How Many Copies Makes a Best Selling Book?

I ‘ve received this question many times over the years. A recent blog post from an author who went through a brief popular period reflects on sales history. The author, Neal Pollack, has published five books, one of which via the much-hyped self publish / Amazon route. Four of the five netted roughly the same result:

“Ten thousand copies appears to be my threshold.”

Pollack is considered a “bestselling” author, whatever that means. Presumably someone worthy of an intense publicity campaign. His most publicized book, Alternadad, resulted in an intense publicity campaign, including an appearance on Nightline.

It sold about 10,000 copies.

I am fascinated because I write for the church leadership market, which is niche to the second power. When my first book, The Wired Church, came out in 1999 with Abingdon, my editor told me that, in our market, 10,000 copies was considered a bestseller. I was ecstatic when my first royalty statements should me to be on a trajectory toward this magic number. (As it turns out, that’s almost exactly where it landed.) While watching The Wired Church sales slowly climb, I assumed “normal” writers, the fiction or trade paperback kind, could expect sales of 20-, 50-, or 100,000 copies.

… Maybe not.

The other number my editor told me at that time was 3,000: the lifetime sales figure for the average church professional book.

By the time I arrived on Abingdon’s campus in 2011 as an acquisitions editor, these numbers had taken a beating. My original editor, now my boss, told me the average book now sold a little less than 2500 copies, and that on a typical list of ten or twelve books (a list being the collection of books typically marketed together by season, twice a year), one or two break toward 10,000 copies and the rest might be lucky to hit 1000, meaning the mean beats the median beats the mode. In other words, a single author or two pays the bills for everyone, and good luck dude.

Often, a publisher might have a single book on the season – one out of ten – break out. If you thought the odds of getting published were bad, the odds of publishing something anyone reads are ten times worse. While inside publishing, I would watch retail sales reps look over the initial internal publicity campaign for a new book and discuss “which one” they expected to break out.

Such projections are daunting, if not downright depressing. Yet we writers write on. We are a stubborn bunch. I am close to finishing my next book. It represents a shift, on many levels, and I have high hopes for it. It should do at least 2000 copies, right?


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

5 Comments on “How Many Copies Makes a Best Selling Book?”

  1. Hmmm. Just had a series of small group books that I helped my husband create picked up by Wipf and Stock (not your “big” publishing company!) and wondered if that would help them sell. The point for us is not the money — though that would be nice — but it’s getting out material that we think is important. Not terribly encouraging.

  2. What is interesting as a coach and consultant for more book marketing projects in recently years is that authors tend to expect publishers to do all the work marketing. When a publisher does give a resource to an author, they blow it off. While it is actually in their best interest to exploit it and build their own tribe while marketing their current title. It only serves them well for the future if they leverage a book launch to build their audience / house list so they can engage, tap their knowledge and creativity and pour it back into future projects that will be embraced further by their core followers.

    1. Thanks for posting, Kenny. I completely agree and have seen the same phenomenon from both sides of the relationship. I am glad you are helping to educate people.

  3. Ten Temptations is doing well. Thanks for your encouragement Len. Adapt to Thrive is coming out in the spring. Hope it does well too. To Just a One Night Stand is over 6000. Let me know what you think.

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