Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What bestsellers tell us about the book world


by Sandra Parshall

If you’re at all interested in the wild ride that is modern publishing, the bestseller lists make up a fascinating map of the book world. It’s all there in the listed titles: the e-book revolution, the self-publishing revolution, the scramble to keep traditional publishing afloat by any and all means, including embracing e-books and self-published successes.

If you look at the ten bestselling print books of 2012, you might think traditional publishing is doing okay. But the first three slots were occupied by the three Fifty Shades books by E.L. James, and coming in at #9 was the boxed set of the trilogy – books that started life as self-published projects. Together, the four print versions sold around 15 million copies in 2012. Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed also dominated the e-book bestseller list last year, and they’re still selling at a steady clip, rubbing elbows with the likes of John Grisham’s The Racketeer, Gillian Flynn’s phenomenal Gone Girl, and Nicholas Sparks’s Safe Haven.

We’ve become accustomed to announcements about major publishers acquiring print rights to e-book bestsellers in the hope that they can cash in on an enterprising author’s self-generated success. E.L. James is the prime example of how joining forces with a print publisher can – if everybody concerned is lucky and readers are willing – add another fat layer of sales and wealth that might not have been possible in the self-publishing world.

Some self-published writers, though, are holding on to their independence and reaping big rewards. The #3 title on the January 13 New York Times combined print and e-book bestseller list is a self-published young adult romance called The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden by Jessica Sorensen. It’s #2 on the e-book fiction list, sitting between Safe Haven at #1 and Gone Girl at #3. At the beginning of this week, Sorensen’s book (one of several she released in 2012) was #7 on the Kindle paid list and #5 on Amazon’s print literature and fiction bestseller list, in an Amazon Digital edition.

The #5 title on the Times combined print and e-book bestseller list for January 13 is a self-published book called Hopeless by Colleen Hoover. It’s #4 on the e-book bestseller list. Hoover released her debut novel, Slammed, in January 2012 and the follow-up, , in February. Both books were, and still are, bestsellers and have been optioned for film. Hoover’s books, printed in trade paperback using Createspace, occupy the top three slots on Amazon’s paperback bestseller list, with prices ranging from $8.88 for the first two books to $12.98 for Hopeless – the same prices people pay for trade paperbacks from major traditional publishers.

Yes, traditionally published novels still take most of the bestseller slots, for e-books as well as print. But when four of the top ten sellers for the past year were originally self-published, and the big imprints are offering multi-million-dollar contracts to independent authors, you know the ground under the publishing business has shifted and the industry will never be the same again. E.L. James, Colleen Hoover, and Jessica Sorensen are in the second wave of change, after Amanda Hocking and a couple of others led the way.

One thing hasn’t changed: Nobody knows exactly why one book succeeds wildly while others fail or register middling sales. It’s tempting for authors to think that if they self-publish they might parlay an e-book hit into huge multi-platform success. But good sales, let alone bestsellerdom, are no easier to achieve than they ever were, and self-published writers are starting with several strikes against them (lack of a bookstore presence being one). The writer still needs the elusive magic, the indefinable something that will ignite the interest of a vast readership.

I’m still looking for that magic myself. I can hope, can’t I? Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the constantly shifting landscape of publishing, as traditional imprints court writers they previously rejected, as friends who have been dropped by their publishers move on to independent mode, and still others shun the traditional path altogether and jump straight into self-publishing. I wish all of us well as we explore the options for getting our stories into the hands of readers.
****************************
The bestselling books (print and electronic) of 2012:

1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
2. Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
3. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James
4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
5. Bared to You by Sylvia Day
6. Reflected in You by Sylvia Day
7. The Racketeer by John Grisham
8. The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks
9. Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James
10. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

10 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

I have conflicting feelings when I read best-seller lists like those in the NYT. On the one hand, I applaud those writers who self-published--who put together a strong book, edited and formatted it, and uploaded it. And succeeded.

On the other hand, there's the flip side of the coin. Publishers, for reasons known only to them, decide they're going to push Book X and make it a hit. That means wide distribution to important reviewers, print ads, even book tours for the author--and getting that book in as many bookstores as possible, with prominent placement. The author has no control over this part of things.

Makes you wonder what those bestseller lists would look like if publisher promotion was removed from the equation.

Barbara Fister said...

Sandy, I too was fascinate by the NYT list. The other surprise for me was that romance (and sex) were dominating the list. Since the 1990s, thrillers have been dominant. Whether this is a genuine shift, or whether books that were under the radar of the Times in the past are now being counted (thanks to combining e- and print, which changes the kinds of reading experiences folded into their charting of tastes) is something I don't know.

According to Patrick Anderson's The Rise of the the Thriller, books about steamy relationships and the lives of wealthy people were displaced by the the thriller. Maybe we're returning to those roots, or maybe industry disruption is revealing reading that was popular all along.

Not sure what it portends for the genre.

Also wondering how much publishers will be looking at self-published ebooks as a kind of farm team from which they will scoop up big sellers. Not long ago it would have been a way to get banned from serious consideration. Is it soon going to be the route most writers are expected to follow? Build a fan base yourselves, and then we'll see if we want to take you on and distribute your work through our channels?

Interesting times.

Sandra Parshall said...

Publishers are fully aware that physical bookstores have a diminishing role in book sales. This discussion by senior publishing executives took place at the Digital Book World Conference and Expo:

http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/publishing-senior-executives-come-to-grips-with-post-bookstore-world/

Sandy Cody said...

It's an exciting (and frightening) time to be a writer. We can't afford to ignore the changes that occurring, many of which we cannot control. We can, however, be aware of them and try to make intelligent choices. The bottom line is still the same though: write a good book.

Robin Burcell said...

It's so hard to understand what is going to take off and what isn't. The Fifty Shades books started off as not only e-books, but as fan fiction take off of the Twilight series. I haven't read the series. But I have friends who did, and I think many of them picked it up in ebook format, because the purchase is invisible to many. My understanding is that it is on the erotic side, and some of my friends wouldn't be caught reading erotica. And unless someone grabs their iPhone to see what books they've downloaded, they're not going to find out. So that's my theory on the Fifty books, and what made it spread like wild fire. Then, when it did make print, well, everyone was reading it, so therefore...

In other words, the ebook has made it so that someone can discreetly be reading without advertising a clinch cover to the world. (Right up there with the popularity of buying cloth covers for those steamy romances.)

That is only one theory about one book, however. I have friends writing romance who are doing phenomenally well. Romance seems to be outselling mystery/thriller. At least with those I know. YA is another great market, because the kids are embracing the technology, and hey, you just press a button, and look! New book! (Me, having to talk to my daughter about asking before pressing said button.)

I would love to see a breakdown of sales success by genre. Not just bestsellers, but the moneymakers. Those who are making a living, not necessarily via back list sales, but in the new market. Does romance outsell mystery? Does YA outsell everything? Or what?

Robin Burcell said...

In other words, Sandy. Great post.

Jane Finnis said...

Very interesting post, Sandy. It's excellent that kids are getting involved with reading through the new hardware, ebook readers, phones and tablets...people keep predicting the death of the paper book, which I don't believe in myself, but at least if each new generation gets hooked on reading fiction, the idea of The Book will continue. Maybe fifty years hence all new books will be electronic, and then somebody will announce, "Hey, everyone, I've invented a wonderful new way of reading...did you know you can manufacture books out of paper?"

Sandra Parshall said...

This is a partial answer to Robin's question about which genre is selling best. From the Jan. 11 Publishers Weekly -- referring ONLY to printed books (PW doesn't track unit sales of e-books):

>> Parsing through the top 10 bestsellers of 2012 in a number of major publishing categories reads like a usual suspects list, as a small number of authors filled a large number of spots. The result: 2012’s bestseller lists showed relatively little variety, and the phenomenon wasn’t just limited to any one category.

The category that saw one of the few increases in unit sales in 2012 was also one of the most monopolized—the top 10 romance bestsellers had only four different authors (E.L. James, Sylvia Day, Nora Roberts, and Nicholas Sparks) from only three different publishers (Vintage, Berkley, and Grand Central). Overall, the romance category saw a hefty 35% increase in print units sold in 2012, compared to 2011, at outlets tracked by Nielsen BookScan. And while that number would be impressive in its own right, it’s even more astounding given the fact that only one other adult category, religion, saw any increase at all in 2012—and religion only increased 1% for the year.
All other adult categories experienced declines in units sold in 2012 from 2011.<<

Read the whole story:
http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/55458-big-names-dominated-bestsellers-in-2012.html

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
From ye olde lurker here, let me say this was an interesting post and discussion. Let me add my few cents worth:
It's clear that most of the things we do as authors aren't sufficient conditions for a bestseller...they're necessary to play the game, but there is no sufficient condition. It's all a lottery. In that respect, I would change Sandy Cody's last line to "write many good books." That way the author holds many lottery tickets, increasing her chances to win big. Moreover, even if she hangs around as a midlist author, the royalties trickle in from more than one book. Just sayin'....
All the best,
Steve

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