How to sell 10,000 copies of your book — or decide you don’t need to

It’s a publishing truism that your book must sell 10,000 copies to be successful. It’s wrong. And it’s also very hard. So let’s take a look at whether you need to sell 10,000 copies, and what it would take to do that.

Can you succeed without selling 10,000 copies?

The analysis I’m going to share focuses on a business book.

For any book, you must decide what your goal is in writing it. My primary research, which includes an author survey, shows that for most authors the primary goal is to boost their reputations, which typically includes a plan to generate speaking or consulting income. So let’s do some math.

Assume that in the first year you sell 2,500 copies, but those copies are in the hands of exactly the audience you are trying to reach. So if your book is called “How to Launch Your Startup,” it’s in the hands of 2,500 startup founders, and if it’s called “Content Marketing Strategies,” it’s in the hands of 2,500 content marketers. You get the idea.

For this thought experiment assume that 0.5% (one in 200) of those readers hires you to give a speech at $10,000. That’s 12 speeches for $120,000.

Assume also that 2% (one in 50) of those readers hire you as a consultant, at an average consulting gig of $5,000. That’s $250,000.

You’ve now made a third of a million dollars from that book.

Your mileage may vary. Greatly. If the target of 2,500 people includes a lot fewer people who are prospects, you won’t make nearly that much. And if your book is called “How to Survive as a Nurse,” well, nurses aren’t going to hire you for $5,000 consulting gigs. You could find other ways to make money, for example, by giving seminars, but you’re not guaranteed success in any of these methods. But you do at least have a shot at success.

The other problem is that while you can make money that way, your publisher can’t. Traditional publishers have very little interest in a book that can sell 2,500 copies, because the person who paid you $5,000 for consulting pays only $25 for the book, which, after the bookstore’s cut and your royalty, yields maybe $10. The publisher’s not going to get rich on 2,500 copies with only $10 profit per copy. If that’s all you have a shot at selling, you’ll probably need to use a hybrid publisher or self-publish. And that makes it harder to sell, unless you have a huge network.

So where does that 10,000 copy target come from?

One publisher I know won’t even touch your manuscript unless you have a solid plan to sell 10,000 copies. Others won’t just come out and say that, but they’re thinking it.

A new analysis by Todd Sattersten of Bard Press calculates that if you don’t sell 10,000 copies in the first year, your chances of selling 10,000 copies over the lifetime of the book are just 11%. On the other hand, if you sell between 10,000 and 25,000 copies in the first year, your chances of selling at least 25,000 copies total is 42%.

Can you see now why publishers are focused on 10,000 copies?

But as you sit here with an idea of a book, how the heck are you supposed to climb that 10,000 copy mountain?

You need to pursue what I call the wildfire strategy. It has three stages: sparks, flames, and wildfire. And you need to set up all three stages before your book launch, and then execute them consistently over the book’s first year.

Setting off sparks

No one can buy your book until they know you have a book. Your biggest problem in the first year is lack of awareness. Sparks are methods that generate awareness.

There are a lot of ways to create sparks.

If you have a blog, a newsletter, a podcast, a Twitter following, a Substack, a gaggle on Clubhouse, a bunch of people watching your YouTube videos, or something like that — an author platform — then you can create sparks with it. Use your platform to get your followers excited and buzzing about your book. Create a series of content releases that will generate that excitement. (This is a whole lot more work than I’m able to describe here, but the basic idea is, make a splash.)

You can hire a publicist and get yourself media coverage. Get written up in the news based on your new idea or your new research. Get on “Good Morning America.” Place op-eds or bylined articles in publications for the kind of people who follow what you’re writing.

If you’re already a public speaker, you can use your speeches to generate sparks, hundreds or thousands of people at a time.

And you can create a posse of close followers willing to promote the book. They’ll help spread sparks, too.

Sparks are not enough. Scattered sparks will just fizzle out. For sparks to matter, they need to be timed to land at about the same time, around the book’s publication ate. And then they need to spread. The need to generate flames.

Kindling flames

You need a way to get people to go from “I heard about your book” to “I bought your book.” That’s what turns sparks into flames.

When someone hears about your book, what do they do?

They check it out.

They Google it. Or they go to Amazon or a similar site and see what’s there.

Then they buy it. Or they give up on it.

To maximize the chance that they buy it, you need to do three things:

  1. Build a professional-looking website designed to tell about the book and what’s awesome about it. If your title is unique, Google will send people searching for the book to your site.
  2. Generate as many Amazon reviews as possible. (That posse from the spark stage is handy for that.)
  3. Get credible blurbs (endorsements) from prominent people. These show up on the Amazon page and your site and help people decide.

I haven’t spoken much about the bookstore channel, since it’s less important than it used to be, but if someone picks up the book in a bookstore, the blurbs will help there, too.

Starting a wildfire

Unless you are already famous with a huge following, to get to 10,000 copies, you need word-of-mouth.

Let’s do some math.

Start with 1,000 people who bought your book because of your initial publicity, and liked it.

Suppose, for each copy you sell, the person who bought it has a 25% chance of telling someone else and generating another sale.

You will sell 1333 copies based on initial publicity and word-of-mouth (1000+250+62+16+4+1). You’ll never make it to 10,000.

Alternatively, supposed that for each copy you sell, that reader persuades an average of 1.1 other people to get the book. Then in just six rounds of people telling other people, you will approach 10,000 copies (1000+1100+1210+1331+1464+1611+1771 = 9486).

And you can see how the Bard analysis pans out — because in just a few more rounds you’ll exceed 25,000 copies.

So what makes the difference in the two scenarios? Whether the book was any good.

Is it based on a simple, powerful idea that is easy to share?

Does it have stories that are easy to remember and to share?

Does it have useful tips that are easy to share?

Is it fun, or funny, or entertaining enough that someone would talk about it?

Good books generate word-of-mouth. Books that have no good idea, are full of trite concepts, lack good stories, are poorly organized, and are tough to read do not.

There are things you can do with the launch that help with the word-of- mouth. A good title helps. A good cover helps. You can create content worth sharing on your site. But all these things do is accelerate the word-of-mouth that’s already there because it was a good book, a book worth sharing.

Marketing, content, and wildfires

So the formula to get to 10,000 copies is simple to describe, even if it is not simple to execute.

Write a freakishly good book.

Develop a marketing strategy that sets sparks and fans flames.

And hope for a wildfire.

That’s what your book proposal should talk about. That’s what gets publishers interested — because it shows how you will create awareness and spread word-of-mouth to get to 10,000 copies and beyond.

It’s far from easy. It’s far from assured. But it’s the only thing that works.

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