Bestseller Expectations

When I fist started out as an author, and started seeing my sales numbers, I wondered how I was doing.  Was I selling well?  Terribly?  How many books can I hope to sell?  It’s not an easy question to answer, especially since each author will have a different distribution across print, audio, and ebooks.  For instance, my ebook sales run about 65% of the combined print and ebook sales where the industry standard is 25%.  One of the benchmarks in use by the publishing industry is Bookscan Data. This is information collected by the Nielsen Corporation (yes the same ones who track what people watch on television), and it reports on sales at “point of purchase.” In other words they attempt to determine how many books are sold to readers rather than how many books were printed, are stored in the warehouse, or sitting on bookstore shelves.  Now of course they don’t capture all the sales (they report they get between 65% – 75% of the sales).  From my data, if I compare Bookscan data to the “net” warehouse numbers (numbers of books leaving the warehouse) the Bookscan numbers are about 68% of the net.

For today’s post, I thought I would present some data from Bookscan so that people get an idea of what to expect.  For this data set, I looked at fantasy titles (being a fantasy author and all) and I looked at the top 50 bestsellers at various points: #1, #10, #20, #30, #40, and #50.  At some point, I’ll spread this data over a full year (to help determine the seasonality of sales) but for today’s data I looked at a few key weeks:  Right before Christmas, right after christmas, and in the middle of the year (June).  Let’s start by looking at the #1 Bestsellers.

The first thing to note is you really can’t look at the #1 bestseller for any type of trending.  When a “big book” comes out that has been highly anticipated it is going to greatly skew the data. For instance let’s look at the data:


The data along the x-axis represents the “week” of sales. So 45 – 52 are the last weeks of 2013 (Nov – Dec) where 1 – 4 are the first 4 weeks of January 2014, and 23-26 are four weeks of June.  So what we can see is that in the 24th week there was a huge bestseller.  In this case it was Diana Galbadon’s latest work and it sold at least 88,750 books in that first week – and since Bookscan only reports a fraction of sales, that week’s sales probably is more like 118,300 – 136,500 sales.  At $35 a piece and assuming a standard 10% for the first 5,000 sales and 12.5% for the next 5,000 and 15% above that…that single week would produce $607,950 – $703,500.  Not a bad week’s income 😉

Note for this chart I chose “overall” which is taking into account hardcover, mass market paperbacks, and trade paperback sales.  Again, in the future I’ll break it down for the various types.  Usually the mass market paperbacks are going to have the highest sales, with the exception of when a “big book” comes out and then the hardcover of that book will usually top the charts.

Since the sales of the “top seller” can vary so wildly…let’s go down to the #10 bestseller which should be a little bit more stable.  Here is its graph.


What this shows us is some of the “seasonality” aspects of book sales.  You’ll notice in week #46 (which goes from 11/11/2013 – 11/17/2013) marks a low point in sales just before the Christmas buying season.  We’ll see increasing sales up until week 51 (Dec 16 – Dec 22), which is Christmas week, which shows the highest sales.  The following week (right after Christmas) still shows high sales, probably as people use their gift cards, but then when January hits, we see a deep decline. If we set aside the Christmas season numbers we see that most #10 top bestsellers are selling between 1,500 – 2,000 books.

If we go down further, to examine the books that are hitting the #20 spot during these weeks we see:


This shows a similar tracking around Christmas, post holiday, and during no holiday times. When at spot #20 on the bestseller list the sales seem to fluctuate between 500 – 1000 books a month.

I have graphs for 30, 40, and 50.  But they are pretty similar to what you’ve already seen.  The only important information are the sales during the non-holiday months which are:

  • #30 Bestseller: 500 – 700
  • #40 Bestseller:  400 – 600
  • #50 Bestseller: 400 – 450
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