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How to work out your estimated book sales

How many copies do you think your book will sell? A publisher wants to know what your expected sales are. But how do you work that out?  Well the numbers are possibly less than you think. Wince. Ready? 

This is a brilliant insider view of how many books actually get sold.  


This below article is from a manual by JHP Publishing. ​​

For the full manual and great advice on how to write a proposal text please click here 

A publisher wants to know what your expected sales are. But how do you work that out? 

Average sales of all new titles: 

Most people unfamiliar with the industry overestimate book sales by factors of ten.

Estimates of the number of new titles published each year in English that sell over 5000 copies vary from 1000 through 5000 to 25,000, depending on the criteria applied. Either way, out of millions of new titles each year (in 2010, 2.5 million new ISBNs—book-identifying numbers—were issued), that is not many.

The average sale of all new titles has been variously estimated at 10 or 250 or 500 copies, depending on who you listen to, which year they’re talking about, and whether you include self-published titles or not - nowadays around a million or two, depending on definitions. In a recent interview (2015) with the founder of MyBestseller, he quotes 95% of books as selling less than 100 copies. So the sales are not evenly distributed, with a small number of "brand name" authors taking the lion's share. This is particularly so in fiction, where about 0.01% of titles account for 50% of the sales, 0.1% account for around 80%. 

Average sales of “properly-published” books: 

The average sale of traditionally-published books, outside the roster of top brand names, reduces each year. It is not the "fault" of publishers.

It is not that they cannot or do not want to sell books. It is a straightforward equation between the number of readers (which is roughly static) and the number of titles (which is always increasing. The books in circulation is rising through online sites —several million on sale at Amazon, and the number of books Google had digitized passed 130 million in 2010.

The math is simple.

Most shops stock around 5,000 titles, the large chain stores, around 30,000. Say an average of 10,000.

About half of that is strong-selling backlist.

Half of the remainder will be new titles from strong-selling authors with a track record.

The booksellers will choose a couple of thousand new titles to stock, mostly fiction, from the other few hundred-thousand or million new ones that are coming out next year.

They will look for the "widest-common-denominator" type titles. It is extraordinarily difficult to get a main bookstore-chain buyer to scale out copies of a book by a first-time author, however strong the information sheet. We present the books, but we cannot force shops to take them.

A category example: 

Looking at the latest Bookseller analysis of sales in 2013: in the kind of non-fiction specialist areas that we mostly publish in, a sale of 3000 copies in a year in, for example, "popular philosophy" (rather than academic philosophy, where good sales are in the hundreds), would easily get you into the top 20 titles in the UK in 2008, into the company of authors like Julian Baggini, Alain de Botton and Bertrand Russell (yes, he still sells). In the MBS (Mind Body Spirit) category it is 4000 copies. In the larger area of "popular science," a sale of 6000 copies would get you into the same top 20 as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, or in Fitness & Diet, it's 25,000. In a smaller area like environment/green books, 300 copies gets you into the top 20. Sales needed in the USA would be a little higher, but not in a different ballpark. Given the tens of thousands of new titles coming out in each of these areas each year, these achievements are rare. It is one reason why it makes sense for us (and you) to publish for all markets around the world, despite the extra costs of servicing more than one.

An award example:

The Man Booker prize for new fiction is the most important and prestigious in the English-speaking world. In 2007, when the shortlist was announced for that year, selected from the cream of thousands of new fiction titles that had been submitted, the sales of the selected titles had been, since publication in the previous 12 months: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, 101,137; The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, 1,519; Master Pip by Lloyd Jones, 880; The Gathering by Anne Enright (the eventual winner), 834; Darkmans by Nicola Barker, 499; Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, 231. All had enjoyed excellent reviews, and all had been bought out with substantial marketing and loads of hype by major publishers, and pushed heavily through the shops. Of course, after being shortlisted, their sales went up. But these kinds of figures are more characteristic of good book sales (and of really good books) than the millions you read about in the press. Sales in the low hundreds, or even dozens, are common in fiction. Six months’ hard work on the marketing and $10,000 spent might push it up from 100 to 150. It might, of course, do a lot better. But do not bank on it.

There's a useful recent Huffington Post article - What authors should expect to earn. a sale of 25,000 copies is described as "sensational". 

JHP average sales: 

Our average so far is around 2,000 copies (over the life of the book). But it is an "average," not "median," it reduces every year. And it follows "Pareto distribution," not a "bell-curve," i.e. if you plot it across 1,500 or so titles, there's a few in 6 or even 7 figures, more in 5, loads in 4 figures, but most new titles sell in hundreds, and, increasingly, in the low hundreds. Some sell in dozens.

We have several new titles over the last three years that have sold in tens of thousands; we have not had a recent one in the adult area that has sold in hundreds of thousands. We are usually factors of ten above self-published books, and factors of ten below Harry Potter.

With the majority of titles there is usually a correlation between how much the author uses the database and adds to it, and how well their books sell. Much more so, for instance, than if the author or we passed the work on to a freelance publicist, one who we don’t know and who works outside our systems. But the link is not an inevitable one. 

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