How to Set Realistic Sales Expectations for Your Self-Published Book

Updated on May 8, 2020
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert; author of books, eBooks, and audiobooks; and former trade newspaper editor.

Read on to learn about what to expect sales-wise when publishing a book.
Read on to learn about what to expect sales-wise when publishing a book. | Source

It's Only 10 Percent, Right?

Listened to a webinar on selling self-published books where the presenter suggested that selling 10 percent more books per month every month—in other words, setting a monthly sales goal of last month’s unit sales, plus 10 percent of last month’s sales—was achievable. This would be classified as a linear sales growth model.

So I looked at the numbers being flashed on the screen. Started out at 10 book sales in month 1. That could be a stretch for many self-published books, but I played along for the moment. The next month the sales would go to 11 books (10 + 1, which is 10% of 10). Okay, still not too out of reach, but challenging. However, by month 12, the total that needed to be sold per month was around 28 books. The grand total book units sold by the end of year 1 was projected to be about 214 books.

I’m not saying that’s impossible. But I am saying it’s improbable, especially when you consider that the model being proposed is not simply 10 percent. By the end of year 1 in this wildly optimistic scenario, the growth from month 1 to month 12 is actually a growth of 2,040%. Here’s the calculation if you don’t believe me:

Units Sold in First Month = 10

Total Unit Sales by End of Year = 214

Increase in Units Sold = Total Unit Sales by End of Year - Units Sold in First Month = 214 - 10 = 204

Amount of Sales Growth = Increase in Units Sold / Units Sold in First Month = 20.4 times first month’s sales OR 2,040%

Book sales growth of 2,040%? Red flag alert! Plus, selling 200 or more books might be a possibility for the entire life of many self-published books. Yes, the entire life, not just one year.

Aside from a gross misrepresentation of what “10 percent sales growth per month” really means, realize that a standard growth of even a simple 10 percent year over year (notice I said “year over year” not “month over month”) is a huge feat, even for large corporations with big marketing budgets and professional salespeople. Continuous upward linear growth is extremely rare in business. Like unicorn rare. Businesses are often thrilled to be able to maintain unit sales levels year to year, cover their overhead expenses and payroll, and avoid a loss.

This is not the first time I’ve seen a “you should be able to sell (such-and-such quantity)” type program. I read an eBook a number of years ago by a popular speaker suggesting that you could make $1 million a year selling your content such as books, training, and events. One million a year!

So What Is a Realistic Initial Sales Goal for Self Published Books?

Once someone buys your book, they probably won't buy from you again until you have another book to sell. So no repeat or multiple copy purchases are likely. Because of this, the 10 percent growth per month example discussed above would require that you find over 200 individual buyers for your book in that first year. Projections like these gloss over the key piece of the book sales puzzle which is finding buyers.

As I noted in Self Publishing Tips: How Many People Could Potentially Buy Your Book?, your initial self-published book sales will be a fraction of your total author platform or fan base, even as low as single-digit percentages of that total. I wouldn’t initially project anything more than 1 percent of your total number of fans, friends, and engaged (emphasis on "engaged") social media followers. Here’s why.

Back in the old direct mail (snail/postal mail) days, a 2 percent response to a campaign was commonly used as a rule of thumb response rate. Email marketing can often achieve click-through rates (percentage of people who click on buying links in your email) near that level. For Internet advertising, click-through rates could be even lower, even just fractions of 1 percent. Of course, none of these rules of thumb estimates are guaranteed. And actual sales conversions might be a fraction of that response rate.

Given these potential returns, I think you can see why I’d suggest setting a maximum initial sales goal of 1 percent of your current fan base pool. And that may even be challenging! Doing the math, if you go with a goal of 1 percent of your truly engaged fans actually buying the book, you’d have to have a strong, responsive base of at least 20,000 people to sell those 200 books the webinar said should be achievable. Many self-published authors don’t have that level of following.

The main point is that you need to constantly keep building your fan base so that you have a sufficient pool of warm prospects who know and love you and are ready, willing, and able to buy your books.

When Advertising Will Be Needed to Make Book Sales

After the initial wave of sales to friendlies, future sales will usually require advertising and promotion efforts. You’re going to be in constant marketing and advertising mode for as long as you plan to sell your book. There’s no point where growth in book sales will just automatically happen.

I think you’ll be stunned at how expensive it can be to generate these second-tier sales beyond your fan base. Run and analyze some experimental ad campaigns, particularly on Amazon using Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) so that you can figure out your specific click through and sales conversion rates. For example, I found that only a few books I advertised with AMS ads were generating clicks and sales. Some campaigns were just wasting my money. Once I saw this happening, I made adjustments to my campaigns to get them back on track.

Closely monitor your ad spending (weekly, monthly, and annually) so that you don’t try to win the ad bid game and spend more than what you’ll make in sales. It is entirely possible to achieve some sky-high fantasy book sales projection with aggressive ad spending while creating a financial loss.

One More Reason Why Linear Upward Sales Growth Isn’t Possible for Books (or Anything You Sell)

Also realize that there is always a point of diminishing returns in both sales and advertising effectiveness. It could be due to a variety of issues, some of which will have nothing to do with you or your book, and which you won’t be able to control. This happens in all businesses at some point, sometimes at many points in a business's history.

Constant experimentation, monitoring, and adjustment for ad campaigns, in addition to continuously building your fan base through social media and email marketing, will be required to meet your ongoing book sales goals and preserve your profits.

© 2019 Heidi Thorne


Submit a Comment
  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 

    15 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Heidi: Thank you. Authors need to know it is actually easier to write a book (which is an incredible undertaking) than to sell a book.Good Luck!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    15 months ago from Chicago Area

    Kathleen, those two points that you got from the writers' conference are so often ignored by self published authors. They think they're going to the "the one" that makes it.

    I'm glad to hear that you find realistic information like this reassuring in some way. It is for me, too. That's why in my articles, podcasts, etc., I tell it like it is so that authors don't get all down on themselves.

    And I've reduced the conferences I go to and the number of online courses I buy for the very same reason. One, I can get the info from a lot of sources. Two, I get so angry at the "you can make a million, too" nonsense. It's just not realistic.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experience with us! Have a terrific weekend!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    15 months ago from Chicago Area

    Flourish, self publishing is definitely the long game! And, yes, poetry books are likely to struggle more than even fiction. I do know a couple poets who are doing good. But then their work is highly accessible for the general reading public, as opposed to most mystical types.

    Thanks for adding that point to the conversation! Have a lovely weekend!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    15 months ago from Chicago Area

    Linda, thanks for chiming in! Have a beautiful weekend!

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    15 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

    Thanks for sharing some realistic numbers, Heidi. They're certainly thought provoking!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    15 months ago from USA

    I’m glad you point out that it’s a perpetual sales and marketing game. I’d add that for books of poetry, lower one’s sales expectations even further.

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 

    15 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Last year I finally spent $100 and went to a national writers conference in Atlanta. There were two main points I took away. 1. Most books of any kind sell an average of 250 copies. 2. Even a well known publisher will expect the author to do a good part of marketing their own book. You'd think this info would discourage me. It actually made me feel better about my sales and my marketing efforts. It gave me a realist expectation. Main take away? I won't spend another 100 bucks on a conference. There is an entire industry making a lot more money than I do off the unrealistic dreams of writers like me.

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    15 months ago from Chicago Area

    Peggy, I do think it will be an eye-opener for many! Agreed, there are some terrific self published works. Sadly, those that aren't as carefully prepared, can ruin the market for everyone.

    And, yes, self publishing is quite an investment in dollars, time and energy. The tools are getting easier and better all the time. But it's still quite an effort.

    Thanks so much for chiming in and have a terrific day!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    15 months ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Pamela! Indeed, realistic expectations don't just lead to success, they help avoid crushed dreams, too. Thanks for the kind words! Have a beautiful day!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    15 months ago from Chicago Area

    Bill, I think all of us have gone through that stage with our first books! And, yes, it does eliminate disappointment when you know what to expect. You have a great week, too!

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 

    15 months ago from Houston, Texas

    This may be an eye-opener for people thinking that they will strike it rich by self-publishing books. I have read some really good self-published books and others which could have used a bit more editing due to grammatical errors and the like. I do admire authors who put in the time and effort to create books of their own. It is not an easy process from what I understand.

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 

    15 months ago from Sunny Florida

    As you showed using statistics, realistic expectations is imperative for success. You explained this very well Heidi.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    15 months ago from Olympia, WA

    I had wildly unrealistic expectations for my first novel. Today I have no expectations for sales. lol It sure eliminates disappointment going the second route. :) Have a great week, Heidi!


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