Nobody Sells 'Millions of Copies'

Recently by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: Cobden on Freedom, Peace, and Trade

Before I became an author myself, I held an inflated estimate of the number of copies the typical book (bestselling or otherwise) sold. I also thought the author earned more per book than he really does. In my experience, the general public shares the misconceptions I once held.

Now for the terrible truth.

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Books, says one of my publishers, are some of the hardest things in the world to sell. Nonfiction books, which I’m discussing here, are especially difficult — next to no one, relatively speaking, reads nonfiction. (Fiction carries its own challenges; competition is particularly fierce, given that half the world claims to be working on a novel.) It doesn’t help that there were 195,000 distinct titles published in 2005 alone (the latest statistic of which I am aware). I happen to know of a major publisher all readers of this site have heard of, which, at the time I heard the statistic, had published 3000 different books in one year. How many of those sold more than 2000 copies? About 200.

Books do not sell.

I know of people who expected to write a book and live off the royalties. They were deluded.

Then there’s the question of how much an author earns. Many people assume the author receives 50 percent of the cover price. That is impossible, since the bookstore is already getting a 50 percent discount (and book clubs get at least 70 percent off). If the author receives the other 50 percent, where would the publisher’s earnings come from?

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An author with a trade publisher typically earns 15 percent of the cover price of a hardcover. Common contractual terms run as follows: 10 percent for the first 5000 copies, 12.5 percent for the next 5000, and 15 percent for all copies thereafter. Paperback editions earn the author 7.5 percent of the hardcover price. That’s before taxes, though one small consolation is that royalty income is not subject to self-employment tax. It’s also before any agency fees — your literary agent, if you have one, will typically earn 15 percent. Mine, who has helped me with several of my titles, earned every penny, but it’s still a deduction from your income.

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University and academic presses are typically less generous. Sometimes you are actually expected to prepare your own index, if you don’t want to be docked to have one of their in-house people perform that service. I did the indexes for a couple of my early titles. It is an unspeakable task. Royalties, moreover, typically don’t exceed 10 percent, and usually operate on a sliding scale beginning with 5 percent.

It’s embarrassing to recall, but I remember thinking The Church Confronts Modernity, my book with Columbia University Press, would sell around 10,000—20,000 copies! After all, I thought, at least that many people would be interested in the subject matter it deals with, so of course it’ll sell that many. Ahem.

My most successful book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (2004), has sold about 170,000 copies so far. That is a veritable miracle for an unknown author with little access to mass media. But it’s well below what most people assume I have sold.

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Not long ago, someone referred matter-of-factly to the "millions of copies" of Meltdown I must have sold. Would that it were so. No one sells millions of copies of a nonfiction title, with a few exceedingly rare exceptions: (1) people with television or radio talk shows, who can promote their books before a huge audience every day; (2) authors whose books are featured on Oprah; and (3) the occasional outlier with a clever or quirky idea that attracts a lot of media.

Even with all the attention Meltdown got, it sold about 55,000 copies. This is astonishingly low to most people, particularly given the ten weeks it spent on the New York Times bestseller list. But the publishing world, which knows the dreary nonfiction sales figures all too well, was envious of my publisher for having such a big hit during a depressed period for publishing.

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Having done this for a number of years now, I’ve come to expect sales to be at about this level. I realize it’s extremely difficult to sell in excess of 50,000 copies of a nonfiction title, which I have so far managed to do three times (my book on the Catholic Church and Western civilization being the third). But when you tell people the real figures, they are (understandably) stunned and disappointed. It’s like telling a relative at a family cookout that you were just accepted at the University of Pennsylvania or the University of Chicago. Someone in the know realizes you’ve just reached a great milestone. Many average people, on the other hand, figure you just got accepted at a run-of-the-mill school.

Even though nonfiction titles sell fewer copies than you may have thought, they are not for that reason a waste of time, particularly if you derive intellectual pleasure, as I do, from the challenge that comes with writing them. Writing a book (with a major publisher) can open major print, radio, and television outlets to you and your ideas, thereby giving you a chance to spread your message to a wider audience than just the reading public. Authors receive speaking invitations that give them the opportunity to reach a broader audience still, while adding to their (erratic) income. And so on.

If you want to write a book, then, just be sure to go into it with your eyes open. Understand that the chances you will become rich as a nonfiction author are slim to none. But writing a book brings satisfactions other than money, and if those are worth the expenditure of time that your project will demand, then by all means get to work.