The facts about fiction

As we posted June’s bestseller list, it was glaringly apparent that nearly 80% of the titles on the list were nonfiction. In addition, overall sales were also skewed in this fashion. To top it off, 80% of the returns we are receiving are fiction.  So, what gives? Are readers no longer interested in fiction?
Below is a chart showing the percentage of Sunbury Press bestsellers that are nonfiction over the last 18 months:
As you can see, there is a clear upward trend in nonfiction titles selling better. I’ve often said, about 60% of our titles are fiction, but 60% of our sales are nonfiction. This is because a typical nonfiction book, on average, outsells its fiction counterpart by about double. I had mentioned we were shifting our focus to be more balanced — about 50/50 between nonfiction and fiction. Is this the culprit behind this trend?  Most likely, it is not. Most of the bestsellers are backlist books!
Earlier this year, Publishers Weekly reported adult nonfiction was the fastest growing segment last year, while adult fiction declined slightly. Perhaps those trends are continuing.
You would think, with all of the ugliness in the world, readers would be looking to escape into make-believe. Instead, readers are seeking the facts!
What does this mean for Sunbury Press? Obviously, we are a business, and in order to be successful, we need to be where the market is. There seems to be a lot of demand for 1970s-era nostalgia. I’m sure the 80s won’t be far behind. We will continue to shift, gradually, our offerings to be more nonfiction-oriented, until we achieve about a 60/40 balance in favor of nonfiction.  We will continue to publish fiction, as we have for over a decade. However, we will be even more careful about it.
What does this mean for our Nonfiction Authors? Keep writing — we are cycling around to the 250th anniversary of the USA in a few years. Interest in the Revolution will increase. This will foster a renewed interest in American ideals and beliefs.  I expect a lot of new material about the colonial era, and about our early Republic. Also — it seems like the baby boomers are reminiscing about the 70s — a trend that will continue for awhile longer, until the Xers begin to retire and begin thinking about the 80s and 90s.
What does this mean for our Fiction Authors? To be frank, the only fiction authors who are selling anything are those who are out promoting their work. Those that just want to write are not doing much at all. It’s a much tougher road to success in this segment, and with ebook sales declining 16% last year (again!), the outlets for self-published fiction authors are declining with it. I believe the higher quality material, like we publish from you, has been lost in a sea of self-published dreck that is cycling through the marketplace. Nobody is making any money — and you can’t even give it away FREE anymore. It is clearly at the end of the line. Like any economic depression, it takes time to recover, as failed entities go away, the strong ones become stronger than ever before. Fiction authors who want to stick with it, need to continue writing high quality work, but also need to promote their careers.  A publisher can help you create a near-perfect product, and place it in the book trade. But, unless the author is trying to make a name for themselves, success is highly improbable.
Of course, I would also encourage any of our talented fiction authors to consider coming over to the nonfiction side of the house. Local and regional history is hot. Is there a story in your area that needs to be told? Think about it.
If that doesn’t turn you on, historical fiction continues to sell well – or fiction with nonfiction hooks / settings.
More to come …

The trouble with fiction

Below is a table of book sales figures in 2014 and 2015 by category from our friends at Publishers Weekly:
Adult Non-Fiction
2014 2015 % Change
Art/Architecture/Design/Photography 6984 11172 60%
Biography/Autobiography/Memoir 22803 23544 3%
Business/Economics 16604 17155 3%
Cooking/Entertaining 15492 15495 0%
Computers 4652 4234 -9%
Crafts/Hobbies/Antiques/Games 8485 11486 35%
Health/Fitness/Medicine/Sports 21574 21557 0%
History/Law/Political Science 15220 17132 13%
House & Home/Gardening 2130 3184 49%
Humor 4897 4660 -5%
Performing Arts 7706 8321 8%
Reference 31989 33266 4%
Religion/Bibles 35798 35930 0%
Self Help 9848 11279 15%
Travel 7417 7620 3%
General Non-Fiction 28533 30009 5%
Total Adult Non-Fiction 240130 256042 7%
Adult Fiction
Classics 7578 9985 32%
Occult/Psychological/Horror 3329 2218 -33%
Religion 4174 4414 6%
Fantasy 7526 6600 -12%
Science Fiction
20111 21783 8%
Action Adventure 2239 2285 2%
Graphic Novels 8669 10591 22%
Western 2232 2186 -2%
Mystery/Detective 14304 12533 -12%
Romance 30885 28031 -9%
General Fiction 33524 35101 5%
Total Adult Fiction 138712 141690 2%
Juvenile Non-Fiction
Animals 4625 5128 11%
Biographies/Autobiographies 3979 4253 7%
3790 4296 13%
Education/Reference/Language 6496 7651 18%
Games/Activities/Hobbies 12362 13703 11%
History/Sports/People/Places 11232 12753 14%
Holidays/Festivals/Religion 3895 4073 5%
Social Situations/Family/Health 2502 2766 11%
Total Juvenile Non-Fiction 48882 54624 12%
Juvenile Fiction
Animals 9051 10112 12%
Classics 9981 10161 2%
Concepts 8909 9307 4%
Science Fiction/Fantasy/Magic 45511 44578 -2%
History/Sports/People/Places 14107 13550 -4%
Holidays/Festivals/Religion 8621 9418 9%
Social Situations/Family/Health 27815 24932 -10%
52690 49325 -6%
Total Juvenile Fiction 176685 171383 -3%
Generally speaking, adult nonfiction outsells adult fiction nearly 2 to 1.  Among juvenile titles, fiction outsells nonfiction 3 to 1. Focusing in on the adult fiction categories, occult/horror/psychological, fantasy, and mystery/detective categories — three areas we publish heavily — have been in decline. Fiction on the rise includes science fiction, suspense thrillers and graphic novels. If you are a fiction writer thinking about switching to juvenile fiction, think again — overall this is in decline — probably due to the lack of a category-killing best-seller.
Among adult nonfiction, everything is on the rise except for computer and humor books. Thus, it is fertile ground for the vast majority of new titles.
I had mentioned in prior newsletters about our movement at Sunbury Press to balance out our fiction / nonfiction offerings.  In the past, we published 70% fiction, but found our sales were 70% nonfiction. The overall market bears this out.
So, what to do? A typical fiction title costs a little less to produce, but sells a lot less most of the time. It seems like our decision to mix in more nonfiction makes more sense.
But, given the number of returns, and the low sales, is fiction really worth the risk? If you are a fiction author, you should be asking yourself this question.
While we have no intention to eliminate our fiction categories, we clearly have to keep up or get ahead of the trends. Some of our fiction authors should consider writing in more desirable fiction categories, if they are so moved.  Also, a fiction author might find more success converting to nonfiction — write that history book or self-help book you’ve been thinking about.
The other thing to think about is format.  The fiction that does sell, sells better in ebook format than print, whereas nonfiction sells better in print.  Thus, fiction seems better suited for a low-risk, no returns, ebook-focused online marketing campaign, whereas nonfiction is best suited for more traditional discovery through earned media and SEO.
While some of this has been evident for a number of years, it is really hitting home as we deal with other changes in the industry. As the ebook business continues to consolidate and Amazon favors the big publishers and star authors (as I mentioned last month), there is less and less opportunity for the upcoming fiction writer, who is lost among a sea of low grade self-published material subject to steep discounts and turned-off readers. We need to cycle through this generation of free rubbish until the good independent press author can rise again.  In the meantime, we must together hack away at this jungle and find our way through!