In this business, you often see the term "million seller" bandied about. "This book is going to sell a million copies!" is a phrase I've had thrown at me dozens of times at conferences and conventions. In my view, people who talk about million sellers tend to over-promise and under-deliver. The numbers on 2011 book sales are in, and…well, nothing gives clarity to promises like some hard numbers.
How many hardcover novels released last year hit the million mark? One–John Grisham's THE LITIGATORS. (Stephen King's 11/23/63 fell just short.)
How many hardcover nonfiction books released last year sold a million copies? Two–Laura Hillenbrand's UNBROKEN, and Walter Isaacson's STEVE JOBS. (Bill O'Reilly's KILLING LINCOLN just missed, selling more than 990,000 copies.)
How many new trade paper releases last year sold a million copies? Three–Todd Burpo's HEAVEN IS FOR REAL (the biggest selling book of the year, at just under 5 million copies), Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP, and Steig Larson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
How many YA and children's books hit the million mark? Four, and every one of them was part of a series: Jeff Kenney's DIARY OF A WIMPY KID #6, Christopher Paolini's INHERITANCE #4, Rick Riordan's HEROES OF OLYMPUS #3, and his KANE CHRONICLES #2.
How many mass market releases in 2011 sold a million copies? Five, and three of them were from the same author. The list includes Grisham's THE CONFESSION, Nora Roberts' THE SEARCH, and three from George R.R. Martin: A FEAST FOR CROWNS, A GAME OF THRONES, and A CLASH OF KINGS.
And a new category, how many newly-released ebooks sold a million copies in 2011? The answer will undoubtedly surprise you–one. Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP.(HEAVEN IS FOR REAL just missed hitting the mark.)
The numbers for backlist books are pretty skinny–only three backlist titles sold a million copies, and all three were from the same author. Suzanne Collins' CATCHING FIRE and MOCKING JAY hit the million mark in print sales, and HUNGER GAMES sold a million ebooks.
And that's the full list. Interesting to note that last year there were no backlist trade paper books; the highest was BREAKING DAWN, which sold 750,000. So a total of 19 books sold a million copies in 2011. Let's put this in perspective…
There were a few more than 250,000 NEW titles released in 2011, and of that group, 16 sold a million copies. There were approximately three million books for sale in the US last year (that number is much in dispute, and some would put it closer to four million), and a total of 19 of them sold a million copies. (Okay, time for the disclaimer: These figures are being pulled from Publishers Weekly, the bible for those of us who work in the industry, but a publication that relies on publishers and retailers for their figures. So could some author have sold a million ebooks from his or her website and not made the list? Sure. But when you look at these numbers, it makes you wary of the inflated claims some authors have about their personal ebook sales.)
One of the most interesting details that arises from looking over the full sales reports, which can be found in the March 19 edition of Publishers Weekly, is that the vast majority of bestselling authors have been there before. Of the thirty top-selling novelists from across all publishers last year, only two names show up on the list that weren't there in previous years. So the same old names (Patterson, Roberts, Sparks, etc.) are what are paying the bills for publishers. This is a business that keeps going back to what works (and WHO works) in order to make money.
What's the lesson for the writer? Um…before you decide that writing books is going to lead you to fame and fortune, you may want to peruse the bestseller lists. A little dose of reality can be a good thing.