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Quick-Reference Publishing Stats You Need to Know!

Cristen Iris

I often tell excited prospective clients and workshop participants that my superpower is being a buzz kill. This usually gets a laugh, but I'm only half joking.

The competition for shelf space and reader attention is fierce. The reality is that most books aren't commercially viable.

I could focus on the positive and blow smoke and sunshine, but I believe it's wise and ethical to first "think negative" because the buzz brought on by the idea of publishing a book comes with a sting.

If you're a long-term thinker like I am, you probably agree that it's better to face the sting before you invest time, energy, and money than after because when you know what you're up against, you can make educated decisions and take calculated risks.

Considerations for All Authors

  • Close to 2 million new titles were published in 2018!
  • 338,990 new titles were published (by traditional model publishers) in the United States in 2015. (1)
  • 1,677,781 new titles* were self-published in 2018. (2, 3)
  • In 2020, there were 33,000,000 (33 million!) books available on Amazon. (4)
  • “The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.” (5a)
  • ~98% of books launched by publishers in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies. And that's close to the average in any given year. (5b, 5c)
  • "Of the 58,000 [Big 5] trade titles published per year, fully half of those titles 'sell fewer than one dozen books.'" You read that correctly: fewer than 12. (5d)
  • "A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore." (6)
  • "In business, 86% of sales were backlist titles. When you look at the dozen titles that sold over 100,000 copies in the business category last year, none were published in 2020." and "Selling less than 10,000 copies [in the first year] is definitely a barrier to long term success." (22)
  • "According to NPD BookScan, backlist sales are now 67 percent of all book sales. This is up from 63 percent in 2019; in 2010, backlist accounted for 54 percent of unit sales. The shift toward backlist sales accelerated more quickly in 2020 as bookstores closed to foot traffic, removing a key avenue for big publishers to promote new titles." (23)
  • "The pandemic altered how readers discover and buy books, and drove sales for celebrities and best-selling authors while new and lesser known writers struggled." (24)

First-Time Authors Who Aspire to Be Traditionally Published

  • At any given time, 500,000 proposals and manuscripts circulate across the United States.” (7)
  • One major publisher received over 6,000 unsolicited manuscripts and proposals in a year, yet didn’t accept a single one.” (8)
  • Terry Whalin quoted Brian DiForio (NY literary agent) as saying about nonfiction manuscripts, “Even with a modest advance of $20,00 to $30,000, the overall costs for the publisher are between $75,000 and $100,000.” Per Whalin, “These numbers do not include marketing or advertising expenses…The number is pure production costs [ink, paper, printing, warehousing books], editorial expenses and design costs for the cover and interior pages of the book.” (9)
  • A $7,500 advance for a debut novel "would be good news." (21)
  • About query/proposal rejections, literary agent Janet Reid says, "Eight rejections isn't even a good start. You need 100 before you get to drink bourbon for breakfast and contemplate waiting tables at a truck stop in Alaska as your next career move." (10)
  • 40% of queries are rejected for being poorly written or unprofessional. (11)
  • Only 4% of authors seeking representation by a literary agent will land an agent. (12)
  • 70% of nonfiction books are ghostwritten. (13)
  • Having connections is better than a platform … There’s something about having somebody I already know, like, and whose work I respect pass me something to look at.” (14)
  • “A few years ago I did the math for my slush pile when I created a database for a blog post. I receive about 15 query letters daily and request between 10 and 15 full or partial manuscripts in a year. The maximum number of authors I sign out of my slush pile per year is four. That would be maximum; I usually only sign between two and four.” (15)
  • Many literary agents and publishers do not accept unsolicited queries, but they will consider manuscripts that are recommended by proven industry professionals (eg. other agents and freelance editors with whom they have relationships).
  • Platform. Platform. Platform. You must be able to demonstrate a market for your work. (16)

Previously Published Indie Authors Who Aspire to Have Their Next Book Traditionally Published

“Ultimately, when presenting to a publisher, I provide a cross-section. If a book has 250 reviews with 4 and 5 stars, and 70,000 in sales, this author has a lot of promise. Alternatively, if a book has 200 reviews and only 10,000 sales, it’s going to be so much more challenging to present them and say, ‘You should invest money in this author.’” (17, 18, and keep 22 in mind)

In the July August 2021 edition of Poets & Writers, literary agent Amy Elizabeth Bishop says, it's best to approach an agent with a new book idea because "most agencies are not going to agree to represent a previously self-published book unless sales are fantastic (think hundreds of thousands of copies sold)." (25)


High Achiever: The Shocking True Story of One Addict's Double Life by Tiffany D. Jenkins was originally self-published in 2017 and sold to Harmony Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on 3/22/2019. (19, 20)

Note that she has over 2,000 reviews on Amazon and a 5-star rating.

Where Will You Go from Here?

How do you feel?

Mixed feelings are a sign that you're approaching your project more objectively and that you'll be better prepared to meet the needs and expectations of editors, literary agents, publishers, and bookstore owners when you’re ready to pitch, publish, and promote your book.

To learn more about the different publishing options and help determing the best option for you and your project, read Which Publishing Model Is Right for You: Traditional Big 5, Traditional Indie Press, Self-Publishing, or Hybrid/Partner?

If you'd like a free, objective consultation to discuss your goals and project, let's connect.


Ready to talk to an experienced and results-oriented ghostwriter/book collaborator, book doctor, and developmental editor? To schedule a free, 30-minute consultation, click here.


Recommended Podcasts for All Authors

For authors who aspire to be traditionally published, I highly recommend the Print Run podcast.

For self-publishing authors, I recommend The Creative Penn podcast.

All authors and aspiring authors will benefit from both, but each speak to the unique needs and considerations of their audience and market niche.


Related: The Cold Publishing Equations: Books Sold + Marketability + Love, Which Publishing Option Is Right for You? and

Recommended Reading: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli (survivorship bias and other logical fallacies)


In addition to the resources linked above, I recommend that you review for full context the web pages, podcasts, and print resources listed below.



1 Number of new titles published in selected countries worldwide in 2015 (in 1,000s)

2 Bowker Self-Publishing Report* (see 3 for deeper analysis and no-hype stats)

3 Bowker Self-Publishing Report Analysis-5 Surprising Findings for 2019

4 How Many Books Does Amazon Sell? (Best solution)

5a Berrett-Koehler Publishers

5b "What Snoop Dogg’s Success Says About the Book Industry." The New York Times (paywall). April 28, 2021.

5c The Hot Sheet, Dec. 22, 2021 issue (paywall)

5d The Hot Sheet, August 31, 2022 issue (paywall)

6 Berrett-Koehler Publishers

7 Whalin, Terry W. Book Proposals That $ell: 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success. Write Now Publications. Nashville, TN. 2005. Print. (p. 16)

8 Whalin, Terry W. Book Proposals That $ell: 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success. Write Now Publications. Nashville, TN. 2005. Print. (p. 16)

9 I've used this towel 8 times. Can I throw it in?

10 Whalin, Terry W. Book Proposals That $ell: 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success. Write Now Publications. Nashville, TN. 2005. Print. (p. 22)

11 8 Tips From Literary Agents About How to Get Published

12 Why Agents Reject 96% of Author Submissions

13 Why Agents Reject 96% of Author Submissions

14 What Compels an Agent to Sign an Author? Q&A With Literary Agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower (Part III of III)

15 The Author Success Story Behind ABC’s Resurrection: Q&A With Literary Agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower (Part I of III)

16 Writing Non-Fiction: Building Your Platform Through Publication

17 Indie Authors Seeking an Agent: Take Note! Q&A With Literary Agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower (Part II of III)

18 Indie Authors Seeking an Agent: Take Note! Q&A With Literary Agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower (Part II of III)

19 High Achiever: The Shocking True Story of One Addict's Double Life

20 Publishers Marketplace (paywall)

21 Print Run Podcast Episode 115, 28:50-29:00

22 The Magic Number

23 The Hot Sheet April 28, 2021 (paywall)

24 The New York Times "What Snoop Dogg’s Success Says About the Book Industry" (paywall)

25 Poets & Writers. "Agent Advice" column. July August 2021 edition. Page 69. Print.


Photo Attribution:

Cristen Iris

CI Communication Strategies

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