in 2002 to $24 mil in 2008, this is not a growth industry. With the exception of ebooks that is, which have gone from $7,337 to $113,220 in that time.

AAP 2008 Estimated Book Publishing Sales 2002-2008

I wonder if we fall under "other" or are completely off the map? AAP (which only has around 300 members) is starting to focus on independent publishing through meetings like this meeting they had in August, organized by their Small and Independent Publishers' (SIP) committtee.

And they have a Young to Publishing Group, which had an article on working Comic con in a recent newsletter.  They are active in New York. Too bad it seems to be focused on mainstream publishing houses. Mix this with their SIP and it could be very useful.


17. On 2009-10-29, Travis Brown said:

Hey Vincent, I know this is WAY out of context, but I see no other means of contacting you :) I've tried to e-mail you at your earthlink account a few times in the last month and haven't reached you. I'm just trying to touch bases with you about GameStorm and your Bio for RPG guest of honor. If you could, e-mail me and let me know if there's a better way to get a hold of you than the lumpley e-mail or writing on bathroom stall walls hoping you'll see it :) Thanks.


18. On 2009-10-29, Vincent said:

Travis: ha ha! I've been emailing you too, I guess to the wrong address. Check your email now, see if my message arrived.


19. On 2009-11-02, jenskot said:

80% of the money from online music sales came from only 52,000 songs. Less than 1%.

PRS (a royalty collection agency) reported that out of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never sold a single song.


20. On 2009-11-03, Sydney Freedberg said:

Vincent, for comparison, how much has your best-selling game sold? (I'm imagining that would be Dogs in the Vinyard).


21. On 2009-11-03, Vincent said:

It would indeed. Around 3000 copies, including PDFs.


22. On 2009-11-04, Sydney Freedberg said:

So—counting PDFs—DiTV is somewhere in the top 16% of books, but not in the top 2%.

(Since "950,000 [79.1%] titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 [16.6%] sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 [2.1%] sold more than 5,000 copies.")

If we discount PDFs as apples-to-oranges, since most books aren't even sold in that format, what's the sales of physical copies only of Dogs?


23. On 2009-11-04, Vincent said:

Half or maybe a little over. North of 1500.


24. On 2009-11-04, Matt Wilson said:

Wow, that's a lot of pdfs.


25. On 2009-11-04, Gregor said:

That's interesting about the Dogs split with PDF and print.

3:16 has the same profile I think, it's roughly 800 PDFs/900 books. I've seen its PDF sales reach markets that don't easily get hold of the books (such Argentina, Brazil) so that probably evens up the split between PDF and Print.

(Best Friends has almost all print sales for comparison.)


26. On 2010-06-13, said:

Lee and Low Books is an independent children?s book publisher specializing in diversity. They take pride in nurturing many minority authors and illustrators who are new to the world of children?s book publishing.

For more about their history and their books, visit:
Minority Book Publisher


27. On 2011-01-31, Renea said:

This is wonderful information for newly published authors like myself. I'm happy to learn that my book, In The Garden With Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes can be categorized as "average". I've spoken to many agented authors who can confirm the numbers in this thread. I think at the end of the day it's about your marketing abilities, the quality of your work, and a little luck. Thank you for this post.


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