In 2004, there were roughly 1.2 million books in print.
80% of those books sold fewer than 100 copies.
98% sold fewer than 5000 copies.
Only a few hundred books sold more than 100,000 copies.
About 10 books sold over a million copies.
Still with me?
Haven’t had a heart attack or gone off to commit
suicide at the sudden realization that the chances of hitting the big
time after selling your book are just slightly above the chances you’ll
find a living, breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex living in the bushes of
Let’s unpack those numbers a little bit more.
First, I’m using 2004 because, quite frankly,
that’s the latest date that I have reliable, reasonably complete
numbers to work from. The publishing industry is highly
computerized, but getting actual, hardcore numbers from publishers is
slightly harder than the seven tasks of Hercules. I do have some data from 2005 and 2006, such as the fact that
book publishing rose roughly 3% between 2005 and 2006 or that the
number of juvenile titles dropped more than 10%, but I’m looking at
overall English language publishing data and 2004 is the best I’ve got.
Second, a lot of those titles were self-published
titles by authors who couldn’t find a traditional advance and royalties
paying publisher, so they paid some outfit to print up a bunch of
copies for them and had an ISBN slapped on the back. I think it is safe to say that self-published books account for a good chunk of those books that sell less than 100 copies.
Third, it is also important to remember that not all books in print were published in 2004 obviously. In the last few years, the number of books actually published per year is in the neighborhood of 175,000. A book stays in print for a number of years and the sales numbers for a title decline over time. The rest of those titles selling less than 100 copies a year probably fall into this category.
Still, even with those considerations, it is clear
that only about 10% of books published in any given year will sell over
For someone wanting to make their living at writing, that’s a scary number.
It’s also the reason that the vast numbers of writers out there do NOT make a living from their craft. The actual number of writers who support themselves and their families from writing in the
Remember, that’s 1 to 2% of those writers who are
being published by traditional advance and royalty paying publishers,
not of writers in general. That means it’s a very small number indeed.
But if you’re like me, writing is in the blood and you’d do it even if they didn’t pay you to do so.
So what do those numbers mean to me?
They mean writing has to be more than just a hobby to me. I have to treat my writing like a business. Not
just in the sense of income and expense, which I don’t always have a
lot of control over, but in the things that I can significantly impact
day after day.
In the way I plan my time.
In the work habits that I cultivate.
In the projects that I select.
In the people I chose to work with.
In the way I control my rights.
In the hundred other little things I can do to ensure that my career is as successful as I hope to make it.
Five years ago I’d never published a thing. Now I’m in that group of writers who routinely sell more than 5000 copies but less than 100,000 copies of each individual work.
But that’s not good enough for me.
I want to reach that next step. I want to break that 100,000 copy barrier. And the only way to do that is to be as diligent as possible in the way I treat my career.
That’s my goal.
I’ll worry about that million copy mark next year.
What writing goals have you set for yourself this year? What aspect of your writing do you need to treat more like a business and less like a hobby? What can you do right now to take a step forward?