By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey, Thomas Payne and Jack Steel)
By any standards, 2012 was a very strange year in the world of American publishing. Nielsen Bookscan, the industry analyst which monitors roughly three quarters of all sales of printed books, produced some quite fascinating statistics. Perhaps predictably in terms of overall sales, the three top spots in the charts for the year went to one single author – E L James – for the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which of course began its life as a self-published book. The following three spots went to another individual author, Suzanne Collins, who wrote The Hunger Games series. As a result of this domination of the charts, half of all the bestselling books in the top twenty for 2012 came from only these two authors.
Perhaps more of a surprise was the fact that two of the places in the top eleven books were held by the American political commentator Bill O'Reilly, a man virtually unknown outside America, and even more surprisingly the female author who took of the world by storm with the Harry Potter series only managed to get as high as number 18 with her latest novel The Casual Vacancy. In fairness, the reviews of this book could best be described as 'mixed', and it's clearly nothing like as popular as her earlier works, with only fairly limited appeal.
Although Nielsen is probably the most accurate of all the monitoring systems, its figures are far from comprehensive. The company doesn't track the sale of every printed book, and has no facility for tracking either ebooks or audiobooks. Interpreting the numbers is made more difficult by the fact that some books only appear as printed versions while others are only produced electronically. And although the two big retailers – Amazon and Barnes & Noble – both sell broadly the same titles, there are some books which are available from one company but not from the other, and vice versa. So it’s far from being a complete picture.
But one trend which the 2012 charts quite clearly show is that some authors do seem to attract brand loyalty. People who bought any one of the Fifty Shades of Grey have apparently then gone out and bought the other two novels in the series, and the same thing seems to have happened with the Suzanne Collins books. And it was a similar situation a few years ago with the three books in the Stieg Larsson trilogy.
The fact that Nielsen does not cover ebooks definitely means that the 2012 figures are inaccurate, not least because of an unrelated but parallel study by Bowker Market Research. Considering only the format of books sold, trade paperbacks led the field at 31%, followed – perhaps surprisingly – by hardcover books at 25%, just ahead of ebooks at 23%, while mass-market books languished at 12%. This means that almost a quarter of all books sold in America in 2012, the entire ebook market, is reflected nowhere in the Nielsen figures.
What's particularly interesting is taking a look at how the market has changed in the recent past. Three years ago, hardcover books and trade paperbacks each held a little over a third of the market, at 35%, while ebooks accounted for a mere 2% of all book sales. Trade paperbacks still seem to be holding their own, while hardbacks have dropped back slightly, but ebook sales have increased enormously, taking over much of the share previously held by mass-market paperbacks.
The pricing model in America has changed as well over the same period of time, the average ebook dropping from a little over $10 to less than $6, and some categories, most notably romance, costing under $4 each. In contrast, the cost of print books has increased very slightly.
So can we learn anything from this? Probably, yes. First, both of the bestselling authors of 2012 were exploring largely new markets. Instead of following a trend, they were both establishing one, much as J K Rowling did with her Harry Potter novels, writing books which presumably appealed to them personally and which very clearly struck a chord with the reading public. The difficulty that every writer faces, of course, is knowing what the next 'big thing' in publishing is going to be, because following a trend very rarely works, as the plethora of Fifty Shades of Grey clones demonstrates. Setting a trend is always the biggest challenge.
The second point is that if you do have a brand-new idea, a type a book which hasn't been done before, your chances of interesting any commercial publishers in it are probably fairly slim, simply because it will be unfamiliar territory to them. So your best bet is to ignore the conventional publishing route and take the ebook option immediately. That way, if the book takes off it can sell in enormous numbers very, very quickly, while if it doesn't your costs are extremely limited.
In today's market, and if you're lucky, publishing an ebook can make you a fortune for almost no initial outlay. It really is a business opportunity – because writing is a business just like any other – with an unlimited upside and virtually no downside. And if you don't believe me, just ask E L James.
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