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Thread: Sales figures

  1. #1

    Sales figures

    Anyone know a good resource--or have info--on sales figures for fantasy novels? Specifically, I'm curious about the sales of something like Jordan's Wheel of Time books vs. something like Crowley's Aegypt books. Where does Guy Gavriel Kay fit in? Steven Erikson? Gene Wolfe? Are there "tiers" of fantasy authors? What sort of numbers is considered a success for a first-time fantasy author? At what point does an author no longer get book contracts due to declining sales? Etc.

    Anything would be helpful.

  2. #2
    Book publishers are notoriously secretive about sales figures. I never understood why.

    I know the Wheel of Time books have print runs from 500,000 to 1,000,000 in hardcover which is enormous by any standard. The Wheel of Time books definitely sell more than Kay, Erikson and Gene Wolfe combined.

  3. #3
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    There aren't any cut and dried numbers for these things, Alchemist. Sales expectations change over time and due to economic and business circumstances. 10,000 copies today is a very good sales record. Twenty years ago, before the collapse and shrinkage of the wholesale market, it would not have been. There are fewer returns today, due to changes in distribution, but there still are returns and that's an issue. Authors also get onto the bestseller lists with fewer copies than in previous decades, but the very top levels of bestsellers sell more copies and more internationally than they used to. There are more bestsellers and the lists have a higher rate of turnover than they used to. There have been more "phenoms" -- mega-sellers, in the past two decades than there used to be previously.

    Comparing Crowley and Jordan's sales records would not be very productive. Crowley's big novels were produced mainly before Jordan's big series, which appeared in the late 1980's, and the markets changed considerably over that time. Crowley's works were sold in general fiction, Jordan's were sold in the SFF category market. Crowley has a university market that Jordan doesn't have. Crowley does not have one big series, though he has some series, but a number of different publications, and so on.

    There are "tiers" that are based on sales. There are bestsellers, who are on the top parts of the list. Then there are what we call lower tier bestsellers for general fiction titles and category bestsellers for titles in the category markets. These are on the lists but on lower slots. Then there is mid-list, which are the established authors who sell, but not yet at bestselling levels. And there are debuting novelists coming into the field.

    Most bestsellers become so through a slow-burn -- they build up an audience over time and several books. An occasional author is a fast-burn bestseller, getting a lot of buzz right out of the gate, and those, along with phenoms, tend to be what people focus on. Being a category bestseller is not at all a bad thing -- they sell consistently over decades and their books stay in print. In bad economic times, publishers drop mid-list and sometimes bestselling authors who they feel aren't selling enough, but what's enough will vary by publisher and economic conditions, and the licensing deals that the publishers made with those authors. They also will publish fewer debuts, and those debuts will be expected to perform well much more quickly than in better economic times.

    Crowley was a lower tier bestseller and now a respected emeritus. Guy Gavriel Kay was a bestseller in the 1980's, and now would probably be considered a category bestseller (I'd have to look up how his last novel did -- it sold pretty well.) Gene Wolfe has been consistently a category bestseller for a long time and has a university market. Steve Erikson is a category bestseller who has been edging higher. Joe Abercrombie and Scott Bakker also. Patrick Rothfuss is fast-burn bestseller. Scott Lynch is a category bestseller.

    Some authors flare up in popularity and then tamper down a bit, like Kay and Stephen Brust. Others grow in popularity over time like Terry Pratchett. Some authors sell really well with one series and not nearly as much with other things they try. There isn't an easy way to predict what will happen, though publishers gamble and push titles they believe in and hope that word of mouth will work for them.

    The Internet has changed some things. It's making a lot of demands on authors, but also can make it easier for an author to promote. It's been, overall, a boon to mid-list authors whose biggest problem is making readers aware of their existence, but it's also a huge time suck for them. It's a cheaper way to advertise for publishers and more effective, so far, but for fiction, they still don't get a lot of bang for the buck because fiction readers are marketing resistant and operate mostly by word of mouth. However, the Internet makes it a lot easier for fans to talk to each other, which helps with that. The Internet also opened up another market for book sales, which unfortunately has not developed as much as they hoped and has not replaced what was lost in wholesale, but still has been a big plus. And now we have the e-book market, which is currently tiny, but which they also have big hopes for expanding the market overall.

    Fiction authors don't directly compete with each other. Instead, they are in competition with themselves, to sell more on their next book, or at least sell well on one book to finance other projects which may not sell as well but broaden their audience. There's no one set path for having a writing career and different authors do things in different ways. What new authors learn eventually is that the established authors are mostly happy to help them, because it means everybody sells better (because written fiction is a symbiotic market,) and that it isn't a competition. (That doesn't mean that there isn't envy or complaints about publisher support, or idiotic authors talking about other fields of fiction that they have very little knowledge about in the media.)

    If you get a licensing deal with a publisher, the terms will be partly what the publisher can manage and partly based on their guess estimate as to what you'll sell, and they'll give you an idea of what that number is. You may exceed or fall below those expectations, and those expectations may change between the time you got the licensing deal and the time the book is published, as can economic conditions. So if I told you, you've got to sell at least 5,000 copies of a first novel, next year that may be wrong, and if you're working with a small press, that's not necessarily their goal.

  4. #4
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alchemist View Post
    Anyone know a good resource--or have info--on sales figures for fantasy novels? Specifically, I'm curious about the sales of something like Jordan's Wheel of Time books vs. something like Crowley's Aegypt books. Where does Guy Gavriel Kay fit in? Steven Erikson? Gene Wolfe? Are there "tiers" of fantasy authors? What sort of numbers is considered a success for a first-time fantasy author? At what point does an author no longer get book contracts due to declining sales? Etc.

    Anything would be helpful.
    Book sales figures can only be given up voluntarily by the publishers. There's no independent way of finding out overall sales (Nielsen Book-Scan was supposed to solve this, but it only catches half, maybe slightly more, of sales at best).

    Still, with the authors you have mentioned, Robert Jordan sold 44 million up until late 2008. Guy Gavriel Kay had sold 3 million books before Under Heaven came out. No figures for Genel Wolfe or Crowley.

    Steven Erikson's total sales as of The Bonehunters coming out in mid-2006 were 250,000. I assume it's more than that by now given that the US sales were only taking off at that time, and DoD hit the bestseller lists. Still, probably less than 1 million.

    The biggest authors around are people like Rowling, whose last figures were north of 350 million, and Stephen King, who's in the same ballpark (with a lot more books though). In the general fantast field there's Pratchett (65 million) and Jordan (44 million) followed by RA Salvatore (c. 30 million) and Terry Brooks/David Eddings/Terry Goodkind/Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, who are all batting together at the 20-25 million level, with Raymond E. Feist doing around 15 million. Stephen Donaldson has sold about 10 million and GRRM about 7-8 million of ASoIaF alone, with an unknown number of additional sales of his other books. Neil Gaiman has sold about 10 million copies of Sandman by itself and millions more when his other novels are taken into account (Gaiman himself told me that Coraline, one of his lower-profile books, has sold 1 million by itself). Joe Abercrombie had sold 250,000+ copies of The First Law trilogy by itself before Best Served Cold had been released.

    In SF, Alastair Reynolds has sold over 1 million copies of his books, Dan Abnett well over 1 million and Peter F. Hamilton over 2 million.

    Those figures come from publicity announcements, information in press releases and ARCs, sometimes figures quoted in interviews and articles and so on.

    Others grow in popularity over time like Terry Pratchett.
    In the USA Pratchett has slowly built his audience over time. In the UK Pratchett was a big success almost from the off (with Discworld anyway, he'd written three previous novels which had not done great). The Colour of Magic sold out of its print run, as did The Light Fantastic, and it hit the British bestseller lists with Mort, only the fourth book (out of 37 now available). Pratchett was already a familiar face in the UK bestseller lists by around 1990 or so. Pratchett was also the biggest-selling British author of the 1990s. That's not genre author, that's biggest-selling author, of anything, full stop. Though Rowling overtook him not long afterwards

    In contrast Pratchett didn't hit the NYT bestseller list until Thud! just a couple of years ago.
    Last edited by Werthead; June 27th, 2010 at 12:01 PM.

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    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Expanding on the above, the unreliablity of sales figures leads many publishers to throw figures around that are actually for books in print rather that books sold. This is an unreliable guide to sales, since it includes all the books in bookstores as well as in people's homes. Sometimes they'll say this ("15 million books in print!") but other times they won't, leading to the figures only ever being a broadly accurate guide rather than a precise guide.

    Of course, with book piracy (which may be small compared to music or computer games, but exists and is a problem: JRR Tolkien suffered from it quite badly in the 1960s, costing him at least hundreds of thousands of salesin the USA and far more worldwide), people lending books to friends and libraries, it is flat-out impossible to tell how many people have read a given book.

    An example of marketing-speak being used to show how many copies of a book have been sold, Overlook have issued their catalogue for early next year and in the entry on R. Scott Bakker's The White Luck Warrior it tells us that they've sold 125,000 copies of his books to date. Note that they specifically say it's the Overlook editions alone, not including the UK sales from Orbit or any of Bakker's other international sales, so his overall, international sales will be significantly higher.

    A very rough rule of the thumb is that a major, large-selling American author will have sold half their books in the USA and half outside (this is true of Goodkind, Salvatore, Martin, Jordan and many others), like film box office numbers. However, there are so many exceptions to this (well-known American authors like Bujold, David Weber, Connie Willis and Robert Charles Wilson don't even have British publishers) it should definitely not be taken as anything more than a very broad generalisation. Of course you also have authors like Robert Rankin who are unknown in the USA entirely and authors like Sapkowski who have sold millions of books in Europe and South America and weren't even published in the English language until a couple of years ago.

  6. #6
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    I didn't say that Pratchett wasn't popular starting out -- Discworld has been a watchword for nearly two decades -- just that his popularity grew over time to the point where while he technically was not a "phenom," he's been just about that in terms of sales for awhile now. Worldwide, in fact, he may be in the top ten of fiction authors, certainly top twenty, and in Britain, he is still number 2 with a bullet.

    Books in print is the figure that publishers most like to give out these days, but it's not very useful. It's not the number of books actually in bookstores, but instead the number of copies that the publisher is supposedly printing, a good chunk of which will be in warehouses, and the books in print figure is usually substantially inflated, even on mid-list titles. So when they say that they have 1 million copies of a Jordan book in print, they don't necessarily have 1 million copies in print to start. Booksellers do take print run figures into account re the publisher's commitment to the book in ordering (which is why such figures get inflated,) but everybody knows that the only thing that counts for accuracy are the net sales on the royalty statements. And you aren't getting those. BookScan has become a hefty tool for big chain sellers to bludgeon publishers with, but it only covers maybe 60% of rough sales and it's been causing a lot of problems. (For instance, Tobias Bucknell had Borders refuse to carry one of his titles because of his sales record, but then take another of his titles and have that one sell well, so then took the other one they'd initially rejected, and a number of authors have had to change their author name for new projects, not to fool readers or publishers or booksellers who all know exactly who the author is, but to fool the BookScan computer.)

    Reports of how many books an older author has sold tend to sometimes be underestimates as well. I would expect that Kay has actually sold more. I also suspect Erikson has sold more at this point.

    Publishers put out more titles than they used to, and in the SFF genre do more hardcovers and trade paperback editions than they used to, although the bulk of the market is still mass market paperback. These titles sell fewer copies on average per title. Books are sold in fewer places than they used to be outside of bookstores and online bookstores, but that's now slowly reversing. Books are sold in more places internationally than they were only ten years ago and a lot of mid-list authors who would never have been published outside their own territory before now may make the bulk of their income from foreign publisher sales. Fiction is extremely popular on e-books, so we may see the "good performance" number change upward in the next decade as the e-book market becomes bigger.

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