Inelastic fiction sales

I recently read some very disheartening statistics regarding the industry-wide sales of fiction books. There are two main points:
1) Fiction sales are flat or down among most publishers in most categories.
2) Readers, on average, only pay for 25% of the fiction books they read. The remaining 75% are either free downloads, pirated, or borrowed.
At Sunbury Press, our sales have been increasing steadily the last three years, but this is mainly due to balancing our mix more towards nonfiction and increasing our marketing and publicity capabilities. Our fiction sales are actually up a bit for most authors.
However, it is very telling when you are in an industry where only one quarter of the customers pay. Understand, of the 25% who do pay SOMETHING for their fiction, they might be buying 99 cent eBooks or picking up used copies for a dollar or two at used bookstores or flea markets. The reader who pays full price for fiction is very rare indeed. Ask yourselves — when is the last time you paid full-price for a fiction book you actually read? In my case, it has been quite some time. I benefit from reading all of your novels! My last fiction purchase was a series of books by Howard Frank Mosher some years ago. Tammi and I cherish them as some of our favorite books. Of course, she reads A LOT of thrillers on her Kindle that she pays for.
But, think about it. When possibly only 10% of the reading public is paying full price for your work and the vast majority are reading it for free, what does this mean?
  • Can you really make a living as a fiction author in today’s saturated marketplace where anyone can release anything they want whenever they want?
  • In economics this is a clear indication of a situation where supply far outweighs the demand. We’ve clearly gone well past the point of elasticity — where the customer is willing to pay for another instance of a product. We are so far into the territory where they will only take it if they can get it for nothing!
As a publisher trying to grow both in the nonfiction and fiction spaces, we are finding our fiction propped up by our nonfiction. We do this because we believe these fiction works are worthy of publication and SHOULD be selling much better. Under normal circumstances, they would be.
As fiction authors, you must seriously consider the headwinds we are facing. We need to find different ways to get books in front of people that are willing to pay for them. I also think we need to stop participating in the giveaways. It’s a fools errand leading to nothing more than fool’s gold.
  • Growth of US traditional publishing print book sales in 2016: 3%
  • Growth of US traditional publishing print book sales in 2017: 2%
  • Growth of US traditional publishing print book sales in 2018 so far: 2.9%
  • Adult fiction print sales in 2018 YTD versus 2017: -3.5%
  • Children’s/YA print sales in 2018 YTD versus 2017: +5.7%
  • Hardcover sales in 2018 YTD versus 2017: +7%
  • Nonfiction print sales volume growth between 2014 and 2017: 5%
  • Fiction print sales volume growth between 2014 and 2017: 0
  • Children’s/YA print sales volume growth between 2014 and 2017: 3%