Basic Publishing Data Analysis

I’m switching my focus from creative writing for a bit to being a small time essayist.  I spent a year trying to write fiction and need a bit of a break from it.  I’m intrigued by the publishing business and even created a tiny imprint of my own to publish my own book.  I’m just curious about how much we are reading and how many books are sold.  Crunching just a few numbers has gotten me thinking.

First off, to get published by an established outfit you need to have an agent.  The Association of Author Representatives has 385 agents listed.  If this is correct, then virtually everything that is published comes through the eyes of one of these folks.  This is a small number for such a big country but lets look deeper at things.  From a series of lectures from the Great Courses by Jane Friedman it appears that 75% of all books published are from one of the big five publishing houses.  All are associated with New York City.  Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin/Random House, and Simon and Schuster.  Each one of these has several imprints that they publish out of.  Now out of these, 75% of all published works are nonfiction of some type.

From the research that I have done, it appears there is some conflicting data about the number of books one must sell to be a bestseller.  I have heard that at least 3,000 or more books per week sold becomes a bestseller.  In a March 10, 2014 Publisher’s Weekly article by Gabe Habash said that “a title in Amazon’s top five averages 1,094 print copies sold across all channels, including other retailers, on a typical day. And because the general industry thinking is that Amazon accounts for about 30% of print sales, that means it likely takes around 300 copies per day to reach Amazon’s top five.”  This would jive with a higher number of 9,000 copies sold per week which may qualify as a New York Times bestseller.  Of course, these numbers can be confounded by many variables – most notably time of the year.

A New York Times article authored by Shira Boss titled “The Greatest Mystery, the Making of a Bestseller” from May 13, 2007 may shed some more light on the situation of how many books that need to be sold.  It alludes to the sale of 15,000 to 20,000 as the mid-list point.  Some big titles that sold big were “Marley and Me” at 2.5 million copies and “The Secret” which sold over 5 million copies.

The publisher says a lot about what a book is about.  There are loads and loads of publishers out there.  It appears that Christian publishers are a very fast growing segment of this market.  Bowker indicated that in 2002 there were 12,253 religion books published and by 2013 there were 18,653.  I’m interested in learning more about this market later on.  This looks like a hefty increase in religion books – approximately a 50% increase.  If all these are Christian, and I would assume many are then this indicates a powerful trend upwards in sales of books in this genre.

According to Wikipedia, there are 304,912 books published in the US in 2013.  This number matches the Bowker ISBN count for 2013, which may include books that have or have not been published.  This number also includes new editions and reprints.  Looking further at the Bowker ISBN output report from 2002 to 2013.  It appears that the total number of ISBN’s issued in 2013 was 2,352,797, of which 2,042,840 are listed as non-traditional. The ISBNs from the Bowker list are then broken up into categories with about 50,000 classified as fiction.  There were 25,000 ISBNs in the fiction category in 2003.  I’m guessing that these numbers reflect purchases by larger publishers and would approximate the numbers of books printed or otherwise made available during that year.  This would include reprints and ebooks.  This is a surprising small number of books published and made available.  I suspect that the number of actual authors published is much smaller than this number.

I’m going to guess that this list also includes the academic press and textbooks.  I’ll also assume that this list reflects the output of the big five publishers and some of the other larger publishing houses.  Of course, I’m sure there will be confounding variables here – other publishers, ISBNs not employed and the many other things I haven’t foreseen.

Now, to get into self-publishing.  According to Bowker there was 727,125 books published in 2015, which is a huge increase from the 152,978 published in 2010.  It appears Smashwords and Amazon take the lion’s share of these.  My question is how many new novels are published each year?   How long are these books?  I’m guessing from the self-published books I’ve seen online that they might be short, perhaps in the neighborhood of 20,000 words.  There has to be some treasures in this number.  There just has to be – the struggle is to dig deep enough down to find them.

Here is where it gets tricky.  First off, getting on a list generates exposure which then drives sales.  Then its all the categories.  Hardcover.  Paperback.  Kindle.  How many copies need to be sold to get on the fiction list?  The nonfiction list?  The advice list?  How many copies need to sell in total?  My mind is already spinning.


A very small group of people are controlling what is published.   Too small for a country this size but that is the way it is.  It is this group who are guardians of what we are reading and to what we are reacting to.  The profit motive is paramount in this industry and these folks are making sure that they can sell what is written.  In this way outstanding work is produced but true artistry and authenticity is reduced.

Self publishing and the blogs is the place where true authenticity is still taking place.  While these works are most likely going to be less refined than that from traditional sources, the good works will retain their true artistic quality.  The problem is sorting through the good stuff from the not-so-good stuff.  When I figure out how to do this I’ll let everyone know!