At the time of this writing, Penguin Random House, one of the largest publishers in the world, seeks to purchase Simon & Schuster (which, after PRH and Harper Collins, is the third largest publisher in the United States). The US Department of Justice hopes to block the merger in fear it violates U.S. anti-trust legislation.

During the trial, DOJ attorney Mel Schwartz put a particular question to the defense economics expert, Ed Snyder. The question included this figure: Fifty percent of all published books sell less than twelve copies each.

As a writer—notably as someone published by Penguin Random House—I found the statistic understandably disturbing. Is there any truth to it?

After some digging, I came upon an insightful interview conducted by BBC Radio 4’s public numbers programme, More or Less, in which Kristen McLean, Executive Director of Business Development from the NPD Books Group, did some digging of her own. (NPD, by the way, bills itself as “the gold standard in point-of-sale tracking for the publishing market.”)

In the interview, McLean jokingly describes the twelve-copies-each number as a “Pandora number“, because it entered the public record via the court case, it set the publishing world “ablaze.”

Maclean’s unique access to publishing sales stats made her the perfect person to confirm or refute Schwartz’s claim. To do so, she looked at sales numbers for front-list books (i.e. new publications) produced by the top ten publishers in the United States over the past year, of which their were 45,000 individual titles published. What did she discover?


  • 0.4% sold more than 100,000 copies
  • 13.6% sold more than 5000 (the average sales figure at which a book breaks even, selling through its advance)
  • 86% sold less than 5000
  • 15% sold less than 12 copies

So the true figure is far lower than Schwartz’s claim of 50%, but it is still an unfortunate 15% of published books that sell next to no copies at all.

What does this mean to seasoned and burgeoning writers? It perhaps confirms what George Orwell once wrote in his famous 1946 essay, “Why I Write”.

Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.1

It would appear fifteen percent of us are, at least—but certainly not fifty.


1 George Orwell, “Why I Write”, Gangrel, No. 4, Summer 1946.