Columns > Published on August 26th, 2015

Economics of the Big Release

Every now and then a tidal wave comes along in book publishing. Big releases can sometimes act as a shot in the arm for struggling bookstores, and they’ve helped to keep a changing industry afloat.

Ripple Effect

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is an obvious standout for sales this summer, breaking records in the author’s native Alabama before copies even hit the shelves. A week after its initial release, The Wall Street Journal reported that it had already outpaced HaperCollin’s initial expectations to become the fastest-selling book in the company’s history. And the really surprising part? Physical copies of Watchman sold at a 2-to-1 ratio over the digital edition. Perhaps buyers wanted a more durable copy of what they anticipated as a potential literary classic, or maybe they just needed something easier to loan amongst friends or book groups.

These unicorn titles are rare, but it's fairly clear that they do create a ripple effect capable of lasting well beyond their initial release.

But how much do blockbuster titles like Watchman impact the industry overall? Looking at statistics for Fifty Shades of Grey, some estimates credit E.L. James with as much as a 25% boost in adult fiction sales shortly after the series debuted. Considering that as many as seven out of ten books may actually lose money, sales numbers that attractive are significant. When a book does well, it benefits more than just the trio of author, publisher, and agent; a whole other string of individuals also benefit indirectly. Judging by the sheer number of orders I placed during my employment as a book merchandiser, I can vouch for the sobering fact that sales of Fifty Shades paid a large chunk of my wage for a while.

A Critical Eye

Some similar dynamics apply to literary fiction as well. When Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2014, its sales doubled. “Historically, the fiction Pulitzer winner sees the biggest sales benefit out of the five literature categories awarded,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly in the wake of the sales boom.  

Of course, not everyone sees the merit in these hugely popular titles. Just as Go Set A Watchman began to break records, one bookstore owner offered refunds to disappointed customers. Even so, does it matter if later reviews don’t match the hype? Consider this (if you need further evidence beyond E.L. James’ runaway success): while Go Set a Watchman broke all of Barnes and Noble’s first-day sales records, its second-place contender was the 2009 Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol. And even as Goldfinch sales skyrocketed, it began to receive negative attention from critics who lambasted its supposedly simplistic prose. 

So no, it would not appear that critical acclaim is a strictly necessary ingredient in the creation of a bestseller, although it may help bolster sales in some areas. These unicorn titles are rare, but it's fairly clear that they do create a ripple effect capable of lasting well beyond their initial release and the inevitable criticism that ensues. Bearing that in mind, the odds of an individual author achieving E.L. James-level sales success are quite low. In his Salon column, "My Amazon bestseller made me nothing," author Patrick Wensink reveals the rather disheartening numbers generated by his book. 

I’m thrilled and very proud to say I earned any money as a writer. That’s a miracle. It’s just not the jewel-encrusted miracle most people think bestseller bank accounts are made from.

And on that note, this is why you should never ask a writer what's in that bottle they're cradling like a newborn. It's alcohol. Lots of alcohol.

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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