How many copies sold is a bestseller?

Wednesday, Jul 18th, 2007 @ 03:37 pm

During my panel session at Thrillerfest, someone in the audience asked the question: “How many copies do you have to sell in a week for a book to hit the New York Times bestseller list?”  After my fellow panelists tried to explain that a hard and fast number wasn’t easy to come by, that there were many factors that go into the list, etc., etc., I could see the questioner was frustrated by the lack of a number.  So I threw out a number that seemed about right to me: 10,000 hardcover copies.  And by that I meant total sales, not just sales reported by Bookscan, which only captures part of the market.  (I’d heard elsewhere that during a slow month like January, 7,000 copies might be the minimum.) 

Well, it seems I was wrong.  As in wrong by a factor of two.

Since that panel, Joe Finder and I have been exchanging emails about the topic.  Joe thought that the number was closer to around 4,000 copies sold in a week.  I thought it couldn’t be that low.  But then Joe asked an editor he trusts, and that editor came back with some pretty convincing data that Joe is absolutely right — that you can, in fact, make it onto the Times top-15 list by selling only 5,000 hardcover copies in a single week.

The reason I had trouble believing it is that I don’t trust Bookscan numbers, which is what everyone seems to go by these days as a source of hard numbers.  First, not every sale shows up in Bookscan.  Library sales, for instance, are invisible to them.  And if you’re a perennial bestselling author, then your books are probably sold in many nontraditional outlets that won’t show up in Bookscan, such as in supermarkets.   Common wisdom says Bookscan captures around 65% of actual hardcover booksales, but for popular authors, I think it’s a much lower percentage.  So when a book shows up on the Times list, and Bookscan says they sold 5,000 copies, what does that REALLY mean?  How many sales are we not seeing there? 

Another complication is the Times list itself.  They give extra weight to independent stores, so if your literary masterpiece sells like gangbusters in all the independent reporting stores, but you sell only a few in Costco, you could still theoretically get onto the list.  Even though Popular Thriller Author, who didn’t get onto the list, may actually have sold twice as many total copies as the first author did that same week.

My reaction to this number is sheer amazement that in a country this size, one can be a top-15 bestselling author by selling only 5,000 copies. My gosh, are we such disinterested readers?  Is anyone in America reading books these days?  When a mere 5,000 book buyers determine the TOP SELLERS in a country of 300 million people, the industry is in trouble.  Hell, America is in trouble.

My other reaction is this: wow, January really is a slow month for booksales.  Because I don’t think 5,000 copies sold will get you anywhere near the top-15 in the month of September.  Even 10,000 copies sold in September may not be enough.

So I’m enormously happy that my publisher decided to move THE BONE GARDEN to September instead of its previously scheduled release of March.  Maybe I won’t get as high on the list — but it certainly seems as if I’ll likely sell a lot more books.  Maybe even twice as many. 

 ADDENDUM: Just out of curiosity, I checked the sales figures for a single bestselling car model, the Toyota Camry.  In 2004, 430,000 new Camrys sold.  That works out to around 8200 cars sold per week.  

Um, America?  At $26.00 a book is a pretty good deal.  And a lot cheaper than a car.

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And… the link of the day.  Drop in and visit my email buddy, author Sheila Quigley and say hi!  She’s another writer who knows the ups and downs of the writing life.

22 Responses to “How many copies sold is a bestseller?”

  1. I’m forever fascinated by these industry insights–thanks!

    And I’m very glad that my debut’s slated for late February…because while list-making isn’t likely, the “field” may at least be a little clearer for a new author trying to establish a readership.

    As for THE BONE GARDEN’S September debut, I happen to know of a few readers who think you fit in very well with the other heavy-hitters of the fall–and will be helping you toward that 10,000+ goal!

  2. april says:

    As a reader, I find all the industry information fascinating. A lot of authors I read have just made the transition or are going to make the transition from paperback only to hardcover releases. This changes possibly the audience and possibly the relationship with established readers. I, personally, have no qualms about buying a hardcover. I also don’t care when a release date is as long as my favorite authors are still writing on a fairly regular basis, but these things matter to a lot of readers.

    I, personally, am happy that the book is out in September because anything later than October is a gamble for me as our baby is due the first week in November (though we’re trying to be prepared by mid-October just in case). So, I’m very excited a few big books are coming out in September. One of my authors has a book coming out in November and it makes me sad I have no idea when I’ll get to it.

    I can’t wait to learn more about The Bone Garden because the title alone is very fascinating.

  3. Frank Hood says:

    Tess,

    You might be even more surprised by how few people can decide prestigious awards. In Science Fiction the Hugo awards is by fan vote of those who attend (or at least buy memberships in) the World Science Fiction Convention. Locus magazine has kept a total on these for years and in some categories a few hundred votes is enough for a winner.

    Not that I’m suggesting that someone might try to buy the award, but it’s probably a lot cheaper than buying your way onto the best seller list that I seem to remember someone trying not long ago.

  4. Kyle K. says:

    Tess,

    When you throw in the car sales figures like that, it really puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? Do you know what else saddens me? Have you seen that Sony e-book thing? The day books are no longer printed will be a sad day indeed. I hope I’m not alive when it happens.

    I always try and buy a book in hardcover, since I know the author gets more money that way. Having written a novel, I know just how much time and effort (blood?) it takes to make one of those babies, so I want to compensate the author in the best way I can… buying the hardcover edition of their novel.

    One of my favorite authors is Terry Goodkind, and I ended up buying most of his books before I had ever read anything by him (I’m a compulsive book buyer). His first book I bought a special edition $2.99 paperback edition. Ouch. And most of the others I got from the “Hardcover for Paperback Price” tables. After I read his first book I wrote him a letter apologizing for buying most of his books so cheap. I never did get around to sending it to him, because I felt a little embarrassed after I was finished with it, but the sentiment was definitely sincere.

    Let’s just hope that the phenomena that are Harry Potter, Eragon, A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc, will reawaken the drive to read in today’s youth. There was a time when I was younger when I gave up reading for pleasure, and the thought gives me the shivers to this day. I always get the startled fawn look whenever someone tells me they don’t like to read. Maybe we should all get together and do some sort of reading/book buying equivalent of a rain dance… :)

    I’ll pray to the NYT Gods for you in September!

  5. For someone who doesn’t read much, I can see how $26 might not be a lot of dough. When you’re buying a three or four or five books a year, hardcover prices are reasonable.

    If you read a lot, or buy four or five books each time you hit the bookstore, that kind of loot adds up fast. As a result, I think most of those people, er, us, have to make some hard choices when they hit their local bookseller, especially when you can get four mass market paperbacks for just a couple dollars more than the price of a front list title.

    That said, we already know that most people never finish reading another book once they leave high school. I’m saddened by that, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that it takes a relatively small number of book sales to crack the NYT.

  6. Tess says:

    Yes, I do know that a hardcover is a lot to pay for people. But I’d be happy if readers would just head to the library and borrow a copy. What I want is that people READ — however they get their books. Even if they’re at paperback prices. And remember, libraries do have to buy the books, so writers do benefit!

  7. bob k says:

    Tess,

    You ask a couple very interesting questions…one might even cause me to do some research.

    Is anyone in America reading these days? It would be interesting to look at annual book sales nationwide over the last 2 – 3 decades. Is the low number needed to achieve bestseller status because fewer books are being sold – or is it because people who read have so many choices of books to read (I suspect more individual titles are being published than were 10 or 20 years ago). Or it could be an interaction between the two things.

    And then I wonder – for each hard cover book sold – how many people will read the book? I know that with authors I truly enjoy – it is not uncommon for 2, 3 or more people to borrow the book after I read it.

    I, too, just want people to read. I believe society as whole benefits when the members of society increase their reading – because they are exposed to more ideas, their vocabulary increases, etc. etc.

    We hear a lot about the current generation and how they get most of their news online, etc. – but it is less clear to me whether they actually read fewer books. Based upon the small number of teenagers I know well – I think they might actually read more than I did at that age.

  8. joe bernstein says:

    the death of reading is not in the offing anytime soon-i actually found my daughter in law reading recently-i was amazed because she likes Sponge-Bob cartoons!i asked if she liked thrillers and she said yes,so i gave her some books by Tess(Body Double and The Surgeon)-i’m waiting for a report.My son surprised me recently by mentioning he’d read Siddartha and Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse-he normally reads only technical books on subjects he’s interested in-he slices meat for a living and has a GED,but is far and away the smartest person in my family-his daughter is 19 months and has a number of baby books(plastic so they’re drool-proof)which she is very possessive of.My daughter is a teacher who specializes in literacy programs these last few years and is very confident that reading is alive and well.

  9. Craig says:

    Well, I read 3-4 books per week–I’ve learned to turn off the TV–75 channels and nothing on is the norm–so when I buy a book it MUST be one that I’ll read and re-read. Tess is correct in that library books do benefit the author. The Oklahoma County Library System–19 branches soon to increase to 21–has at least 1 million volumes and I can put a reserve on any book from any branch by computer. The book arrives at the closest branch, which for me would be the Village Library, and I get an e-mail. Disabled patrons can have the books to delivered to their homes. The volumes are tracked by computer and when the interest in the newest Harry Potter wanes eventually some copies are turned over to Friends of the Library which sells the volumes (usually $3) and turns the money back to the library to spend on infrastructure–shelves, carpeting etc. Tess, I will report to you when I find out how many copies of The Bone Garden are on order.

  10. Tess, thanks for sharing all of your experiences with us. I think it’s a mistake for a writer to judge the value of their work against sales numbers or even book reviews: both are utterly subjective. Perhaps the best standard are the letters an author receives from readers, sharing how the book touched them. Of course reality is if the writer wants to stay in this business, s/he must earn out — however that’s calculated!

  11. struggler says:

    Tess, I’m as dumbstruck as you that 5000 sales gets a place on the bestsellers lists, although as one who has yet to write (never mind publish) a novel, I’d feel pretty satisfied if that number of people bought my book in just one week. But on the broader issue of whether reading is in decline, I think one of the things we parents can do is to show our children the values, benefits and pleasures of reading as opposed to watching the TV, playing video games or sending pointless text messages to friends across the classroom. If our children see their parents reading, it sends them the message that reading is the right and best thing to do – we are highly influential in shaping their characters and habits and we should be responsible and disciplined enough to switch the TV and PC off and share a book together on a regular basis. My daughters are 7 and 4, and the elder one loves counting all the books in my office/library at home and likes to memorise some of the authors’ names. If while we’re out in the car she sees a billboard somewhere advertising newly released book she’ll often recognise the writer’s name and tell me ‘You’ve got a book by her Daddy’ and such like. When we visited the US in 2005 her step-grandmother gave her a book called BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE which, by the time she was 6, she had read cover to cover and was very proud to tell me so! She feels that because her father reads a lot, it must be a good thing. It certainly seems to be helping in her schooling in the English language. In my case I think I was influenced by my mother who always seemed to be reading something or other – probably Harold Robbins or some such back in the sixties – and it rubbed off on me permanently.

  12. JanetK says:

    The publishing industry sure seems to be an odd one. Does any other business type operate with such vague numbers? How can a publishing company make good decisions based on such incomplete sales figures? Or … do publishers actually have solid figures for their own books and they simply decline to share? So many questions…

  13. The publishers know how many books they sell. They just ain’t sharing the info (including, many times, with their authors). Also, it tends to be something they know in retrospect, due to the nature of consignment bookselling.

    On the other hand, the New York Times is very circumspect about their bestseller list. So that’s why there’s so much speculation about it. (And also because it varies so much from week to week.)

    It was a great panel, Tess. Glad to be a part of it.

  14. JMH says:

    I’ve always been confused as to whether the numbers reflect books sold to the bookstores or sold from bookstores to customers. Every once in a while I see a comment that a book will come out as #8 on the list, and a single one hasn’t yet been sold to a customer.

  15. Jude Hardin says:

    How do book sales stack up against the Honda Accord?

  16. hopeful says:

    On the topic of reading….

    I think interest in reading is down, because reading is too difficult for some people. We’ve totally lost the way in reading education. This is something I would never have considered before, but I’ve spent the last two years re-teaching adults how to read, with fantastic results. If you enjoy reading, find it easy, and would rather read than watch tv, you are probably already an excellent reader. But if you get tired when you read, or find you frequently have to reread passages in order to understand them, your reading can probably be improved. It has nothing to do with intelligence, but rather the method that was used to teach you how to read, most likely an overemphasis on phonics and speed.

    I know I sound like a commercial, but I have seen lives changed. I just try to get the message out there. If anyone is interested or if they are concerned that their child might not be an excellent reader, please look for the book Read Right by Dee Tadlock.

  17. Craig says:

    hopeful, what you say makes a lot of sense. Twelve years ago I was a lapsed reader. I got involved in reading again when a marvelous author, Jean Hager, visited my favorite bookstore. Jean incorporated Cherokee traditions and superstitions in her work and I found that fascinating. But I had to re-train myself. Everyone is different. For me I must have no disruptions or disturbances. My den is in the back of the house, no music, no TV and especially no phone. I then noticed like hopeful said that I tired easily and had to re-read passages and I had problems concentrating. In my case it wasn’t how I learned to read. I needed reading glasses. I’ve learned to turn the TV off (though I still do watch).
    Another problem not addressed by hopeful is that kids today have so many more distractions. We had no cable growing up, no personal computers, etc. During the summer we were taken to the library weekly. We could check out the same book over and over; it didn’t matter. But we had to check out a book or books. Reading was our major source of entertainment, especially when it was too hot or too cold outside. I think parents today (and I’m not one) are far more challenged in getting kids to read than we were but I have noticed that role models are important and if kids see their folks reading, they just might pick up on it themselves.

  18. joe bernstein says:

    hopeful-i think that re-reading certain passages to understand them is not necessarily a sign of a less than adequate reader-it depends what you’re reading-some authors(i think we’re assuming fiction here and correct me if i’m wrong on that)write in a fast moving style using very acessible language-i have read all of cormac mccarthy’s novels and i have been an avid reader since childhood(my mom taught esl and general reading skills to adults),but some of mccarthy’s books force me to stop and look things up or translate his spanish passages(i am moderately fluent in spanish) or just go over a paragraph one or two times to get what he is saying-the quality of his writing is so good that it is not as tedious as it sounds-then,in some books,like”no country for old men” or “the road”,he has a very fast pace (like Tess)that you can read straight through.do you think anyone can speed read through james joyce?just tossing out a few thoughts here on reading which is something we will still be able to do if the power grid disappears or some other apocalyptic event occurs-after all,aside from ruins,how is it that we know of past civilizations except by the written word?

  19. Dave Keane says:

    Great stuff. I read the last NEA report called “Reading at Risk” and it clearly states that adults are reading less. In fact, the rate for adults reading literature has decreased by 14% in the last ten years, with only slightly more than one-third of adult American males now reading literature. As a children’s book author, I see that the best time to make a reader for life is in the years around third, fourth and fifth grade. If you’re interested (pardon the shameless promoting here), I’m exploring these critical issues in my new blog, which you can check out at http://www.davekeane.blogspot.com

  20. Savion says:

    I read in the NY Times 4 years ago that 95% of books sell less than 5,000 copies.

  21. MrsDidi says:

    I guess that is why every crime fiction novel I read has Best Selling Author written somewhere on the cover!

  22. MendozaEva23 says:

    Some time before, I needed to buy a house for my organization but I didn’t have enough cash and couldn’t order something. Thank goodness my friend proposed to take the loans at reliable bank. So, I acted that and used to be satisfied with my small business loan.

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