So here’s a question: Exactly how many copies does an average book have to sell in order to generate $100,000 in revenue for the publisher?1

That aside, the question became controversial earlier this year when Brad Martin, the head of Penguin Random House Canada, was quoted as saying:

I’m not interested in a book that is going to generate less than $100,000 in revenue unless the editor or publisher has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author.

Upon hearing this, the Canadian lit scene flipped the fuck out. Because $100k is a lot, right? Surely most books don’t sell to the tune of that, right? Surely this is just another example of Big Publishing crapping on midlist authors, right?

… right?

So. The question remains: exactly how many copies do you need to sell to hit that magic $100k?

Turns out it’s between 7,000 to 10,000 copies.

Let’s be clear: that’s still quite a lot of copies. I certainly wouldn’t be complaining about selling 7k worth of books and there are many, many books that sell less than that amount. Still, I think it’s interesting to compare the number of copies you were probably originally thinking someone needed to sell to hit $100k, versus the number actually needed to sell.

More importantly, there’s something in here about the tension between the expectations of a company like Penguin Random House, the world’s largest publisher by an order of magnitude,2 and the expectations of smaller presses, particularly in genres that don’t do huge turnover (including on-person “presses” in the case of self-publishers). PRH is the AAA of the book industry, it’s the Hollywood. So yes, it has AAA/Hollywood-style expectations for turnover. Or rather, it should, and maybe too often doesn’t (the book industry is weird like that).

The thing about publishing, though, is that the fact that PRH is EA–and Macmillan is Actiblizzion, and HarperCollins is UbiSoft and whatnot–doesn’t mean there’s no room in the pool for the Fullbrights and the notchs of the world. I’ve said this for a while, but I think publishing is going to get more and more stratified in the next decade or so, in the way games dev is; the Big Five are going to have less titles and imprints, but bigger titles and imprints, while the slack in the middle of the industry is going to be picked up by more and more small presses and individuals who do most of their distribution online, rather than via conventional physical bookstores. In effect, it’s going to be a kind of reverse of the consolidation publishing saw in the 90s/00s; again, exactly what the games industry has gone through and is going through.

People–by which I mean “authors”–get really aggro about this, though. Because I guess if there’s one thing midlisters in particular hate being told, it’s that publishers licence our work as a saleable commodity, not for the love of literature.

  1. Note that says revenue, not profit, and if you don’t know the difference it’s really the first thing you should Google when you sign a publishing contract. []
  2. Full disclosure: also my publisher. []