What’s the Matter with Fiction Sales?

From Publishers Weekly:

According to 2017 estimates released this summer by the Association of American Publishers, sales of adult fiction fell 16% between 2013 and 2017, from $5.21 billion to $4.38 billion. The numbers, though not a major worry, raise questions about the books the industry is publishing and what consumers want to read.

Since 2013, fiction sales fell every year with the exception of 2015. That year they rose 1%, helped by Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and three other novels that topped one million print copies sold. (The AAP tracks all major formats—print, digital, and audio—in its sales estimates.) Interviews and discussions with various industry members uncovered different theories about why there’s been a downturn in fiction.

The most commonly shared view is that it has become extremely difficult to generate exposure for novels. Fiction, more than nonfiction, depends on readers discovering new books by browsing. Now, with the number of physical stores down from five years ago (despite a rise in ABA membership), publishers cannot rely on bricks-and-mortar stores providing customers with access to new books.

Nor can publishers depend on media outlets to make up for the gap left by the shrinking footprint of physical bookstores. Review space in mainstream media has been slashed, cutting off another possibility for readers to learn about new fiction.

The upshot of those developments is that publishers have found breaking out new writers—never mind developing new franchise authors—increasingly difficult.

Creating authors who can draw readers via name recognition alone is crucial to selling novels. Research done by the Codex Group shows that the author is the most important factor in a person’s decision to buy a novel. Codex founder Peter Hildick-Smith says that with so much inexpensive genre fiction now available at “subprime price points under $5” (from such channels as Kindle Unlimited), publishers must invest to develop brand name authors who can command premium-price loyalty.

That process can require a multiple-book commitment. It can also require a type of commitment that’s difficult for publishers: sticking with authors who don’t produce instant bestsellers.

Based on Codex research, a person typically reads an average of three books by an author before becoming hooked on his or her books. Publishers, however, as Hildick-Smith and others interviewed noted, seem increasingly reluctant to support authors whose books don’t immediately sell. “Creating a dependable, bestselling author is a multibook investment that requires different strategies and great persistence,” Hildick-Smith said. “It’s not a one-and-done launch.”

The difficulty publishers have recently had in creating brand name authors can be seen in BookScan numbers. The service, which tracks only print sales, shows that fiction sales continue to be soft. Moreover, the BookScan figures show that no fiction title topped one million copies sold in 2016 or 2017 at outlets that report to the service. In 2015, the only year in the past five when fiction sales rose over the previous year, four novels sold more than one million print copies each, according to BookScan: Watchman (1.6 million), Grey by E.L. James (1.4 million), The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (1.3 million), and Anthony Doer’s All The Light We Cannot See (one million).

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Attentive readers will note the single mention of Amazon – Kindle Unlimited, associated with “subprime price points under $5”. Traditional publishers can’t and won’t compete in that market, preferring authors and books with “premium-price loyalty”.

PG suggests that category title is not properly worded. Instead, he believes that traditional publishers are trying to promote authors and books that attempt to command “over-priced loyalty” from readers.

As readers come to understand that most of the money they pay for traditionally-published books goes to middle-folk like bookstores and publishers with very little trickling down to authors, their loyalty to premium pricing may erode.

45 thoughts on “What’s the Matter with Fiction Sales?”

  1. sales of adult fiction fell 16% between 2013 and 2017, from $5.21 billion to $4.38 billion. The numbers, though not a major worry, raise questions about the books the industry is publishing and what consumers want to read.

    When there is a five-year downtrend in a market segment, and the last year showed a 16% drop, the numbers have moved far beyond a major worry.

    • and the last year showed a 16% drop

      Huh. I read that as as 16% over five years, not one. Shame on me. Thanks for pointing that out.

      After which bit of enlightenment it dawned on me that five years is probably a long enough period of time to consider inflation. And according to this site, the
      Cost of Living Calculator, $5.21 billion in 2013 would be $5.48 billion in 2018 dollars. Meaning a 21% drop, in my (quite possibly dubious) attempt to adjust for inflation. But whatever the correct figure, the loss is, in economic terms, greater than 16%. Unless they adjusted for inflation, and just didn’t bother to note this, I guess.

    • I wonder if those numbers were adjusted for inflation? If they weren’t it was more like a 20%-ish drop. One site I looked at had the $5.21 billion denominated at $5.65 billion in 2017 dollars. Which resulted in a 22% drop by my back of the envelope calculation.

  2. Duly note that the handwringing concerns AAP reported numbers. Not the growing market outside their grasp.

    They are correct in their diagnosis, as far as it goes; generating bandwagons for novels is increasingly dificult…for them.

    Payola only goes so far and they never bothered to develop alternate tools after outsourcing marketing to retailers.

    • Did I not read that romance has moved from paperbacks to ebooks and from tradpub to indie? Would not the loss of that one genre account for the reported decline? I mean, given that AAP only looks where tradpub houses shine their light.

      • True. But other genres have been impacted, too.
        So far they’ve been griping about a declining frontlist, across the board, since 2016.
        It’s not just Romance and SF.

    • If you look at the actual numbers Data Guy gave us in January, Anonymous, you’ll find ebook sales dropped massively in 2017 compared to 2016.

      In Feb 2017 Data Guy told us categorically the US ebook market was worth $3.177 billion.

      In the January 2018 report you link to Data Guy told us categorically that,

      “During the last three quarters of 2017, we recorded $1.3 billion in individually tracked ebook sales, $490 million in individually tracked audiobook sales, and $3.1 billion in individually tracked online hardcover and paperback purchases. While this is not quite 100% of online sales during the period, it comes pretty close”

      $1.3 billion for nine months in 2017 compared to $3.177 billion for twelve months in 2016.

      Data Guys own numbers.

      That said, in comments in May 2018 on the January 2018 post Data Guy quietly changed the historical 2016 unit numbers.

      In Feb 2017 we were categorically told 2016 US ebook sales by volume amounted to 487 million units.

      In May comments on the Jan 2018 report Data Guy quietly asserted the 2016 value was 525 million units.

      Again, Data Guy’s own numbers, clearly laid out in the AE Reports.

      • I don’t quite get your point.
        Yes, his numbers have changed. But those numbers include more than his spider numbers. They include numbers from other sources, other vendors, primarily for tradpub sales.
        And those numbers are known to change for months and even years after the fact.

        It is very likely that the 2017 numbers will also change as the non-realtime tradpub reporting system firms up their numbers.

        Also, the average selling price for ebooks is something over $6, maybe much higher. So 500 million units in 2016 should be well over $3B in sales.

        I think you are expecting too much precision out of what it by its own admission a statistical process. The things that matter in those reports are the bottom line and the trends:

        1- there is big money in ebooks
        2- you don’t need to be a traditional publisher to get a piece of the pie
        3- a major portion of that money is moving away from the biggest publishers
        4- the average selling price for books is declining while the total spent on books, as reported by the Census Bureau, is up. Lower selling price, bigger market, equals more books sold overall. It’s just some publishers that are selling less. And its mostly on purpose.

        The business is healthy.

      • My point was that fiction sales aren’t anywhere near as bad as PW is whining – it’s only that bad for trad-pub. Indie/self-pub is more than happy to pick up the fiction money trad-pub is leaving on the table. 😉

  3. Yet another case where the comment section is necessary to see the whole picture. Will an organ of the establishment like PW ever address the effect independent authors and services like KU is having on publishing?

    • Your answer is in their name – ‘Publishers Weekly’. Publishers are all they care about, so Amazon’s KU is nothing but pure evil to them. 😉


    • Will an organ of the establishment like PW ever address the effect independent authors and services like KU is having on publishing?

      No. They are a magazine for publishers, concerned only with the publishers’ world. They are Publishers World,/i> not <Publishing World,

  4. When I was a kid, TV shows were given a couple of seasons to mature and find an audience. If Star Trek TNG aired today, it would be canceled by the third episode. Producers want instant hits or they ax shows and move on. The TV viewing audience doesn’t always work that way.

    Nor do book readers. If you debut, then make me wait three years for the next book… well the only author I can think of who has gotten away with that is Patrick Rothfuss. However, as I’ve noted in other places, you are one and done in the publishing industry.

    Not only do you have to buck the 1 in 10,000 odds of being published, then you have to go and have a breakout hit on your first book!

    That just doesn’t happen in a predictable way.

    • And since trad-pub can’t tell a best seller from a flop they are forcing more and more writers to try self-publishing.

      And they hate that the self-publishers have Amazon and others to sell their stories – stealing the eyes and time that readers might have read trad-pub stories. Even more they hate offering a self-pub a slot at being ‘really’ published and getting laughed at – something about the crap contract and offering less cash than the self-pub was already making per month (which was why trad-pub wanted a piece of that pie.)

      Even if you could take Amazon and the other a/e/book online sellers out of the picture trad-pub was still going to have a problem with that internet thingy, where I and others were finding stories to read long before I’d ever heard of Amazon.

      The writing’s on the wall, trad-pub just doesn’t like what it says.

      • And since trad-pub can’t tell a best seller from a flop they are forcing more and more writers to try self-publishing.

        Nobody can tell a best seller from a flop until after the fact. Then authors criticize publishers for not knowing.

        • No, authors criticize publishers for picking very few and then turning what might have been a good or fair seller by overpricing it and then acting surprised that it was a flop.

    • Star Trek: The Next Generation issued only in syndication. There was never an issue with a network pulling the plug.

      Just as well. The first episode (2 hours), Encounter at Farpoint, disappointed.

      If a network broadcast TNG, it would indeed have been cancelled after the first 2 shows. And justifiably so.

  5. Another point to consider: those are adult fiction numbers.
    They are most likely making up the losses in political memoirs, rock star photo books, and coloring books. 🙂

    • Fiction is a whole different market from the rest. Fiction is where the independents are taking over. Nonfiction will be the business of the publishers in the future.

      • @ Terrence

        “Nonfiction will be the business of the publishers in the future.”

        Yeah, the business of self-published non-fiction writers… who have their own publishing company.

        Like I do! 🙂

        • That may be, but it will be a much higher bar for independents.

          Novels and straight narrative are easy. Color pictures, maps, diagrams, and graphs are a very different product. And while a Kindle screen can portray text just as well as the printed page, paper books do much better with those color pics.

  6. “What’s the Matter with Fiction Sales?”

    Of course, this has nothing to do with Trad Pub vastly overpricing their wares — especially ebooks.

    The upshot of those developments is that publishers have found breaking out new writers—never mind developing new franchise authors—increasingly difficult.

    Of course, this has nothing to do with authors, new and old, abandoning Trad Pub for Self Pub.

  7. This article is just so bad. It shows a somewhat extreme example of human nature in action. That is, heads firmly buried in the sand to avoid accepting the reality. The problem, as James F. Brown commented above, is price. Everything stems from that. A market with very limited supply which the large publishers controlled is now a market with virtually unlimited supply out of their control. Some High School level economics education would do them a lot of good.

    I love the phrase “premium-price loyalty”, as it appears did PG. A euphemism for customers so hooked that they will pay anything for their next fix. The Big 5 are not drug dealers, though the analogy is not entirely without its merits.

    • It’s a bit beyond High School. Publishers’ fiction pricing has to consider the cross elasticity of demand between eBooks and paper. There is also the factor of the benefit eBooks get from cross-promotion from paper.

      If publisher lower eBook prices in step with the increased total supply, they move consumers from paper to eBooks. That does them little good because their competitive advantage is in paper, not eBooks. The more eBooks they sell as a proportion of all books, the less competitive they become.

      There is not a good answer for them. In fiction, they are doomed. The best they can do is stretch it out as long as possible by pushing the notion that theirs is high-level, curated fiction, while independents produce cheap stuff that is appropriately priced.

      • Thing was, tradpub could have done that, once it noticed ebooks were taking off.
        “Hey, you can write. We’ll publish you in eBook form to start with, and if you sell well enough we’ll put you in hardcopy.”
        If they’d done that, they probably could have kept up the illusion that they provided a necessary curating service for quite a while.

  8. “premium price loyalty” is for items in which price is a feature, such as fashion and collectibles.

    It’s not for books, criminy.

    I do find the hand-wringing about the decline of publisher share in text fiction to be a bit odd, because there is a medium in which publishers still add value and still dominate, and that’s the production of narrated books — and those are comparable in price to hardbacks with all the advantages of electronic storage and delivery. Plus, narrated books take advantage of electronic devices such as phones and tablets and actually are more competitive with other forms of entertainment such as tv and video games, because listening to an audiobook is often done during housework, exercise, and long drives.

    I really don’t understand why the publishers don’t throw more effort behind audiobooks, such as spotlighting the narrators themselves, and taking more care in their production with respect to audio balance etc. Or even pushing author-narrated books and giving the authors speech training and mixing support.

    • “premium price loyalty” is for items in which price is a feature, such as fashion and collectibles.

      Premium price loyalty is real. It doesn’t matter if we agree with it, or think it is a meaningless concept. The reality is that it exists for zillion of consumers who buy their stuff in bookstores and think independent eBooks are junk.

      When people millions of people pay more than we think they should, it’s time to reexamine our thinking. They see a difference between the product classes.

      • Here’s a recent report on premium price loyalty focusing on one exemplar of the strategy: Apple


        “The days of Apple’s higher prices are here to stay. And it may be our fault.

        When Apple launched its iPhone X a year ago, some wondered if the $999 price tag would scare away consumers. Instead, the iPhone X became the best-selling device from the time it hit stores through the end of the June quarter, even though it was the most expensive phone Apple had ever sold.

        The 5.8-inch device was $300 more than the 4.7-inch iPhone 8 and $200 more than the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus. Apple followed up this year with the iPhone XS and the bigger and even pricier XS Max, which starts at $1,099.”

        Much more at the source.
        Worth checking out.

        • But as the song says, you’ve got to know when to hold em and know when to fold em. Apple picks markets where it can extract a price premium. For instance it was rumoured to be developing an television but it could not see what it could offer the consumer that any other television provided and dropped the project. The stuff apple offers on its computing devices , like integrated encryption, is worth the premium to enough people that they will pay they extra. Publishing however , in fiction, is going resolutely down market, hard backs are paper backs with board covers, paper is terrible, trying to find a hard back reprint of anything but the most popular novels is impossible. What value is beeing to the book above the text itself to justify the premium?

          • What value is beeing to the book above the text itself to justify the premium?

            Value is determined by each individual consumer. It’s silly for us to claim he doesn’t value something when he does. Consumers don’t care what we think about anything, and certainly not about their personal tastes and preferences. And the last thing they will do is justify anything to us.

            How do we know consumers value something? They buy it.

  9. What’s the matter with fiction sales?

    Well, let’s see, with over a billion dollars a year in self-published (mostly) fiction sales making up the difference, I’d say the answer is… nothing, really.

  10. Indies and ebooks are only part of their problem.
    Yes, Indies are eating a good chunk of the market in some genres. That is part one.

    Part two, is their higher average selling prices across the board. As a result, *their* ebook sales are down. So are their print sales. And those are down in mass market, because they aren’t releasing as many titles and a good portion are reprints that have to compete with used copies of their hardcovers. Those two are their entry level products and both are down.

    Part three, and what really concerns them, is that launch window hardcover sales are down. Even on big name frontlist.

    That last is a killer because it’s their prestige product lind and the losses aren’t about competitors but about consumers changing their behavior. That undercuts their entire business model which relies on big release window sales at, yes, premium prices.

    Part of it is the easy availability of used books, part of it is the online availability of remaindered books, and part of it is that the last recession taught consumers to wait. Wait for the paperback reprint, wait for the used copies, wait for remainders.

    So yes, there are consumers who only buy print and only buy tradpub, and some are unwilling to wait and will rush to buy while the price is at its highest. But their numbers are dwindling. And many of those defray their upfront cost by selling/trading the book afterwards, feeding the used book market.

    There are reports of changed consumer behavior since the recession, of shoppers being more careful of what they buy, when they buy, and whether they buy at all. It is a general trend affecting all categories from housing and cars to clothing to, yes, books.

    The “technical” term is discretionary thrift. Even affluent shoppers have learned to temper the kneejerk impulse to buy, buy, buy.

    Check this quickie: https://www.thewisdomjournal.com/Blog/from-discretionary-spending-to-discretionary-thrift/

    The problems the biggest tradpub face aren’t really competitive but rather ingrained in their business model going back decades. They have been in decline for fifteen years and papering it over with mergers, price hikes, format shifts, marginal cost reductions, and squeezing their core suppliers. All temporary and ultimately self-defeating.

    What they haven’t done is accept that today’s consumers don’t behave like the consumers of their heyday. Big box stores and online taught them that books don’t go out of print right after the release window, if at all. that was the 90’s. Easy online used book sales taught that books going out of print didn’t make them unavailable. Often it just made them cheaper. Turn of the century, that. And then came ebooks and POD. There no longer is, in practical terms, such a thing as out of print.

    All these trends taught that waiting to buy is good and even safe. No need to rush. Wishlists replaced TBR lists. And then the recession taught discretionary thrift.

    The tradpub decline is mostly due to BPH decline. Smaller publishers are doing more or less okay because they never were solely reliant on the launch window. Sales six months after launch are as good as sales on day one for them.

    What’s the matter with adult fiction is there are less bandwagons making for easy sales to casual/social readers. What’s the matter is that consumers are increasingly value shoppers and they are spreading their money away from “what’s new” to “what’s interesting” and above all, they have learned to wait. Wait on reviews. Wait on cheaper editions. Wait on remainders and used copies.

    The early sales spike is lower and the long tail thicker but not enough to make up for the early losses.

    Consumer behavior has changed and it’s not going back. It’s all about the consumer.

    • Part of it is the easy availability of used books

      Recently my daughter decided she wanted to read the Divergent series by Veronica Roth.

      Hardcovers are about $10, new from Amazon or used from HPB.

      Paperbacks are $7-$8, same sources.

      The cheapest used ones from Amazon are still at least $5.

      My local indie bookstore lists them as not in stock / hard to find. God knows what the special order price would be.

      I purchased all 4 from a single AbeBooks seller for about $3.50 each, with free shipping. For $14 and change I received a bag in the mail containing 4 hardcovers in excellent condition.

      It pays to shop around.

      • As more people who buy books from Amazon discover that AbeBooks is part of Amazon and an easy go-to place for reasonably-priced books from big publishers and takes less time than going to a physical bookstore (which may not stock the book in question), the more pressure will build on traditional publishing.

  11. “Of course, this has nothing to do with authors, new and old, abandoning Trad Pub for Self Pub.”

    And ‘why’ would they be abandoning Trad Pub for Self Pub?

    It can’t possibly be needing to forever pay an ‘agent’ – who needs you to sign no matter how bad the contract so ‘they’ get paid.
    It can’t possibly be the low odds of getting a trad-pub slot in the first place.
    It can’t possibly be the crap contract trad-pub will offer them.
    It can’t possibly be the poor to no editing some trad-pub writers are whining about.
    It can’t possibly be the seemingly random covers trad-pub is slapping on books.
    It can’t possibly be the year or more for the book to go out.
    It can’t possibly be the way trad-pub prices the ebook out of the market.
    It can’t possibly be the tiny if any payout for putting up with all the above.

    Trad-pub used to be able to get away with things because they controlled who could/would be published. That control is gone.

    Fiction sales is doing just fine – just not trad-pub fiction sales …

    • I recently abandoned Maseratis for Fords. The Maseratis are just too much trouble to maintain, and it’s nearly impossible to find a trailer hitch.

      Independents are clicking the Amazon KDP button because it’s a great opportunity.

  12. There are two trad-pub authors whose fiction ebooks I’ll buy on release, and a handful of others whose books I’ll probably eventually but even if they don’t go on sale. Otherwise, Indies and especially KU borrows give me plenty to read without stretching the budget!

    Most of the people I know who still read paper books make good use of the library and second hand book stores, saving new book purchases for special occasions.

    • All that windowing, hardback run, and paperback run used to limit the time frame in which a book was available. Get in the first year, or it can easily disappear from the shelves.

      But eBooks don’t disappear. They are around forever, so consumers no longer face that constraint. Again, it’s basic structural change in market supply.

    • I enjoy reading print and always check my library’s website to see if they have the book I want in stock… but if they have the Kindle e-book then I usually go with that because it saves me a trip to the library and the drop-off bin.

      If the library doesn’t have it, I don’t get it.

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