EBooks and Paperbacks… and Backlists

The other day I was talking to my editor, something I attempt to do weekly, and in discussing the industry he made the observation that hardcover sales were largely holding on, overall, although this varied to some degree by author, and that the explosive growth of ebooks had stopped, with a very slight increase in overall sales last year, while the sales of mass-market paperbacks had continued to decline far faster than the sales of ebooks had increased. In my own sales, I’m seeing a modest increase in the combined sales of hardcovers and initial ebooks, although the percentage of hardcovers is declining slightly while the percentage of initial [i.e., higher-priced] ebooks is increasing. The sales of ebooks sold at the “paperback” price continues to increase, but not as much as the sales of mass-market paperbacks have declined. On the other hand, ebook sales of older books have strengthened, largely because, I suspect, few bookstores carried new copies of older paperbacks, and readers who want those books are turning to ebooks.

Obviously, I can’t speak for other authors, but what I’m seeing suggests that a strong backlist may become even more of a necessity, at least for those authors who do not become instant, or near-instant, mega-sellers. The problem for newer authors, of course, is how to get published enough times so that you have enough of a presence in readily accessible venues, largely internet these days, so that readers who have not read you will see your name enough to want to try your work. The associated difficulty is making certain that the venues where your name appears are venues that appeal to those who will like your books. This can be anything but easy. For example, there are several forums where the forum-leader [for lack of a better word] or leaders are inclined to be favorable to my books, but from both the tenor and volume of the comments, it’s fairly apparent that either a great number of the forum frequenters are not… or that those who do like my books refrain from commenting… and I‘ve never been able to ascertain more than the obvious fact that some frequenters of those forums and sites like my books and some don’t. I hope for the dominance of the silent readers who like and buy my works while continuing in all ways that are feasible and cost-and-time effective to maintain a certain visibility… but that’s far easier for an established author than a newcomer with only a book or two out there.

I could name a handful of relatively new authors who have been incredibly successful in building sales through an internet presence, but they all seem to have a very good and accessible sense of humor, both in print and in person. I can also name a number of authors whose careers have essentially vanished because their public presence is almost non-existent and their personal appearance and presentation are less than stellar, and some of them are technically better writers than others who have continued to publish and sell. Yet I can also name at least one best-selling author who has essentially no public presence outside of the books and whose personal appearances have often been reputed to be disasters to the point that the author’s publisher prefers not to tour the author.

All of which goes to show, I suppose, that continuing success in writing doesn’t ever boil down to a magic formula that any new or would-be author can follow to the letter and gain success. But then, hasn’t this always been the case?

28 thoughts on “EBooks and Paperbacks… and Backlists”

  1. Ron Nelson says:

    Well I’m looking forward to Cyador’s Heirs (pre-ordered ebook from B&N).

    I was wondering if you would be returning to your Natural Ordermage (Rahl) story, or if that was always intended to be a two-volume set?



    1. Rahl’s story was indeed always intended just to be two volumes.

  2. Virginia says:

    I’ll always hope for the available of paperbacks to persist; not all of us are able to use digital formats. I’ve yet to meet an ereader that didn’t give me migraines. 🙁

  3. Phil says:

    How are audiobook sales impacting things for you? I have to imagine the steady release of the older Recluse novels would tell an interesting story.

    1. The release of Recluce audiobooks has obviously been beneficial, but it’s too early to tell exactly how beneficial since I only have six months of royalty statements so far.

  4. Pat McDonald says:

    Do to the ease of purchasing ebooks, I recently purchased the entire Recluse series (originally read from the library)in Indiana. No opportunity to get paperbacks here in Shanghai and, if had the hard copies, I need to abandon them when moving internationally again.

  5. John Prigent says:

    Well, I’m going to be a loss to your hardcover sales but an increase in initial ebook sales simply because I’ve run out of space to put more real books on my shelves. There’s also the minor (by comparison) point that your hardbacks don’t usually get to the UK for several weeks after publication – but that’s only an annoyance, if I still had space for more books I’d continue to wait for the hardcover to arrive.

  6. Plovdiv says:

    I bough all the paperbacks of your Imager Portfolio up to Imager’s Battalion. I love the covers and the size, as most books in the UK are in B-format, which is annoying. A quick question; How come your books aren’t available in the UK except in the bigger Waterstones book shops? Also, in connection with the previous, why are your books not published in UK editions? Thankyou for your excellent books, as they are very good reads.

    1. The reason why my books aren’t more widely available in the UK is that no UK publisher has wanted to publish them since Orbit decided not to publish any more of my books more than a decade ago. So they’re only available in export editions from the U.S.

      1. Mayhem says:

        You should also check out Forbidden Planet if you haven’t already as they have a good track record of carrying most of the backlist.

        I agree, one minor bonus of the US versions being stocked here is they haven’t changed from A to B format mid series thereby bollixing up my shelves.

  7. Tom says:

    Do hard cover books sell better the more frequently an author tours and does autographing sessions? If you do autographing sessions do you sign more than the volume being advertised at the time; if I brought three different hardcover volumes for you to sign would I be turned away? I don’t see you scheduled for an autographing session unless its in the coming Washington DC meeting.

    1. So far, I’ve been able to sign everything that people have brought to autograph sessions, although once or twice I’ve had to request that readers with lots of books to be signed wait until those with only a few had their books signed first. So far, I’m only scheduled for the Phoenix Comicon June 5-8, and at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington, D.C., in November.

  8. Plovdiv says:

    I really want to visit Forbidden Planet someday, as it sounds fantastic, but its difficult for me to get to it, oh well, maybe someday! Also, I totally agree with you about the annoyance of the format change that has been taking place in the UK these last few years, as it does mess up my shelves, and I don’t see the sense of producing bigger books when the price is basically the same as the smaller version. In fact, some A-format books I have seen are more expensive than their bigger cousins, to which my reaction was eh? Does anyone know the reason for this move to bigger books in the UK, besides charging more, as this is not always the case?

  9. Bill L says:

    The World Fantasy Convention does have an amazing mass autographing session, but it is open to convention attendees only. The 2003 WFC in DC mass signing was amazing, it was my second convention.

  10. RM says:

    I bought The Magic of Recluce and the last two Imager novels in audio from Tantor. The Imager novels are the first ones of yours I haven’t bought in paperback or ebook format. The audiobook versions are somewhat more convenient for me these days as my available reading time is unfortunately less than the amount of time I spend in the car. I am very glad that the Tantor audio versions are available, and I may well end up getting the entire Recluce series on audio if they all become available.

    1. Tantor has committed [by contract and cash] to publishing the entire Recluce Saga in audio format. So far, they’ve gotten as far as The White Order.

  11. Tim says:

    I suppose one advantage of the ebook is that book size and having a UK publisher is no longer an issue, as everything is downloaded. I will admit that within my social group I am in the minority in that I have mostly discarded all paper versions and moved to the electronic equivalents.

    There are two issues though : The first is that you cannot pass these on; when you die, so do the rights to the ebooks as they are (usually) bound to the account. Music appears to be more portable. The second is in academic books and journals : it is so annoying to get a link to a diagram – but there is no way back!!! It takes some nifty navigation to return to the place which referenced the map or diagram. If these were published in the appendix, then it is a real pain (UK expression).

    Whether ebooks will ever fully replace paper books remains to be seen. But a lot can happen in 10 years. Cassette format disappeared very quickly – though its predecessor vinyl still amazingly clings on somehow with a niche group who insist it sounds ‘more natural’.

    A friend was in Berlin recently. He does not have a mobile phone. 3 people stopped him one day asking to borrow his phone as the signal from their operator was poor and they wanted to use Google maps. Their reaction to his admitting he had no phone was one of unbelief. I wonder whether this will also happen if you see someone reading a paper copy of a book! Circulations of the UK broadsheet (UK speak for intellectual) papers have dropped dramatically but it is of no concern to the publishers as more and more people access the online versions.

    Let’s just hope that no stellar activity destroys the Wifi.

  12. Rob says:

    I’ve always wondered how many books a well established author like you has to sell for it to be considered successful? 100,000 or a million?
    I try to get both the hard cover and ebook through my Nook(my wife and I chose Nooks as a way to support a brick and mortar book store).
    Also what are your thoughts on ebooks VS physical? Do you have an ereader?

    1. It’s not just the number of books, but the number of books in a given period. For most publishers, the initial royalty for a hardcover is 10%. That’s $2.50 for the author if the list price is $25.00 (or even $24.99). Selling 10,000 hardcover copies in a year of one book is considered successful by the publisher, for a new or midlist author. Paperback sales royalties for non-media tie-in novels usually bring an author in F&SF 45-65 cents a copy. (These numbers are for being published by a major publisher, not for self-publishing.) Authors like the late Robert Jordan or James Patterson, or George R.R. Martin, generally sell above a half million copies. An author on the very bottom of the bestseller lists for a single week might sell 30,000 copies of that book in a year. I’m either a high mid-list author or a low best-seller, depending on whom you ask, but I’m successful enough to make a comfortable living at it. I’ve probably sold four million books over the last 25 years, five million at the outside. Generally speaking, from my experience, authors get more per copy from a hardcover than from the initial higher-priced ebook, but more from the later and lower-priced ebook than from a mass-market paperback. Unfortunately, the increase in ebook sales has not, so far, made up for the precipitous decline in the number of mass market paperbacks once sold.

      Personally, I read both physical and ebooks, physical at home and ebooks when I travel.

      1. Rob says:

        Wow those numbers seem so low to me. I mainly read fantasy so authors like Jordan and Martin only selling half a million of each book seems a tragedy.
        With the popularity of Game of Thrones on HBO, I assumed those books would be in the millions!
        Were the numbers larger in the past or have books sales stayed the level over time, if you factor ebooks in to it?

        Have you given any thought to self publishing?

        1. I understated “a bit.” In terms of F&SF, the top seller is the Harry Potter series, each book selling over 50 million copies [but remember, most of those were sold in the 1990s]. The Wheel of Time is listed at some 30 million copies; the half million copies figure I used was for hardcovers only, and a bit low, most of the hardcover sales of each book were between half a million and a million. So far, according to the figures I’ve been able to find, Martin’s series hasn’t officially cracked ten million, but I’d imagine it’s close — but that’s heavily weighted toward paperbacks. In F&F, past numbers were higher, at least on a book by book number. I’ve been told that virtually every book written by Heinlein — and they were all SF — sold close to a million copies, but almost entirely in paperback.

          So long as Tor will publish me on current terms, I’m not interested in self-publishing.

          1. Rob says:

            So interesting! I’ve not read a Heinlein book, yet.
            I just found the list of best selling books on Wikipedia. Lord of the Rings, unsurprisingly, is near the top.
            With the recent popularization of the fantasy genre, and the I guess you could say main streaming of Scifi/Fantasy, comic books, video game culture, has there been an uptick in sales?
            Has there been any interest in any of your series for tv or movie adaptations? The changing timelines of the Recluse series would make it tough to do, but the Spell Song series would work well.

          2. I can’t speak to the question of an uptick in sales, because I started writing fantasy just at the same time as Jordan, although The Magic of Recluce was published a year later than The Eye of the World. There’s certainly been more interest in fantasy and a lot more titles being published, but on a book by book basis, I don’t see an increase in sales, and for most writers mass market paperback sales are way down. Even George R.R. Martin hasn’t come close to the Harry Potter books

            There’s been absolutely no interest in any of my fantasy series from either TV or movie types.

  13. Rob says:

    Do you think the slump in paper back sales is being offset by ebook or audio book sales?
    My wife and I haven’t bought too many paper backs lately while I’m buying more ebooks and reading a lot more now that I can carry multiple books with me on my tablet or phone.

    1. Ebooks are a mixed blessing. In my experience, they generate more backlist sales, because bookstores don’t usually carry many older paperbacks, even if they’re in print, but the increase in ebook sales doesn’t offset the drop in sales of recently released mass market paperbacks, not in my experience, and not according to my publisher. so, probably writers with an extensive backlist benefit, while newer writers suffer, except for a handful of talented internet/media savvy and industrious newer writers.

  14. David says:

    I’m slowly trying to replicate my library into ebook format. It’s expensive, but oh so convenient to be able to pick up a book when I want to instead of forgetting I was wanting to read a given title when I’m finally home where I can search for it. One nice thing I’ve found with a particular reseller is that I can often get the ebook and, then for just a bit more money, the Audible book as well. While I like the feel and smell of a good book, being able to open an app and either listen to or read a book that just topped your wish list of “I’d rather be…” is a great thing.

    How do audio books stack up on royalties for the author? Price wise, they are usually more expensive than the hardbacks, but I’d imagine that the costs are quite different.

    1. Audiobook royalties, in my limited experience, are about the same [that’s for a retail download] as for an ebook, and retail downloads comprise the vast majority of my audiobook sales. Obviously, that means that royalties on an individual audiobook are less than half those generated by a single hardcover sale. Total sales numbers, at least so far, comprise less than ten percent of what ebook sales are. That’s for my work. I can’t speak for other authors.

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