Simon Willison’s Weblog


No, Most Books Don't Sell Only a Dozen Copies. I linked to a story the other day about book sales claiming "90 percent of them sold fewer than 2,000 copies and 50 percent sold less than a dozen copies", based on numbers released in the Penguin antitrust lawsuit. It turns out those numbers were interpreted incorrectly.

In this piece from September 2022 Lincoln Michel addresses this and other common misconceptions about book statistics.

Understanding these numbers requires understanding a whole lot of intricacies about how publishing actually works. Here's one illustrative snippet:

"Take the statistic that most published books only sell 99 copies. This seems shocking on its face. But if you dig into it, you’ll notice it was counting one year’s sales of all books that were in BookScan’s system. That’s quite different statistic than saying most books don’t sell 100 copies in total! A book could easily be a bestseller in, say, 1960 and sell only a trickle of copies today."

The top comment on the post comes from Kristen McLean of NPD BookScan, the organization who's numbers were misrepresented is the trial. She wasn't certain how the numbers had been sliced to get that 90% result, but in her own analysis of "frontlist sales for the top 10 publishers by unit volume in the U.S. Trade market" she found that 14.7% sold less than 12 copies and the 51.4% spot was for books selling less than a thousand.