10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing… and 7 Ways to Overcome Them

“The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.”

If you are an author, prospective author or anyone that has anything to do with publishing or book marketing, this is a great informational post on the industry. It’s an eye-opener in many ways. While some of the stats can be a bit overwhelming, I see the overall picture full of possibilities (for those who can embrace the challenges while seeking new solutions).

Note: Some of the stats are a little dated but are still true and relevant. Obviously digital publishing is changing things rapidly as well. Also note, as you read through the stats… don’t stop there. Keep reading below where I share tips on how to overcome!

Selling books has no doubt become a tougher job, lots of clutter to break through and a shift in the way people engage with content… but it can be done and can be done quite well. I work with a number of authors who are not letting these awful truths stand in the way of their message getting out so don’t let them stand in your way either!

At the bottom of the post you’ll also find a short  7 tip list on how to overcome these book publishing awful truths and my expanded thoughts on each tip as well. Even if you aren’t involved with publishing, you’ll find this post as an interesting glance into the industry.

The lists and original tips that follow were written by Steven Piersanti, former CEO of Jossey-Bass Publishers, and now President of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. It’s from his updated version in June of 2010.

1. The number of books being published in the U.S. has exploded.
Bowker reports that over one million (1,052,803) books were published in the U.S. in 2009, which is more than triple the number of books published four years earlier (2005) in the U.S. (April 14, 2010 Bowker Report). More than two thirds of these books are self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and other print-on-demand books, which is where most of the growth in recent years has taken place. In addition, hundreds of thousands of English-language books are published each year in other countries.

2. Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published.
Book sales in the U.S. peaked in 2007 and then fell by nearly five percent between 2007 and 2009, according to the Association of American Publishers (April 7, 2010 AAP Report). Similarly, bookstore sales peaked in 2007 and have fallen since, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 22, 2010). The major bookstore chains have been especially hard hit, with a 12 percent sales decline between 2007 and 2009 (Publishers Weekly, April 12, 2010).

3. Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.
Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to Nielsen BookScan – which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com) – only 282 million books were sold in 2009 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 11, 2010). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

4. A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.
For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to approximately 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are 250,000-plus business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

5. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.
Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with many books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. New titles are not just competing with a million recently published books, they are also competing with more than seven million other books available for sale. And other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. Result: investing the same amount of effort today to market a book as was invested a few years ago will yield a fraction of the sales previously experienced.

6. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

7. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.
Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from agents and experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the author’s marketing platform and what the author will do to market the book. Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

8. No other industry has so many new product introductions.
Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. Yet the average new book generates only $100,000 to $200,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense. This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign. (Note: Daniel here, the $100-$200k stat seems a bit high to me here. It may be accurate based on Steven’s research but I’d bet it’s lower).

9. The digital revolution is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales.
We are in the early stages of an explosion in digital versions of books and digital sales channels for books and portions of books. However, early indications are that the digital revenues are replacing traditional book revenues rather than adding to overall book revenues. The total book publishing pie is not growing, but it is now being divided among even more products and markets, thus further crowding and saturating the marketplace. And although some digital costs are lower, other costs are higher while price points are lower – making digital profits even slimmer than print profits thus far.

10. The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.
The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition in a small industry, rapid growth of new technologies, and expanding competition from other media lead to constant turmoil in book publishing. Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.


1. The game is now pass-along sales.
2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.
3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
4. In a crowded market, brands stand out.
5. Master new sales and marketing channels.
6. Build books around a big new idea.
7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short.

This is Daniel again (hello). Let me add a little extra here…

1. Pass-Along Sales: If you aren’t sure what “Pass-Along Sales” are… “Pass-along sales” mean that people are not buying books for themselves as much; instead they are buying books for others and passing along the books to them. Parents are buying books for their children; group leaders are buying books for group members; CEOs buying for their staff, etc. Huge market and potential here.

2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle: It’s getting harder and harder to be heard by traditional PR methods. Instead, focusing on doing events, speaking engagements, etc where participants hear your message and buy your book as a result is a key strategy to take.

3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities: No brainer here. Every author hears about “Platform” which is just another way to talk about your own following. Build a community and you have qualified buyers. It’s simple to know, harder to achieve but with hard work you can. Put your community first. Serve them. Build into them. Add value and they will respond.

Note: I’d suggest you pick up a copy of “Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World” by Michael Hyatt. It’s an amazing book with a step-by-step guide for building a platform from someone who has done it.

4. In a crowded market, brands stand out: Be unique. Be identifiable. Have a value promise that you can deliver on and that people come to trust. Brands are not built overnight. Stay the course, be strong and be true to who you need to be.

5. Master new sales and marketing channels: This doesn’t just mean being active on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It means looking for new markets and new ways to distribute your book/content. Identify niche opportunities such as selling your book in bulk to a specialized industry or group. Look for creative packaging ideas where your book is included as part of XYZ purchase, etc. Get creative. Think BIG and go after it.

6. Build books around a big new idea: Don’t regurgitate what everyone else is saying. Say it in a new way. You can speak truth or a core foundational principle but you have to find a unique way to do it, a “Big Idea” that others can grasp a hold of. You’ve heard it said that people buy the sizzle before they buy the steak, same goes here. It’s your HOOK, your big idea that reels them in.

7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short: So many authors miss this. They try to build their content and back load the juicy stuff so what happens is most books start out dry and not that interesting. What happens? Readers don’t make it past the first chapter but had they made it to chapter 2 and beyond they would have been blown away. Give them the good stuff up front. Don’t make them wait because guess what… they won’t. Attention spans have changed and how people engage with content has as well.

What did you think about these stats? What additional tips would you add on overcoming these awful truths of publishing? Comment Here.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Thanks Mollie. Glad to help and thank you for sharing!

  • How discouraging. I'm thinking maybe I SHOULD look into graphic/web design instead of writing. 🙂

    • Don't be discouraged, just be aware. You can make it but you need to know what you're up against so you are ready to embrace the realistic challenges ahead. Success is attainable for those who have great content and who are willing to put in the work that it needs to succeed.

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  • Robert Wolgemuth

    Thank you for this very insightful post. A little scary for those of us in the business, but very important to know.

  • “The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.”

    The nice part about that stat is… well, it’s not that many books. If you can build an engaged audience through a blog (with email list), do some speaking (and get more emails there), and maybe look into some local print or TV exposure for added credibility, selling 3,000 copies isn’t too bad.

    I think the main takeaway for writers should be that the selling is on them now. Anyone who thinks they’re going get a cabin on Walden Pond and make a living writing is going to lose. But I think those who get an Internet connection in their cabin have a decent chance at selling 3,000 copies. That’s how to break into it. From there, it’s drip, drip, drip… capture your audience, finding a way to get their repeat business (think email list again) instead of leaving it to the publisher to pretty much start over with each book.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

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  • Most everything said here is about nonfiction. As we know, fiction books that hit, can go very big indeed (think H. Potter, Twilight). In the fiction arena, agents and publishers seem to be looking for the big hit, not just a book that can make a small profit.

    I think the effect of this is agents and publishers exercise little imagination, like movie producers they only seem to want to follow, never lead. Please comment.

    • I can't speak to fiction as much as I can to non but the general premise remains the same across the board. The reality is that publishers have low margins on most of their titles. 20% pay for the other 80% so it's understandable that while the industry is changing, so is the willingness of a publisher to take risks on books / authors who have not proven successful yet. Success can still happen, you as an author just need to play a VERY active role in building a following – getting the word out about your book.

  • This is excellent information. Well done, thanks Daniel.

  • David A.

    What is the situation regarding fiction books?

    • Hi David. Similar premise but I personally can't speak to stats as I operate more in the nonfiction world.

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  • miheui

    Great advice for nonfiction book publishing but what about fiction?

  • WRT your point no. 6, you have it all wrong. Being innovative in this staid, conservative country afraid to try anything new (unless it's an electronic gadget for instant gratification) means getting nowhere. Build a better mousetrap and starve while traditional mousetraps do their poorly designed but still wildly popular thing. I developed a whole theory of why we produce garbage and what we can practically, scientifically and easily do about it and it goes nowhere against the tide of money spent by the garbage industry buying politicians to support recycling and dumping. Isn't recycling the darling of the environmentalists? You know it is. Yet it is backward looking greenwashing that serves to perpetuate garbage generation. I self published the only book on the subject of Zero Waste and all that happened was that the garbage industry appropriated the Zero Waste name as a slogan stripping it of all substance. So stick with the tried and true and do not try anything new if you want to succeed in the market.

    • Humm…. I appreciate any good dialogue or a challenge to a point I make but Paul I think you just contradicted yourself. You're telling me that I have it all wrong in my point #6 but at the same time I am hearing you say that your book hasn't taken off. My point #6 was about the HOOK and the SIZZLE. Perhaps your book needs more of that. Besides, I'm fairly certain I know what I am talking about since I've successfully promoted dozens of books that have gone on to be bestsellers. That's not a pompous statement, just one of confidence in knowing the industry and what works and what doesn't. I hope your book does well but if it's not, you might want to reconsider the approach before just abandoning the idea.

      • Daniel:
        You said: "6. Build books around a big new idea: Don’t regurgitate what everyone else is saying. Say it in a new way. You can speak truth or a core foundational principle but you have to find a unique way to do it, a “Big Idea” that others can grasp a hold of. You’ve heard it said that people buy the sizzle before they buy the steak, same goes here. It’s your HOOK, your big idea that reels them in."

        Promoters have been talking up the sizzle forever, but a new idea makes a fizzle, not a sizzle. I showed in my book that a major behavior of society for the last fifty thousand years can no longer be tolerated in the modern world and I showed in detail why not and how it could be changed and replaced with a scientifically based far superior way to approach that behavior (the easy disposal of garbage). Look at my website at http://www.zerowasteinstitute.org if you want to see innovative and far reaching ideas surrounding this concept. I sell a few copies on Amazon in a good month and a graduate student in Canada is doing her thesis on my proposals and analysis. But the proponents of the very minimum intervention in the steady flow of enormous quantities of garbage into huge dumps i.e. the recyclers are the ones that get all the support and attention. Zero Waste, though far more effective and necessary to planetary survival is passed over.

        Daniel, this is just a friendly conversation with no resolution. I just wanted to point out that the advocacy of new, brilliant ideas as a desirable "hook" is misplaced and everyone with a big success knows it. Suck up to an existing idea, person or company and you can be carried along. Put forward a truly original idea and see it compromised, stolen, twisted and after it is too late for you to benefit, adopted enthusiastically. You will be forgotten.

        Enuff said! This is just a small, and many will think grumbling, comment. I will bow out.

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  • Good work, wonderful blog… really enjoy it and added into my social bookmarks. Keep up the good work What you said made a lot of sense.

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  • I think the whole 10 awful truths is wrong. Book sales are in a decline because disposable income took such a hit in 2008 and 2009. And eBooks are now selling so much more at such a lower price that sales may never catch up.

    Publishers complain about marketing, but never try new things to market books. I don’t understand how they can complain and say they are truths when they are opinions from an static perspective. Change to the marketplace or the marketplace will skip you.