Checking in with the Publisher’s Weekly Numbers

Hard to believe that half of 2015 has already slipped by. The Hugo controversy has really sucked some attention away from 2015 novels, and a lot of SFF readers are really only beginning to get into their 2015 reading. Still, we’ve seen several novels published are likely to have major impact come the 2016 awards season. Urpooted by Naomi Novik looks to be this year’s The Goblin Emperor. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson has made some real noise, and Kim Stanley Robinson, a perennial Hugo and Nebula favorite, just published Aurora.

On the best-seller front, the “biggest” SF novel of the year comes out next week (July 14th): Ernest Cline’s Armada. Cline’s last book, Ready Player One (2011), was a huge success. Three years later, it’s still hovering near the top of the Publisher’s Weekly (PW) SF charts. This week, it was #4, behind The Martian, Jurassic Park, and Station Eleven. Seveneves clicks in at #5, meaning Ready Player One is still selling better than every 2015 SF novel.

Cline gets quite a bit of online criticism; his book is seen as the epitome of “mainstream” or “popcorn” SF, and many outlets are eager to trash Cline’s popularity. For instance, Slate killed Armada in their recent review—but reviews aren’t going to affect sales. When you’re as popular as Cline, you’re almost like E.L. James, insulated from negative press.

Ready Player One was largely ignored by the SFF awards circuit. It picked up a Campbell nomination (interesting to note that the Campbell was the only nomination The Martian received). Selling too many copies almost seems to hurt your awards chances, and this gives us a good space to take a closer look at some more Publisher’s Weekly numbers.

At Chaos Horizon, I had high hopes that sales numbers would correlate to awards chances. So far, I haven’t been able to find a sensible connection. See my previous posts on Publisher’s Weekly and Bookscan for some info.

Thanks to an online friend, we’ve dug even deeper into the Publisher’s Weekly archive to see if any correlation exists. Remember, Publisher’s Weekly publishes weekly (duh!) bestseller lists. For Hardcover fiction, they include weekly and cumulative sales numbers. While books come and go on the list fairly quickly, this allows us a snapshot of the high-water-mark of a book’s popularity. It’s not perfect data, but it’s the data we have.

My initial hypothesis was that “more sales = more votes”; the more people that have read a book, the better it will do in a voted award. By combing through the data, here’s what we’ve got in terms of Hugo nominated books making the PW Bestseller list at some time during the year (we only have access to data for 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 sales):

2013 Hugo Nominees/Bookscan Bestsellers – 2312, Redshirts, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
2014 Hugo Nominees/Bookscan Bestsellers – The Ocean at the End of the Lane (declined), The Wheel of Time
2015 Hugo Nominees/Bookscan Bestsellers – Skin Game

Now, that doesn’t mean other works didn’t sell well: they just sold more slowly, to the point that they never poked their head into “Bestseller” territory. It’s also interesting to note that in the past 2 years, two of those bestsellers made the Hugos only because of explicit campaigns: The Wheel of Time and Skin Game.

As such, making the PW weekly Bestseller list doesn’t seem to correlate to Hugo chances. That’s an odd conclusion to make, and something we’ll keep our eye on. I think this shows that the mainstream audience and the Hugo voting audience are becoming increasingly distinct; one does not follow the other.

Let’s look at who has popped up onto the PW Bestseller week so far for 2015. I’ve stuck mostly to novels, although I threw Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman onto the list. I’m also only including 2015 published novels. I’m going to give you the following info: publishing date, the last date they showed up on the PW list, and the cumulative books sold for 2015. So, like this:

Title, Author, publishing date, date on PW list, cumulative books sold in 2015, highest rank on PW list

Finder’s Keepers, Stephen King, June 2015, 7-13-15, 174,307, #1
Sevenves, Neal Stephenson, May 2015, 6-29-15, 32,041, #5
The Darkling Child, Terry Brooks, June 2015, 6-22-15, 3,804, #17
The Invasion of the Tearling, Erika Johansen, June 2015, 6-22-15, 3,051, #23
Nemesis Games, James S.A. Corey, June 2015, 6-15-15, 2,394, #24
The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi, May 2015, 6-15-15, 5,304, #19
A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson, May 2015, 6-08-15, 20,020, #9
The Scarlet Gospels, Clive Barker, May 2015, 6-01-015, 6,340, #9
Lots of the Sith: Star Wars, Paul Kemp, April 2015, 5-25-15, 12,450, #8
Day Shift, Charlaine Harris, May 2015, 5-18-15, 3,817, #18
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro, March 2015, 4-27-15, 43,323, #5
The Skull Throne, Peter V. Brett, March 2015, 4-13-15, 3,947, #14
Saint Odd, Dean R. Koontz, January 2015, 3-30-15, 78,344, #1
Trigger Warnings: Short Fictions, Neil Gaiman, February 2015, 3-23-15, 32,113, #5
Heir to the Jedi: Star Wars, Kevin Hearne, March 2015, 3-23-15, 7,432, #13
Vision in Silver, Anne Bishop, March 2015, 3-16-15, 2,635, #21
Blood Infernal, James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell, 3-02-15, February 2015, 7,444, #13
Agenda 21: Into the Shadows, Glenn Beck, January 2015, 2-25-15, 23,666, #9
The Mime Order, Samantha Shannon, January 2015, 2-09-15, 2,486, #18
The Last American Vampire, Seth Grahame-Smith, January 2015, 2-02-15, 4,042, #25
The Empty Throne, Bernard Cornwell, January 2015, 1-26-15, 8,592, #12
Golden Son, Pierce Brown, January 2015, 1-19-15, 5,188, #14

Remember, these numbers don’t include all of the marketplace (some presses and independent bookstores don’t report numbers), and e-books aren’t included in “Hardcover” numbers. These numbers might represent 50% of the total sold for that week, and even less of the whole they’ll sell.

I tried to include everything of evenly vaguely genre interest. It’s amazing how well Koontz and King sell, absolutely dwarfing everyone else on the list (particularly King). Also note that just because a book never makes the overall top #25 doesn’t mean it’s not selling well. It just means it’s selling more slowly, and more through word-of-mouth than in the big publicity burst that gets you up here. Still, if you’re not in the Top #25, you’re probably selling fewer than 3,000 hard copies a week.

So, what do we learn? Most SFF books only make brief appearances in the bottom part of the list, popping up somewhere between #15-#25 and selling 2,500-5,000 or so books that week. King and Koontz, obviously more associated with horror, do better than anything from SFF.

In terms of SFF, a few books stand out. Seveneves has done very well, but not as well as The Buried Giant. Ishiguro tapped into the mainstream market; although the books was not particularly well received, it’ll be interesting to see if people remember it come award season. Kate Atkinson is doing well at the borderlands of SFF, but is thought of as more mainstream/romance than straight SFF. Nemesis Games and The Water Knife appeared briefly but both have a shot to show up in the Hugo. I thought Golden Son, which showed up for only one week, would have done better. From a sales perspective, it’s not the next The Hunger Games or Divergent. It’s interesting (and unepexcted) to see how well Glenn Beck did his dystopic novel. Ayn Rand still has plenty of fans.

As a point of comparison, PW has Grey by E.L. James selling 750,000 copies in three weeks.

I’ll continue to check in with the PW numbers to see if any SFF novels break out over the next few months.

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7 responses to “Checking in with the Publisher’s Weekly Numbers”

  1. JJ says :

    You can’t use The Martian as an indicator of anything with regard to awards. It was originally self-published in 2011, selling more than 35,000 copies, which made its 2014 mainstream publication ineligible for most awards.

    • chaoshorizon says :

      Very true—although I think if the awards had wanted to find a way to make The Martian eligible, they could have. The Campbell found a way, after all.

      • JJ says :

        Most awards have fairly specific written rules and criteria which are part of their “charter” or something similar, and the judges/administrators do not have the latitude to violate them. This is certainly the case with the Hugos.

        The Campbell rules say “Eligible novels are those published in English during the previous calendar year”, but do not specify that this must be first English publication.

        The Hugo rules say “given for work… appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year… A work originally appearing in a language other than English shall also be eligible for the year in which it is first issued in English translation”.

        I don’t know where so many people have gotten the idea that awards administrators are free to qualify or disqualify entries and throw out ballots wherever they want. They don’t do this; they have to follow the rules.

      • chaoshorizon says :

        In the case of the Hugo, you’ve also got the “In the event that a potential Hugo Award nominee receives extremely limited distribution in the year of its first publication or presentation, its eligibility may be extended for an additional year by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the intervening Business Meeting of WSFS.” That clause is ambiguous enough to allow a certain amount of flexibility. Is appearance as solely an Amazon.com e-book enough to qualify for “extremely limited distribution”? Is “distribution” a noun referring to sales or sales channels? Second, was The Martian revised enough to qualify as a new work? There are no real rules guidance there, and you could argue that The Martian published by in 2015 was different enough from The Martian published earlier to qualify. The Hugo administrators didn’t choose to do that, but if they’d voted with 2/3, they might have. That’s what I meant when I said they could have found a way if they really wanted to. They didn’t, so this is a moot point.

        Here’s the Nebula clauses: “1. All works first published in English, in the United States, during the calendar year, in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, or a related fiction genre are eligible for the Nebula Awards® in their respective categories.”; “2. The Nebula Awards Commissioner will decide the eligibility of a questionable work.” What does “published” mean, though? Blog? E-book? Print book?

        A lot of this comes down to the fact that the Hugo and Nebula by-laws were written before self-published e-books were a thing. The rules should probably be rewritten to clarify what “publication” means, and to provide clearer guidelines to avoid future problems.

  2. Alan Calder says :

    Bernard Cornwell’s books are historical fiction; they contain no SFF elements.

    • chaoshorizon says :

      Thanks. Hard to tell from a quick look.

    • Scipio Smith says :

      Overall I agree, but considering that The Empty Throne involves the hero getting cured of his wounds by being stabbed with the same sword that dealt the wound (apparently a doctor confirmed that this might work in this specific instance, but all the characters treat it like magic) it’s as fantastic as some things that get on the ballot.

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