It’s fairly easy to see how well a movie does financially: Box Office Mojo is an open and available breakdown of Hollywood profits by movies that makes for fascinating reading. It’s not as easy for books. The closest approximation for Box Office Mojo in the literary world is Nielsen BookScan, a semi-accurate database available to authors, via Amazon, and libraries, media types, and publishers, via subscription. If a lay consumer wants to find out whether a particular novel has sold 10,000 copies or only 150, there is no reliable way to do so.
That may be for the best, though, as the results would be disheartening. The vast majority of books published today lose money. One article in Forbes speculates that “99% of titles printed will never sell enough copies to recover all the costs associated with creating and publishing them.” But when a “serious” work of fiction, against these odds, happens to achieve mass success, critics often seem eager to strip its author of his or (more often) her literary credentials.
Many novels that do sell well are mass-market genre reads—romance, mystery, and the like—that travelers pick up in airports or shoppers grab off of discount tables at Walmart. Many novels that don't sell well, meanwhile, are the kind argued over in highbrow publications. According to a 2009 post by Noah Lukeman, a literary agent, a debut novelist is lucky to sell 7,000 copies in hardcover, while an author of a story collection is lucky to sell half that many. One writer whose bestseller netted him “nothing” (technically, $12,000) put it this way: “Even when there’s money in writing, there’s not much money.”