Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Rising Tide Lifts More Than One Boat

Recently, Eric of Pimp My Novel (who works in sales at a major house) wrote a post that argued that the new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol, will take sales from other books rather than increase the total number of books sold when it's published. He had several reasons, which he enumerated.

I believe Eric is wrong. I could list a similar set of reasons, but I decided to use numbers instead. So I looked up sales for the last major blockbuster release, Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn. (I'm using the usual sales-tracking system for the book industry, and giving round figures and percentages to avoid revealing proprietary information. Those of you who also have access to that system can check my work, if you wish.)

Breaking Dawn was published August 2, 2008 (a Friday), and sold more than three-quarters of a million copies for the week ending August 3rd. (But not vastly more; it was less than a full million.) Total universe of book sales that week was between fifteen and sixteen million, closer to sixteen.

The previous week -- a week without Breaking Dawn -- total sales were a bit under fourteen million. Those sales were 13% below those of Breaking Dawn's debut week, and sales of frontlist books (new ones) jumped up 22% to the week with Breaking Dawn.

Breaking Dawn was responsible, all by itself, for only 44% of the sales increase. Therefore, 56% of that increase -- slightly less than a million units total -- was in sales of other books.

But sometimes a particular week is strong, no matter what the year, so I also looked back at that same week (31, for those following at home) in 2007 -- those sales were actually a bit lower than week 30 in 2008, and 14% below week 31 in 2008.

So: this is only one example, but I believe it's the usual pattern. Breaking Dawn's release caused an increase of 13% in all book sales from the previous week -- or a 14% increase from the same week a year before -- and it only accounted for 44% of the increase itself.

This is the common wisdom in publishing; that big books sell more books. Event books bring customers in to the store and predispose them to buy, and those customers do not, on average and contrary to Eric's assumptions, just walk out with that single book.

Therefore, big books are good for the business; they increase sales of books in general. If the Breaking Dawn pattern holds true for The Last Symbol, the week it's published should see an increase of nearly a million copies sold of entirely different books.

Listening to: Richard Thompson - Nobody's Wedding [Live]
via FoxyTunes


The Brillig Blogger said...

Definitely true. When the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris were bestsellers but not yet at the post True-Blood level, we would see sales spike several weeks after release, and then notice that the new Laurell K. Hamilton had come out that week. Doesn't always happen, but the more people you have in bookstores or clicking away on Amazon, some of them will end up buying something else while they're in the neighborhood.

KatG said...

I'm always running into this sort of viewpoint, which assumes that fiction authors are competing with each other, and that it's like sports teams. In reality, fiction authors are symbiotic and enormously help each other, as a big splash book centers media attention and prospective, non-regular buyers on books in general, not just the big splash book. That's the reason SFF conventions work -- SFF fans like to find new authors along with their favorites.

It would help if booksellers would stop telling people that novels compete for shelfspace. Novels don't compete directly for shelfspace. Instead, each title has to convince the booksellers that it's worth finding shelfspace for that particular title. Which is much easier to do if you're writing a fantasy novel and five of the top selling novels are fantasy.

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