Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 1, 2016

Calculating Book Sales


GABE AND GOON by Iza Trapani – Lindsay Hanson Metcalf
MY BIG TREE by Maria Ashworth – Kristi Veitenheimer
MAYA PRAYS FOR RAIN by Ana Ochoa – Sue Heavenrich
PIRATE’S PERFECT PET by Beth Ferry – Karen Belli
SHINING SEA by Mimi Cross – Leslie Zampettis

WINNERS PLEASE SEND email with your addresses.

electric lit

What is a book sale?

Wait, you say, everyone knows what a book sale is. Ah, yes, but, what this section presupposes is… maybe you don’t? Actually, one of the things that makes the conversation about book sales so confusing is that there are several different numbers thrown around, and often even people in the publishing industry completely confuse them. Here are four different numbers that are frequently conflated:

1) The number of copies of the book that are printed.

2) The number of copies that have been shipped to stores or other markets like libraries.

3) The number of copies that have been sold to readers.

4) The Nielsen BookScan number.

These numbers can all be wildly different. It’s not uncommon at all for a publisher to, say, print 5,000 copies, but only sell 3,000 copies to bookstores/other markets, of which, 2,000 copies are actually sold to customers. Meanwhile, BookScan shows 600 copies sold. And we haven’t even gotten into ebooks yet (more on that later).

A publishing employee calculating a royalty statement


What’s the actual number of books sold? Well… basically a combo of 2 and 3, plus ebook and audiobook sales. A publisher sells books to retailers like bookstores, but also to some institutions like libraries. However, retailers normally (though not always) have the right to return unsold copies. So some copies that are “sold” will eventually be unsold. (On author royalty statements, a certain amount of money is always withheld as “reserve against returns.”)

While this is basic, it’s surprisingly common for authors and publishers to either intentionally or unintentionally confuse these numbers: brag about their sales while citing the print run, for example. On the other hand, the media almost always references the BookScan number without any context about how wrong that number can be.

What Is BookScan and Why Should We Care?

In my hypothetical above, the Nielsen BookScan number, is the least accurate. It’s the furthest away from the “true” sales of the book. And yet, if you read any articles on book sales it is precisely the BookScan number you will see. This is because while publishers and authors (via royalty statements) have access to the real numbers, they are almost never released to the public or to rival publishers. Thankfully, there is Nielsen BookScan, an industry tracking tool that records point of sales based on ISBNs. (Yes, this is the same Nielsen of TV’s Nielsen ratings.) People in publishing can use BookScan to get a general sense of what books are selling, the health of the industry, or tear their hair out in frustration while looking up the sales of their rivals.

So Why Can BookScan Be So Inaccurate?

Nielsen BookScan counts cash register sales of books by tracking ISBNs. A clerk scans the barcode, and the sale is recorded. Pretty simple.

So why can it be inaccurate? To begin with, BookScan only tracks print book sales. Amazon and other major ebook vendors do not release ebook sales, so basically no one has any idea how those are selling (outside of publishers tracking their own sales). Ebook sales vary wildly from book to book (and genre to genre), but are typically less than 1/3rd of sales. For certain genres, especially science fiction and romance, ebooks can be as much as 50% or more.

Even for print books, BookScan can only do so much. BookScan gets data from most big bookstores (including Amazon and Barnes & Noble), but it doesn’t get all of them. It also doesn’t track library sales — which can be significant — or any sales that don’t go through a bookstore. BookScan itself claims to track 75% of print sales, and that may be true overall. For a popular literary fiction title, for which library sales or hand sales are a tiny percentage, BookScan is probably getting at least 75% or more of print sales. For other types of books, BookScan might record as little as 25% of print sales. Small press books, for example, can sell most of their copies at conferences, book festivals, and direct sales on the publisher’s website or at readings. BookScan misses all of that.

Lastly, BookScan was only introduced in 2001, so numbers for any books published before this millennium are completely inaccurate. (I’ve seen people bemoan the small sales of, say, Infinite Jest compared to some recent bestseller without realizing that.) All that said, BookScan does a good job showing general trends in the industry and seeing which books are doing better than others. But you should keep in mind that total book sales are perhaps twice that of every number listed.

Click to read Everything You Wanted to Know about Book Sales (But Were Afraid to Ask) – An In-Depth Look at What/How/Why Books Sell

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Love the Einstein photo. Informative post!


  2. Congrats to all the winners. And thanks Kathy for your explanation of book sales. It really hit home this month thanks to many of my “sold” books being returned and restocking fees outweighing royalties! What a crazy system!


  3. Terrific explanation of book sales tracking and figures. And such a clever photo and caption! Thank you, Kathy.


  4. I’m so excited to win! Thanks so much! Where should I send my address?

    Kristi Veitenheimer


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