June 23, 2011

How many does a "successful" person sell?

Blog, in the past couple weeks I've received an amazing number of emails asking questions about how to sell more books. The question isn't amazing...it's that people are asking me. That mystery aside, of course all authors constantly ponder how to increase their sales. As do artists, musicians, photographers, crafters, and others who sell their creative output. Most of us can't shake the feeling that we aren't as successful as we should be.

But to me, the significant question is, what's "successful"?

Naturally, we artists measure success by what we observe about others engaged in our respective crafts. And whom are we looking at when making these judgments? Celebrities, of course. We can see the success of top authors in store windows, bestseller lists, and movie credits. Successful authors, apparently, are featured in magazine articles and do cameos on TV shows. People know their names. After all, we do.

By contrast, one cannot consider herself a success when her claims to fame are things like having a book featured on a bookstore chain table once, or doing a radio interview once, or appearing at a convention once. Those moments come and go (and don't even sell a whole lot of books, necessarily). Surely you're not a successful author if you haven't had a book sell in six figures, right?

And so, we artists think of ourselves as below even Z-list celebrities. It's a hobby, not a career. I haven't made it yet, but I'm still hoping. My big break could come soon, and then...Oprah! (Oops, Blog, we're going to have to find some goal to take the place of Oprah.)

Hold it, there, everyone. It's time to step back and wrap your mind around the reality of "success." And to do so, I want to crunch some numbers. For the sake of discussion, let's look at the art of selling books.

  • In 2009 over a million new books were published in the U.S. (source: Bowkers)
  • In 2009, 282 million books were sold in the U.S. (source: Nielsen BookScan) 

Let's say, very generously, that half of them were brand new titles. That would mean new titles averaged sales of 141 copies. Now, keep in mind that most of the sales went to the few highly publicized titles...so it's safer to say 100 copies or fewer was the average for "ordinary" books.

I found figures for non-fiction books (which always outsell fiction), and the average sales are 250/year or 3,000 for a non-fiction book's lifetime. Book sales are declining 5-6% a year, while the number of titles published has more than tripled in four years, so those figures are not going to get any larger.

I read that, depending upon the subject of your book, there are 100 to 1,000 titles competing for one bookstore shelf space. So, if an author gets even one title into bookstores (which may or may not translate into sales, of course) why shouldn't that constitute staggering success? Isn't being in the top 1% of your field a kind of success?

Blog, I totally understand why artists strive to have a bestseller, get a lead role in a movie, have a gallery show in New York, have their own brand of consumer products. I'm all for pursuing those lofty goals. But I think we all need to scale way back on our sense of "success." 

Think of it this way: When a person decides to get fast food, they have maybe a dozen options to choose from. If your franchise was in the top three, you'd feel pretty successful! Well, there are about 9 million book titles offered on Amazon. Even if only once a day, somebody picked your book title out of 9 million, why shouldn't you feel successful?

Or, look at the issue from another angle, that of a crafter selling her work on Etsy.com. Etsy sold $40 million worth of stuff in May--it's a good marketplace. Well...in May, 1.7 million new items were listed for sale. 2 million items were sold. That means if you sold more than one item in the month of May on Etsy, you were quite a bit above average!

You're getting the picture, Blog. We all need to remember that the marketplace is huge and fragmented. In this century, no one "corners the market" anymore but Google, Amazon, Netflix and Stephenie Meyer. I'm exaggerating a bit (but not much)...but my point is, it's time to recalibrate the meaning of success to today's market. To rephrase that old break-up line, it's not you, it's the marketplace.

If your video gets a thousand hits on YouTube, well, go you! If you sell two paintings or sculptures a month--bravo! If your book sells 300 copies a year, congrats, you're a real author.

The point is, your creations are are being experienced and enjoyed by an audience. You're not hiding your talents under a bushel.

You're a success.


  1. I wish everyone thinks the same way as you do Diana! And, for what it's worth, you are a success!

  2. What a profound thought Diana! after reading this i can certainly say 'you are indeed successful'