It’s Reeling in the Years time. First stop, those big-haired, blockbusting 1980s.
You may not know this yet, but book sales were remarkably different in the ’80s. (I know, because I’ve charted the last 3 decades already into earth-shatteringly revealing, multicoloured pies, and I don’t mind telling you, I haven’t been this excited by data since checking my Santa list against official stocking inventory on one particularly lucrative Christmas morning back in the aforementioned 1980s.)
In a previous post I mentioned how self-publishing and e-publishing is changing not only how we buy books, but also who or what we’re reading. It seems that with authors publishing themselves and the whole process being made cheaper and easier with the arrival of e-books, readers have more choice than ever.
But we might ask, is that a good thing? What about quality control? How can we know what’s good to read and what isn’t, if any old person can just go off and publish themselves nowadays?
The most persuasive argument you’ll hear in favour of self-publishing in the next 10 minutes
Have a look at this pie chart. It shows every single author who hit the No. 1 New York Times Bestseller spot in the 1980s. Every single one of them.
I don’t know about you, but I thought there’d be a lot more more than 34 authors in the list. Granted, some of them might have been publishing 2 books a year. And one of them was half of a Stephen King (writing with Peter Straub, hence the .5 to avoid double counting). But whether it’s 33 or 34, the fact that only this many writers managed to hit the high note in a whole decade would suggest that whatever we have now, it has to be better than that situation. Let’s look at a few more telling statistics:
The bulk of the authors involved here held the top spot for considerable lengths of time once they got there. All but 5 authors held the #1 spot for 3 weeks or more. So from a marketing perspective, once your book began to sell in large numbers, sales were exponential. Or alternatively: to be a blockbusting success, you already had to be a success.
If I was an emerging writer in the 1980s, I’d take one look at this list and go running for a job in Microsoft instead. It seems like an impossible mountain to climb, and indeed it must have been, because only 34 authors managed it. It’s not to say that a lot of other people didn’t sell their books too – they did of course, they just didn’t get the No. 1 New York Times Bestseller spot. The overall picture coming from this data would still suggest however that not that many of them made their fortune in the writing game.
Next time we’ll have a look at the 1990s. And there’s change a’comin. Not that fast, mind you, but change nonetheless.
After seeing this chart, which scenario would you rather? One where just a few writers get over half of the book-buying pie, or one where you have thousands of first-time authors producing stuff you can make your own mind up about, with the help of a vast stable of online reviews?