Traditional vs. Self-Publishing Part I


How Many Copies Does an Average Book Sell?

I attended the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. Conference early in May. One of the lectures compared Traditional Publication to Self Publication and gave some rather shocking numbers revealed in the 2022 Penguin Random House/Simon & Shuster vs DOJ monopoly case. For those of you who don't keep up on modern courtroom drama that doesn't involve an ex-president, here is a brief description of the case from Rachel Neumeier:

In 2022, Penguin Random House wanted to buy Simon & Schuster. The two publishing houses made up 37 percent and 11 percent of the market share according to the filing, and combined they would have condensed the Big Five publishing houses into the Big Four. But the government intervened and brought an antitrust case against Penguin to determine whether that would create a monopoly.

The judge ultimately ruled that the merger would create a monopoly and blocked the $2.2 billion purchase. But during the trial, the head of every major publishing house and literary agency got up on the stand to speak about the publishing industry and give numbers, giving us an eye-opening account of the industry from the inside. …

I think I can sum up what I’ve learned like this: The Big Five publishing houses spend most of their money on book advances for big celebrities like Britney Spears and franchise authors like James Patterson and this is the bulk of their business. They also sell a lot of Bibles, repeat best sellers like Lord of the Rings, and children’s books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. These two market categories (celebrity books and repeat bestsellers from the backlist) make up the entirety of the publishing industry and even fund their vanity project: publishing all the rest of the books we think about when we think about book publishing (which make no money at all and typically sell less than 1,000 copies).

During the trial the DOJ’s lawyer collected data on 58,000 titles published in the last year and discovered that 90 percent of them sold fewer than 2,000 copies and 50 percent sold less than a dozen copies.

Wait. What? A dozen copies? That's family and friends. I could sell that if I self-published. Sure, I would have to spend money up front on an editor and book art for the cover, perhaps even someone to help me format the text. But I came to the conference to pitch to agents. Not an inexpensive endeavor. Needless to say, I freaked out when I heard these stats.

Spoiler Alert: In case you are also freaking out, those numbers are likely incorrect. No publishing house could survive if half their titles only sold a dozen or so copies. And none of the people who analyze book sales for a living can figure out where the lawyer got the 58,000 book number. What slice of the book industry was he looking at? It was said to be "all frontlist books published in a year by every publisher" but Kristen McLean, lead industry analyst from NPD BookScan, said on a reply in the Countercraft Substack that number should be more like 487,000 titles. 

Okay, competing with half a million titles a year is also a freak out number.

Looking at these numbers, I realized I should know this stat. How many books does the average traditionally published book sell and how many books does the self-published book have to sell to make the same amount of money as a traditionally published author? Is it really worth it to go through the query/editor/publisher process? What are the differences in Self-Pub and Traditional Pub?

Unfortunately, those stats are more difficult to discover than the numbers on our nuclear arsenal. So the remainder of this post and the next week's post will be my best shot at coming close to answering those questions.

Traditional vs. Self-Publication

First lets look at the major differences between traditional publication and self-publication.

Next week I'll discuss the monetary differences between the two types of publication.

Need Help Marketing Your Book?

Join the 

Pub Club.

Did you know Flagstaff Writers Connection hosts a free, online group to help you build platform, get published, and market books?

Members meet monthly for support, accountability, and education. Members take turns presenting a topic related to the business of being a writer. Both traditional publication and self-publication are discussed. Handouts and worksheets are kept in a Drive File accessible anytime.

Email to join.

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