What's it like to sell 50,000 books? Secrets of publishing explained.

Now that my book has been on sale a little while, people have started asking questions about sales. For example, folks ask, “What’s it like to sell fifty thousand books?” Some think bigger, with, “What’s it like to sell five hundred thousand books?” I’ve never done either, but I’ve studied the process and I’d like to share some insights that I’ve gained.

I'll tell you secret about book sales and me . . . The most books I've ever sold personally at one time is EIGHT, to a lady today. We've got them on the counter at Robison Service, but for eight copies I had to go out back and break open a fresh case. Luckily the hound dogs hadn't chewed her case like they did the one last week.

Let's talk timing . . . once a reader picks up a book and heads to the register to buy it, the typical transaction takes about a minute and a half. That’s the time a customer spends standing in line, handing over the book, handing over the money or credit card, taking the receipt and finally taking the book and heading for the door.

So what does that mean?

For fifty thousand books to get sold, you (the bookseller) would stand behind the register seventy five thousand minutes. If you started selling books – one transaction at a time – on January 1, you’d hit 50,000 sometime in late August. Provided you never got sick, and never left the cash register, 8 hours a day.

It’s a boring job, but someone’s got to do it. At least, they have to do it if they want to claim they sold fifty thousand books to the public. Sounds harder than you thought, eh?

I hope that illustration makes clear that anyone who boasts of selling fifty thousand books is probably lying or at best, exaggerating, no matter what bookstore they come from. I never made that claim myself, and I never worked in a bookstore. But I watch, listen, and make notes.

There is an easy way to sell fifty thousand books . . . get a job as a national account sales rep with Random House. They sell books by the millions to the big boys . . .Wal Mart, Target, B&N, Costco. Some of those reps sell fifty thousand books in a morning, during the Christmas season.

But to a guy who peddles books one at a time, in the rough and tumble streets, that's cheating.

How about the handling of fifty thousand books? Have you ever pondered what such a book stack looks like?

Look Me in the Eye is a fairly typical hardcover book, seven by ten inches, and an inch and a half thick. No big deal – you stuff it in your bag, or backpack, or you just carry it. But that’s ONE BOOK. What happens when there’s more?

Random House packs books like mine twelve to a case. A case is ten by fourteen by eight inches, and about ten pounds. Three such cases are about the size and weight of one of the giant sacks of dog food in my garage. It’s a handful, but most people can carry three cases of books. You could do it, but if you’re like most people, you’d move my books two cases at a time.

That’s only 24 copies, though. What about the rest?

When the publisher ships books like mine to a distributor, they load them on a forklift pallet. Depending on how high they load the pallet, the can fit 480 to 720 books per pallet. You can’t carry a pallet. It weights about a quarter-ton. You move pallets short distances with pallet jacks, and long distances with forklift trucks.

You move pallets really long distances inside trailer trucks. A forty five foot trailer can carry twenty pallets of books. Loaded to the max, that’s 14,400 copies to the truckload. If you’ve got a full size pickup, you could carry a single pallet load of Look Me in the Eye in back.

So there you have it. Fifty thousand copies of my book are three and a half trailer truck loads. But that’s bulk packed. However, that’s not how books go to customers. Retail booksellers like Amazon pack books in big boxes with cushions so they don’t get damaged in shipping. And then they ship them, one and two at a time. When Amazon repacks those 50,000 copies, they swell in volume to fill ten trailer trucks, or 100 UPS trucks. That’s the magic of packaging. All to get the books to you.

50,000 books is an abstraction to most of us. One hundred UPS trucks full of book boxes is real.

And 500,000 books? We could be talking railcar loads, except books aren’t shipped by rail. That’s some serious space.

I hope you’ll keep these figures in mind, the next time someone bandies about quotes like, “fifty thousand books!”


John, I was kinda hoping for a stat on how tall 50,000 books would be. Now I have to go measure your book and do some math. I'll be back. Unless one of your astute blog readers beats me to it (a girl can hope.)

How many books are in an average town library? Imagine if every book was YOURS? That scrunchy faced kid on every shelf. A sea of soft turquoise. Very soothing.

Tomorrow I'm back in the city to see another Big Guy: BRUUUUCE! Springsteen. Big in music. Short in person.

John Robison said…
Kim, 50,000 books would make a stack about a mile high. I say "about" because I don't know exactly how much the weight of books would compress the bottom most books in the stack, thereby reducing the stack height from what would be indicated by simple measurement and multiplication.

It would take a bit of figuring to get a precise answer but "a mile" will do for a rough approximation.
Only you, John, would factor in the squish. I'd never have considered it. A mile high of Look Me In the Eye. Pretty cool.

Tena Russ said…
All this math makes my head hurt. Excuse me while I go look for my abacus.
Unknown said…
And seeing that it's a mile high, even on it's side, will still need sufficient support to withstand the forces of the wind. If Steel buildings, sway in excess of 3 feet normally, paper would be a little more susceptible.

Then you'll have to add lights to it. As you don't want planes to accidentally knock over the books, because then you'd be stacking them all over again (and that's a lot of books).

Assuming that books are about 0.83 lbs as you suggest (12 books, around 10lbs). The bottom book has to with stand roughly 20 tons of weight. Now, with my book, I was able to compress it about 1/16 of an inch and I am about 165lbs or so. I have no idea how to calculate compression factor at this point, but I am thinking that the 20tons might be enough to totally destroy the book, thus causing you to have to get another book to replace it.

I'd be pretty confident that some calculus, you could estimate of the force on any particular book, such as the 21,765 book.

Lastly, even if the very first book, did survive the weight of its companions, I would venture that the compression would make the paper extremely brittle.

You've taken your book to a whole new level of fun!
Anonymous said…
What can i say John!!
To see my life in print was a mind blower. If i didn't know any better i would of thought that i was telling the story. Eccept i'm a french polisher and just love to get my antiques so smooth and shiney. Sad to say but when my family found out i had A.S i was asked not to contact my family anymore. But after all the physical and mental abuse i sufferd from them and a lot of help from this beautiful gift Aspergers Syndrme. I'm not hurt. As long as i have my mate(i call her booboo kitty fuck) i will be good as gold. Oh the name for my mate!!! she asked me to call her somthig cute and thats what i came up with. DAN
The Muse said…

I'll bet that when you were a kid that you liked to stack your Legos really, really high. You probably sat entranced for hours with those building blocks and erected complex skyscrapers to the ceiling. (Or maybe you used Lincoln Logs at that time?) I imagine that you loved the clean simplicity and logical structure of building blocks. In contrast, I was always trying to figure out how to create something that didn't have a right angle!

Fifty thousand books! That’s a lot of building blocks to stack and quite a foundation indeed. Just think of the complicated buildings that you could assemble with those units? Why with five hundred thousand books you could construct a small town with those building blocks. Or perhaps you could build a castle or a fortress? All engineered from a seed of an idea, a vision, a plan, and some wood pulp…
Trish Ryan said…
What a great perspective...as usual, your practical approach to all things book related makes me laugh, as I never, ever would have thought to consider how long it would take to hand-sell 50,000 books.
Nicely done :)
Trish, being "NT" (neurotypical) does have its disadvantages, doesn't it? I wish I could be more logical. Never gonna happen.... :)
piglet said…
i love how you broke this down, that's a lot of books. i had no idea the manpower involved in getting those books to their places.
Unknown said…
ah yes, the squish. that's the best comment on here. now i understand why i never did too good in math. never calculated in the squish.
Jamie Ford said…
Nice reality check.

A fellow writer went to the Time Warner warehouse last year and described it as "that warehouse you see at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark". The place was more than 1,000,000 square feet. (A big Vegas convention center is 250,000 sq/ft by comparison).

He was excited to see his palettes of books until he saw the ginormous warehouse dedicated to the Da Vinci Code.
Unknown said…
Hi, John,
I heard you speak at the Border's in Madison, Wisconsin book signing a few weeks ago. I am Nancy Alar, the president of the Autism Society of Wisconsin. I mentioned that my organization might be interested in using your talents as a speaker. We are currently looking for a keynote speaker for late April/early May 2009. Please contact me so we can discuss this possibility further if you are interested. I think it would be very exciting for the people in Wisconsin to be able to hear your message. My email is nancy.alar@hughes.net hope to hear from you soon.

calfit32 said…
Very cute -- I just finished my first book (My Diva Diet: a fat-loss system for women to get into great shape, using "fitness superheroes" and "diet villains" to explain its message)! I am just trying to figure how this whole process works -- but your blog made me laugh!

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