How many copies will your book sell?

When it comes book sales, how does your business book fit among all the other books out there?

No matter who you are, there are people selling more than you and people selling fewer. And sales are a very crude measure of success; some niche authors might sell 500 copies and generate 50 million-dollar leads. But we’re all intensely curious, so let’s get a look at what my author survey revealed about typical sales figures for business books.

Sales data from my author survey

My author survey reached 172 published nonfiction authors and 70 more authors who weren’t published yet.

Among published authors, 9% had no idea what their sales were. Here are the sales figures for those who knew how well their book had sold.

Sales of
most recently
published book
(includes ebook and
audiobook sales)
All published
Median unit sales4,5007,1003,4001,100
% with more than
10,000 book sales
% with more than
50,000 book sales
Source: survey of nonfiction authors, 2019-2022. Base: 172 published authors

A few things are apparent from this chart.

While median sales for all the authors who answered were 4,500, the median for those books with traditional publishers was 7,100, significantly higher. This is likely due to two factors. First off, traditional publishers only make deals for books with a promising potential for sales. And second, traditional publishers have access to tools like bookstore placement, online advertising, and publicity that can help boost book sales.

Even so, most traditional publishers of business books are looking for books that are likely to sell at least 10,000 copies. Only one in three of of the traditionally published books in my survey met that threshold. (Keep in mind, though, that some of these books may be early in their launch cycle and may still sell thousands of additional copies after the author answered the survey.)

Approximately one eighth of traditionally published books from the authors in the survey surpassed the 50,000 unit mark, which is an unequivocal sign of success. An author with a book that sold that number of units is likely also generating success through speaking or consulting. A book that sells 50,000 units has likely generated at least $175,000 in advances and royalties.

While hybrid published books don’t have the same level of sales, you shouldn’t look down on a book that sells the hybrid median 3,400 units. Because of higher royalty rates from hybrid publishers, such a book is likely generating enough sales to break even, paying for the hybrid publisher’s fees. This tells me that about half the hybrid published books are generating profits for their authors from book sales, even before additional income from speaking, consulting, leads, or related sources of revenue.

Because there is no gatekeeper for self-publishing, self-published books include many titles with low sales potential. Still, in my sample, a respectable 8%, or one in twelve, self-published books reached at least 10,000 readers.

New authors have high expectations

Every author expects to have a bestselling book. They may not admit it, but that’s their dream.

I asked the 70 not-yet-published authors how many units their book would need to sell to be a success for them. The median answer was 3,500 copies, but 28% believed they’d have to sell 10,000 copies to be successful.

Looking at the actual sales figures, basically, most authors believe they are above average.

If you have high expectations, you need to invest in idea development, developmental editing, and especially, book promotion to reach your goals. Above average sales only happen with sustained effort on book quality and marketing.

Remember, units sales aren’t the best measure of whether a book is successful; many authors accomplish their goals without attaining bestseller status. But with the benchmarks from my survey, you can set a reasonable goal for what sales number is a good target for you.

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  1. I love this data, Josh, thanks for posting it. Here’s another perspective: The survey about the “most recent” book. Indie books often have slower growth trajectories than traditionally published books, which come out strong then lose momentum in the retail channel. Several of my (indie) books have started slow—especially early in my author career when I was clueless, without the wisdom of your book—and grown in sales over time, selling tens of thousands of copies. However, I honestly answered the survey for my most recent book, which also had a slow start. Asking about “best-selling” book might have changed the data. This is another way that the publishing business models differ.

  2. How often do traditional publishers report sales figures to authors? For how long after publication do they report sales?

    Having no knowledge of book publishing aside from what I’ve picked up from your blog I was very surprised to learn that sales of nonfiction books are so low. Using your median unit sales figure of 7100 and assuming a retail sales price of $30US, which I plucked out of thin air, yields a gross sales amount of $213,000. I don’t know what I was expecting but $213K seems like a very small amount. I can only imagine how little an author would received of that amount. And 7100 is less than the number of US bookstores, reported by one source as fewer than11,000 in 2020. I’m not questioning any of your figures, I’m just expressing my surprise at them. But as you said, “units sales aren’t the best measure of whether a book is successful.”

    Thanks, again, for opening my eyes.


    1. Remember, the average is not the same as the median.

      If there are three books and one sells 3,000 copies, the second sells 5,000, and the third sells 1 million, the median sales are 5,000. But the average sales are 336,000.

      Most of the publishers’ money is going to sales of fiction. And a lot of it is going to sales of blockbusters that selling hundreds of thousands.

      The fact that the average author only sells a few thousand doesn’t get in the way of making money from the big sellers.

      (To answer your first question, publishers report sales every six months for as long as a book is selling.)