Fri, 9 Dec 11 at 15:29   | comment 3 Comments

Chance That A Self-Pub E-Book Sells >100,000 Copies = Odds of a Hole in One


The Wall Street Journal puts self-publishing on the front of its Weekend section today:

Self-publishing has long been derided as a last resort for authors who lack the talent or savvy to hack it in the publishing business. But it has gained a patina of legitimacy as a growing number of self-published authors land on best-seller lists. Last year, 133,036 self-published titles were released.

The article also mentions that 30 authors have sold more than 100,000 copies of their books through Kindle Direct.

This got me wondering how the statistics compare to traditional publishing. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that data is hard to come by, inconsistent, often anecdotal, and generally unhelpful. But this is the internet! — where catchy soundbites are always more interesting than hidebound accuracy — so I’m going to try anyway.

Bowker, which does the standard industry survey every year, says that 316,480 titles were published “traditionally” (i.e., not POD, not e-book) in 2010. “Non-traditional” output was 2.8 million titles. (Presumably the 133,036 figure quoted by the WSJ above is included within the 2.8m.)

Meanwhile, Pubishers Weekly counts books that sell more than 100,000 copies. Adding up hardcover and trade, fiction and nonfiction, the number in 2010 was 368 titles. They also count mass market, but in an annoying inconsistency, only those that sell more than 500,000 copies (58 titles).

Let’s add them up and compare! Simple arithmetic reveals that 0.02 percent of Kindle Direct titles sold more than 100K. Among “traditional” titles, the figure was 0.13 percent.

What does that mean? Depending on viewpoint, readers will probably take one of two positions:

1) Wow – traditionally published titles are five times more likely to break 100K!*

2) Wow – given the difference in royalties, non-traditional publishing is sure to be much more lucrative!

But to me, the real takeaway is simpler: no matter where you publish, the chance of selling Big Numbers is vanishingly small.

Some things haven’t changed much after all.


*Note that, if anything, this comparison understates the difference: the Kindle Direct figure was for “authors,” not “titles”; and the mass-market figure was for >500K not 100K. Corrected data would decrease the Kindle Direct count and increase the traditional count.

By the way, the statistic in the title I found here. 0.02% = 1:5000.

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  • Michele Lee says:

    Hi Mike,

    I “exposed” my own self publishing numbers not long ago on my blog ( Response suggested it’s fairly typical for authors who have thus far had a few “traditional” genre publications but nothing mass market/major distribution. Personally I think self publishing is becoming increasingly viable for some projects, like collections, novellas, niche works and non-traditional style novels. It’s a way for authors to meet the readers where they are, instead of hoping readers stumble upon them (in a digital sense). Anyone who expects to get rich off it, though, is destined for disappointment.

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