Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Truth Sells Books

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.

10 Comment:

At 8:08 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington Left a note...

Very interesting, Terry. It's great to see the sales figures for these books along with their bestseller status. Sometimes it's hard to find those figures, and it is greatly educational to know them.

At 10:30 AM, Blogger Kevin Spear Left a note...

I wonder where the figures would be for Christian publishing and the children's market. Do Bible story books outsell children's picture books?

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


Good questions. You will be hard pressed to find the sales numbers for your questions anywhere. As I said in my post, publishers keep this sales information private. In general children's Bible story books are good sellers.


At 11:58 AM, Blogger kc Left a note...

Interesting article - I don't doubt it. My only beef is that you intimate that fiction isn't "truth". I know what you meant, but it still rubbed me the wrong way. There's a whole lot of truth in fiction, especially for the author who follows Jesus. Many times the truth is presented in a stronger fashion because it's told in a story.

Just my humble opinion.

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Terry Burns Left a note...

Thanks, excellent comments, and the timing was good, I'm working on a NF right now . . . and needed the encouragement.

At 12:33 PM, Blogger michelleu Left a note...

A good question might be why people want to write fiction rather than non-fiction.

I suspect many people think it is easier to "invent" a story than having to do research and prove your point.

Or, perhaps we don't recognize what non-fiction stories can come out of our own lives. Your link to magazine writing was insightful. If only I could figure out what I have to say, rather than slaving away at these novels--which are fun to write, by the way. :-)

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Bucktowndusty Left a note...

My opinion is write what you feel most strongly about regardless of whether it's fiction or non, or whether it will make millions or nothing at all. What comes from it The Big Man only knows, so write what makes you feel good while writing.

I once wrote a poem that describes my viewpoint (I was addressing people who always write depressing poems).

"Ive never seen a poem try to kill itself.
But, some people's works are so depressing,
They'd make any poem want to.
Put yourself in your poem's shoes.
Have some consideration for your creations.
Would you want to be that poem you write about?"

Terry, what say you? I've always wondered how choosing to write full time, or a type of book that doesn't necessarily thrill a writer, affects a writer's zest for the craft.

At 7:39 PM, Blogger Bryan Catherman Left a note...

Michelleu: Fiction and non-fiction are two completely different animals. It's difficult to even put them on the same scale.

It's always good to see the numbers. Fiction, while what most people seem to want to read, they don't seem to want to buy it. I get the feeling that most people want their fiction on the silver screen and non-fiction in print, which might explain why so few people see documentaries in the movie houses.

At 6:13 AM, Blogger Heather Ivester Left a note...

I've only recently started reading CBA fiction because I'm reviewing some books, and here's another reason why it might be a good idea for writers to try to sell short nonfiction pieces before penning full novels. Learning how to RESEARCH!

The best novels I've read lately are packed with details that required the authors to do extensive research. Learning to be a reporter by asking questions gives fiction writers insight that can spill over into novel writing.

Also, I've learned here at this blog the importance of marketing -- and I think it's much easier to market nonfiction than fiction. If an author can become known as an "expert" on a topic from writing nonfiction articles and maybe books -- then it seems like it would be easier to segue into marketing one's fiction. (which all starts with being able to write a "nonfiction" killer query letter to an agent, as in the case of Nicholas Sparks!)

At 8:16 AM, Blogger Sam Pakan Left a note...

Funny you should mention it, Terry. I've spent much time--time I probably should have spent editing--the last six or eight months checking out marketing strategies. I've come across several really good online marketing schemes, but little outside cyberspace that didn't have the feel of scammer would-be publicists looking to make a quick buck. In fact, they seemed to have my buck targeted in particular.

Would it be fair to ask you what some of the better marketing plans include for some future blog article?

As always, your article was very informative. I must admit, after spending a few years writing non-fiction for a magazine, I was desperate to escape it and return to my first love: Litracha. (sounds so much better than just fiction, doesn't it?) The problem was--and I'm sure this will shock you--making a living doing it without holding down at least two other jobs.


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