Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

The Whim Factor

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about print books, book sales, and bestseller lists. My thoughts have been spurred by several blog posts/discussions, primarily these:

One of the claims Mr. Zacharius has been making in his comments both on Passive Voice and on Joe Konrath’s blog is that 70% of the book market is still in print. I’d guess that this isn’t true in all segments of the market (for example, in genre romance, the split is clearly closer to 50/50 or maybe even 40/60 print to digital), but for the sake of this post, I’m going to agree with that figure because I think it’s really important to explaining why no self-published books (that weren’t picked up by major publishing houses for print distribution) made that list. And also why fewer and fewer authors should probably CARE about getting print distribution.

So, here’s the thing about hitting a list like USA Today’s Top 100 for an entire calendar year–basically, to get onto this list, your book has to be bought not just by people who buy several books a month, but by a sizable percentage of people who only buy a couple of books a year. These are people who buy books on a whim. They aren’t out looking to buy a book. They’re shopping in Target or Walmart or their grocery store and they happen to see, on an end cap somewhere, a book that they remember having heard something about. Either they’ve heard of the author/series before (for example, James Patterson’s Alex Cross books) or they have seen/heard about movies based on the book/series (Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books) or there has been a lot of media hype surrounding them (“OMG, Robert Galbraith is really JK Rowling” or “*titter* 50 Shades of Gray, lots of sex, mommy porn *titter*”). These are the kinds of books that get the huge sales numbers in the adult trade print market.

Another subset of the big print bestselling market is Young Adult and Middle Grade–Divergent (YA) and the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid (MG) installment were 2 and 3 on the list respectively. This is no surprise as YA/MG readers skew even more toward print than adult readers, thanks in large part to the fact that buying digital books generally requires a credit card, and unless your parents trust you enough to link their credit card to your Kindle account–as I do my daughter–you’re not going to buying a lot of digital books if you’re <18yo. Those of us who are book junkies are puzzled by the sort of purchasing behavior I've described above. Whim buying of this variety hard to fathom. For us, books are like potato chips; how can anyone buy just one or even two or five in a year? We whim-buy, but we whim-buy in large quantities and entirely on purpose. And we (the book junkies) are the audience most likely to be buying our books not in print, but in digital because 1) yo, instant gratification and 2) dude, we have no shelf space left in our homes because before digital took off, we had to buy everything in print. But if you look at that top 6 of that USA Today Bestselling list, you can absolutely see the whim factor in action, as well as the YA/MG skew toward print. Here they are:

  1. Inferno by Dan Brown has multiple whim factors going for it. It’s related to The Da Vinci Code, which you’ve only never heard of if you live in a cave…under a rock…wearing a blindfold and earplugs. It’s also a series with a movie deal.
  2. Divergent by Victoria Roth is the first book in a dystopian YA trilogy that scored a movie deal this year. That means it’s not only hitting the more print-oriented YA readers but a lot of whim factor adult buyers as well.
  3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck by Jeff Kenney is the latest installment in the long and successful middle grade series. Because in addition to units sold, USA Today is also measuring velocity, this book probably gets as high on the list as it does because parents with kids who are into the series literally POUNCE on the books they day they’re released. I have a kid who loves this series, and I can tell you I was a pouncer. If my 11yo hadn’t had this book the day it came out, there would have been hell to pay! Also, bonus points, this series has a movie deal.
  4. Save Haven by Nicholas Sparks wasn’t published in 2013, but the movie version of it came out in February. That film bounced its sales.
  5. Sycamore Row by John Grisham is a) by John Grisham, very much a known quantity in publishing, and b) a sequel to A Time to Kill which was made into a very successful movie. Not sure if the films rights to this were also announced as sold this year, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
  6. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is one of the few books on this list that I’d say would have been tough to predict before its publication. I haven’t read it, but it was highly acclaimed and had great sales even before the movie rights sold in 2013. But those great sales definitely fueled whim sales. People who don’t read much nonetheless heard about this book and were curious about it. And when they happened to see it on a store shelf, they bought it.

I could go further down the list and continue to identify the whim factors associated with the majority of them, but I don’t think that’s necessary to make my point. The point is that the 70% of book sales that are still in the print market are not evenly distributed among the books that are released in print. Only a HANDFUL of books published every year have the kind of “legs” that get them ordered in large enough quantities by enough retailers to result in the necessary shelf placement to wind up on one of these lists. If your goal as an author is to hit this list, then first and foremost, you’d better sell the film rights to your series to a major production studio. That, more than anything else, is a predictor of success, and the reason it’s a predictor is that when the movie rights sell, retailers think, “Oh, this book is in the news and will be popular; we should order a lot of copies!” So they order a lot of copies and put them right out under their customers’ noses and those customers buy them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But most print books have the opposite self-fulfilling prophecy, the one Courtney described in her post. Most print books are not ordered in large quantities by retailers. Many print books published each year are never ordered by the big retailers–the Walmarts, the Targets, the Costcos, etc.–at all, but those outlets are the holy grail for achieving “whim” sales. If your book is only ordered by bookstores, you’re in trouble, because you’re ALREADY only reaching the segment of the market that is actually out shopping for books. And guess what? THAT segment of the market is increasingly moving to digital for the reasons I described above, which means reaching those readers no longer depends as much on being in a physical bookstore. Are you missing some voracious readers by not being available on B&N’s shelves? Sure. But you’re missing fewer and fewer of them as time goes on.

So, the reason no self-published books made that list is actually the same reason most traditionally published books with print distribution didn’t–they aren’t available in the places that generate whim purchases by people who aren’t shopping for books. And for most authors, that should come as a big “so what”? Because the honest truth is that most of us earn our living from the voracious readers who increasingly buy in the digital space, and we should be maximizing our sales and earning’s potential where our customers are, not where they might–if we are very lucky and hit the lottery–be.


  • Shoshanna Evers (@ShoshannaEvers) January 20, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    You make a really good point, Jackie! Thanks for posting this. I shared it from my @SelfPubBkCovers Twitter account.

  • Steven Zacharius January 21, 2014 at 2:04 am

    My comment about print being 70% of the market is not my statistic. It’s a statistic that has been touted by the AAP, BISG and other legitimate organizations. It’s also been mentioned in financials on the PW Daily when most of the pubic publishing publish their quarterly reports. This seems to be where the market has leveled off for the moment.

    Steve Zacharius
    Delusional CEO

    • Jackie Barbosa January 21, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your reply.

      I wasn’t disagreeing with that statistic or suggesting you were the source and made it up. What I said was that, while it may stand for the entire publishing industry, there are genres in which the split is NOT 70/30 (romance is one of them; almost every author I know in mmpb romance these days reports that half or more of their sales are digital).

      Also, it’s important to note that, over time, digital sales of most titles are likely to overtake print sales unless the book is a big enough bestseller to remain shelved more than 4-6 months after release. The vast majority of print books are sold within a few months of release. Digital, however, is forever, and a book can continue to sell steadily for years after its print version is no longer in stores.

  • Steven Zacharius January 26, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    The reason more printed books didn’t make the list is simple….the list was limited in size otherwise the list would have continued to be made up almost entirely of printed books. As you know we publish a tremendous amount of romance books. Although romance books do indeed have a higher percentage of digital reads than the typical book it’s still not close to 50/50 on most titles.

  • Jackie Barbosa January 27, 2014 at 11:41 pm


    For my book, that would certainly seem to be the case (more print than digital sales), but since its price is tied to its original trade format, thereby making it $9 or so in digital, that’s not exactly a surprise. And if you’re releasing a lot of romance in trade now and tying the digital prices to the print format, it doesn’t surprise me that your romance books aren’t selling 50/50.

    I recently published a contemporary romance (55,000 words) with Entangled. It is available only in digital. It sold almost as many copies in its first WEEK as my Kensington book has sold in four years. It was priced at $2.99. I earned more in a month and a half on that book than I have earned in four years with Kensington. Entangled is amazingly engaged with readers, markets smartly and assertively in the digital space, and worked with me on a promotional plan. I even had a publicist.

    Needless to say, I don’t find the difference in results surprising.

  • Jackie Barbosa January 28, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Steve wrote:
    “The reason more printed books didn’t make the list is simple….the list was limited in size otherwise the list would have continued to be made up almost entirely of printed books.”

    I had to come back to this because I’m still trying to figure out what you mean. Are you talking about the USA Today Top 100 list for 2013? If so, a list of the top 100 books for a year can’t include more than 100 books.

    Are you trying to say that, had the list been carried out to 200 or 300 or 500 places, there would still have been no self-published books on it? Because I find that very difficult to believe given the number of self-published books that make the weekly combined NYT and USA Today bestseller lists.


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