Naughtie Book Sales (and no. It’s not what you’re thinking)

ah nice bookshop

Want naughty book sales? Have a look at 2012. This, however, is all about the Noughtie/Naughties: those transformational years in terms of self-publishing and e-publishing, from 2000-2009.

In previous posts about book sales in the 1980s and 1990s, we saw that very few authors actually made it to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List over the space of a whole decade. And once they got there, they tended to stay there for quite a long time. The vast majority of authors hung on to the top spot for considerably longer than 5 weeks.

So what happened in the 2000s? Well, I’ll tell you. For starters, I couldn’t even fit all the authors into one pie chart this time. I know! 2 Charts Instead of 1 Shocker! But that tells us just how much everything changed. More authors hit the #1 NYT Bestseller spot, and were knocked off within 1 or 2 weeks. The pie opened up. More authors got a piece. But less authors made an absolute fortune.

I’m going to be honest with you. This pie chart is, well, an unholy mess. It only holds half the data from the decade, unlike my other lovely pie charts, which could fit all 10 years’ worth of top bestsellers. But in the best traditions of the corporate world, I’m going to turn that negative into a positive and say it only serves to illustrate my ongoing point: that nowadays, more authors sell more books, because they have more opportunities to do so.

Only enough pie for authors who stayed at # 1 for more than 3 weeks. All the other poor authors are languishing in a spreadsheet

Only enough pie for authors who stayed at # 1 for more than 3 weeks. All the other poor authors are languishing in a spreadsheet

Let’s look at the most  important statistics. To illustrate further (and make my inner nerd happier than a wasp in a raspberry jam coma) , let’s also compare them to those of the 1980s and 1990s.

2000s NYT Bestsellers Stats

First we see that there are simply more authors on the list: 78 in the ’00s, compared to 44 in the ’90s and 34 in the ’80s. The number of authors holding the # 1 spot for 5 weeks or more seems to be stable over the 3 decades, until you compare pie charts, and see that their length of time at the top shortened considerably. Far more authors hit #1 for only 1 or 2 weeks.

Big sellers in terms of volume only made #1 briefly in the 2000s, so the money was further down the top 10 or even 50.  J.K. Rowling, despite massive crossover appeal, is classified as Children’s, so not included on the adult list. Other celebrated names only made the list for 1 or 2 weeks, such as Lee Child, John Irving, Ken Follett, Stephenie Meyer,  Sophie Kinsella and Johnathan Franzen.

However, just like Grisham in the ’90s, there was an undisputed King of the Noughties: James Patterson, who managed a whopping 45 weeks at the top when co-writing with whoever he was churning them out with that month – let’s face it, quantity doesn’t mean quality – but also 32 weeks at the top when writing on his own. Combined, that means 77 weeks at the top. It doesn’t beat Grisham’s 83 in the 1990s, but it’s  still hugely impressive, especially when we consider that so many authors were snapping at his heels in comparison with the ’80s and ’90s, when emerging authors were tethered to the plough of Publishing Giants, whipped at will with copies of their meagre-selling first-borns.

We’re going to have to move on to sales volumes next, to come up with invaluably shallow insights about what bestseller trends can tell us. And looking at the data, one thing is already clear. The data sucks. A huge proportion of new e-book sales aren’t even being counted, based on the price they were sold for. It might sound like a cop-out – because it is. Just because data is fragmented, doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. But sadly, it’s all we’ve got.

5 Old Bookselling Rules which No Longer Apply

…and, from the emerging author’s perspective, are they a Woo-Hoo, or a Boo Hoo?

1.   Back Catalogues Sell Slowly, Or Not At All

Ye Olde Book ShoppeBack in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when a reader stumbled across a new author, their latest book was often the only one available. If the author were really successful, the bookshop might stock some of their back catalogue. If they were only marginally successful, well, good luck to them.

Nowadays, every book published in e-format is available ALWAYS AND FOREVER, unless of course it’s taken down deliberately. So we’ve just found a new author and we like the cut of their jib, we can buy their entire back catalogue immediately.

Verdict: Woo Hoo!

2.    All New Books Cost the Same

They most certainly don’t any longer. Here we hold up the shining example of phenomenal self-publishing success Amanda Hocking, whose sales master stroke was to sell E-Book 1 of a series as a loss leader – generally either for 99c, or completely free – and then, with the reader firmly hooked on the story, she charged accordingly for the still-reasonably priced Books 2 and 3 (generally 2.99). She may not have been the first one to do this, but it’s a genius idea, and it ended up getting her a number of nice millions and a traditional publishing deal, thank you very much.

The question of where to pitch the price of your book is a whole other post. Suffice to say, have a look online, and you’ll see books priced any which way but where they are in the shops.

Verdict: Woo Hoo! Because every new opportunity for sales is one we didn’t have before.

Author Back Catalogues 3.   Authors Should Publish One Book a Year

In the 1980s and 1990s, new books came out infrequently. Unless you wore a lot of pink, went by the name of Dame Barbara Cartland and dictated your books at the rate of six per hour, you usually only published one book per year.

E-Publishing is no environment for slow releases, however. Word of mouth goes around fast, and dies fast; in order to capitalise, authors have to move quickly.

This is particularly pertinent if you’re writing books in a series, but as I mentioned before, in the e-publishing world readers show a preference for multiple purchases, in that if they find something they like, they want more of the same right now this very minute, please and thank you. Therefore it would suggest that if your book is selling well – as in, trending well, being talked about and undergoing some sort of sales push – you should make some other stuff available pretty much immediately, if you have it. Because in six months, this book will have run out of steam and they’ll have forgotten you already.

Verdict: Boo Hoo, unless you have another 2 novels gathering dust on your hard drive…

 4.   Publishers Know Best

Do I even need to go into this one? Surely the past 5 years have taught us that the people who know best are the readers. Only readers know what they want; only now do they have the power, and they have created unexpected success stories in their hundreds. Emerging authors have to listen and react accordingly. Of course there is sales and marketing involved. But once readers speak – either through their wallets or their reviews – that’s all she wrote, really.

Verdict: Woo Hoo! Now the only slush pile is the one on your front doorstep after a tidy snowfall!

 Yay! It's Finished!5.   Everyone has One Book Inside Them

We’re not going to be snide, here, and start banging on about quality, or fair weather/recession writers, or celebrity bandwagons, or whatever we’re having ourselves along with our cup of JealousTea following yet another rejection letter.

Because what the e-publishing and self-publishing revolution of the past 10 years has taught us is that everyone might have 5, 10 or 30 books inside them, not just the one. There are simply more opportunities for us to find out. And I, for one, find that overwhelmingly splendid.

Verdict: Woo Hoo! AND WOO HOO AGAIN!

And the Blockbusting Author of the 1990s was…. an emerging writer!

mans sitting on top bookcase photo

We move from the 1980s to the 1990s, when it was a little easier to sell your books… but only marginally.

“Where’s John Grisham?” was one comment I got regarding my post on how few authors reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list in the 1980s.

The answer? Lying in the long grass, waiting to own the 1990s.

But at the beginning of the decade, he had yet to emerge. Grisham famously spent months desperately driving around with the entire 5,000 print run of his independently published first novel A Time To Kill, trying to sell them from the trunk of his car, and almost giving up, before hitting the jackpot with The Firm. Tenacity won him the greatest impact of any author in the last 3 decades, seeing him spend a whopping 83 weeks in the New York Times # 1 Bestseller spot in a decade which gave us Kurt Cobain before taking him away again, but left very little legacy in terms of fashion.

There are 2 other main points to take from the bestseller statistics of the 1990s:

1. More authors hit the #1 spot than in the 1980s, which demonstrates that the choke hold of blockbuster authors on the top spot was loosening, but

2. The choke hold on the top spot from blockbuster authors still prevailed. The same names appeared over, and over, and over again. New authors continued to find it extremely difficult to break through.

List of all 1990s # 1 NYT Bestselling Authors in Pie Chart

1990s NYT # 1 Bestsellers. More Authors. But not enough

Let’s have an in-depth look at some of the underlying statistics and compare them to those of the ’80s.

Authors who wrote NYT #1 bestsellers in the 1990s

First off, there are simply more authors here than there were in the 1980s (44 vs 34, taking co-writing teams as 1 author). So far, so much better for the aspiring scribbler. The longest period for one novel at #1 was also shorter, but only slightly – John Grisham managed 23 weeks in the top spot with The Client, whereas James Michener’s The Covenant managed 25 weeks in ’80-81. 

However, only the cheap side of the pie opened up. The top half of the successful author table hogged the limelight just as much as their predecessors in the ’80s. 23 authors held the top spot for over 5 weeks. There was an increase in the authors who hit # 1 for only 1 or 2 weeks – 10 as opposed to 5 in the ’80s – but overall, the big names ate all the pie again.

Just in case I get attacked by a rabid bunch of pedants, I might also point out that one of the main conclusions we could draw from the data – which will be illustrated much more clearly when we move into the Naughties, a.k.a. the Decade the Internet Won – is that the # 1 bestseller list itself is becoming less important. To make everything more meaningful (meaning data, not life – if you’re looking for a more meaningful life, I’m afraid this is the wrong blog) we’re going to have to switch to sales volumes. And I can’t even BEGIN to tell you how excited I am about that.

>Shudder<     I can feel a line graph coming on….. ooooh!

Bestseller Trends Part 2: Fantasy Vs Misery

time is money

This is not news to most people, but I’m going to tell you anyway. As readers, we generally want to read something which is far removed from our experience, and possibly at the extreme other end of the spectrum. In good times we sink our teeth into tragedy. In bad times we want comedy. Perhaps it was the same for the Ancient Greeks when they were segmenting these dramatic genres in the first place, but due to a shocking lack of macroeconomic data or detailed accounts from this period, we are reduced to lazy guesswork on this topic.

In Ireland and the rest of recession-ridden world we could quite clearly see these patterns in operation over the past 10 years. During the boom we were reading true-life accounts of adversity (a.k.a. the Misery Memoir, Poverty Porn, etc) or crime;  during the bust, we back-flipped into into fantasy. Ever since 2008, when the banks and our bank accounts and our houses began to implode, we have been going stone mad for werewolves, vampires, angels, witches, goblins, divine intervention, and those particularly implausible fairytales of the rich and famous. (Reclusive billionaire looking for love, anyone?)

This would suggest, assuming that optimism is not a ridiculous sentiment which was fully exterminated before being burned, vaporised and erased from the collective memory of humankind in recent years, we need to start writing about misery again in order to be ahead of the curve.

The Dubious Cycle of Quality

At the peak of the cycle, just about anything will do, with quality of writing either secondary or entirely unimportant, which would explain a glut of speedily written and maudlin child abuse memoirs around 2006 and the often barely legible torrent of post-Twilight paranormal romance in the past few years. However, to get to the peak of the cycle, the way generally has to be paved by some well-constructed and well-written stuff which gets people to make the switch from glitter, the glamour, the guts and the gore of fantasy in the first place.

To be ready for the peak of the next cycle, therefore, one of you should go now and write the following:

mange is beautiful

And the multi-million blockbuster of 2015 is….

MANGE IS BEAUTIFUL…  an emotional, but not overly sentimental, account of an unnamed mongrel puppy, beaten, starved and insulted by a succession of vile owners before being abandoned on a busy motorway during an electrical storm. He overcomes severe physical handicaps and trust issues to lead a fairly average life which is rendered beautiful by simple virtue of not being horrific anymore (because the puppy’s life expectations have been simplified through sheer adversity so that he may find contentment in the most mundane experience). This should be written in a literary fiction style with witty, self-deprecating observations and award-winning descriptive language.

I’ll take a modest 77% cut of profits. Thanks.

Only 33.5 Authors wrote Bestsellers in the 1980s. Fact

1980s bestsellers - fewer than you'd think

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.

All 1980s New York Times Bestselling Authors in 1 Chart

1980s NYT Bestsellers: You’d think there would have been more than this in 10 years, wouldn’t you?

 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:

1980s NYT Bestsellers: Weeks at # 1

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?

Bestseller Trends Part I: Women


In which we revisit those bestseller lists, and I wonder if I should have drawn some nice bunny rabbits to make them prettier*

2012 Bestseller Genres

Another pattern is evident from the 2012 bestseller list.

Of the top 15, there were only 3 men, and one of those was Tolkien, who had already been dead for some time. Despite Lee Child, Stephen King et al still giving it welly, the top blockbusters were mostly written by women.

Is this because women read more, or because they’re writing more popular books? I don’t know. (But when I get my Omniscience Badge, I’ll be declaring on everything.)

In 2003, there were only 3 women in the top 15. It took Patricia Cornwell and Danielle Steele to hold up the banner for women yet again, and just one newbie – Alice Sebold – managed to crack the list.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves, etc.

It’s been apparent for a little longer in pop music – women are running away with the prizes and the money in the last few years, with One Direction looking like the boys’ last and only hope. It’s just beginning to happen in film and TV, thanks almost entirely to Bridesmaids and Lena Dunham’s Girls. Women are, like, So Hot Right Now?

I can see Mr Big TV Executive’s office – having just got the memo, figuratively and literally – he’s on a 25-year-old landline phone yelling into the receiver “Get me a woman! Now! One of those ones who writes shit! You know, about women being disgusting and hating themselves! And make her funny, goddammit! You should probably look for one who’s a bit fat!”


So women appear to be monopolising book sales. But, because 2012 bestsellers were completely overshadowed by one breakout genre – Sex with a bit of Romance (i.e. erotica written by women, for women), it could mean a temporary skew in the numbers. So let’s look at 2011 instead, and see if the growing popularity of women was evident then.

2011 Bestseller Genres & Authors

Interesting. Looks pretty equal, doesn’t it? 7 out of the top selling 15 books of 2011 were written by women.

But 1 name also repeats. 3 of the men were all Stieg Larsson, whose posthumous fame was the major literary story grabbing all the headlines until 50 shades put everything else in the – well, darker hue of a similar colour. Anyhoo, Stieg’s success story was still going strong since his Millennium Trilogy first hit the New York Times Bestseller list in August 2009.

The final headcount tally on the list is 7 ladies to 6 men of the gentle persuasion. More importantly, the data backs up my argument, which as we all know is the only important thing.

*I was joking there. I can’t draw bunny rabbits. I can do a passable googley eye though.

5 Things Emerging Authors Should Be Writing

The Venn Diagram. Staunch Supporter of the Tenuous Argument

The Venn Diagram. Staunch Supporter of the Tenuous Argument

If we knew what was sure to sell, wouldn’t we all be writing it?    Aye, there’s the rub.

But some types of fiction lend themselves more to breakthrough bestsellers than others. Here are 5 of them.

 1.  The “Dammit, I Could’ve Had That Idea!”

These are the books we all could have written if we’d only thought of them first. They pretty much sell themselves. There may only be 7 basic plots for stories, but these books make it look like they’re Story 2.0 and kick off a thousand copycats. Like the one about the neglected orphan boy who finds out he’s a wizard and has to go to a special magic school. Or the one about the tortured forbidden love between a shy, friendless young girl and a tetchy yet devastatingly handsome (insert vampire/priest/son of her father’s mortal enemy as appropriate). Or the one where we revisit the same couple on the same date every year, charting the course of their relationship.

Yes, if only we’d had these simple ideas, we could have all written them. These are the stories where the two-line description are an instant hook that make us pick them up. In fact it’s so simple, isn’t it strange that there aren’t two new such blockbusters every week?

sewing money crop

2.  The Apparent Rip-Off or “Me Too” Book

These are the books that make us roll our eyes up to heaven, make some disparaging remark about how they stole their idea from Thingummy and there isn’t an original bone in their spine, before we buy them anyway.

These books seem to be mere rip-offs of whatever is in vogue at the moment. But they still needed to be written, and we still buy them. For every paranormal romance which rides the bumper of Twilight or derivative mummy porn sailing in the tailwind of in-itself-derivative 50 Shades, there are a thousand as-yet-unlabelled copycats which never break through, because their genre isn’t What’s Hot Today.

Bottom line: to become fashionable, you have to be ready for the latest fashion. And that’s an art in itself.

3.  The Reworked Classic

Similar to the Rip-Off, but less timely and more calculated. This is Bridget Jones nodding to Jane Austen; this is Song of Ice and Fire nodding to, then flying past, beeping its horn and laughing raucously at every member of the fantasy canon to date. So long, Tolkien. Hasta la Vista, Homer.

These books take the core and hook of an old story and dress them up with shiny new sparkles and often, a touch of grit. They are a marketer’s dream. Imagine the short pitches:

“So what would have happened if Cinderella got a flat tyre on her way to the ball and had to be rescued by a troubled billionaire with a disturbing knowledge of car jacking?”

“Ever wondered who would have died if Oedipus’ mother had actually been his sister, and that sister was Joan of Arc?”

That’ll be €8.99 please.

Harvesting Dosh

4.  The Winning Formula Vol. XIII

This is a deceptive one, because the winning formula only becomes winning after it’s won, in which case it’s sort of chicken and egg – geddit? It doesn’t tell us how to get there. It only tells us when we have reached our destination.

This is the formula book which takes off and results in either of 2 scenarios:

  • Author makes lots of money writing more of them, and laughs all the way to the bank
  • Author is trapped by winning formula and can never write anything else because they need to make a living and nobody wants to read their other stuff.  Resulting cash-laden trip to the bank is not accompanied by mirth of any kind

This is the lone renegade ex-military man tracking across America in a post-9/11 post-Equalizer world, or the troubled cop with a weakness for line dancing and dairy-free yoghurt hunting a depraved serial killer whilst struggling with the tragic and sudden death of his wife, grandmother and chiropodist in a freak piano storm incident. This is the world of the Series. And we will buy all of them in the airport on our way to Costa Burna.

soooo intelligent worm

5.  The Theme is Obscure, but The Writing’s Only Gorgeous

This is the most risky venture, but also the most fulfilling. Here is where all those prize winners live. This is Literary Fiction, dudes. If you were to sum up these books in 2 sentences, you’d think afterwards “now why would anyone want to go and write a book about that?”

Who could possibly think that a story about a man going for a walk and thinking about stuff could run into 265,000 words? Or that another tome regarding, say,  the trimming of a garden hedge, but in reality a brain-frackingly clever treatise on coming to terms with ones own mortality would warrant 150,000 words and a few prizes, some of them involving actual cash? But they do, because they put the words together awfully nicely, and they describe the human condition better than anything else that month, and their books make people with big brains (and the time to concentrate on big books) feel like their brains are getting even bigger.

Basically, nobody is going to make any money out of this whatsoever until the author either wins prizes, dies, or gets knighted by Seamus Heaney. A few intellectuals stick it out. The rest of us mortals would give up long before we started eating the wallpaper.

 So what are you waiting for? Get writing!

Fiction Genres: what sells?

Bookshelf Genres

If we can’t tell who is going to be a bestseller anymore just by the author, can we tell what genre of book or story will be a bestseller? It’s easy to say that a good book will sell itself, but that’s simply not the case. Sometimes a certain genre will become very big very quickly and authors can capitalise by having written the right book at the right time. Sometimes an author will turn out to be their own most astute and talented marketer whereas others with original great ideas will fail. But sometimes there are patterns, and that’s what we’re looking for in the data.

What’s in a Name?

Some categories are more open to success for first-time authors than others. Some aren’t. Take books by celebrities, for instance. Unless you just helped console Robert Pattinson or Justin Bieber after a breakup or were declared Britain’s funniest woman last year, you won’t be making the list purely on the basis of your own name.

Right Genre, Right Time

A great way of selling your book would be to be ahead of the curve, as they say, with what you’re writing. Wouldn’t it be great if you were first past the post to take advantage of the new trend, let alone setting the trend? Of course most of us only know what the trend is about 2 years too late. Then it would take us at best 6 months and more likely 18 to pen a bad derivative, with another 18 months to sell it. That’s not much good to us now, is it?

2002 Vs 2012: A Decade of Change… but Patterns Rule

Broad categorisation would tell us that crime or romantic fiction are more likely to get a wide audience than historical fiction or the literary inner turmoil of washed-up university lecturers. But let’s look at what genres are selling, through crude and argument-inducing generalisations.

More to the point, what are the breakout novels? Who made it for the first time during the year? And what was their book about?

Loose categorisations are as follows:

  • General & Literary Fiction
  • Crime/Thriller
  • Romance
  • Historical
  • Fantasy/Sci-Fi
  • Comedy
  • Horror
  • (PRETEND NEW FOR 2012!) Sex with a bit of Romance
  • Miscellaneous made (more) famous by Film or TV*

*(This takes liberties with genre I know. A sort of data dustbin, sweeping up lazy generalisations. But c’mon, that’s what I’m here for. You’ll thank me later. Smiley face, etc.)

A quick look at the bestseller list for 2012 yields the following: the table consisted almost entirely of 1) Sex with a bit of Romance and 2) Fantasy genres.

 2012 Bestseller Genres

In 2002, crime definitely paid: thrillers were the way to go.

   2002 Bestseller Genres

It’s interesting that only the 2 breakout novels in 2002 could not be categorised easily in anything other than the sweeping General & Literary Fiction. Maybe trend predictions can only be based on the outliers. Although things change so quickly in the world of the internet that almost as soon as a trend or meme is identified it becomes obsolete.

But book sales do follow patterns, and if that book you have gathering cyberdust on your harddrive fits in with a current trend, it’s important for you and your novel to grab the nearest surfboard and ride that wave now.

Self-publishing and e-publishing ——The authors are revolting!

Revolting, I tell you! Depending on who’s talking – author or print publisher – it could have either meaning.

This whole publishing lark has opened up. A quick look at the bestseller lists from recent years, following the e-book revolution, shows it. People are reading different stuff nowadays. Whether it’s because they’re finally able to get what they want through self-publishing or whether they’re just reading e-books they would never read in print, on some levels publishers didn’t seem to be calling the shots last year. Not when we could instantly buy a book by an unknown author for less than 2.99 on our Kindles one rainy Saturday, because we fancied their 2-paragraph blurb and free sample chapter.

10 years ago, the top 15 adult fiction bestsellers each year according to Publisher’s Weekly were by authors who were already wildly successful. John Grisham. James Patterson. Stephen King. Patricia Cornwell. They only had to write a new book, and we bought it.

2002 Bestsellers

I read all of them. Every Grisham, King, Cornwell and Patterson I got my hands on. But now I’m puzzled. I haven’t read anything they’ve written in over 5 years. Why is that? What am I reading instead?

One reason for a change in buying habits was the advent of widespread new sales promotions in bookshops (in Ireland anyway: they probably had this elsewhere beforehand) – the 3 for the price of 2 / buy 1 get 1 free deals, prompting buyers to take a chance on an unknown author if the book was ostensibly free. But then e-readers arrived. And they fundamentally changed not only what we’re reading, but what is available to buy. I would say that at least 40% of the books I now buy have been written by people I’ve never heard of before.

There were one or two so-called “breakouts” in 2002 – authors who either never shifted enough copies of their work to make the bestseller list, or first-time authors finding immediate success – but very few.

So, what did it look like in 2012?

2012 Bestsellers A very different story: we read breakout novels in huge numbers by people who, just one year ago, were complete strangers to the publishing world. Is it because self-publishing in e-book format is more democratic? And is social media allowing authors to do their own publicity, sometimes successfully? Or is it because publishers don’t correctly predict the market and never actually knew what people really wanted to read?

OK – so 9 of the top 15 for 2012 came from just 3 series of books – but this also illustrates how things have changed. When readers find something they like, they want more of the same. Now. This very minute. Back in the olden days (i.e. before 2009), publishers made us wait. The aforementioned 3 series still sold enough copies to make the top 15 fiction (non-children) books for every individual volume. Also, the 50 Shades trilogy, and by association its companion genre Crossfire books, might never have been in print if readers hadn’t already picked them up in their millions through self-publishing channels.

The Hunger Games was already a success when first published in 2008, but in 2012 Suzanne Collins was named the bestselling Kindle author of all time. It’s hard to know whether e-books made a huge difference, or whether the release of the The Hunger Games film was solely responsible for sales revival and her 2012 bestselling status (hence the categorisation of “Film/TV tie-in” above). But given her target readership and the fact that teen/adult crossover novels tend to do particularly well in e-book format, e-publishing can’t have hurt.

It seems like some publishers are getting out of the trend prediction business and into the trend identification business, playing catch-up with the Internet Machine. It doesn’t cost much to get a pile of interns to trawl through peer review sites such as Wattpad and Inkpop in order to pick out the low-hanging fruit.

On the flip side, authors are throwing themselves on the internet for dissection. They can often become become trophies presented by the cat, dead on the back step. But that hardly differs from sitting in a slush pile in a publisher’s office for 18 months only to be discarded after an intern reads your first paragraph.

There’s a whole pile of money to be made out of already-successful e-authors who still want to see their book in print. And who better to take a chance on, than someone who’s already shifted a couple of hundred thousand copies of their books?

There are still those who dismiss self-publishing as “vanity” publishing. But nobody can dismiss success, even the folk who win prizes.

What Makes a Bestseller?

Trendspotting, or a Shamelessly Business-Like Approach to Writing 

A Thoroughly Researched and Scientific Graph

A Thoroughly Researched and Scientific Graph

It’s tempting to think that the democratisation of bookselling through self-publishing and e-publishing means that it’s harder than ever to rise above the noise and get published or more to the point, sell your book. Not at all. The deafening cacophony which once drowned out new authors came from the multiple-bestselling authors who barely ever let anyone else get a look in. There might still be some white noise, but a lot of the din has subsided and it’s anybody’s game now.

So let’s say for the sake of argument that the cream will always rise to the top. That’s all very well if you’re the ground-breaking new voice of a generation. What if you’re just, well, competent? What if you’re the authoring equivalent of a middle manager in an office supply company? What if you just want to make a nice living out of writing the kind of books which will sell nicely even if they end up being entirely forgotten in 40 years?
That might sound jaundiced but it seems a far more realistic target than winning literary prizes and supporting yourself financially at the same time. Some of us just want to write down the stories in our heads and get paid for doing so.
I can barely go to the toilet without some story intruding on my thoughts. If it was the case that I was never allowed to write any of them down ever again, I would drown in my own brain fluid. A story is like the fizz in a can of drink. (I’m from Co. Clare, so let’s just say for the sake of argument that it’s Lilt.) Once it exists, once shaken up, it can either be released in a controlled and measured fashion, or in some sort of delayed explosion which will embarrass everyone in the vicinity.
So, in order to sell your stories and make a living out of it, the idea is to write whatever is in demand. To write some nice books which sell well and leave people wanting more from you. To give the reading public exactly what they want. What the hell is wrong with that notion? Nothing. Not one thing! Unless you can think of something? Go on. Have a go. (Big-ticket literary prize-winners only need apply.)
This is where trend analysis comes in. It’s not an exact science any more than trying to predict what is going to come up on your Biology exam in the Leaving Cert. But it can be wonderfully handy.
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