Writing: a fools errand

Are we fools to think that we can succeed at writing?

With prompting from Tom-Being-Tom, and my own curiosity over the last two years I thought I’d throw together a spreadsheet that tried to rationalize the numbers involved with publishing a novel.

You can find it linked here:

Such a pursuit is fraught with errors due to assumptions and biases. But I like to have some idea of what the world looks like regarding numbers.

Bottom line, if you can get traditionally published, you might sell between 70 and 120 copies.

The process:

• From the total US population take the number of adult readers.
• From the est. number of books read: 5 (REF) per adult per year,
• Arrive at the total read events per year.
• Assume 500k (REF) books published (traditional only) in 2017, assume that the prior 19 years are also included in the total reads for the year.
• Reduce the published total for each year going back 20 years.
• Sum this total published for the 20 years.
• From this total take the percentage of each year and apply it to the total yearly reads.
• This will give us our total reads for those books published this year.
• From this number take 75% as actually purchase (not library or loans).
• From that number take 75% as fiction reads.
• From that number remove 50% as books that are best sellers (the lion’s share of reads) We’re going to look at the remainder after we remove this portion. We’re looking for average authors not NYTimes bestsellers.
• This will give us the total number of reads for the year for the average book.
• Divide that number by the total number of books published.

Result: 82 (using the median of 5 books/adult or 197 using the average of 12 books/adult).

These are pretty conservative numbers. But if you want to play with the numbers, you can copy this spreadsheet and fiddle with the inputs.

Foolish to think one can succeed at getting published and selling more than 100 copies? Yes, that’s my take.

Some of the data is presented here:

US Pop. 325,000,000
% Readers 80.00%
Reader Pop. 260,000,000
Median # Reads per year 5
Total Annual Read (events) 1,300,000,000
% of Reads are Purchased 75.00%
% of Reads are Fiction 75.00%
% of Reads are Best Sellers 50.00%
Annual Fiction Sales 731,250,000
Yearly % Pub Count Increase 10.00%
Year Pub Count % Reads # Of Total Reads # Best Sellers # Remaining Med # Sales
2017 500,000 11.23% 82,109,319 41,054,659 41,054,659 82
2016 450,000 10.11% 73,898,387 36,949,193 36,949,193
2015 405,000 9.10% 66,508,548 33,254,274 33,254,274
2014 364,500 8.19% 59,857,693 29,928,847 29,928,847
2013 328,050 7.37% 53,871,924 26,935,962 26,935,962
2012 295,245 6.63% 48,484,732 24,242,366 24,242,366
2011 265,721 5.97% 43,636,258 21,818,129 21,818,129
2010 239,148 5.37% 39,272,633 19,636,316 19,636,316
2009 215,234 4.83% 35,345,369 17,672,685 17,672,685
2008 193,710 4.35% 31,810,832 15,905,416 15,905,416
2007 174,339 3.92% 28,629,749 14,314,875 14,314,875
2006 156,905 3.52% 25,766,774 12,883,387 12,883,387
2005 141,215 3.17% 23,190,097 11,595,048 11,595,048
2004 127,093 2.85% 20,871,087 10,435,544 10,435,544
2003 114,384 2.57% 18,783,978 9,391,989 9,391,989
2002 102,946 2.31% 16,905,581 8,452,790 8,452,790
2001 92,651 2.08% 15,215,023 7,607,511 7,607,511
2000 83,386 1.87% 13,693,520 6,846,760 6,846,760
1999 75,047 1.69% 12,324,168 6,162,084 6,162,084
1998 67,543 1.52% 11,091,751 5,545,876 5,545,876
1997 60,788 1.37% 9,982,576 4,991,288 4,991,288
Sum 4,452,905 731,250,000 365,625,000 365,625,000

• Missing from our calculations thus far are, reads from books printed in previous years; what number of books are actually sold; number of fiction books sold.
• Let’s be conservative and say that we’ll only include books from the previous 20 years, in a descending ratio such that for every year in reverse we take 90% of the current number. (Seeing how Harry Potter was first published in 1997 and it remains in the top sellers list year after year, this does not seem out of line.)
• Additionally, let’s assume that 3/4’s of the total reads are actual purchases (not library, or loaned reads), and let’s assume that 3/4’s of those remaining are fiction reads, and finally, 1/2 of the reads are for best sellers.
• No self published novels are included.

Relevant cites:

Slightly fewer Americans are reading print books, new survey finds

21 thoughts on “Writing: a fools errand

  1. (Comment on Milly Schmitz’s blog)
    I’d suggest you do some research on the # of traditionally published books vs the # of traditionally published authors. And then the ratio of traditional books vs self-published. My point? The probability of you getting “discovered” by a traditional publishing agent or house is microscopic.
    There’s a vast unacknowledged bias here: we read about the success and never the failures. For every new-author published book there are thousands of missed-author novels.
    Now, I’m no successful author. I have crunched the numbers though, and the thought that you’re gonna wait, perhaps years, building your debut library, while you could be gathering a following, one novel at a time, seems foolish. The writing part is easy compared to the marketing task. The mantra I’ve read time an time again? Gather a readership — however you can, as fast as you can.

    RE: Editing. There are two levels, 1) technical, 2) structural. “Close to the metal” edits need to have been mastered and done long ago. These are the raw mechanical aspects: spelling, grammar, adverbs, dialog tags, passive-v-active, POV, scene transition, character voice. You need a close, persnickety editor to get you through level 1.
    Level 2? That’s what takes years to master (I’ve learned). Compelling, unique theme, constant tension/release, conflict escalated to the boiling point, protagonist with unceasing trouble and a nagging goal that is never quelled, believable antagonists. That’s the tough part.

    Bottom line: Low expectations for commercial success, high expectations for personal achievement.


  2. Hi AMole,

    Are you familiar with Dr J. Suglia, the World’s Greatest Writer? He is on WP. Anyway, he writes like a PhD (which he is) who is a few hours away from coming down from some really strong blotter acid. I pointed out to him that few people are actually reading these days but are merely “liking” blog posts while eating and drinking over computer keyboards. He “liked” the comment. My like tab won’t work anymore, so I am roaming the internet leaving long comments on how people look and where they are traveling and doors and other stuff like cats. Incidentally, nice analysis on books. I sold about 220 first time around, so by your metrics a Nobel prize is in the offing. Thanks. Duke

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I found myself in Walgreens this morning, awaiting the medication that keeps three of my personalities at bay, and made the mistake of opening a couple of top selling author’s books. Well, after two paragraphs one of me ripped a Crichton in half, threw it in the air and screamed “JUNK” at the top of my lungs. McComber was next. After a few lines one of me fell on the floor, threw a fit to shame a 3-Year-old. There was another one in the top ten. I surreptitiously took over behind the As Seen On TV display and peed on it. The last me smiled and paid for my meds. Call me crazy, but we write to tell stories stylistically and content-wise that aren’t formulaic pablum even if all we do is stave off Alzheimer’s and get better at a craft we may never perfect

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s an honor in perfecting and delivering exquisite prose. I accept that, and, would hope to rise to the effort. You provide an excellent, elevated scratch on the wall to attempt to strike.


  4. Very impressive! I think, in the end, it goes back to the question: why do we write? Is it to express our own thoughts and creativity and to add impressive, thought-filled individuals to our circle of friends? If so, I have already been a success.

    Is it to have influence with my words, over the motion of the world,the political machinations in Washington, the flow of lies and hypocrisy through the media; to somehow find a way to spread a grain of truth is this mad, chaotic world? If so, surely I have failed, on any but the smallest of scales, so far.

    Is it just to have fun? Success. Is it to make millions? Fail.

    So, the definition of success is important.

    I doubt I’m producing a best-seller, but I know I’m having fun and making friends along the way.

    Regardless, I love the breakdown. Nice work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you’ve no doubt found, the information about this industry is pocked with holes. Neilsen’s BookScan and PublishersWeekly all tabulate metrics, but one must pay to see the numbers. If you have an Amazon Author’s account you can see your own BookScan numbers. And of course all major publishers seems to want to protect their sales numbers.
      That said, deducing such information, although entertaining, can only be construed as just that — entertainment. “How many books are sold per title? — How long is a string?”
      Such calculations are fun.
      Information + insight = knowledge (Yeah right!)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I cannot refute your numbers, however, everything is a fool’s errand if you think it through to its end game. Even breathing. Regardless, I intend to keep on drawing breath and since that will probably prevent me from dying of asphyxiation for the foreseeable future, I might as well bide my time by doing a little writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As will I.
      I will admit, with this exercise I had ulterior motives (which I alluded to with George F.). That is, to add to the case for the creation of AddCents.
      (I’ve approached my team and have received preliminary encouragement. The tech-specs for such a thing are non-trivial, but we’ve built large Friend/Following/Like type systems and this is, above all things, an accounting engine bolted to a friending engine. We’ll see.)

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Merveilleux! Hahaha
          Your interest is noted and appreciated. The powers that be will have to deliberate. The spec that needs to be written will take some time. And the minutiae teased out. I’ll probably need to build an XLS to model the dynamics first.
          Estimates on participation, and the API for plugin would have to be prototyped. One interesting notion that the first reviewer mentioned was that the AddCents API should allow for a content gate “Click-a-nickel to read this article.”
          I’ll keep the updates coming. But expectations must remain at a sub-floor level for now.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. But you ARE published. Right here on WordPress. And the “traditional” publishers, the former “gate keepers” are becoming less and less influential. While self-publishing may be yet another scam, SOME self published books DO get picked up by traditional publishers and end up selling quite a lot of copies. And did you know the Top Ten Book List comes not from the amount of readers, but from the number of BOOKS ORDERED by the BOOK STORES. So that’s a promotional game the publishers work with the book stores. NO ONE MAY HAVE READ YOUR BOOK, but if publishers persuade book stores to order it, suddenly it’s on the top ten. Yeah, it’s a business. Keep blogging. Fuck ’em.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I should have qualified this post with : “First get a bucket of salt…”
      I agree, these are generalizations that one can easily tear apart. But that’s OK. For me it’s nice to know what I’m up against.
      And YES, more and more, venues like WordPress, et al. are being treated like successful writing platforms. Which gives even more credence to trying to get AddCents working.
      And IF one does traditional or self-publish and you exceed these paltry sales numbers — Success! Right?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Useful article. Thanks Doc.
        I see the Content Economy becoming one of part want, and part guilt.
        I want to read and view quality, evocative content. And…
        I, at times, feel guilty at not having to pay for it (most all of it aside from Netflix).
        Why have creator supporting sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter been such hits? No doubt myriad reasons but one, I believe, is gratuity. Giving to someone who has obviously tried to entertain you, to produce exquisite content — for you — puts you in their emotional debt.
        The trick is finding the fulcrum at which point people gladly contribute to that creator’s livelihood – to alleviate that debt and with the promise of future content to come.
        That and the fact that I believe everyone should have the opportunity to participate in an economy which rewards thoughtful, professional production.
        Those two things — gracious acknowledgement though giving and active participation in the very framework into which you give — I think, just might be the next big publishing hit.


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