Over just the past few years, I’ve gotten the general impression that the reading public’s attention span in dealing with new books has shortened, but that impression was gained mainly from my observation of other authors’ book sales from the outside and what I observed in far more detail from everything surrounding my own books, i.e., the sales patterns, the reviews, the blogs, internet commentary, letters, etc. What I observed in my own case was that, besides changes in overall sales figures, the initial sales “bump” and associated “buzz” have been compressed into shorter and shorter periods after, first, the initial hardcover release, and then again, at the time when the mass market paperback sale, and lower ebook price, occurred. Because we all have the tendency to generalize based on our own experience, my first thought was that, because I’m an older author, this just might be particular to me… and possibly to other authors with a similar career profile.
So I started looking for other figures that might confirm or refute my impression. A quick look at The New York Times listing of books remaining on the fiction bestseller list for extended periods showed that the number of books with long runs on the bestseller list had a pattern – of sorts. That is, there were about the same number of books with a long time on the list in the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1990s and 2000s, but not in the 1970s or 1980s… or since 2010. Looking deeper into the lists, I discovered something else. While there still remain a few “mega-seller” books every year that stay on the lists for months, sometimes, years, as in the case of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the percentage of fiction bestsellers with moderate runs, say more than five weeks on the list, shifted fairly significant in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so that a far larger percentage of best-sellers are “one and dones,” if you will, or perhaps hold on for two weeks. Speaking frankly, that’s certainly been the case for my books. My only multiple-week best-seller was in the 1990s, although, in hardcover sales numbers, my biggest bestsellers have been after that shift, several even after 2010.
At least in a general sense, those figures tend to confirm that “peak sales” are being squeezed into a shorter and shorter period for all but literally a handful of mega-authors. While a short sales period has been the norm for first-published authors as long as I’ve been writing, the shortened prime sales period for all but the mega-authors appears to be a comparatively recent development. Whether that causes a shorter period of heightened “buzz” about an author, or whether those who create the buzz are only interested when a new book comes out… or a combination of both, I couldn’t determine in any factual sense, not unless I wanted to invest months in market research and analysis… and I left that career behind a long time ago.
At the same time, it’s a mixed blessing to learn that my perceptions based on my own situation weren’t totally off base, because it shows on the one hand that I wasn’t too self-deluded, but on the other it does indicate a much shorter attention span on the part of readers in dealing with new books and authors, and I can’t help but think that hurts not only up-and-coming writers whose work is good and solid, even outstanding, but not flashy, but also mid-list authors who don’t get the media and internet buzz for as long a period as before… and this has to impact their sales to some degree.
P.S. Interesting enough, just after I posted this, I read an entry on Tor.com [ Under the Radar: Mid-Series from the Mid List ] that has a related theme.