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May 22, 2009

Fact for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The number of print-on-demand titles published in the US has exceeded the number of traditional books produced for the first time ever.


A cool development, at least for those of us rooting for a more open and pluralistic book-publishing environment. Worth keeping in mind, though, is another fact that I ran across recently: The average number of copies that a book published via the POD outfit Lulu sells is one.



UPDATE: Kelly Jane Torrance takes a smart look at these publishing developments.

posted by Michael at May 22, 2009


There's probably some skewing in those numbers. I use it myself, sometimes just to get one or two nicely printed and bound versions of a manuscript. People use it for business reports or classroom readers. itself says it is only a printing business-- one is not PUBLISHING, even SELF-publishing until other functions are performed, even if by oneself. They handle those "other functions" (editing, illustrating, publicity, etc.) by listing contractors who have been at least superficially vetted by

Anyway, it's hard to see how the AVERAGE could be "one." Did this figures come Amazon, perchance??

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 23, 2009 12:41 AM

I think the median sale is one copy, not the average.

Posted by: gcochran on May 23, 2009 2:59 AM

Are you sure you don't mean the median number?

Posted by: LemmusLemmus on May 23, 2009 3:34 AM

Are you sure you don't mean the mode?

Posted by: LemmusLemmus on May 23, 2009 3:36 AM

My one experience buying from Lulu was Franco et. al.'s Practical Female Psychology. Shipping was a quite high, but overall it was a good experience. Good binding, good paper, well printed.

P.S. I can't recommend the book itself enough.

Posted by: Thursday on May 23, 2009 3:54 AM

Do I mean "mean"? "Median"? "Mode"? No idea, and thanks for the correction but don't bother explaining any of it to me, I won't retain a thing. Math, feh.

General point is that most Lulu books sell few if any copies. Numerous reasons for that -- for one thing, as Mary points out, some people use Lulu to create books that they don't intend selling in the first place. (A memoir or paper that they want to hand out to family members of business associates, for instance.) For another, many authors don't realize that if they go the self-publishing route they're going to have to do the publicity themselves. They think that once the book is "published" the world should come to them. And when the world doesn't, they just give up.

For a third, of course, there's the simple fact that people are reading fewer books.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 23, 2009 8:06 AM

It can't be the mean. That would entail that every book from Lulu has sold exactly one copy (unless they're counting no sales). Has to be median, I think. (Or mode, but median just seems more likely).

Posted by: PatrickH on May 23, 2009 11:04 AM

Generally, the figures that I have seen through the IAG (Independent Authors Guild) is that the average number of copies sold for all POD books published under some sort of subsidy arrangement is 150-160 copies. By POD books I mean published and printed for authors who have paid for the USBN and seen to the cover design, editing, etc., either by doing it themselves or hiring the POD house or some skilled third party. Which can mean anything from one or two nicely bound copies for a client, to very respectable sales in four figures.

I have also been told that the average sales of traditionally published books is round and about 500 copies - including everything from very specialist publications for a very small market, all the way up to the nose-bleed heights of bestsellerdom.

Posted by: Sgt. Mom on May 23, 2009 1:33 PM

Sorry, the first comment shouldn't have gone through. Didn't mean to be annoying.

Posted by: LemmusLemmus on May 23, 2009 4:52 PM

According to a lecture given by a BookScan VP several years ago, most traditionaly published books sell about 2,000 copies per title.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 23, 2009 7:26 PM

The long tail is a fairy tail.


And with over 200,000 books traditonally published, I see no evidence that publishing isn't already open and pluralistic enough. The problem is that too many books are published for even a few of them to receive any attention, and those that do get attended too are often from already celebrated authors.

For all but a handfull of writers, self-publishing is an invitation to throwing good money away on an unrealistic fantasy.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 23, 2009 8:05 PM

The Washington Times' article presents a very rose-tinted vision of self-publishing that verges on boosterism.

Here's a much more realistic analysis:


Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 23, 2009 8:44 PM

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. "

Very few people ever make any money by self-publishing. So...

Posted by: gcochran on May 24, 2009 12:42 AM

Well, even most people who consider themselves full time freelancers don't even make minimum wage. I don't have the exact reference, but this came from a Columbia University Dept. of Sociology survey in the early '80s. I'm sure the conclusion would remain the same if the study were updated.

Clearly, people who don't give up writing after the first few rejectins are motivated by many other things besides money, especially when they're not receiving it.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 24, 2009 3:41 AM

I gave up my day job in the mid-eighties and have made a substantial living from writing fiction ever since. I have no debt, live in a large brick home that is paid for, continue to publish two or three books a year under my own name or pseudonyms, and continue to build reserves against the day when I can no longer write. I am finishing my 70th novel, a mystery. All these books were commercially published and most sold far more than the numbers suggested by commenting people here.

There is a reason self- or vanity-published books don't sell and why commercial publishers usually reject those manuscripts, and that reason is not that they are "too good" for commerce.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on May 25, 2009 9:40 AM

A handful of thoughts for those who seem down on POD self-publishing ...

* It's happening no matter what our opinion of it is. So why argue with what's basically a fact? "I approve" or "I disapprove" -- I mean, who cares?

* POD self-publishing represents an enrichment of the book-publishing cosmos in much the same way that blogs and such represent an enrichment of the media-publishing cosmos, no? There'll be much dreck ... On the other hand, whew but the general discussion is a lot more expansive and freewheeling today than it was 10 years ago.

* I think a lot of people who smile at the thought of more people taking advantage of book self-publishing aren't always thinking of the POD world producing books that'll compete with the snazziest from Random House or FSG. I think they're enjoying the fact that anyone who wants to can now create a book, without too horrendously much trouble and at minimal expense. What's not cool and nifty about that?

* A lot of self-published books these days aren't published with any commercial hopes in mind. Granddad assembles a memoir and hands out copies to family members. Nice! Uncle Justin, an amateur photographer, creates a photo collection for distribution to friends and relatives. (Blurb is a POD self-publishing outfit that makes creating pretty slick photo books very easy, by the way.) Also nice. In these cases, no one's deluded about whether they'll be the next Stephen King or not. Maybe Uncle Justin gets a little ambitious and persuades the local bookstore to feature a stack of his photobooks in the front window. They sell or they don't sell. In either case, what's the harm?

* As far as snazzy, pro-level work goes -- again, why not? Mark Sisson has a new eating-and-exercise book coming out. It's full of good writing and info. It's well-edited. It's sharply designed inside and out. And he's publishing it himself. Why not? If the book takes off, he'll make loads more than he would have had he gone about publishing it conventionally. If it doesn't ... Well, so what?

* My bet is that more and more authors are going to go this route. Why wouldn't they? They can control their product much more tightly, they can skip the trad publishing process, which is often slow-moving and annoying, and if they get lucky sales-wise the money's all theirs to keep.

* As a practical matter, many of today's young people really can't see the point of putting up with the grinding, slow-motion tedium that is old media. Given their access to digital tools, why wouldn't we expect them to do with books what they're already doing in music, visuals, and movies? Middleman bye-bye.

* On the fourth hand, who's reading books these days? Attention spans are shorter, blogging's far easier than POD self-publishing ... So why this hangup on books in the first place. If you really want to write in an easy way and cut out middlemen, doesn't it make more sense to, say, blog? But that's a pet theme of mine: Why do we fetishize pieces of writing just because they happen to be of book length? (My bet: kids aren't going to have anything like the same reverence for "the book" that older generations have had. Thank god, as far as I'm concerned. And I say that as a book lover.)

In any case, it's interesting to see that more and more people are taking advantage of POD self-publishing, no? And if not, why not?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 25, 2009 5:38 PM

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