Thursday, January 19, 2012

It's time for realism, immodesty and encouragement

It's difficult to get meaningful sales numbers in publishing. When the "big six" traditional publishing companies announce first print runs, those numbers don't indicate how many books were actually purchased by readers (and certainly not how many books were actually read), because bookstores can return books that haven't been sold in a few months.

Any writer should be able to sell between a few dozen and a few hundred copies of a book, but if you want to sell thousands or tens of thousands, you’ll have to work very hard, and get lucky, and maybe even make your own good luck. Despite a few notable success stories—mostly involving selling a self-published title to a traditional publisher—apparently most self-published books sell fewer than 200 copies, and many of those 200 are sold to people the author knows.

You probably won’t get rich by self-publishing. You may feel good and receive some compliments, and maybe even advance your career. But, unless you pick the right topic, produce an excellent book, work your ass off promoting it and are very lucky, don’t quit your day job.

  • Don’t let advertising blind you to reality or make you star-struck. Schiel & Denver is an outrageously dishonest self-publishing company. It said, “You can rest assured your book will go on sale at over 160,000+ online and traditional retail stores, in over 100 countries.” That’s extremely deceptive. While a book may be orderable at thousands of stores, that’s not the same thing as “on sale at” with the implication of on-the-shelf availability.
  • Vantage Press is one of the few honest self-publishing companies. It has some good advice: “Please be realistic. Most books by new authors do not sell well, and most authors do not recoup the publishing fee.”
Sales information for self-published books is hard to get because authors seldom reveal the numbers.
  • Morris Rosenthal—who had the right topic and knows much more about self-publishing than most people—revealed that sales of his Start Your Own Computer Business totaled 1623 copies in 2003. If you can net $5 to $10 per copy, that’s a nice part-time business.
  • In an interview with WBJB radio, David Maturo, then the Finance VP of Xlibris, said that some of its authors sell as few as one or two books. Maturo revealed that the average number of books sold per author is 150. He said 64% are bought by the author. That leaves just 54 books out of 150 to be sold to real customers. OUCH.
    According to Maturo, the average author expenditure at Xlibris was $1,400. The math is depressing. Authors spent about $26 to produce each of the books that were sold to the public—typically priced from $8.50 to $19.99.
  • Author Solutions CEO Kevin Weiss, told the New York Times that the average sale per title from any of the company’s brands is around 150.
  • iUniverse VP Susan Driscoll told the Times that “most writers using iUniverse sell fewer than 200 books” and 40 percent are sold directly to authors. The Times said, “If a title sells more than 500 copies its first year, [iUniverse] may invest in marketing the book and invite the author to become a “Star.” But of iUniverse’s 17,000 published titles, the authors of only 84 have been chosen as Stars, and only a half-dozen have made it to Barnes & Noble store shelves.”
  • Lulu founder Bob Young told, “A publishing house dreams of having ten authors selling a million books each. Lulu wants a million authors selling 100 books each.”
According to Publishers Weekly, in a recent year only 2% of book titles sold more than 5,000 copies and the average book from a mainstream publisher sold about 500 copies.
I formed my own tiny publishing company and wrote this book mostly for family and friends. Although I know it's a good book, I am amazed (and thrilled) that so many people are reading the life story of someone they never heard of. (I'm not Sarah Palin or Bill Gates.)

I wish I could hang out with a few hundred of my "customers" some place with good music and beer. I'm sure we'd swap some great stories.

I thank all of you who have bought the book, and reviewed the book and recommended the book. (For those of you who have not yet read it, please do so. It's available as a hardcover, paperback and in multiple e-book formats.)

Also, if any of you have stories to tell -- tell them. Don't be silent. Don't be discouraged. E-books and print-on-demand make it easy for any writer to try to find an audience.



  1. 1200 copies of a non-famous memoir is very impressive. Congratulations. You have much to be proud of.

  2. 1200 copies is impressive even without that 500 copies avarage context. Congratulation! And thank you for a very informative post!