Table of Contents

Share

book sales illustration

“How many copies of my book should I expect to sell? What’s a good number?”

I hear that question a lot, and I understand the confusion. There’s a real scarcity of good data out there to help Authors set their expectations, so unless you’ve already published a book, preferably with a dedicated book launch, it’s hard to know what to shoot for.

It doesn’t help that the publishing industry only releases sales ranks, not actual numbers, making hard data almost impossible to find.

This blog post will solve that.

At Scribe, we publish over 250 new nonfiction books each year, and we’ve compiled that data into a comprehensive look at nonfiction book sales that I’m going to share with you.

We’ve also done a lot of our own research into book sales and marketing and I’ll share that with you too, so you can understand everything you need to know about book sales.

And then at the end, I give you some benchmarks to measure your own book against.

The Full Measure of a Book’s Success

But before I get into the numbers, I’m going to tell you something very counterintuitive:

Book sales are not a good way to measure the success of a nonfiction book.

When Authors ask me how many copies of their book they should sell, I ask them a different question:

“What are you trying to accomplish with your book?”

Some of the greatest Author success stories we’ve seen here at Scribe didn’t get huge sales numbers. They depended on a handful of sales to the right people:

  • Like Mike Brunel, who launched a second career when two friends in real estate asked him to present a series of talks based on the ideas in his book.
  • Or Tofe Evans, who created a worldwide speaking career from a book he wrote with the hope of helping just one person, any person, who really needed it.
  • Or Will Leach, who’s earned millions in revenue for his consultancy, coming almost exclusively from his book because it so deeply resonated with the right few people.

More and more authors today are finding success through focus—reaching just a few people in a profound way—because those readers are far more likely to do something with it.

This is one of the main reasons I talk so much about the virtues of self-publishing:

Authors who self-publish are free to use their book however they want: generating 6- and even 7-figure revenue through speaking, coaching, and consulting; or giving the book away just for the joy of knowing they’ve made a difference.

Traditional publishing will not let you do that. Publishers only make money by selling copies of books, which is why they obsess over book sales.

But self-published Authors have many more roads to success.

Instead of asking how many books they should expect to sell, Authors are better served by asking themselves how much opportunity, revenue, and personal fulfillment they can generate by putting the right book in front of the right people.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to sell books. It’s just that focusing on book sales often trades off with other forms of success, so you have to be clear what you prefer.

If you’re still curious about book sales, I’ve compiled some statistics based on our own sales data to give you a glimpse into the world of nonfiction book publishing.

What Do Book Sales Really Mean?

There was a time when book sales were straightforward. Publishing companies printed books and sold them to bookstores. From there, bookstores sold them to readers—or returned the ones they couldn’t sell—and publishers tracked sales through physical inventory.

Today, the book market is completely different. Digital formats like ebooks and audiobooks don’t have a physical inventory, and most self-published books are printed on-demand.

Today, book sales come from 3 sources:

  • Ebook (digital) sales
  • Print book sales
  • Audiobook sales

It sounds simple, but each of these numbers has to be calculated separately.

Self-published sales

As a self-published Author, you have direct access to your own sales data, so let’s start there. How do you figure out your own total book sales?

Ebook sales

Your monthly ebook sales consist of all your sales from every ebook retailer and lender:

  • Amazon
  • iBooks
  • Kobo
  • Nook
  • Scribd
  • Overdrive
  • Hoopla
  • etc

If you’re using an aggregator like BookBaby to distribute your ebook, you’ll get full sales reports without having to add everything up yourself. That’s a huge plus and saves a ton of time.

If you’re not, you won’t know your total ebook sales numbers until you calculate them.

PRO TIP:

Ebook retailers often report US and global sales separately. Be sure to include every market in your total.

Print sales

Print book sales work basically the same way, combining:

  • Print books sold online through retailers
  • Print books sold in brick-and-mortar stores
  • Print books you sell yourself (direct sales)

As a self-published Author, your printer and/or distributor will report retail sales figures from both online and brick-and-mortar booksellers.

Add that monthly sales report to the number of books you sold yourself, and those are your monthly print sales.

Audiobooks

Audiobooks, like ebooks, are digital. They can be “printed” on CDs and distributed as physical copies, but that’s very rare now. Most Authors sell only digital downloads of their audiobook.

Audiobook sales work exactly like ebook sales, with one simple difference:

It’s almost impossible to distribute an audiobook widely without using a digital distributor.

In other words, most self-published Authors have only 2 choices:

  1. sell your audiobook exclusively through Audible and/or iBooks, or
  2. use a digital distributor to sell it everywhere.

Either way, you’ll get monthly reports of your audiobook sales.

Traditional publishers

If you’re not a self-published Author, you probably don’t have direct access to sales numbers.

Not even for your own book.

Traditionally published Authors get royalty statements from their publisher maybe 2 or 4 times a year, and even those don’t tell you where the sales came from.

So, what if you want to figure out how many books someone else is selling, like an industry leader or your top competitor?

Let me be very clear about this:

The best you can do is guess how many copies that book is selling based on a very limited amount of public data.

Still, if you want to make the best possible educated guess, here’s how to do it.

Step 1. Find the book on Amazon

Search for the book on Amazon and pay attention to the different editions, such as:

  • Kindle
  • paperback
  • hardcover
  • audiobook

To estimate total sales, you’ll have to look at each edition separately.

Step 2. Check the book’s Amazon sales rank

For each edition, note the book’s rank in the entire store, not just its own category. Some categories are bigger than others, so the rank within an individual category doesn’t mean much.

Once you have the book’s overall rank, enter it into an Amazon sales estimator like AMZ Scout. Be sure to choose the right Amazon store:

  • Kindle store for Kindle books
  • Books for every other edition

The calculator will give you an estimated monthly sales number for that edition of that book, given its overall rank.

Step 3. Rinse and repeat

This system is a lot better than nothing. It can give you a feel for how well a book is selling at any given moment, but it has its problems:

It estimates monthly sales based on a single data point.

That’s statistically terrible. To get a better estimate, you’ll have to enter each edition’s rank into the calculator several times over the course of a month and then take the average. The more data points you use, the better the sales estimate.

It only measures sales on Amazon.

Kindle controls a huge portion of the digital market in both ebooks and audiobooks, so the Kindle estimate is a good indicator of digital sales. But even this can be off by a big factor, and print sales are even worse.

Promotions can skew the data.

To even out the effect of short-term spikes, take the average of a book’s estimated sales across a few months. Why? There are several things that can change a book’s sales numbers dramatically, affecting the rank for days or even weeks afterward:

  • price discounts
  • advertising
  • media coverage
  • BookBub promotions
  • any other sales or marketing push
The Amazon rank algorithm rewards consistency.

In other words, a high book rank can mean either:

  • it’s selling a lot of copies in one day, or
  • it has sold a much smaller number of copies consistently all month

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Is this really the best way to estimate book sales?”

If all you have is public data, then yes. Publishing houses do not share hard numbers.

But if you’re truly dedicated to getting real sales data, there are private data sources—like BookScan, which Authors can sign up for through Publisher’s Marketplace for $2,500 per year.

Yes. $2,500. The price alone shows how hard it is to get good numbers any other way.

But everyone has a story to tell—and every potential Author should have the tools they need to do that. Which is why we’re sharing our own data on nonfiction book sales, right here.

Overall and Average Sales of Nonfiction Books

But how many copies does a single nonfiction book sell, on average?

Before I can answer that, I have to talk about what “average” really means.

There are 3 kinds of averages:

  • the middle number (median)
  • the most common number
  • the calculated average

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have 5 books, and they sold this many copies last month:

  • 2
  • 2
  • 16
  • 30
  • 300

The most common number is 2. The middle number is 16. The calculated average is 70.

I made these numbers up as an example, but they’re not a bad representation of the industry. If you’re asking about average sales, it’s critical to understand this:

There are a lot of books that sell just a few copies, and there are a few books that sell a lot.

If you’re looking for the most common number of sales for a non-fiction book, that answer is going to be pretty small. For one thing, there are a lot of self-published Authors who didn’t do their research. They didn’t:

In short, they didn’t publish a great book.

But there are also a lot of great nonfiction books, both self-published and traditionally published, that never got any marketing. Those books usually don’t sell either.

As a result, the nonfiction market is all over the place. Some books sell a ton of copies, and some hardly sell any.

Let’s look at some real numbers.

There were about 5 million adult nonfiction print books sold in the United States per week during October and November of 2019.

According to Bowker, more than 1 million books were self-published in 2017 alone.

If most of those weekly sales were for books written in the last 3 years, and if something like half of all published books are nonfiction, that leaves more than 1.5 million titles to share those 5 million sales.

That’s only 3.33 copies per title for that week, or about 14 books per month, going by the calculated average.

But the most common and middle numbers have to be even lower than that.

book lifting weights illustration

Does that sound dismal? It shouldn’t. It just means you have to do more than write a good book and upload it to Amazon. You have to put some real effort into marketing and sales.

Actual Nonfiction Book Sales by Timeframe

Now that you have an idea of what the overall nonfiction industry looks like, I’ll give you some of our actual sales data from the 250+ books we publish each year, as well as reasonable expectations for a new nonfiction book.

In the first week

In 2019, our median title (the middle book) sold 174 copies in the first week. That’s a good target for a new book.

The average number of sales in the first week was 359, but that’s because a few books sold far more than most. That’s why we don’t like to use the calculated average as a target. The number is heavily skewed. 174 copies is a much better target for the “average” nonfiction book.

Keep in mind that this number varies tremendously from one project to the next. Here are a few scenarios:

  • Let’s say you have an email list of 50,000 dedicated followers. If your list has an average open rate of 35%, that’s 17,500 people who will open your announcement email. If 1% of those people buy the book, that’s 175 sales.
  • For an email list of 10,000, that would be 35 sales.
  • Repetition helps—meaning more emails and posts—but with a falling rate of return. Your 175 sales from the first emails probably came from your most avid followers. The second email might produce 50 sales or fewer.
  • The same calculation applies to social media platforms, but with conversion rates that are usually lower unless you have a highly engaged following. 50,000 followers might result in 5,000 post views and maybe 50 sales.

When we create a dedicated launch plan for a new book, we include a wide range of marketing efforts, including traditional media, social media, advertising, email lists, interviews, and blog tours, to name a few. Obviously, the more of these you put together, the better your book will sell.

Let’s look at some advertising scenarios:

  • With Amazon ads, readers see your book when they search for any word in your keyword list. If you pay $0.45 per click, and 1 in 10 of those clicks leads to a sale, the ad is costing you $4.50 per sale, or $450 per 100 sales. Whether that’s worth it depends how much you’re making per book (in this case, hopefully, more than $4.50). But as you hone your keyword list, your conversion rate will rise, making the ad more profitable.
  • Linked-In and/or Facebook ads work the same way, targeting readers who are interested in your book’s subject matter. Let’s use better numbers this time. If you’re paying $0.19 per click, and 1 in 5 of those people buy it, each sale only costs you $0.95, or $95 for 100 sales.

In the first 3 months

After we publish a book, we transition the book to the Author, so we stop seeing direct sales numbers. The average traditionally published non-fiction book sells about 250-300 copies in the first year, but when we manage a book launch, our target is to sell 1,000 copies in the first 3 months.

Why 1,000? Because at that number of sales, a book has the momentum it needs to keep spreading by word of mouth.

If your book isn’t selling as many copies as you hoped over the first 2 months, it might be worth running a book promotion in month 3 to boost your numbers.

BookBub is the most successful book promotion site by far, producing on average 300-500 additional books on the day of the promotion during our test.

And, again, advertising can make a big difference. You can start by advertising on any platform at a small investment of even $5 or $10 per day. Conduct A/B ad testing until you’re seeing the numbers you want, but give each test a few days to run.

In the book’s lifetime

Research suggests that the “average” self-published, digital-only book sells about 250 copies in its lifetime.

By comparison, the average traditionally published book sells 3,000 copies, but as I mentioned above, only about 250-300 of those sales happen in the first year.

For a traditional publisher to think of a nonfiction book as a success, it has to sell more like 10,000 copies over its lifetime.

That’s a lot of failures for the publisher. But for a self-published Author who fully leverages the expertise, credibility, and profound connection that a great book offers, a handful of sales can bring in a lot of business.

Book sales are more of a marathon than a sprint. Sticking around with a decent number of sales week-in and week-out is a lot better than rocketing into the ranks for one day and then plummeting into obscurity.

Let me leave you with one final example:

If you sell 1,000 books in week 1, and then 1 per day after that, you’ll sell:

  • 1,358 books in year 1
  • 365 in year 2 (1,723 total)
  • 365 in year 3 (2,088 total)

BUT, sell only 200 books in week 1 and then 5 per day, and you’ll sell:

  • 1,990 books in year 1
  • 1,825 in year 2 (3,815 total)
  • 1,825 in year 3 (5,640 total)

Authors who worry less about rank and more about consistently reaching the right people—people who will read and love their book—often end up with a much wider reach, and much more lucrative results.

How Many Copies Do You Have to Sell to Be a Bestseller?

If you’ve read this far and you’re still curious how many sales it takes to get on a bestseller list, here’s the breakdown. Keep in mind that each list has its own system for measuring sales numbers, so one bestselling list is not the same as another.

For more details on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal lists, read my full post on hitting bestseller lists.

On Amazon

For Amazon, it depends which list you mean. There are several ways for a book to be called an Amazon bestseller:

  1. Reach the #1 spot in any Amazon category
  2. Reach #1 on the Kindle store
  3. Reach #1 in Amazon books
  4. Be in the top 20 most sold for the week
  5. Be in the top 20 most read for the week

If that sounds like a lot of ways, well, it is. Amazon is great at selling books. It gives Authors a lot of roads to success, and its algorithm rewards that success. Let’s look at each one.

Amazon categories

Reaching the top rank in any category on Amazon will earn your book an orange bestseller flag. Once you’ve earned it, even for an hour, you have the right to call yourself a bestselling Author.

But some categories are easier to top than others. There are a lot more books on marketing than there are on boat building, so it takes more sales to capture the # 1 marketing spot.

That said, a new book usually needs 100 sales or more in the first 48 hours to capture the top spot in its least-competitive category.

Kindle store

Reaching #1 on the entire Kindle store takes a lot more sales. Even selling enough to hit the top 100 is a challenge.

AMZ Scout reports:

  • 5,577 within 2-3 days to hit #1
  • 2,243 within 2-3 days to hit #100

Why is it so difficult to hit the top 100? Because Amazon rewards consistency. Selling 75 books every day for a month is harder to do than selling 75 books just once.

Amazon books

Hitting #1 here is even harder. Why? Because Amazon Books includes every kind of book:

  • hardcovers
  • paperbacks
  • Kindles
  • audiobooks
  • calendars (strange, but true)

Topping this list means topping the sales of every edition of every book on the planet, at least for an hour.

Keep in mind that your book is competing against every other book available, fiction and nonfiction. The top-selling engineering title isn’t likely to make the top 100 when it comes to all books.

The list is also relative, so the sales you need to top the chart in May aren’t anywhere near what you need to top it during the December holiday rush.

Top 20 most sold & most read

Amazon also reports the top 20 most sold and the top 20 most read books each week, separated into fiction and nonfiction. These spots are arguably even more coveted because they don’t change by the hour, so you probably won’t earn one through a one-and-done promotion.

“Most read” is an unusual category because it reports literally what’s being read, which brings up an important point:

Kindle readers track the number of pages read in a Kindle book, giving Kindle Unlimited and Prime Reading books a huge leg up in every Kindle category.

Even though reading a book doesn’t usually pay the Author as much buying it, Authors whose books are in Kindle Unlimited or Prime Reading have a much better shot at a high sales rank.

Some Authors earn more than half their total royalties from page reads.

In The Wall Street Journal

Hitting the bestseller list in WSJ takes about 6,000 sales over the first week, but the trick here is this: pre-ordered books count as sales on the day of publication.

In other words, you don’t really have to sell 6,000 books in one week. You have to sell 6,000 books over several weeks or even several months, assuming you put your book up for preorder.

Keep in mind that the list ranks book sales against each other, so the magic number isn’t always 6,000. Books sell more in December than they do in April, for example. Getting on this list during a busy season can take a lot more sales.

In The New York Times

The NYT bestseller list is as elitist as it gets. It doesn’t count Amazon sales. It weighs sales from independent bookstores more heavily than chain stores. In short, the list is skewed heavily against self-published Authors.

Hitting this list usually takes 10,000 sales or more over the first week. Like the WSJ list, pre-orders count as sales on the day of publication, but the NYT list is still a lot harder to crack. Here’s why:

  • Amazon sales don’t count
  • Bulk sales don’t count

NYT tries to take bulk sales out of the equation. If you sell 1,000 books to a corporation for its new training program, NYT doesn’t want to count any of those sales toward its bestseller list. Not even one.

It’s not impossible for a self-published Author to get on this list—David Goggins did it for example—but you’ll need very wide distribution and a serious marketing push to make it happen.

Final Thoughts: A Sales Benchmark

If you are just looking for some numbers to benchmark your non-fiction book against, given our experience working with thousands, this is what we tell our Authors.

Now, understand that it is impossible to give a “one size fits all” set of benchmarks. I have to make a lot of assumptions to even get to the numbers below, and this is the benchmark that we give to most of our Authors at Scribe.

These numbers assume a normal Author, who has no audience waiting to buy their books but a decent set of personal connections, and they wrote a book that solves a clear problem for a real audience.

First Week Sales

– Industry Average: 50
– Scribe Target: 150
– Homerun: 500

First Quarter Sales

– Industry Average: 200
– Scribe Target: 500
– Homerun: 1000

Daily Average Sales

– Industry Average: 0-2
– Scribe Target: 3-5
– Homerun: 6-10

First-Year Sales

– Industry Average: 400
– Scribe Target: 1000
– Homerun: 2500+

Five Year Sales

– Industry Average: 1000
– Scribe Target: 2500
– Homerun: 5000+