TL;DR Publishing is Weird

Thanks to all who turned out for the launch Wednesday night at Longfellow Books. Great fun, excellent cake, and an outstanding conversation with interviewer extraordinaire Katrina Niidas-Holm. I’m continuing the donation scheme I announced that night through the end of the year. For each copy of The Last Altruist, I will donate one dollar to a donation to the Matinicus Island Library, in honor of their commitment to providing banned books in their stacks. I’m not going to check receipts—if you tell me you bought it, I’ll take your word for it.

Ran into some interesting information about book sales and publishing last week. Not our usual fare, but I suspect there’s some interest in what actually happens in the publishing world, as opposed to the myths and assumptions running around.

The source of this information is the Senior Analyst for BookScan, which is part of the NPD Group, a large nationwide company that does market research and trendspotting in various businesses. So it’s about as legit as we’re going to get without actually seeing the balance sheets. It’s long, but as someone trying to participate in this market, I found it fascinating.

Much of this is quoted directly from comments the analyst provided online, in response to an ongoing discussion of the Penguin/Simon and Schuster antitrust trial. (I’ve redacted her name.) The original article can be found at

Hey y’all, it’s xxxxx, lead industry analyst from NPD BookScan. I thought I would chime in with some numbers here, since that statistic from the DOJ is super-misleading, and I’m not sure where it originally came from, since we did not provide it directly. 

NPD BookScan (BookScan is owned by The NPD Group, not Nielsen, BTW), collects data on print book sales from 16,000 retail locations, including Amazon print book sales. Included in those numbers are any print book sales from self-publishing platforms where the author has opted for extended distribution and a print book was sold by Amazon or another retailer. So that 487K “new book” figure is all frontlist books in our data showing at least 1 unit sale over the last 52 weeks coming from publishers of all sizes, including individuals.

Because this is clearly a slice, and most likely provided by one of the parties to the suit, I decided to limit my data to the frontlist sales for the top 10 publishers by unit volume in the U.S. Trade market. My ISBN list is a little smaller than the one quoted in the DOJ, but the principals will be the same. 

The data below includes frontlist titles from Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Disney, Macmillan, Abrams, Sourcebooks, and John Wiley. The figures below only include books published by these publishers themselves, not publishers they distribute.

Here is what I found. Collectively, 45,571 unique ISBNs appear for these publishers in our frontlist sales data for the last 52 weeks (thru week ending 8-24-2022).

In this dataset:

>>>0.4% or 163 books sold 100,000 copies or more

>>>0.7% or 320 books sold between 50,000-99,999 copies

>>>2.2% or 1,015 books sold between 20,000-49,999 copies

>>>3.4% or 1,572 books sold between 10,000-19,999 copies

>>>5.5% or 2,518 books sold between 5,000-9,999 copies

>>>21.6% or 9,863 books sold between 1,000-4,999 copies

>>>51.4% or 23,419 sold between 12-999 copies

>>>14.7% or 6,701 books sold under 12 copies

So, only about 15% of all of those publisher-produced frontlist books sold less than 12 copies. That’s not nothing, but nowhere as janky as what has been reported.

BUT, I think the real story is that roughly 66% of those books from the top 10 publishers sold less than 1,000 copies over 52 weeks. (Those last two points combined)

And less than 2% sold more than 50,000 copies. (The top two points)

Now data is a funny thing. It can be sliced and diced to create different types of views. For instance we could run the same analysis on ALL of those 487K new books published in the last 52 weeks, which includes many small press and independently published titles, and we would find that about 98% of them sold less that 5,000 copies in the “trade bookstore market” that NPD BookScan covers. (I know this IS a true statistic because that data was produced by us for The New York Times.)

But that data does not include direct sales from publishers. It does not include sales by authors at events, or through their websites. It does not include eBook sales which we track in a separate tool, and it doesn’t include any of the amazing reading going on through platforms like Substack, Wattpad, Webtoons, Kindle Direct, or library lending platforms like OverDrive or Hoopla. 

BUT, it does represent the general reality of the ECONOMICS of the publishing market. In general, most of the revenue that keeps publishers in business comes from the very narrow band of publishing successes in the top 8-10% of new books, along with the 70% of overall sales that come from BACKLIST books in the current market. (Backlist books have gained about 4% in share from frontlist books since the pandemic began, but that is a whole other story.)

The long and short of it is publishing is very much a gambler’s game, and I think that has been clear from the testimony in the DOJ case. It is true that most people in publishing up to and including the CEOs cannot tell you for sure what books are going to make their year. The big advantage that publisher consolidation has brought to the top of the market is deeper pockets and more resources to roll those dice. More money to get a hot project. More money to influence outcomes through marketing, more access to sales and distribution mechanisms, and easier access to the gatekeepers who decide what books make it onto retailers’ shelves. And better ability to distribute risk across a bigger list of gambles.

It is largely a numbers game and I’m not just saying that because I’m a numbers gal. It’s a tough business.

Hope this has been helpful—back to our regularly scheduled topics next time.

This entry was posted in Dick's Posts, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to TL;DR Publishing is Weird

  1. John Clark says:

    Congratulations on the book debut and thanks for sharing these statistics. For me, it comes down to a desire to have my creations in print and come close to breaking even. My thoughts of making bucks/big bucks are well behind me, alas.

  2. Yeah, Dick. What John said. 🤩

  3. Sandra Neily says:

    Dick…I thought this was fascinating. And thanks for boiling it down…sort of. But the bottom line that stuck out was the backlist. The backlist. The backlist. I did have an agent once and when I asked her what I could do while she shopped the first novel was … write the second. And then write the third. I think the backlist thing, even for us not pubbed by the big boys….is perhaps the thing. At least that’s my takeaway. Again, thanks!

Leave a Reply