Traditional Publishing Numbers

In my last piece I profiled the sales experience of two indie authors, a part-time writer like most of us, and a full time writer. The Department of Justice vs Penguin Random House/S&S trial has generated a great deal of buzz in the book world and a great deal of numbers, statistics, and headlines, mostly out of context. In a blog post, Lincoln Michel put some context to the numbers being bandied about. If you have any interest in the business of bookselling, you should read his post, which can be found here:

And in the comments on this blog post, Kristen McLean, the lead industry analyst from NPD BookScan, gives us some concrete numbers. BookScan is the company that tracks about 76% of the sales of paper books in the US. She provides some specific numbers for the sales of paper books by the 10 largest publishers in the US for a period of 52 weeks ending on August 24th 2022. BookScan uses ISBNs to track sales, and this data set tracks 45,571 frontlist titles from Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Disney, Macmilan, Abrams, Soucebooks and John Wiley.

It should be noted that the numbers below are the sales of paper books reported by about 76% of the US retail outlets, (including Amazon) so they do not include all paper book sales. Nor do they include the sales of ebooks and audiobooks, nor sales to libraries, or sales via an author’s website or at conventions or trade shows. Thus actual numbers will be somewhat higher.

Here are the numbers from this group of publishers:

>>>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

The first takeaway is that almost 15% of the books published by these 10 publishing houses sell less than 12 copies. And mind you, this data set only include frontlist books, not books from their backlist catalogs. Nor do these numbers include indie published paper books. These are books that were purchased by the 10 largest publishers in the US. The upside is that the authors of these books were paid an advance independent of sales. They made money on those 12 books, which is more than an indie publisher that sells 12 books is likely able to claim.

The second major takeaway is that 66% of these frontlist books published by these big publishers sell less than 1,000 copies over the 52 week period. They will continue to sell for the next couple of years, so these may not be their total sales. Still, in a nation of about 330 million people, a thousand copies would seem to be a low bar to surpass.

Somewhere in the upper range of the 21.6% of books in the 1,000 – 5,000 range the publisher starts making a profit on the book, and the authors can begin to rest a little easier about getting another book deal. And to put it in perspective, if you have sold 5,000 copies of your book in the last 52 weeks, you are in the top 13% of all authors. You are a successful author with 5,000 books sold.

All in all, the bottom line is that if you are writing books to make money, you need to be very, very lucky to have any financial success at all, and very, very, very lucky to have that success to last for any length of time. For most authors, writing books pays about as much as writing a blog.


  1. I’m sure there are many indies who have crossed that 5,000 book bar. Especially if ebooks were counted (which they’re not in the results you cite). BTW, I’m not one of those authors.


    1. chucklitka says:

      I haven’t come anywhere close to selling that many books for money in total either. I am willing to bet however, that it isn’t more than the top 13% of indie authors who have books that have sold over 5,000 copies, and likely less, given the number of indie authors. I’ve come to the conclusion that these days indie vs traditional is a wash. Pick your poison. Or try both.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kingmidget says:

    When it comes to paperbacks, I’m definitely in the very bottom tier. Just not that many people buy paperbacks. Add in ebooks and I’m comfortably in the bottom 66%.

    I agree with your last comment to Audrey … it’s just a wash and a traditional publishing deal doesn’t guarantee anything better than what we’re already doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So most writers are better off directing their energies to writing and learning how to publish, rather than the submission process.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. chucklitka says:

        I think that depends on what you’re writing. If you are laser focused on a specific Amazon KU sub-genre and are writing, blurbing, cover designing, and advertising to that market, then yes, go for indie publishing. But if you are writing without that laser focus on a popular Amazon KU sub-genre, then you’re not going to miss the bus if you spend six to eight months querying your novel before self-publishing it in the event that it is not picked up by an agent and sold. That way you are covering both avenues. I know that people get all bent out of shape in the querying process, but if you have a path beyond rejection by agents, you can take the process as a learning experience. Oh, and add 6,500 words to your novel while you wait for responses, like I did. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That is a good approach, Chuck. When I was going through the querying process (2001-2010), self-publishing wasn’t the option it is now, so that wasn’t part of my plan. Discovering Smashwords in 2010 was a turning point.


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