by Sandra Parshall
Last year was truly the year of the e-book explosion. Sales may be leveling off a bit lately, but 2012 still produced what Publishers Weekly calls “jaw-dropping numbers in digital sales.”
In the magazine’s roundup of last year’s fiction and nonfiction bestsellers, they list more than 1,000 digital titles with sales of 25,000-plus units – and those are only the sales reported to PW by publishers. They’re mostly e-book versions of current print bestsellers, or reissues of backlist books. A few are titles – like the Fifty Shades novels by E.L. James – that began as self-published hits, were bought for print, and were re-issued in e-book form. At the top of the digital bestseller list are Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed, racking up a total of more than 15 million sales. No other title came close to that number. The bundled trilogy sold more than 850,000 units. In the middle is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, with one million-plus e-book sales, the only title to sell more units in digital form than in print.
Erotic romance author Sylvia Day, current president of Romance Writers of America, had two books in the upper tier of e-book bestsellers. Bared to You was neck-and-neck with the bundled Fifty Shades trilogy in the 850,000-plus sales bracket, and Reflected in You was up there with John Grisham’s The Racketeer and The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks at the 500,000-plus level.
The list of e-books that sold over 50,000 copies each is five and a half pages long, in small type, in the print edition of PW. Many older books such as Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, are still selling in phenomenal numbers in e-book form. Backlist titles from established writers dominate the e-book bestseller list: 40 novels by Nora Roberts, 29 by James Patterson, 19 by Janet Evanovich, all of Michael Connelly’s novels, all of Lee Child’s, all of Diana Gabaldon’s, 10 by Jodi Picoult, 12 by Charlaine Harris, and multiple books by numerous other well-knowns. Gillian Flynn's first two novels, boosted by the success of Gone Girl, are enjoying hefty sales as e-books. Only two debut novels made it into the top 1,000: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. The complete list of e-book titles that sold more than 25,000 units is available here on the PW website.
As noted, these are e-books from traditional publishers that report their sales to PW. Self-published hits are out there, but firm numbers on sales are hard to find. Right now Wait for You by J. Lynn (pseudonym of traditionally published author Jennifer Armentrout) is number one on the Digital Book World bestseller list and number two on the New York Times combined print and e-book list. Several self-published books have appeared on bestseller lists in the past year. Usually the most successful authors receive contract offers from traditional publishers, and Armentrout has just sold Wait for You to HarperCollins in a “high six figures” deal.
Have e-book versions surpassed print versions in sales? In most cases, no. But as PW notes, the market pressure is intense and the gap is rapidly narrowing. Last year only 91 hardcover fiction titles and 74 hardcover nonfiction titles sold more than 100,000 copies – a record low. The top hardcover novels, with more than 900,000 sales each, were The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, The Racketeer by John Grisham, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
If hardcover sales are suffering from competition with e-books, mass market paperbacks are being slaughtered. PW calls 2012's “huge drop” in the number of mass market titles with sales above 500,000 “alarming” – only 26 sold that well, compared to 116 in 2006 and 48 in 2011. In 2005, 40 paperback titles sold over one million copies. In 2012, three did: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks, and Chasing Fire by Nora Roberts. A record low of 196 mass market titles made the PW bestseller list in 2012.
The decline in mass market paperback sales directly parallels the rise of e-book sales. However, that hasn’t translated into e-book success for all paperback original authors. Some that made the New York Times paperback bestseller list didn’t reach 25,000 in e-book sales. (Could this be due to publishers shooting themselves – and their authors – in the foot by pricing e-books the same as print?)
Trade paperbacks fared better last year, perhaps because they appeal to readers who want a “real book” but don’t like small paperbacks and balk at the inflated cost of hardcovers. PW reports that a record 121 trade paperbacks made their 2012 bestseller list, up from 84 in 2011, and 156 books sold more than 100,000 units, up from 119 the year before. E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy dominated that list, with 29 million-plus sales. Again, no other titles even came close to the Grey juggernaut.
|Readers who prefer print are becoming scarcer|
The convenience of having dozens, hundreds, even thousands of full-length books contained in a small portable device is often cited as the reason. If you take your e-reader with you everywhere, you will never be without a book.
Few people believe print books will disappear, but it’s clear that e-books are not a fad. They have a firm foothold in the market, and before long they’ll be outselling every print format. When readers have bought up the backlists of all the famous writers, maybe we’ll start to see more new and lesser-known authors on the e-book bestseller lists.