Book Sales Numbers – It’s Almost Impossible To Get Real Numbers

Almost everyone who wants to get a book written, whether they write it them selves or hire a ghostwriter, has dreams of hitting the best seller list. Or at least one of the many best seller lists. There is the idea out there that if you can get your book on a best seller list it means you’ve sold enough books to retire.  That may, or may not be true.

Book Sales Numbers Are Hidden

Best seller lists are really marketing tools. It’s not that they aren’t accurate, it’s just that there’s no way to know. They were developed on the theory that you are more likely to buy a book if you know others are buying the same book. It works, but it also skews our perception of the reality of book sales.


Trade publishers simply don’t want the public to know how many books sell, or at least how many of a particular book sells. The industry does issue some general numbers, but if you want to know how many of a particular book sold in a given year, good luck.

Sure, there are some services you can subscribe to that will give you some clue, but they’re expensive and I can’t think why an author would want that information badly enough to pay the fees. You can get some sense using Amazon’s sales rank, but at best it’s only an indication.

When it comes to self-publishing, it’s even more difficult. Of course, if you’re publishing and selling your own book, obviously you’ll know how many you sell, or at least have a good feel for it. Bookstore sales can be awfully confusing.

You Can Do Your Own Sales Projections

You can, and should, do your own sales projections. It’s fairly easy to get a general idea. If you’re working with a trade publisher, read your contract to figure out about how much you’ll make per book. It’s probably going to be around $1 – $1.50 for hardbacks, and half of that for paperbacks. Keep in mind, that you’ll probably have marketing expenses even with a trade publisher. And remember, if you got an advance your book has to earn that back for the publisher before you get royalties.

If your self-publishing, it’s easier to figure out, until you begin to factor your marketing expenses in. So much of your book’s success depends on the effort you put into marketing, and it’s the marketing that will make your book sell – don’t stint.


Be conservative! Although it’s nice to think you may sell 100s of thousands of copies of your book, your less likely to be disappointed if you think, at least in the beginning of 100s and maybe a thousand or two a year. Your best, conservative guess may be more helpful than you know now. It’s from there you can make plans. You can check your own projections against royalty or sales statements and adjust. That way, the numbers will be real.

Peter Bowerman’s Well-Fed Self-Publisher give an excellent overview of both self- and trade publishing.

The chances are you won’t be able to make a living with your first book, although it’s been known to happen. Just be clear about the other reasons you’re getting a book written.

Write well and often,

Anne Wayman, Ghostwriter


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John Soares February 26, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Anne, I have one post on my blog about print book and e-book sales numbers that gets a lot of traffic from Google, and thus the occasional question from a reader about sales of a specific book or total sales within a specific genre. I always send a quick reply that’s similar to what you say here: it’s very hard to tell.

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Emmanuel Ngure December 15, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Great help indeed! Thanks!

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