Topgraphy of book sales: What lurks beneath?

3 Dec

A full one-third of books sold worldwide are sold in the US. US is a phenomenally important media market and the success or failure of a book in the US can literally make or break the career of an author.

It is interesting to explore who reads the books, where are they sold, what books are read and the reasons behind these.

Let me start by providing the numbers around book sales in the US. In 2004, Nielsen Bookscan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the United States and they found:

  • Of those 1.2 million, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies.
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
  • Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
  • Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • Only 10 books sold more than a million copies each.
  • The average book in the United States sells about 500 copies.

*The last point should be interpreted carefully as the average of a skewed distribution is neither an intuitive nor accurate representation. Here, the average of book sales distribution is disproportionately influenced by the few really large numbers. A much more useful statistic would be the median book sales figure, which is unavailable.

The statistics above show that a very small minority of books contribute to majority of book sales in the US. Let me put this in perspective with a separate set of numbers – of the around 120,000 titles that are published each year – only about 500 books (.4%) sell more than 100,000 copies.

This raises the question then that what is it that creates this extremely skewed topography of book consumption in the US (and elsewhere in the world)? A variety of hypothesis have been forwarded by people to explain this phenomenon – some trace it to the relative paucity of quality books (if we for a second don’t bicker over what means by quality – it seems like a reasonable assumption), paucity of works produced by popular authors (now we are faced with the chicken and the egg question – how did the author become popular), the book display patterns of major book vendors (books displayed on show windows of 2 major book chains in US – Borders and Barnes and Noble – are highly correlated to book sales), media coverage of books and authors (so topicality plays a role – controversial topics or authors, celebrity authors etc. will all sell more), topicality (feeds into above point), length of book’s title, complexity of sentence structure etc.

Business of Books

Book business is by varying estimates between $16.6 billion (US Census Bureau) and $26.9 billion (Association of American Publishers- 2002 figures).

Not only are the book sales limited to a few top earners, the book sales are also limited by publishing houses. Andre Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon Books, in “The Business of Books” states that in 1999, the top 20 publishers accounted for 93% of sales. Later in the book, he states that 80% of book sales originate from five media conglomerates.

Media and the medium

Book consumption is mediated by mass-media. The book is today a cultural product whose value is still primarily gauged by elite reviewers though this is changing with the onslaught on online review sites.

For more statistics on the publishing industry, visit: