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:
- A Note on Historical Romance Sales in Print on Courtney Milan’s blog.
- USA Today released its list of the top 100 bestselling books of 2013, and Publisher’s Weekly noted that not a single self-published title made the cut.
- The discussion thread on this post on The Passive Voice blog (a blog which, by the way, annoys me because instead of linking to the original content it’s responding to, it posts huge swaths of their contents without permission or warning, but I digress). What makes this discussion thread interesting, however, is that Steven Zacharius, CEO of Kensington Publishing, has come in swinging.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.