Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Numbers, Endlessly Fascinating Numbers

Publishers Weekly this week has an article with a couple of charts from R.R. Bowker's new PubTrack Consumer service, tracking book sales in 2007 by source of purchase and by genre.

The "Source of Purchases by Units" is what PW led with, but it's fairly boring, and doesn't say much that's interesting. (Though "Book Clubs" is the third-highest source, at 12%.) But on the "Genre Purchases by Units" chart, the numbers are quite different from the conventional wisdom, and I had to read the article a couple of times before I could figure out why. (More on that later; for now, the sales are to adults of new books, and are of units, rather than dollars.)

The charts aren't online, so here's the genre one -- overall, fiction was at 49% and nonfiction 51% --
  • Mystery/Detective 17%
  • Romance 11%
  • Science Fiction 5.5%
  • Religion 5%
  • Bio/Autobio 4%
  • General Fiction 3%
  • Espionage/Thriller 3%
  • Cooking 3%
  • History 3%
  • Fantasy 3%
  • Graphic Novels 2%
  • Health & Fitness 2%
  • Business/Economics 2%
  • Horror/Occult 2%
  • Computers 2%
Anyone else get that huh? moment, too? Perhaps when SF is listed at being nearly twice as large as Fantasy? (There also must be a lot of tiny genres, since the non-fiction categories listed above only add up to 21% of its 49% share.) Surely those of us in the publishing business would notice if SF, in aggregate, was selling twice as many copies as Fantasy was?

(As far as we've noticed, it hasn't and isn't.)

Here's the deal, and the intriguing bit (which also may explain why Romance is relatively small) -- these numbers are self-reported, via "an online weekly survey of consumers' buying habits that is completed by about 15,000 consumers weekly." So, assuming that these people are representative -- and I think that's a fair assumption -- then the takeaway is that readers think that they're reading more Mysteries and SF books, and fewer Romances and Fantasy books, than we in the publishing world think they are.

Some of that may be negative perception of those genres -- Romance and Fantasy are the most obviously, blatantly escapist genres, and many people may not perceive their own reading that way -- but some of it is also clearly a difference of perception about the current group of cross-genre books. Most of the mystery/romance/fantasy crossovers -- urban fantasy, paranormal romance, etc. -- are published as Romance or Fantasy, but it seems that readers view them somewhat differently.

Or am I reading too much into one statistic? (And, in any case, what are the other 28% of nonfiction readers reading?)


Brad Holden said...

Is it me, or does the graphic novels/manga column seem low?

But I guess I agree with you that many folks maybe classifying stuff as SF that is not marketed as SF.

My first guess would be a lot of people are classifying fantasy as SF, but you would know better than I how intertwined the two categories are.

Anonymous said...

I think one source of error is that retailers rarely have a "Fantasy" section, so all those sales got counted as SF, and then when they got to the fantasy blank, they filled the numbers for the bestsellers they could think of. And I'm not at all surprised by the graphic novel numbers; they may outsell comic issues by a couple orders of magnitude, but they're still way off the radar of the average consumer.

Andrew, I'm surprised you didn't have anything to say about the last line of the article (the fragment quoted in that link):

"the Harlequin romance seriec was the most popular series for adults over 18. James Patterson's Alex Cross series was the second most popular, followed by Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum line, Harry Potter and J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts's In Death series."

Never mind all the typos (PW needs to hire a proofreader), isn't Harlequin a publisher? And are you planning of crossposting this to rasfw?

Unknown said...

Yes, Harlequin is a publisher-but they also call on of their category lines Harlequin as a name. I find it odd that they compare those to things like the Harry Potter series, as they only thing they have in common is the name.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Brad: That does seem a bit low, but I bet many people are counting their manga as something else. (And many manga are read by people under 18.)

I do think people are classifying the books they read differently then the publishing companies did -- what's interesting to me is how many of them are identifying with SF rather than fantasy.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Konrad: I think you missed that these numbers don't come from retailers -- they're from readers.

Manga have sold strongly enough in Borders and B&N to have seen their section balloon immensely this decade; they're more than holding their own against other bookstore categories.

And, as Nadine said, "Harlequin" is not just a publishing company, it's also their main publishing line. Harlequin has always gone in for heavy branding, their own name most of all.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Nadine: I think the weird variety of things called "series" is another artifact of letting readers categorize books themselves; there's no central authority making a list of what constitutes a "series" or doesn't.

Brad Holden said...

There is no central authority on what makes a series? Surely the NYTimes could fix this problem!

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