Each week I read a great deal about publishing and what’s going on in the industry. Also I’m actively involved acquiring fiction for Howard Books. In a previous entry on the writing life, I pointed out the greatest number of increased titles for 2004 was in the area of fiction. As I’ve said before, those numbers were the number of titles created or produced. It’s fairly easy to get a book produced these days. Now selling that book into the market is a completely different story. It’s the sales numbers which are critical when it comes to bookselling.
The headline of the Publisher’s Weekly article blared, “Truth Is Stronger Than Fiction.” The article examined the sales numbers for books sold during the calendar year of 2005. Nonfiction sold substantially higher than fiction. It’s a message rarely heard but let’s look at the numbers. Here’s a key quote from long-time publishing journalist Daisy Maryles article, “More new nonfiction titles sold 100,000+ copies in 2005 than in fiction—154 vs. 136. Also, in nonfiction, nine books reported sales of one million+; four of those were in the two-million+ range. In fiction, only six books had sales of more than one million (and two of those were by Nicholas Sparks).”
This article in Publisher’s Weekly is loaded with sales numbers and statistics. It’s available to subscribers. I want to show you the top five books in fiction and nonfiction along with the sales numbers:
1. The Broker by John Grisham. Doubleday (1/05) 1,827,877
2. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Doubleday (3/03) *1,576, 342
3. Mary, Mary by James Patterson. Little, Brown (11/05) 1,103,036
4. At First Sight by Nicholas Sparks. Warner (10/05) 1,093,717
5. Predator by Patricia Cornwell. Putnam (10/05) 1,040,250
1. Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About by Kevin Trudeau. Alliance Publishing (6/05) 3,724,422
2. Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential by Joel Osteen. Warner Faith (9/04) *2,562,906
3. The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. Zondervan (10/02) *2,500,015
4. You: The Owner's Manual by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D. HarperResource (5/05) 2,000,000
5. 1776 by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster (**1,730,000)
Here’s the great irony with this sales information from my perspective. Many writers are gravitating toward fiction. They wrongly believe they don’t need to create a marketing plan or have a “platform” to sell a good story. Because I go to the writers’ conferences and read the submissions, I see firsthand the poorly-crafted results.
Some of these people who are trying hard (and unsuccessfully) to write fiction should probably move into the nonfiction arena. There is value in learning the craft of storytelling in the magazine world. Then the writer can take that storytelling excellence and carry it into writing nonfiction.
Which categories of nonfiction? Some of the top 2005 selling books were in the religion inspirational category. Also cookbooks were a strong performer along with biography and autobiography. Here’s another interesting quote from the article, “Biography and autobiography enjoyed lots of bestseller play this year, too. For the most part, historical biographies outsold books by and about contemporary figures.”
From my work in publishing, I know that 90% of nonfiction books are sold on the basis of a book proposal—not a book manuscript. On the other hand with fiction, the author (particularly a first-time author) has to write the entire manuscript. The fiction writer produces a 80,000 word manuscript on speculation (without certainty of actually publishing that story?).
This message seems to be buried in the excitement of writers to produce fiction. The sales numbers are in for 2005 and the results aren’t what many of those writers expect—the truth sells books.