Self-Publishing Part 11: What Selling 250 Copies Really Means

by wlancehunt in Personal Narrative

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

Returning to the idea that the average self-published book sells fewer than 250 copies: What does this say about the average author of the self-published book? That he or she knows fewer than the average number of people, or that the people they know aren’t the kind that supports writers? Or that only a few close personal friends and some family ever buy self-published books?


Sure, for some writers any one or both of the first things might be true, but the problem for many writers isn’t the quality and quantity of friends, or of strangers’ interest per se, but in how that number comes into existence at all.

Let’s interrogate that number to see what it does and does not mean.

When I first saw that number, I figured that every self-publishing company provided sales numbers for all their books to … well, to some authority someplace that then added all the sales numbers up and divided that number by the total number of titles, getting average sales per book. That this number had authority and thus is a useful benchmark to compare my own book against, based on actual sales of self-published titles on the market.

Sound familiar?

I’m sure it does. But it’s not close to reality.

First of all, there is no governing body for books, such as the RIAA for the recording industry, to whom most numbers are given from most publishing and sales sources for specific regions, and they use this to certify specific levels of sales. Simply doesn’t exist for books. This, of course, calls into question what bestsellers lists are then, but that implication will have to wait its turn.

Continuing the recording industry analogy: There are at least three different certifying bodies, each covering different kinds of artists and in different regions, and that some certifications are restricted by time, others are lifetime sales. The most important other two are IFPI and IMPALA, and to make matters murkier, each handles digital assets differently, some including ringtones, which is sort of like counting a short story sales rankings, which is factored into total sales somehow; further, they count streaming assets such as listens on Spotify or Apple Music differently, and this doesn’t necessarily include radio and other commercial uses.

This counting or not of digital sales remains true in the far more fragmented book publishing industry: is an e-book a “real” book? Does it count as a sale?

Depends on who you talk to, and in what context.

Huh? An ebook is a real book, isn’t it? We’re not talking Pinocchio here.

          Consider that for A Perfect Blindness to get the Star Designation, it needs to sell 500 physical copies OR 4,000 digital copies.


            Damned if I know. But the NYT and WSJ Best Seller lists don’t count digital sales as books sold either. And those lists get even more bizarre the deeper you look. (To take a deep dive into the alter-reality of bestseller lists, I’ve included a link at the end of the post.)

Now, whence that “fewer than 250 copies” sold per title number.

If it’s not an “official” number, what is it?

It’s a number created by whatever interested party, usually a journalist or blogger, who takes the total number of independently published titles sold—as reported by the individual publishing houses—and divides that by the total number of independently published titles—as reported by those same publishers. Some individual publishers might give out self-reported average sales numbers as well. In both cases, the numbers given are based on how the individual publishing house counts what constitutes a sale and even a title, meaning the numbers might well signify different things.

Sounds like a rather vague way to describe book sales, right?

Oh, don’t worry. It gets worse.

The numbers the journalists or bloggers and even the publishing houses start with are deeply suspect.

First, many people don’t self-publish their books to sell at all. Many titles are published as promotions, or to support some other goal, such as a speaking tour, where the book may be given away or possibly sold. Such as a ghostwritten book for a real-estate broker, which is published to give away to prospective clients: Not one copy has ever sold, nor will one ever sell. Yet, it is still counted as a title published.

If these kinds of books are sold at a speaking engagement/conference, those numbers won’t find their way into total book sales—the author has bulk ordered them, and what happens after that is anyone’s guess. How many are sold off tables in lobbies at events, or are sitting in warehouses someplace or are given away by the boxful, or get mildewed to the point of compost? I doubt the author, real or not, knows.

Since some might get sold, does the number of books sold include a faction of those bulk orders? If so, how big a fraction? Is it a sale if it’s part of a conference ticket? “A 9.95 value, included in the price of your ticket.

Regardless of how bulk sales are counted or not, the title is included in the number of titles published every year.

Other people publish merely to see “my name in print.” The author gets the 26 copies included in the package for those kinds of books and keeps them around the house and gives some away as presents, keeping a few as proof of their being a writer. Never sold, ever.

Still, these titles are ALL included as part of the divisor.

Then, there are the many books that are published to sell, but never get a quality editing and proofread, i.e., are of such poor quality that no traditional publishing house would ever consider publishing them, and will certainly never find their way on bookstore shelves. Naturally, poorly written books tend not to sell well. Their scrawny sales figures are included the dividend, just as the titles find their way into the divisor.

Think super 8 movie shot one bored afternoon, using your sister and some neighborhood friend as actors to show to other friends and family in a backyard tent with editing limited to a couple of splices where the film broke and that one scene your sister threaten to steal one canister over because she thinks you make her look like a fool on purpose, and so to save the afternoon, someone figured out how to hack that scene out with a razor blade. (If you’re too young to remember super 8s, think of something close to the quality of Zapruder’s footage of Dallas in 1963.)

Compare the quality of those films against a Bruckheimer action film. One is made for kicks and if you can get a buck or two for it from friends and family, great! The other is designed—from start to finish—to sell millions of tickets and has many eyes on it to make damned sure it does.

Now, does it make any sense to factor the few tickets sold for each of the thousands of backyard extravaganzas in with the 50.64 million tickets sold (in the US alone) for Pirates of the Caribbean? A number that further doesn’t include DVD and streaming sales.

Or how about factoring in the few thousand-odd tickets sold for each of the hundreds of limited-release, low-budget B flicks? (Which I’ve had a lot of fun with, on VHS or Chiller Theater.)

To complete the analogy, would it be fair to say the average film sells fewer than 250 tickets? Or even three-thousand worldwide? And what about DVD sales and streaming royalties? How do those fit in?

Thus a total number of self-published books sold, **which almost never includes digital sales** is divided by the total number of titles released, a number that includes books will never be sold at all, or are written as throwaway novelties, or those that are cheap, low quality and which really shouldn’t be sold as is (or possibly at all) as well as the drastically smaller number of titles that do get well edited and are up to professional quality.

So, explain to me again what “the average self-published book sells fewer than 250 copies” represents in the real world? Particularly for that much smaller group of well edited, professional quality books that might have been picked up by a traditional house under different circumstances.

The labyrinth of sales doesn’t end here. More on what the sales numbers you see might mean next time.

(To take a deep dive into the wonderland of bestseller lists, I’ve included a link >>>> here.)


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To ask a question or follow along with the self-publishing adventure, join the “Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness” here.


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