How Many Copies Of FLEX Did I Sell? Well, How Many Copies Does The Average Book Sell?

When I sold my novel Flex to Angry Robot, I knew if I didn’t set a sales goal before the book was published, I would angst endlessly over whether the book had been a success.

So I set a secret “Fuck you, Ferrett” number, making a promise to myself: If you sell that many copies of your debut novel, you have succeeded.  You may not compare your sales numbers to any other author and despair.  If you beat that “Fuck You, Ferrett” number, you sold more copies than you thought you would; take a bow and shut up.

I’m quite cruel to myself, really.  But me and I, we get along.

That “Fuck you, Ferrett” number was taken from an author I trusted, who told me over drinks that most books only sell 3,000 copies over their lifetime.  As in, “They sell 3,000 copies total before they’re put out of print and forgotten.”  So I said, “If I sell 4,000 copies, I must have done well.”

Problem is, the more I talked to authors, the more I wondered whether that 3,000 was correct.

I had lunch with an author friend of mine.  “My publisher treats me nice,” he said.  “Of course, I’ve sold like 30,000 copies.”  Three months later, they offered him a six-figure deal to write the next books in the series.  So, okay, 30,000 copies is good enough to get publishers running back.

But then during one of the inevitable Twitter discussions of “Does social media get you sales?”, I revealed that ten years of blogging and daily Tweeting got me a sum total of 900 preorders for Flex.  Several author friends of mine replied that they hadn’t sold 900 copies of their book total, and man did I feel like a dick all day.

A publisher friend of mine told me that the 3,000 copies was actually a bad figure, at least for sci-fi; most books sold more than that.   But my agent told me that it really depended on the book, and the publisher, and any number of other factors.

When I said my goal was to sell 3,000 copies, was that good for a debut?  Bad?  I didn’t know.  I knew 30,000 copies was good.  I knew 10,000 copies was enough to get a publisher to as for the next book in the series.  So clearly somewhere in between is what I could expect…

But authors, by and large, don’t discuss copies sold.  They occasionally discuss earned income, which is useful, but when it comes to “copies moved” you only hear about raging successes.

So is 3,000 copies actually a respectable number?  4,000?  Or is that the sort of figure you’d expect to see if you get signed with a major publisher like Tor or Random Penguin, and most indie publishers can expect to see a lot lower?

I figure the only way to determine what “average” looks like is to compile data.

So I asked authors how many copies they’d sold, and combed through blog posts to find authors who’d revealed their copies sold, and made a spreadsheet.  I’ve tried to embed it at the end of this entry – but if I failed, you can find the Google Spreadsheet detailing copies sold here.

If you would like to add your data to this spreadsheet, please email me at theferrett@theferrett.com with the email header AUTHOR SALES FIGURES SURVEY (so it doesn’t get lost in spam).  I’ll add them when I can.

I will note that self-published authors earn a lot more off of fewer numbers.  I’ve seen authors earning thousands off of hundreds of copies sold, because some of the authors shared their income.  I suspect on average, authors sell more copies through a traditional publisher, but the amount of cash is about the same – a suspicion confirmed by Brooke Johnson’s twin self-published/traditional published numbers.

As for me?

First, some figures:

  • Flex had an Amazon sales ranking consistently between 30,000 and 80,000 in the first year of release (though it’s dropped off lately, almost sixteen months after its debut).
  • It has 167 reviews on Amazon, which is probably above-average for a book of its sales numbers because I have a lot of loyal fans.  (Thank you guys.  Seriously.)  It’s got seven reviews on Barnes and Noble.
  • It has 1,000 reviews on Goodreads.
  • I’ve “earned out” on the book, which means I’ve sold enough copies to cover my initial advance.

So knowing that, how many copies would you say I’ve sold?

Flex sold 7,125 copies in the first nine months of release – or 178% of my “Fuck You, Ferrett” goal of 4,000 copies sold.  This was enough for Angry Robot to request a third book in the series – which, I should remind you, you can preorder now.

The sequel, The Flux, sold 4,125 copies in its first three months of release – Angry Robot’s sales figures end on December 31st, 2015.  Which, honestly, is way more than I thought it would sell, but those may not account for post-Christmas returns, which I suspect will bring it down a bit.  Then again, Angry Robot did run some promotions to goose The Flux’s online sales in the spring, so that may have shot up quite a bit.

The finale to the ‘Mancer series, Fix, will sell approximately one more copy if you click this link and go over and buy it now.

And that’s it.  7,125 seems like a pretty good number to me for a debut, and that’s not even a year.  But it’s hard to say, or compare. I think total number of Goodreads reviews is probably the best predictor of overall sales – you don’t have to write a review to leave a rating, unlike Amazon, and you generally have to have read the book to leave a rating.  But who knows?  Amazon sales rankings are crazy, BookScan numbers are crazy.  (According to Bookscan, I’ve sold roughly 3,000 units.)

If that was Young Adult, though, where the sale come fast and furious, that’d probably be a disappointment.  And if it was a cookbook, well, I’m told 10,000 is your bottom-of-the-barrel number.

So it all does depend, I guess. I’ll quote this segment of this extremely thorough overview of book sales, which I’d recommend to any author, which asks “What Constitutes ‘Good’ Sales?”:

As with anything here, we need qualifications. What constitutes “good” sales is entirely dependent on what type of book you are publishing, what size your publisher is, and what your advance was. 5,000 copies of a short story collection on a small press is a huge hit. 5,000 copies of a novel from a big publisher that paid a $100,000 advance is a huge disaster.

You also need to factor in the format. Selling 10,000 hardcover is worth more than 10,000 paperbacks. For ebooks, prices can be all over the place, even from a major publisher.

Qualifications aside, if you are a new writer at a big publisher and you’ve sold more than 10,000 copies of a novel you are in very good shape — as long as you didn’t have a large advance. It should be easy for you to get another book contract. If you sold more than 5,000, you are doing pretty well. You’ll probably sell your next book somewhere. If you sold less than 5,000, then you could be in trouble with the next book. (Although it is, as always, dependent on the project. If a publisher loves your next book, they may not care about previous sales.)

The smaller the press, the more you can scale down. One publisher of an independent press told me that most indie press books sell — not BookScan — about 1,500 copies, with 3,000 being good sales. Even then, the publisher stressed, an author selling 3,000 is really just paying for themselves. To be contributing to the operations of the press, they’d need to sell over 5,000.

So that’s the numbers.  That’s what I got.  As for what that all means, well, I’ll direct you towards Kameron Hurley’s wise dissection of her own sales numbers and how authors like us have to fight for the midlist.

And I’ll remind you that, as an author, comparing yourself to other authors is a void you can harm yourself in.  There is always, always, someone doing better than you did, and there always will be.  This is my debut novel, but I can name three authors who had debut novels that sold 20,000 copies, or 40,000 copies, or, you know, won the Hugo on their first novel.  I do this because, as a former book buyer – if you bought a computer book at Waldenbooks between 1997 and 2000, that’s because I put it on the shelf – sales numbers interest me.

But remember, “success” is defined by your publisher.  And “number of copies sold” is not the same as “quality,” unless you wanna start arguing that Renowned Dan Brown is the literary goal you are aiming for.  The suck thing about publishing is that lots of really good books don’t move the numbers in the way people had hoped, and professional writers have to live with that understanding that the marketplace is not a perfect reflection of their talent.

To quote William Goldman on Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”  So keep writing as well as you can, and keep writing until hopefully the dice fall your way.  That’s literally all any of us can do.

And again, if you wanna share your own numbers, either through email or through letting me know about a blog post/Tweet/Tumblr you made, email me at theferrett@theferrett.com.  The more data we can have on this, the more we can normalize what sales numbers look like.

In the meantime, well… I’m happy with what I sold.  I have to be!  I made my goal.

So fuck you, neurotic Ferrett!  YOU DID GOOD.

Have a spreadsheet.

1 Comment

  1. Angie
    Jul 5, 2016

    Since you mentioned indie publishing (and by that I mean writers publishing themselves, either under just their name or through a single-author publisher), I’ll point out that there’s really no such thing as final sales numbers. On the tradpub side, paper books will be pulled off the store shelves after a couple of months, unless they’re still selling steadily in that store, and maybe even then because there are always new books coming down the pipeline that need the shelf space. And big publishers will usually charge ridiculous prices ($12.99, $14.99) for a recently released e-bo0k, which tanks sales there. After a couple of months, for the most part, you can order a book online in paper, or pay a ludicrous price for an e-book, and that’s about it.

    Indie books, OTOH, if the writer has any business sense, are available in paper and electronic formats (and maybe audio as well), for reasonable prices, for essentially forever. You might only sell 10 or 20 copies a month, but that’s a nice little income stream over the next decade or three, and whenever you publish a new book, you add another income stream. And if you’re a good writer, and a good storyteller, and keep publishing regularly, you’ll probably sell more than that 10-20 per month. So “How many copies of each book did you sell?” is kind of a null question when it comes to the indies, (meaning indie pubbing writers, not small presses.)

    All that said, it sounds like you’re doing really well. Congrats!

    Angie

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