Tale of the Sales: The State of Bestsellers

The Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines, and Mark Dagostino
The Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines, and Mark Dagostino.

Bestseller lists are pretty easy to interpret in various ways, and marketers make a living doing so. You can land on the New York Times Bestseller List with just a few thousand copies sold in a fairly small geographic area; you can land on an Amazon.com bestseller list with just a few dozen copies sold. Add to that the complexity of reporting sales versus returns, the fact that Nielsen Bookscan, the main way people track sales, still only covers 70-80% of actual sales, and a dozen other variables and one thing is certain: The concept of what is or isn’t a “bestseller” depends entirely on the data you’re looking at and the bias you bring to it.

Still, looking at some of the sales numbers for 2016, a few interesting observations can be made. The first observation is that book sales—especially print sales—are up about 4-5% nationwide. People are still buying books, buying them in quantity, and buying them in print. This is a conclusion that seemed impossible a few years ago when the drumbeat of digital publishing was at a crescendo, but all indications point to the novelty of eBooks wearing a bit thin and people rediscovering the joys of a physical book. Which certainly doesn’t mean eBooks are going anywhere; most likely it’s just that people are beginning to understand that eBooks and print books each have their use cases.

A few other observations about the bestsellers this week:

PLATFORM MATTERS

The big debut this week is The Magnolia Story by Joanna and Chip Gaines, which lands at number one overall with an impressive 122,835 copies sold.

The Gaines’ host the popular HGTV show Fixer Upper, bringing grounded Texas charm to each rehabbed home. Having a platform and an existing and passionate fan base remains the surest way to sell books, which is why folks like the Gaines’ will always get a book deal at some point.

Other examples of platform moving units would include Bruce Springsteen turning his huge fan base into 220,157 sales in 2016 with Born to Run, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior exploiting the reinvigorated power of Oprah’s Book Club to the tune of 156,421 and 78,757 sales to date, and arguably Amy Schumer’s The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo (169,190 sales in 2016) and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (262,125 sales).

THE OLD RELIABLES

Some writers move past platform and become institutions in themselves, of course. Bill O’Reilly certainly launched his writing career off the back of his popular FOX TV show, but he’s sold 485,147 copies of Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan this year because his Killing series of history books have become incredibly popular; it’s likely O’Reilly would continue to sell copies even if his show went off the air. Similarly, there’s no secret as to why J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One & Two has moved nearly four million copies (3,967,426, to be exact) this year—although the secrecy behind the plot details and the fact that the play was only performed in London no doubt stoked desire amongst Potter fans worldwide. And John Grisham continues to be one of the most reliable sales points in the universe, moving 217,541 copies of last year’s Rogue Lawyer in 2016.

THE MOVIE EFFECT

Another way to move a lot of copies of a book is to have a film adaptation come out. The Girl on the Train was the best-selling book of 2016 overall, and it moved an additional 1.2 million copies this year in part due to the continuous hype of the Emily Blunt-starring movie.

Lee Child also enjoyed a nice bump courtesy of Tom Cruise, moving 58,488 copies of 3-year old book Never Go Back this year in part due to the promotion of that film. Similarly, Dan Brown’s Inferno moved nearly 85,000 copies, JoJo Moyes’ After You has sold an impressive 214,356 copies on the strength of the Me Before You adaptation, and The Light Between Oceans has sold an additional 145,255 copies this year as well.

XMAS ALL OVER AGAIN

Finally, a lesson no publisher will ever forget: Holidays sell books. The sheer number of Christmas-related books on the various bestseller lists is stunning, with the eleven Christmas titles combining for sales of nearly 200,000 copies in 2016. While some of these books are part of ongoing series by popular authors, it’s obvious that if you’re looking to pump up your book sales a little—and you have a bit of platform to begin with—a holiday title is the way to go.