2017 might turn out to be the year in which declining book sales finally start to take a real toll on major publishing houses. Niche and independent writers like me have been talking about these trends for years, but for the longest time it seemed like big publishers who could position books were essentially immune. The democratization of publishing has meant that anybody can publish their work, but what that means in practice is that there are now millions and millions of books out there that hardly anybody will ever hear of, with all of them in competition with each other.
Marketing is an entirely separate skill from writing, and beyond that, the only organizations willing to put significant resources towards it are the big publishing houses – so their status as de facto gatekeepers has not really changed that much. But as this Slate article points out, 2017 was a little different. Even for the big publishers, it was a pretty bad year for book sales. At the end of 2016 sales were flat, and Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times opined that the publishing industry really needed a 2017 blockbuster. But it did not get one.
Only a handful of overtly political books broke through this tranquil surface in 2017. First and foremost—among political books, but also among pretty much all books—was Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, which sold 167,000 copies its first week according to BookScan and kept on trucking through the fall. This Fight Is Our Fight by Elizabeth Warren and Understanding Trump by Newt Gingrich made brief appearances on BookScan’s top 10. Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism by radio personality Mark R. Levin had a bit more staying power. But the sales of every non-Clinton political book were easily dwarfed by those of the latest John Grisham or, for that matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is one of those titles that never hits the No. 1 spot but ends up selling far more copies over time than the hot screed of the moment. A couple of perennial best-selling authors, however, performed considerably below their previous numbers this year. Dan Brown sold 144,759 copies of Origin in its first week out. That’s a staggering amount, but less than half of the first-week sales of his previous blockbuster, 2013’s Inferno, and Inferno’s first week was less than half as impressive as that of Brown’s 2009 novel, The Lost Symbol.
Brown isn’t the only franchise whose brand appears to be cooling. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have been raking it in for several years with their Killing series of page-turning popular histories. These books aren’t overtly polemical—unlike O’Reilly’s other titles, authored on his own—and the most popular volume in the series, Killing Patton, sold 163,208 copies during its first week of publication in 2014. Last year’s Killing the Rising Sun also did well—144,657 copies sold—in its first week. But the most recent installment, Killing England, moved only 64,723 copies during its first week in September. This is almost certainly due to O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News earlier this year, and with it his inability to hawk the new book on TV every weeknight. With O’Reilly out of commission, Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends is clearly hoping to don the mantle of Fox News personality lending his brand to ghostwritten potboilers that burnish all the annoying moral nuance out of American history. His Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny has loitered around the midsection of the list for the past few weeks.
Leveraging a massive publicity platform is one of the few proven methods of selling a lot of books, but the media has become so balkanized that many best-selling authors are “celebrities” invisible to most of the nation: YouTube stars, radio hosts, reality TV contestants. The Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has enjoyed a degree of popularity few poets would dare to hope for. Her work, by turns mawkishly sentimental and quotably confessional, makes her the Rod McKuen of her generation. Kaur’s success—her new book, The Sun and Her Flowers, sold more than 75,000 copies in its debut week last month and has racked up a total of 252,602 sales in the month or so since—isn’t entirely due to her ability to produce lines like “i do not want to have you/ to fill the empty parts of me/ i want to be full on my own.” She has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where her fame was initially spurred when a self-portrait in pajamas stained with period blood was banned by the platform. In a paradox worthy of our late, decadent stage of internet culture, Kaur’s career is dependent on Instagram both because it puts her on millions of teenagers’ cellphones and because she is seen as having defied it.
It’s not so much that those numbers are that small, but compare them to some numbers from the past. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code sold 81 million copies as recently as 2003. Nothing like that ever seems to happen these days, and that only happened fourteen years ago. Not hundreds of thousands, millions. A while back I published an article in Denver Witch Quarterly addressing the entirely wrongheaded idea that you can freely publish occult books because occult writers like me are swimming in money. The reality is that occult books make next to nothing in terms of real money, so every single sale counts.
Now that might be starting to happen for mainstream authors as well. Maybe that means we’ll see some changes in the industry at this point, but unfortunately I have no idea what would work. Business is not my strong suit and it never has been. Probably it will be something that takes us all totally by surprise. The next big hit might be just around the corner, ready to revitalize the industry, and 2017 might just be a fluke or an outlier. At least, for now we all can hope that something will emerge to turn things around.