Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Self-Publishing Mechanics

Most agents and editors agree that 5,000 is the minimum number of copies a self-published book has to sell in order to be considered a viable choice for a traditional publishing deal. This within 6 months or fewer, in order to be really eye-catching.

That is a lot of copies.  

It seems sort of unreasonable, really, if you don't know why a book has to sell that many. Honestly, one thousand copies, essentially sold by hand, while holding down a full-time job, should impress pretty much anyone. And in truth, it is impressive!

But you're not trying to impress a person. You're trying to impress a Profit and Loss Statement (a P&L: example here). This financial statement is used to project profits for a publishing house. In the case of debut writers, the "Revenue" section is guess work, based on how books like theirs have sold. In the case of non-debut writers, it's based on their actual past sales numbers. If the "Revenue" doesn't exceed expenses, book 2 (or 3 or whatever) is in trouble.

The P&L is one of the most common causes of a book getting turned down by a house, particularly in the case of authors who were first published by a small house or self-published. It's the P&L that agents have in mind when they say that you must have 5,000 copies sold in order to be considered for a traditional publishing deal. 


  1. Thanks! This makes it much clearer as to why 5000 is the target number.

  2. The two people who self-published in my old writing group had very different goals on numbers, and it showed.

    One's strategy was to put it up on Amazon and wait for people to start buying it (buy it!--I couldn't even find it), and the other had a niche book that she was planning on selling at shows and then getting traditionally published.

    I thought he first part of that plan was smart, but the second part unrealistic. Yes, she was marketing to a niche, but doesn't that mean by definition that your audience is limited?

  3. @Angelica:

    Yep, that's the definition of niche...but some of those small audiences are the most rabid! And "small" is so relative (1% of the US population is still over 3 MILLION people!).

    It's about reaching the market--there's a market for pretty much anything. :)

  4. Some self-pubbed ebooks sell at under .99 or free in order to boost # of copies sold. I wonder if the number-crunchers notice this, or care?

  5. Notice, yes. Care...well, if it's a multi-book series selling in the tens or hundreds-of-thousands, the price isn't really a deal breaker because there's clearly a repeat audience and brand loyalty.

    5K at $.99, less compelling.

  6. How many books does a traditionally published first time author need to sell to be picked up for a second book?

  7. @Deb

    A lot of contracts these days are for two books, so it's sort of built in. But if you write your two (or three or one or however many) books and sales have been bad, renegotiating for a higher (or even equal) advance is very difficult.

    But, sometimes, if sales are really dismal, one might find one's self shopping for another publisher.

  8. Thanks Meredith. I'm assuming that the expectation is a lot more than 5000 per book though (right?). I mean, if a publisher can get a book into bookstores and has even minimal marketing around it...

  9. Thanks for this info, Meredith. I have to say, though, all those numbers make my brain hurt. Good thing I'm married to an accountant!

  10. Hi Meredith, I have sold almost 50,000 copies of three books since April of this year. While the first two books in the series are 99 cents, the last was priced at 2.99 and has sold 4500 copies in ten days and is 112 on Amazon's overall bestseller list. Would these numbers interest a traditional publisher?

  11. Interesting! Congrats on your numbers, Brandon! I've sold over 40,000 books in the last 6 months, but the question is, what kind of deal would you be offered by a trad-pub that could match the 70% royalties you already get from Amazon? I seriously doubt any publisher would be offering anywhere near that. And would their marketing and advertising budget incorporate new authors? Hmmm...again, I doubt it. Brandon, you've already proved you can write good books AND market them.

    Any publisher would need to offer a fantastic deal to bestselling indies. Judging by the current state of the publishing industry, I think it's rare they could match what you can do for yourself. Now movie rights...there's a different story!

    Wishing everyone lots of success with their writing endeavors!

  12. 5,000, eh? With the dawn of e-self-publishing, that should be a cakewalk. All those suckers who couldn't afford my $30 vanity trade are going to crap themselves when they see my literary gold is available practically for free!