A recent Twitter storm pulled back the curtain on the publishing business and revealed some intriguing secrets about true nature of book sales.

It all began with a tweet from April Henry, best-selling mystery and thriller author. From there, readers were suddenly through the looking glass, seeing the publishing industry from a viewpoint that was disheartening for some, cheering for others.

Soon the tweet had acquired tens of thousands of likes and over 2,000 replies, some expressing dismay, others nodding sagely, as if we should all know this stuff.

First, though, the tweet.

OMG In the Penguin Random House/S&S antitrust trial it was revealed that out of 58,000 trade titles published per year, half of those titles sell fewer than one dozen books. LESS THAN ONE DOZEN.

The next one read

“90 percent of titles sell fewer than 2,000 units.”

Could that be right: fewer than a dozen?

The publisher could be exaggerating for effect, but this is evidence in a court of law so there has to be substance to it. And even if the figure were, say, 120, would that make much of a difference to the scale of the reaction.

In light of this, April Henry declared herself an amazing success, as did many others who thought their sub-three-figure books had failed. Quite the reverse, they were in the best seller category overall.

April went on to requote a New York Times report that said “about 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies”.

And this from a 2006 article: “In 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies.”

Book sales secrets

So we’re in the right ballpark with a dozen, even if the figure is manipulated to a degree to make the judge pity poor powerhouse Penguin.

The upshot being, if you see a published book, that doesn’t mean it’s doing well. Usually, the reverse. The market is overcrowded and standing out is not about the qualities of the story or the writing – but the marketing.

But, forget that for now. Let’s get back to the reaction. It was that “fewer than 12 copies” remark that caught people’s attention, prompting many (especially in the self-publishing community) to re-calibrate their assessment of success and failure.

Here were some highlights and conclusions from the debate.

  • In commercial fiction, eight out of ten books sell only a few copies, one out of ten breaks even, with the tenth one (a Stephen King or JK Rowling) paying for all the rest. The Pareto Principle at work.
  • Authors with publishing contracts were expected to bring their own audience and do their own marketing which accounted for the growth of the celebrity author.
  • Many authors told of their dismay at this kind of DIY contract.
  • Many tweeters who had professed uncertainty about the self-publishing market could be seen changing their mind. The industry was no longer “them and us” and more like, “we’re all in this together”.

So what does it mean?

What can we take from this? Depends if you’re a glass half-full or glass half-empty kinda person.

On the positive side, we can safely conclude the gulf – cultural or otherwise – between the traditionally published book and the self-published book is paper thin. The traditional publishers have no special insight what’s going to sell and, in most cases, they are probably right to assume the worst.

It reminds of William Goldman’s famous dictum on Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

The barrier to entry has always low been since Amazon came into the frame but now, with this news, the threshold of success is also low, low, low.

As long as you’re weighing the kudos rather than counting the pennies, this is good news. Everyone’s struggling the same.

On the negative side, we can only understand this in the context of a very, very tough marketplace with few sales and many distractions.

The work authors have to do to sell their books goes way beyond producing a professional product, beyond the realm of marketing and into the hustle – every sale counts and you make ’em how you can.

What’s the background to the case?

April Henry was quoting The Hot Sheet newsletter which goes into detail about the antitrust case over the proposed takeover of Simon and Schuster by Penguin RandomHouse.

You can also read about the case in Esquire, Vox and NPR which goes into greater detail about the implication of the merger, including the wonderful concept of the monopsony.

In brief, thought, the US Department of Justice has sued to stop the $2.18bn acquisition on antitrust grounds, saying that the combined publisher would become too dominant at the top end of the market – the “anticipated top sellers”.

The Department of Justice is arguing that such a merger would be detrimental to the middle and lower-ranking author.

The defence has suggested such a designation was meaningless. Editor intuition drives the acquisition of books, said CEO of PRH US, Madeline McIntosh.

She said, “If we’re doing something and it is seemingly having no [sales] results, then we’re going to stop throwing good money after bad. So we’re adapting in real time based on the results.”

In breaking down the figures, reference was made to authors on advances below $50K and this is where it gets interesting.

Here comes the crucial bit

The Hot Sheet says:

Below $50K is where most of the non–Big Five deals happen. The defence (the publishers) admitted this is the level at which “enhanced services” (marketing) fall off.

During the trial, a couple of depressing statistics were shared: of the 58,000 trade titles published per year, fully half of those titles “sell fewer than one dozen books.” (Not a typo, that’s one dozen.)

More broadly, 90 percent of titles sell fewer than 2,000 units. Even a small advance of a few thousand dollars would not earn out at standard royalty rates.

The trial has now ended and Judge Florence Pan is weighing up the arguments and is likely to rule this autumn.

Last word

But, at the end of the day, as we all know, writers gonna write – so sales are the icing not the cake for most.