Book Sales 101: Navigating the World of Book Sales

13 Jul 2021


An old Chinese proverb goes, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.” Indeed, the world of book sales is quite the tough teacher. Novice writers quickly find that making money selling books is not as easy as it appears to be. Often, failure comes first and learning afterward.

However, it does not have to be that way.

Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Undoubtedly, navigating the world of book sales is about learning from past mistakes. Such valuable lessons enable authors and publishers to find the right path to success.

Understanding Book Sales

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

Book sales, like those of any other product, hinge on supply and demand. Books that are in high demand sell very well. These publications can turn authors into household names overnight.

Nevertheless, like all other products, there is more to driving sales than just supply and demand.

The first step to understanding book sales is knowing what a successful book is. As such, labeling a book as “successful” depends on the metrics used. Metrics can include anything from the total number of copies sold and dollar values to ranking on bestseller lists.

Awards constitute another key metric for successful books. However, critically acclaimed books do not always mean commercial success. Ron Charles, a literary critic for the Washington Post, reviews books involved in the awards conversation. These books are not the mega-winners by the likes of Stephen King or Nora Roberts. These books are the kind that fly under the radar.

Charles had this to say about award-winning author Anne Enright: “When I saw that Anne Enright — [who] I think of as giant in literary fiction, beloved around the world — could only sell 9,000 copies in the U.K. I was shocked, that’s really low.”

Unfortunately, low sales are the norm rather than the exception. For instance, acclaimed Nigerian Writer Chigozie Obioma, whose books The Fisherman and An Orchestra of Minorities were finalists for the Booker Prize, only sold about 3,000 of The Fisherman.

Indeed, critical acclaim is one measure of success. But sales also represent another key success metric.

Nevertheless, most writers strive to make money through book sales. After all, it seems fair to profit after investing long hours of hard work and dedication. As such, the main issue at hand is understanding the way book sales usually behave.

Generally speaking, book sales have been on the rise over the last few years. Early 2020 data shows that print book sales rose 8.2%. This figure represents a total of 750.9 million books sold. In contrast, 2019 showed sales of 693.7 million.

Granted, 2020 is an outlier. Nevertheless, 2020 data serves to show the most popular book genres. For example, juvenile nonfiction rose 23.1% in 2020. Also, text/reference books showed a staggering 55.5% increase. Also, books on games, activities, and hobbies climbed roughly 31%.

While juvenile nonfiction titles saw a sharp increase, fiction remains the big player in town. Adult fiction jumped by 6% between 2019 and 2020. The top-selling fiction book was Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing. This title racked up a total of 1.1 million total copies sold. Interestingly enough, the biggest climber in the fiction domain was the graphic novel genre. It showed a 29% increase from 2019 to 2020.

The 2020 sales data underscores an important lesson: Fiction books will often outpace nonfiction titles. Therefore, understanding book sales boils down to seeing what the market wants. More often than not, readers look for entertainment. Books that can deliver quality and entertaining content will have the edge over less enticing ones.

Making Money Selling Books

In the words of renowned historian Daniel J. Boorstein, “A bestseller was a book which somehow sold well because it was selling well.” The logic is undeniable. Bestsellers are bestsellers because they sell well.

Humor aside, the term “bestseller” refers to books that have ample commercial success. Commercial success has nothing to do with critical acclaim. Commercial success boils down to hitting home with the right readership.

At its core, making money selling books is a numbers game. The equation is quite straightforward. The more books that sell, the more money they make. Like any other product, profiting in the publishing industry depends on sales volume.

On the whole, products make money in two ways.

Firstly, there are expensive products with high-profit margins. These products have a relatively low sales volume. However, their markup yields significant profits.

For instance, luxury brands often have somewhat low production costs. Nevertheless, their brand name commands high premiums. Thus, consumers pay inflated prices. This formula drives profitability.

Secondly, some products have a low production cost and a low sale price. This combination leads to a low-profit margin. As a result, these products need high sales volumes in order to make money. Books reside in this category.

On the whole, books do not sell themselves. Publishers make significant investments in advertising and marketing to sell books. Authors need to give interviews, attend book signings, and promote their image to drive book sales. Otherwise, it is incredibly difficult for a book to gain traction.

The core of a commercially successful book is marketing. Therefore, a bestseller has two main components: writing and marketing. Nevertheless, both of these components must work in sync. When they become disjointed, sales suffer as a result.

Ryan Holiday, a successful author and coach, has this to say about book marketing:

The most common error I see authors make is they think of marketing as a separate and distinct animal from writing. They go into a cave for two years and write their book and only begin to think about marketing when they emerge.”

This insightful quote underscores marketing’s importance. As such, marketing should be an ongoing process that fosters visibility. Otherwise, authors may lose precious time as they write their book.

Bestselling authors generally take time out during the writing process to promote their upcoming books. Doing so builds expectation in followers. By the time the book is out, readers are already salivating at the thought of getting their hands on it.

Holiday offers one more insightful tidbit: “You have to understand that as an author, you’re competing for attention with so much other media.”

Indeed, selling books is about standing out amid the sea of options out there. Unfortunately, great writing is simply not enough to ensure visibility. Authors and publishers need to capture readers’ attention first before their writing can have a chance to make an impact. This reason underscores marketing’s vital importance.

How to Boost Book Sales

The internet is awash with so-called gurus claiming they have the secret formula for turning any book into a bestseller. The fact is that there is no magic formula. Making a book successful is a combination of factors that add up to create a successful book.

Thus far, this discussion has highlighted two main elements. The first element establishes that book sales are a numbers game. The second element underscores marketing’s importance. However, boosting book sales requires a comprehensive approach that can create greater visibility and reader awareness.

Author and business executive Seth Godin offers this advice to would-be authors:

The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.”

Godin’s advice accentuates the need for laying down the groundwork before truly marketing a book. After all, it is quite complex to market a book when no one has ever heard of the author. As a result, marketing relies heavily on perception. This perception takes time to build.

Additionally, Godin drops this impactful thought: “Don’t try to sell your book to everyone. First, consider this: 58% of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school.”

Undoubtedly, “selling” a book does not entail pushing it on everyone.

Rather, selling a book is about finding the right niche and then exploiting it.

Arguably, the biggest mistake that authors make is not clearly defining their target audience.

They often spend too much energy casting a wide net.

However, books are generally niche items. They respond to a very limited number of people.

Even wildly successful books only capture a tiny fraction of the whole market.

Ryan Holiday lays out three useful guidelines regarding successful books:

  • Write something new
  • Write something good
  • Write something well

No matter how good marketing is, it will fail if the product is bad. In this case, bad writing will quickly demolish good marketing. Therefore, the winning combination should always be good content plus good marketing.

Write Something New

Novice authors may attempt to rehash successful content in hopes of capturing a specific niche audience. Nevertheless, trying to ride a successful author’s coattails seldom works. Therefore, aspiring authors should strive to carve out a niche for themselves. This assumption harkens back to Seth Godin’s thought of progressively building a reputation. While it takes time, it is certainly worth it.

Write Something Good

Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Einstein’s words encapsulate the concept of hard work over extraordinary talent. Successful authors do not require unusual writing abilities. All they need is to explore the talent they do have.

Consequently, writing something good is about taking a piece of work and improving on it. Eventually, successful authors find a way to write something good. Something “good” means something that resonates with the target audience. This approach builds dedicated followers.

Write Something Well

Undoubtedly, writing well involves mastering style. Authors should always strive to find their voice. When they do, they can communicate their particular message to their target audience effectively. Appropriate editing is key. Editing goes beyond merely fixing typos and checking grammatical conventions. A solid editorial assessment can go a long way toward building a commercially viable book.

Common Mistakes that Kill Book Sales

Anyone seeking to become a true commercial success in the publishing world needs to be on the lookout for the most common pitfalls out there. By sidestepping these mistakes, any author can significantly increase their chances of becoming a commercial wonder.

Here are five of the biggest missteps that kill book sales.

1. Disregarding the Target Audience

This mistake is the most obvious one. However, authors overlook it the most.

While it is true that authors should write from the heart, they should also have a target reader in mind.

When the right message and the right audience converge, a book has an increased probability of becoming truly successful. Moreover, authors need to understand what their readers want.

The easiest path to success is delivering what readers want to know.

2. Overlooking Genre

When building a successful book, the genre is critical.

Genre does not only pertain to writing itself. Genre entails an entire persona surrounding the book. For example, a romance novel must build an entire romantic experience. In contrast, attempting to brand a romance novel as anything else would be counterproductive.

Whenever possible, diving into a specific sub-genre will truly make a book successful. For instance, a romance novel in the erotica sub-genre has a greater chance of succeeding than a blanket love story.

3. Ignoring the Importance of a Good Cover

Seth Godin offers this insightful (while somewhat harsh) contribution, “Your cover matters. Way more than you think. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need a book… you could just email people the text.”

Indeed, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” need not apply here. Covers appeal to the visual aspect of all people. A good cover should always be indicative of the book’s content.

Moreover, it should resonate with the target audience.

Consequently, a successful book begins with an appealing cover. Thus, it pays to hire a professional cover designer. It is an upfront investment that will pay off in droves down the line.

4. Neglecting a Website

Typically, authors see websites as a sales channel. They believe that the purpose of having a website is to sell.

While that is true, a website can be so much more.

A website is the quintessential marketing tool. In particular, author websites are home to blogs. Blogs are the most effective way of promoting books.

While a solid website does require some financial and tech-savvy investment, more cost-effective alternatives do exist. For instance, a ready-made template site from a domain service company can lessen the financial impact.

5. Marketing Too Late

Marketing too late entails delaying marketing efforts until after publishing.

Ideally, authors should begin marketing efforts prior to publication. While Seth Godin recommends a three-year advance period, the fact is that even three months before publication can work.

Most seasoned authors work on social media, blog, and leverage word of mouth as much as possible. Some authors release excerpts and sample chapters to entice their readers.

Nevertheless, ancillary publications such as newsletters are the ideal way to plug an upcoming publication.


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Selling books is no easy task. Therefore, having a clear understanding of the book market dynamics can make a significant difference between flat sales and a commercially viable enterprise.

On the whole, successful books focus heavily on marketing. And marketing, coupled with an innovative and well-written publication, can lead to an author profiting from a book.

Some authors, indeed, aim for critical acclaim more than financial gain. In such cases, authors must be willing to receive kudos without much financial compensation.

Ultimately, authors should set goals accordingly. If profit is the main aim, then books should focus on delivering what readers want. If acclaim is the main intent, then books should home in on what critics seek.

Lastly, Seth Godin has some interesting parting words: “Writing a book is a tremendous experience. It pays off intellectually. It clarifies your thinking. It builds credibility. It is a living engine of marketing and idea spreading, working every day to deliver your message with authority. You should write one.”

Zach Richter 

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