• Chris OBrien

Selling a book: 500 is the magic number

Finding an answer to the question, "What does an average book sell?" is almost impossible. Every article I've found will end up saying, "Well, it depends."

The reason? It's really hard to calculate an average because of the few extreme outliers.

For example, let's say Michelle Obama's Becoming sells 20 million copies. Stephen King releases a book that hits 10 million. And let's throw in a new young adult book that clocks in at 5 million.

Now add in 100,000 self-published books that each sell five copies. Combine these with the Obama, King, and YA titles and the average book sales, for this sample size, would be 355 per title.

But that's a terrible representation. Completely hides the fact that three books accounted for 98.5 percent of the total or that 355 is 71x what the average self-published title sold (and millions less than the top producers).

Dive any deeper and you're back in high school math class debating whether you should use the mean, median, or mode. My general rule of thumb on this site: Let's avoid high school math class whenever we can.

It's a mess to calculate average book sales the same way it'd be hard to determine what the average musician, actress, or basketball player makes. Bruce Springsteen, Jennifer Lawrence, and LeBron James make, by themselves, what millions of "starving artists" combine to make. Averages don't work very well in an industry with superstars.

So yeah, it's hard to compute, but I still want to give you an actual number. No "it depends" or long explanations like the one you just read.

Here it is: I think the magic number in book publishing, in terms of sales, is 500 copies. Here's why:

Getting a Publisher's attention

If you can show a publisher or literary agent that you've sold 500 copies of a book, that will absolutely get their attention.

Main reason - We can't "friends and family" our way to 500 book sales. We may be able to get 500 likes on Facebook, but people going out and spending $10-20 on our book is a different story. The "friends and family" + friends of friends + parents' friends at church tier usually peaks at 100 sales.

500 means either there's some type of existing following for the author or, if it's a new author without a following, it means the book is generating some positive buzz. Even better. Someone must have written a glowing article or the book is gaining a lot of five star reviews on Amazon/Goodreads.

It's kind of like an episode of Shark Tank. When the billionaires ask, "How many have you sold?" they don't want to hear, "Wellllllllllllll, we haven't technically made any sales yet, BUT" or, "We are still pre-revenue."

If you say 500, now you have their attention. "Good for you," says Mark Cuban. You've run the test and found out there's a market for you as an author or for your book (or both).

The economics work for the publisher and the agent at 500 copies sold. I'm going to dive into the math again, but the TL:DR version is this: 500 copies means the publisher isn't losing money or, if they are, it's not enough to make them go bankrupt.

Alright. Math time.

Writer submits their manuscript to a literary agent. Literary agent loves the book, sees it being able to sell more than 500 copies. Writer signs a deal with the agent. The agent is going to get 10% of the publishing contract.

Agent goes to a few publishers, shops the manuscript around. A small press in New York City likes what they see, they're willing to offer the author a $2,500 advance.

Writer gets a check for $2,250, literary agent gets $250 (10% cut), both go out and have a nice steak dinner. Almost buy an expensive bottle of wine.

Publisher gives the book to their editor. Cover designer. Then they put together marketing materials to send off to various bookstores. Book is finished, they set the price at $20.

The bookstores pay 55% as the wholesale price, similar to how Wal*Mart or Target isn't paying full retail price when stocking their shelves. (I'm going to save the Amazon side of this for later in the article.)

500 copies sold at $11 a book (the 55% wholesale price) equals $5,500.

Let's say the author gets $2 from every sale. 500 copies means $1,000. But, because the author was already paid the $2,500 advance, they aren't making any new money. In this scenario, the book would need to sell 1,250 copies before the author saw any more money. An advance is kind of like a deductible in health insurance, you're not getting the coverage til after you go over that line.

So, running all the numbers back.

Total sales of the book equals 500, total revenue is $5,500.
Publisher paid the author and agent a combined $2,500
Publisher has an editor on staff making a $50,000 salary who edits 25 books a year. So editing costs they put down as $2,000 (would be more than this because of the employee's health insurance, the cost to hire, etc., but let's ignore that for now)
Cover design, marketing, book formatting, print costs let's say a real low end number of $1,000
$5,500 coming in from sales, $5,500 going out in costs, Net Zero profit on the book

If a publisher can do that 20 times while they wait for the big outlier, the book that sells 15,000+ copies, they can make this work as a business. The really big publishers, maybe you just add a zero; they're looking to have 20 books that sell 5,000 copies while they wait for the 150,000 mega bestseller. The whole thing is remarkably similar to the world of venture capital.

Plus, books aren't done after a year. Sales keep trickling in, even it's just five copies, for the next five, 10, 20+ years. The $11 a publisher gets in 2019 for a book they published in 2009 is essentially pure profit. The sunk costs they put into the book were over with a long time ago.

Self-publishing or hybrid publishing

From my own personal experience, I spend about $1,000 to publish a physical book. This number would be even higher if I was receiving paid editing help vs. having incredible friends who volunteer their time, providing invaluable notes and feedback.

Hybrid publishers will cost somewhere between $2,500 and $5,000 to publish your book. That number can go even higher depending, again, on how much editing help is included in this.

And those numbers make sense to me. The hybrid publisher needs to charge 2.5 - 5x what it would cost to do-it-yourself the same way any business would. They have to factor in time, materials, but also their rent money, keeping the lights on, employee salaries, health insurance. It's like an oil change, I could technically do that myself and only pay for the oil, but I'll gladly go pay someone $20+ to do it for me.

I want to use the Amazon example now rather than the bookstore/wholesale pricing from earlier. Here's a look at the Amazon KDP calculator for a 300-page paperback book.

My apologies if that's hard to read. If I set the price of this 300-page book at $20, the printing cost is $4.38, I get an author royalty of $7.62. Which is really good. Way more than the $2 example from earlier. And to Amazon's credit, their print costs per book are a lot lower than most (if not all) print on demand services.

But $20 might be a lot to ask for a new author's paperback book. Let's say you go more competitive at $15.

At $15, now it's down to $4.62 royalty.

And then I see an article that says I shouldn't worry about making money, what's important is getting a bunch of books out there. Building up readership. The article says to set the price at $5.

Check that out, I can't even do it. The minimum amount needs to be $10.95. Now, granted, that's because it's 300 pages long. The printing costs will vary. So a 50-page book has a different minimum, so will the 500 pager. If you've written a 1,000 page epic, it's really hard to self-publish that successfully.

Hybrid Publishers

Hybrid Publishers will often use the combination of IngramSpark and Amazon to release your book. Sticking with the Amazon example, they are using the same calculator from above. Only difference, maybe they're collecting a 10-15% cut.

This is a super important note: If the hybrid publisher you are working with is taking more than 15% as their royalty, you are drifting into vanity publisher territory. If you are paying $1,000+ to have them assist in publishing your book, the trade-off should be that you get almost all of the royalties. I'd look for a hybrid publisher who keeps 5% for themselves, 10% at the max.

We have several articles on how to tell the difference. Such as:

  • What is a vanity press/vanity publisher?

  • How to spot a rotten publishing deal

  • Vanity Publishers set things back 30 years

But back to the 500 rule

Let's map this out again, first the self-publishing scenario.

I spent $1,000 self-publishing my book. Dump another $500 into marketing/giving away some free copies.
The book sells 500 copies on Amazon.com.
Amazon royalty pays me $5 per sale.
Total author revenue: $2,500. Total costs: $1,500. Profit: $1,000

I leave this experience being pretty happy. Didn't become a bestseller. Can't retire. Can't quit my day job.But can use that $1,000 for a vacation. Or a few really nice dinners.

Now for the hybrid publishing scenario:

I spent $2,500 with the hybrid publisher
The book sells 500 copies on Amazon.com
I get a royalty of $4.50 per book because the hybrid publisher gets 10% of the post-Amazon cut
Total author revenue: $2,250. Total costs: $2,500. Profit: No profit. Ended up losing $250

But I might leave that experience still being happy. My book looks professional, maybe they got it into a few bookstores, I didn't have to deal with any of the frustration that comes with doing everything myself. All of that and I lost the same amount of money as a monthly family cell phone bill. Hey, that's not too shabby. $250 well spent.

The problem is...

500 copies sold is not the norm. Most books, especially in the self-published arena, will clock in under 100. A ton of books will end up in the single digits or low 20's.

And that's where the customer experience starts to get a little messy. The agents and publishers have the 500 copy wall setup and that results in a ton of rejection emails. Thank you for sending your manuscript to us. Unfortunately...

But cutting the agents and publishers out of the equation doesn't avoid the 500 rule either. If you pay $1,000 to self-publish your book or $2,500 to a hybrid publisher and end up selling 25 copies, receive a royalty check of $125, that stings financially. And it stings emotionally too. We didn't get a rejection email from an agent, but low sale numbers can feel like the readers have rejected the work (when in reality they never even saw the work). It's hard to say which scenario hurts more, the rejection emails or being out a few thousand dollars + seeing low activity on the Amazon bar graph.

The good news: I spent the better part of the last three years trying to figure out the solution to this problem. The problem being that a book needs to sell (at least) 500 copies to be financially viable, but most books will not reach that mark. I've learned a bunch on this journey and am confident with a few in-house solutions we are bringing to this ever-changing publishing space.

For more information, e-mail library@longoverduestories.com or tune in for more articles coming soon on our blog.

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