Everything You Wanted to Know about Book Sales (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Publishing is the business of creating books and selling them to readers. And yet, for some reason we aren’t supposed to talk about the latter. Most literary writers consider book sales a half-crass / half-mythological subject that is taboo to discuss.

While authors avoid the topic, every now and then the media brings up book sales — normally to either proclaim, yet again, the death of the novel, or to make sweeping generalizations about the attention spans of different generations. But even then, the data we are given is almost completely useless for anyone interested in fiction and literature. Earlier this year, there was a round of excited editorials about how print is back, baby after industry reports showed print sales increasing for the second consecutive year. However, the growth was driven almost entirely by non-fiction sales… more specifically adult coloring books and YouTube celebrity memoirs. As great as adult coloring books may be, their sales figures tell us nothing about the sales of, say, literary fiction.

Most literary writers consider book sales a half-crass / half-mythological subject that is taboo to discuss.

This lack of knowledge leads to plenty of confusion for writers when they do sell a book. Are they selling well? What constitutes good sales? Should they start freaking out when their first $0.00 royalty check comes in? Writers should absolutely write with an eye toward art, not markets. Thinking about sales while creating art rarely produces anything good. But I’m still naïve enough to think that knowledge is always better than ignorance, and that after the book is written, writers should come to publishing with a basic understanding of what is going on. Personally speaking, my knowledge of the fundamentals of publishing helped me not even think or worry about book sales when my own book was published last year. And since I need a reason to justify the time I’ve spent dicking around on BookScan, here is my guide to everything you wanted to know about book* sales (but were afraid to ask).

What is a book sale?

Wait, you say, everyone knows what a book sale is. Ah, yes, but, what this section presupposes is… maybe you don’t? Actually, one of the things that makes the conversation about book sales so confusing is that there are several different numbers thrown around, and often even people in the publishing industry completely confuse them. Here are four different numbers that are frequently conflated:

1) The number of copies of the book that are printed.

2) The number of copies that have been shipped to stores or other markets like libraries.

3) The number of copies that have been sold to readers.

4) The Nielsen BookScan number.

These numbers can all be wildly different. It’s not uncommon at all for a publisher to, say, print 5,000 copies, but only sell 3,000 copies to bookstores/other markets, of which, 2,000 copies are actually sold to customers. Meanwhile, BookScan shows 600 copies sold. And we haven’t even gotten into ebooks yet (more on that later).

What’s the actual number of books sold? Well… basically a combo of 2 and 3, plus ebook and audiobook sales. A publisher sells books to retailers like bookstores, but also to some institutions like libraries. However, retailers normally (though not always) have the right to return unsold copies. So some copies that are “sold” will eventually be unsold. (On author royalty statements, a certain amount of money is always withheld as “reserve against returns.”)

While this is basic, it’s surprisingly common for authors and publishers to either intentionally or unintentionally confuse these numbers: brag about their sales while citing the print run, for example. On the other hand, the media almost always references the BookScan number without any context about how wrong that number can be.

What Is BookScan and Why Should We Care?

In my hypothetical above, the Nielsen BookScan number, is the least accurate. It’s the furthest away from the “true” sales of the book. And yet, if you read any articles on book sales it is precisely the BookScan number you will see. This is because while publishers and authors (via royalty statements) have access to the real numbers, they are almost never released to the public or to rival publishers. Thankfully, there is Nielsen BookScan, an industry tracking tool that records point of sales based on ISBNs. (Yes, this is the same Nielsen of TV’s Nielsen ratings.) People in publishing can use BookScan to get a general sense of what books are selling, the health of the industry, or tear their hair out in frustration while looking up the sales of their rivals.



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