One of the most common misconceptions surrounding writing and publishing relates to book sales. From the well-meaning outsiders who blithely ask, “You’re a published author…are you rich?” to the industry-wide belief that bestseller status, especially for traditionally published authors, equates to being able to quit one’s day job, sales figures are an elusive data set for most people.
That fact isn’t helped by policies among many retailers and publishers to not divulge specific sales numbers, as evidenced by the numerous attempts to ask companies like Amazon or Barnes and Noble to reveal their sales figures. But today, an article by Gabe Habash featured in Publisher’s Weekly provides some very insightful speculation into what kind of sales figures produce a bestseller. According to the highly involved metrics from one specific title, PW discovered, “By studying the print bestseller list for a two-week period, we were able to determine that a title in Amazon’s top five averages 1,094 print copies sold across all channels, including other retailers, on a typical day. And because the general industry thinking is that Amazon accounts for about 30% of print sales, that means it likely takes around 300 copies per day to reach Amazon’s top five, depending on the day of the week and the time of year.”
While this data only relates to book sales that are reported to Nielsen Book Scan, PW estimated to include those retailers that are not reporting, and to include ebooks. A correction on the article appeared later which stated, “We incorrectly calculated the total of books sold per week (including outlets not tracked by Amazon) as 7,353; its per day total average as 1,050 and its Amazon estimate as 315 per day.”
Despite the numerical discrepancy, the article provides a somewhat less murky look at what is behind the rankings and looks at actual sales numbers, an area of concern for a great number of authors. Interestingly, access to data is one chief area where self-published authors have a slight advantage over their traditionally published peers; sales data for most online retailers is updated at least hourly, whereas most traditionally published authors wait for quarterly sales reports from their publishers which are usually prepared one quarter behind. That means an author will discover in June how many books he sold in January through March.
What still bemuses these authors is how little books are sold while still correlating to a sales ranking. Depending on how other titles in a similar category sell, a single unit sale can result in a tremendous increase in rank. Add to that the exponential increase that comes from a few hundred sales, and the rankings start to make less and less sense.