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What About All The Authors Whose Books Don’t Sell Very Many Copies?

{This article was written a while ago; but, if you do some homework, you’ll find most of what’s in it still true now, in 2021…}

An extremely small percentage of writers sell more than 500 copies of a book

books don't sell

One source I checked said this:

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 [2011] selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.”

And, from ElectricLit, in 2016, we have: “…most fiction books published by a traditional publisher garner somewhere between 500 and 500,000 sales. Sometimes less, sometimes more.”

There are other sources of statistics and adding e-books would give yet different numbers but, to generalize the available data, most books don’t sell very many copies.

Yet, writers can find tons of posts and articles and web sites that are based on the mistaken conception that Any book can sell like hotcakes if the author will do X, Y, Z, and, if possible, D, U, and P

Cory Doctorow’s blog Boing Boing has an article called Survivorship bias and electronic publishing: practically no one is making any money.

Cory’s post is very short and is really a long, fancy link to a post by Tobias S. Buckell; but, I wanted to give Cory’s blog a shout-out :-)

So, Tobias Buckell:

“Born in the Caribbean, Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author. His novels and over 50 short stories have been translated into 17 languages and he has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He currently lives in Ohio.”

And, the title of Mr. Buckell’s post?

Survivorship bias: why 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now

The first healthy dose of reality in Mr. Buckell’s post is a quote from Smashwords Book Marketing Guide I’ll give you the link for a free copy right here :-)

So, here’s that quote from Smashwords in Tobias’ article:

“We cannot promise you your book will sell well, even if you follow all the tips in this guide. In fact, most books, both traditionally published and self-published, don’t sell well. Whether your book is intended to inspire, inform or entertain, millions of other books and media forms are competing against you for your prospective reader’s ever-shrinking pie of attention.”

And, Tobias, speaking about Mark Coker, who said “We cannot promise you…”, said, “I’m grateful to him for sharing some raw data, unlike the other venues which highlight, boost, and act as if the superstars’ stories are average.”

A bit later in the article, Tobias, talking about an interview he’d read, says:

in business school there’s this point made that if you interview rich people who have won the lottery, you might come to believe that playing the lottery is the only way to become rich. I thought that was interesting. One of the things I’m constantly trying to point out is that we’re not doing nearly enough to highlight both median and failure modes, because that’s where the real lessons lie. As for myself, I find message boards where new writers struggle to sell more than a few copies interesting, and where I harvest data about the low end.”

Then, Tobias quotes from an article (a very good article) called, Survivorship Bias:

“If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all.

“You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other.”

Are you catching the drift yet?

Perhaps, no matter what an author does (or, a publishing company), most books will still sell not so many copies?

Tobias also includes a number of interesting charts in the article to drive his points home

If you’re going to be publishing a book (or, have it published for you), I do hope you’ll go read Mr. Buckell’s article.

But, if you “don’t have the time“, here’s how he ends it:

“Making a living off art is hard.

But that isn’t a sexy sell.

That isn’t to say you should give up. Fuck that. But I am going to say: get ready to work, don’t expect riches. Focus hard on the art….

There’s a lot of snake oil sales going on. And a lot of well meaning people who won the lottery telling everyone to go buy lottery tickets while financial advisors shake their head.

Pretty much the same as its always been…

PS: this survivorship bias also works for writing advice about ‘how to write’ if you think about it

Still, want to publish that book?

Go read Tobias’ article :-)
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