The State of a Genre Title, 2013
Yesterday Redshirts, my most recent novel prior to The Human Division, was made available in trade paperback format, which formally ended its hardcover format era. There are still hardcover editions out there, but Tor isn’t printing any more of them; from here on out its print presence will be in trade paperback. Aside from switching formats, this offers an interesting point in time to take a look at the Redshirts sales numbers and see what, if anything, they mean for me, and what, if anything, it means for the genre of science fiction in a general sense.
So, below, please find the North American sales numbers for Redshirts, dating from June 5, 2012 (the day of release) to January 14, 2013 (the last day of the hardcover run).
For those who don’t want to pull out your calculators, the sales total across every format — hardcover, eBook and audiobook, was 79,279.
1. These are healthy sales, and importantly they are healthy and reasonably balanced across the formats the book was available in. This is an important thing because while people like to talk about eBooks being the future, or audiobooks increasing in popularity, the fact of the matter is that print sales continue to be important, and a solid author presence in physical book stores also continues to be important. For me to lose any of these formats — or to discount their importance — would represent a substantial loss of sales and income. I expect each of these formats to continue to be important to my overall sales for some time to come, and intend to make sure I’m adequately supported in each.
2. This sales profile also indicates to me that choosing to work with established publishers — in this case Tor (for print and eBooks) and Audible (for audiobooks) — is a smart decision for me. There are arguments made for self-publishing, and many people will make them, but at this point, for the majority of self-published authors, self-publishing primarily gains you access to eBook sales. Print sales are difficult (because it is difficult to place books into bookstores, particularly chains, on a non-returnable basis), and by and large self-pubbed audiobooks are still an emerging market. Working with established publishers gets my work into as many sales channels as possible. Aside from everything else they do — including editing, design, artwork, marketing and advertising (hey, did you see me on tour? Or see those Redshirt ads in Times Square?) — the market access these established publishers provide is reason enough to keep working with them.
3. The sales profile of Redshirts in its hardcover format run is vastly different than the sales profile of Old Man’s War, released eight years ago this month. Old Man’s War sales for its first year were totally supplied by hardcover sales, because neither the eBook version nor the audio version was available until years later, and both the eBook market and (to a lesser extent) the audiobook market were not as fully developed as they are today. It would be specious of me to make too many direct comparisons between my debut novel and my eighth, because my personal circumstances have changed significantly in the time between their publications. But a debut author today would still be very unlikely to have her book presented only in print format.
4. My sales profile here is nicely diversified, but it’s also clear that the largest chunk of my sales are in eBook. I attribute this primarily to two factors: One, my personal presence and history online, which presents me as an “online native,” with a core fanbase of similarly tech-savvy readers; Two, science fiction as a genre tends to have a tech-friendly readership, which is likely to have adopted electronic readers early. A third factor is that eBooks tend to priced more cheaply than hardcovers, which is not insignificant. That said, the healthy sales of the Redshirts eBook at the $11.99 price point suggests that readers are willing to spend at that level, which argues for publishers to continue at least initially to peg their eBook prices to their hardcover prices, lowering them as the print format shifts.
(I would note, incidentally, that my eBook sales profile doesn’t come as a surprise either to me or Tor; we’ve been watching these sales for a while now, and it’s one of the reasons that we are initially sending The Human Division out in weekly eBook episodes. But also note that we are very quickly following up to serve the print market with the compiled novel — because print is important now and will continue to be in the future.)
5. My audiobook sales I attribute to a number of factors: One, healthy sales of previous audiobook titles; Two, an excellent and marketable narrator (Wil Wheaton) who has his own significant fanbase; Three, a strong marketing push by Audible for me and the book. It’s clear to me that audio is not just an aside to my print and eBook versions but a core aspect of my sales profile, which needs to be considered and tended to.
6. My own guess, based on watching my sales profile over the years, is that print, eBook and audiobook do not inherently cannibalize each others’ sales — it seems to me that for each there is a class of reader that is “native” to each — that is, there is a group of readers who strongly prefers print over eBook or audio, another group who prefers eBook strongly to the other formats, and a third group (correlated, I imagine, with people who have long commutes) who strongly prefer audiobook. I don’t think I lose a print sale by selling in eBook, or an eBook sale by selling in audio — rather, that selling in each of these formats is allowing me to expand my overall audience. Once again, this is an argument for remaining actively involved in all of the formats rather than throwing one (or more) overboard and putting all my chips on a single format.
7. This is a bit of inside pool but it’s a significant point and it matters: The fact that the absolute majority of my Redshirts sales came in formats other than hardcover means that the large majority of my sales were not tracked by Bookscan, the service offered by Nielsen that tracks book sales primarily at various brick-and-mortar stores. Bookscan tracked just under two-thirds of my hardcover sales, which is par for the service (a number of independent bookstores don’t report to the service, and I sell reasonably strongly in those stores). But overall it tracked just 21% of Redshirts‘ total sales, missing almost all the electronic and audiobook sales.
The reason this is significant is that Bookscan vastly underreports my sales record as an author — and yet Bookscan is the primary point of reference for sales for publishers and booksellers. I’m not in the market for a new publisher at the moment, but if I were, Bookscan’s report of my sales wouldn’t be doing me any favors. It also doesn’t do me favors with booksellers today when it comes to them making decisions about which books to stock. If bookstores look at numbers that don’t even accurately estimate how I sell in bookstores — much less my overall sales (which are indicative of a larger, overall sales potential), then my job selling to them gets tougher.
While my total sales profile is in many ways idiosyncratic to me, I suspect that science fiction, as a genre, is likely finding its sales underreported by Bookscan in a general sense, primarily because of lack of information about electronic sales. To be clear, as I understand it this is not solely the fault of Nielsen/Bookscan, as it’s difficult to report electronic sales if certain significant retailers are not exactly forthcoming with the data (and this is a whole other level of bad, because it makes it even tougher for authors to get an accurate idea of their sales — but I’ll address that some other time). But it does suggest that if one is looking at science fiction sales only through the lens of Bookscan, the image one is getting is distorted indeed.
8. For those who are curious, I gross roughly the same for each format (I believe that I gross more from audiobook for each individual sale because the unit price is higher but I would have to dig out a contract to check). So from a financial point of view it’s all the same to me whether you prefer hardcover or eBook or audio. Get the format you prefer. One nice thing for me on the royalty side of things is that the book went into the black in the first week of sales — this was a side effect of using Redshirts to cash out a long-unfulfilled contract for a different book I never wrote (on account of someone else publishing a book with almost exactly the same idea first). It was nice to have the book earn out that early.
9. On the personal side of things, I have a number of takeaway points from the sales of Redshirts during its hardcover run, of which I will now highlight two. The first is that I think I’ve successfully posted a relevant data point against a longstanding shibboleth that — aside from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy — humorous science fiction won’t sell well. Clearly, it sells just fine, or at least can. I like this because I have some more humorous ideas I want to turn into novels.
The second is that my basic philosophy of writing accessible science fiction, stuff you can follow even if you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool literary science fiction fan, is one that continues to work out pretty well for me. Redshirts is obviously designed to tickle the pleasure centers of geeks, but it was also designed to bring in the people who consume geek culture without identifying as geeks themselves — the same people who go see science fiction films in the theaters or watch Big Bang Theory at home or play Mass Effect or Bioshock, but don’t carry that geek enjoyment into other aspects of their lives. I’m happy to make the argument to these folks that they can enjoy science fiction books as much as they enjoy other forms of science fiction entertainment. It’s working so far.
10. Science fiction books often sell more in paperback. I won’t mind if that’s true here, too.