Bestsellers and Book Sales Expectations

By: Gail Richards

Most new authors have no idea how book sales happen or what numbers to expect. A typical successful book from a major publisher sells between 20,000 and 40,000 copies. Healthy book sales from a smaller publisher may number at least 5,000 copies, whereas a self-published book may be considered promising if it sells as few as 1,000 copies to a wide audience.

Set your sales goals high but your expectations lower. Obviously you want high sales for you book; otherwise, why do all the work? But be clear about your vision. If you plan to author a book for your own seminar business, your expectations will necessarily be different from those of the author who wants to become a world-class speaker and subject-matter guru. Clearly a book about diets will have broader market appeal than a book on corporate strategic planning.

Your ability to drive book sales will also depend on the name recognition you’ve already established. Someone like Dr. Phil McGraw can realistically expect his next book to sell millions of copies regardless of the subject matter. How’s your name recognition?

Most people are surprised to hear that less than half of book sales each year are through bookstores, leaving other possibilities for authors to pursue.

Many new authors just assume their book will appear in bookstores. If the book is self-published, it is very unlikely you will be able to crack the bookstore market; therefore, it will be important to consider:

* Sales through your own Web site
* Sales through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com
* Sales through other Web sites and affiliate programs
* Sales through print catalogs
* Sales to specialty markets for premium incentives (organizations and corporations)
* Sales to mass merchandisers or other retailers

Almost the only way to get your book into national bookstore chains is to be published by a traditional publisher. They have the distribution methods in place to make this possible.

You may choose to self-publish and work on sales through some of these non-bookstore channels, get to credible sales figures, and then approach a traditional publisher to finally hit that desirable bookstore market.

If you sell your own book, you know exactly how many books you printed, how many have been sold, and how many are left to be sold in the printing.

Oddly enough, when books are published by traditional publishers and go through the bookstore system, there are very few avenues open for authors and even publishers to track "real" sales of books. The Bookscan report from Neilsen Broadcast Data Systems, available since 2001, provides weekly sales by the major book retailers. But only the very largest companies can afford this expensive service. It is virtually impossible to estimate the real sales of a book from the quantities that are shipped to the stores. Remember, all "sales” to bookstores are made with a long-established, full-price return policy anytime. That means all the books could be returned to you, even a year later. Major publishers expect overall return rates of 20 percent to 30 percent, but individual books can be much, much higher.

When your book is returned, it doesn’t mean that someone bought it, didn’t like it, and sent it back through the bookstore. Far more likely, it was never sold in the first place, and the bookstore returned it to the distributor after sixty to ninety days.

You will see sales numbers on your royalty statement, but generally there is also a reserve for expected returns as well.

If your book is published by a traditional publisher or printed by Lightning Source, you can call the distributor Ingram’s sales tracking phone number, 615-213-6803, to hear about sales for both the previous week and last year.

It seems that most authors these days say their book is a best seller, and that’s because there is no established, objective criteria for what that means. There are roughly forty national and regional best-seller lists in the United States. The New York Times’ list is probably the most well-known and respected. Another one that is well-known, especially inside the publishing industry, is provided by Publishers Weekly (PW). In 2005, 442 adult titles were declared best-sellers, according to the Publisher’s Weekly compilations.

Some best-seller lists such as those belonging to Publisher’s Weekly and USA Today are based on national surveys, with others on much less objective criteria. The New York Times bases their list on a poll of both chain and independent bookstores. The list from the American Booksellers Association polls only independent bookstores. The Los Angeles Times polls thirty bookstores in the Los Angeles metropolitan area to compile its list.

Only eight self-published books have made it to number one on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.


Copyright (c) 2007 Gail Richards


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