The Publishers Weekly annual report on the previous year’s bestselling books usually has a sameness to it – same household name writers selling about the same number of copies – but this year there’s a difference. For the first time, e-books became a real force in the book business in 2011.
You’ve read and heard it before: print sales down, e-book sales up. In 2009, 156 hardcover fiction titles sold more than 100,000 copies each in the U.S. In 2011, the number was down to 111. Only one hardcover novel sold over a million copies: The Litigators by John Grisham. James Patterson had seven of the top sellers, Janet Evanovich had two, and Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, and Clive Cussler had three each.
Only two new authors had books among the top 30 fiction titles: George R.R. Martin, whose A Dance with Dragons sold 750,000 copies and is ranked fifth for the year despite being released in July, when the year was half over; and Paula McCain, whose The Paris Wife sold 301,883 copies and ranked twenty-seventh.
Martin also made a splash in mass market paperback last year, publishing four books with total sales of more than 5.5 million copies. He was the only newcomer to the million-copy ranks, as mass market sales continued their steep drop. PW reports that in 2001, eight paperbacks sold more than two million copies and 39 more sold over one million. In 2011, only six books went over a million copies. Among higher-priced trade paperbacks, 106 titles – a record low -- sold more than 100,000 copies each.
That doesn’t mean people are buying fewer books or reading less, only that they’re buying and reading in a different way. E-book sales continued to break records. PW lists four and a half pages of titles that sold more than 25,000 downloads each – and that’s a partial accounting, using only figures solicited from select publishers. The biggest seller was The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which sold 1,950,000 downloads during the calendar year (and is still going strong). The number two e-book was the inspirational Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo (958,837). Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife sold more e-copies (332,169) than hardcovers.
E-books already account for a big slice of the sales at most publishers, and the percentage has grown so rapidly in the past 18 months that some in the industry predict e-books will soon make up more than 50% of sales from established, royalty-paying publishers.
With all these figures in my head, I had to laugh when I was doing some research and came across a comment by a reader on a blog way back in 2007. He asked, “Have you seen that Sony e-reader thing?” and said he hoped he wouldn’t live to see the day when people preferred e-books to printed books. His comment was posted a couple of months before Amazon introduced the Kindle. I hope he has reconsidered what he can and cannot learn to live with.