How Many Books Does An Author Need To Sell ...

Here's a question I get in lots of variations: "How Many Books Does An Author Need To Sell ..." where the "..." can be:

To make a living
To have a bestseller
To get speaking engagements
To get a big trade contract
To get translation requests

and so on. I can answer all of those questions with two words:

"It depends"

Take the first question - How many books do I need to sell to make a living? It depends on how much you net from each copy sold. If you're a trade author or subsidy published rather than a self publisher, you'll get a much smaller share of the net than the 50% or so that I get. It also depends on what you call a living. Most of the self publishers I know who publish books as their sole income net between $5.00 and $10.00 per book, so to make $50,000 per year, they need to sell from 5,000 to 10,000 copies. On the other hand, as a trade author, my average net per book was around $1.25. I needed the book to sell around 40,000 copies a year to make the same money I earn selling about 5,000 books a year as a self publisher.

The second question - How many sales are needed to be a bestselling author? It depends on who's handing out the accolade, the genre, the season, and the sales rate. Most bestseller lists are about sales rate, rather than total sales, and sales vary widely by season. In sector books, the "bestselling" label is usually a relative measure, comparing the book with the competition. I can claim that I wrote a bestselling trade book because McGraw-Hill put "By the best-selling author" on the cover of my last title. It meant they were pretty happy with the previous edition, but I'm not aware of any strict quantitative test. Anybody can be an Amazon bestseller for a day by selling a couple hundred books, but who cares? Having a bestselling sector book on Amazon is even easier. They have so many sub-sectors that selling a couple copies a day for a few months is often enough.

The third question - How many books do you need to sell to get speaking engagements? You don't have to sell any books to get speaking engagements, you have to be good at self promotion or have a hard working publicist. I probably get more invitations to speak from my website than from my books, not that it matters since I don't accept any of them. I'm in the publishing business to sell books, not to sell myself. When it comes to public speaking bona fides, unless you're talking about real fame, it's probably more important to author several related books that add up to X sales than to author one title that sells X by itself.

The fourth question - How many self published books do you have to sell to get trade contract offers? It depends on how visible those sales are, whether or not the book appears to have "legs" and the publisher in question. Most trades would probably give your book a look if you achieve low five-figure unit sales self publishing and if the title fits their overall list. Plenty of trades would be impressed by anything over a thousand unit sales, provided they don't think the audience is limited to a couple thousand readers. The visibility is key also. If your book sits on top of an Amazon sector list for a few months, you may start hearing from trades even if you've only sold a couple hundred copies to get there. It depends on whether or not an editor happens to watch the Amazon lists in their genre and whether they are on the hunt for new titles.

Finally, how many copies does your book have to sell to get translated? If it's a trade book and they make an effort to sell the rights, you may get a translation in the works before it's even published in English. For self published books, it's all about visibility. I've received at least one request for each of my titles from publishers who wanted to translate them without their even inquiring about my sales. The requests were based on Amazon bestseller sorts, Internet visibility, and at least in one case, on overseas purchase of a book by somebody with a publisher connection who recommended it to them.

In cases where you are pitching your book to a trade or trying to promote yourself as an expert, the number of sales is less important than the quality of your pitch. Selling is hard work, you can't expect your book to go out there and do it for you. There's also something to be said for timing. If you author a book about a new trend before it takes off, you might become the expert by default. If you wait until there are twenty books published on the subject, it's much harder to break through the noise.

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