Scary Numbers

As PW just reported, 2012′s science fiction unit sales as tracked by Nielsen Bookscan were down 21% over 2011′s numbers. Fantasy wasn’t mentioned in that article, but fantasy sales were down 28%. Here for your convenience are the trends in SF and fantasy, again as tracked by Nielsen (which tracks only print sales, and only from some outlets), since 2006:

Looks a bit dismal, doesn’t it?

Before we all despair, I think it’s worth emphasizing the absence of e-book sales from these numbers. Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s year-end letter noted that “At this writing 26% of [Macmillan's] total sales this year have been digital…. Just as in 2011, the percentage of e-book sales has remained consistent week by week through the year for the most part…” So the raw numbers, at least, look a lot less dismal when we consider that Nielsen is probably not picking up at least 25% of sales (a very thoroughly lowballed number).

The percentage change from year to year is more worrying, because the story is pretty much the same in every genre except romance, where the stats were wildly skewed by the Fifty Shades books. Are those former book-buyers now only borrowing from libraries and friends? buying from tiny independent outlets that Bookscan doesn’t track? pirating e-books? playing video games? hanging out on Twitter? I’ve heard any number of theories but not seen any convincing evidence one way or another.

Conveniently, the absence of data frees me to solicit anecdotes. If you bought fewer print books (in any genre) in 2012 than in 2011, why do you think that was?

28 thoughts on “Scary Numbers

  1. chaos

    Some of my print book purchases have been diverted into e-book purchases. That’s all that I’m particularly aware of changing.

  2. Arachne Jericho

    Almost every book I bought last year was an audiobook or an ebook. The latter includes graphic novels, which are now available via Comixology, Kindle, or Nook. These days I only buy a paper book if it’s a collector’s item or an incidental through Kickstarter.

  3. Andrea

    I’ve switched my massive book habit almost entirely to ebooks.

    The rise of self-pub probably has an impact on these numbers as well.

  4. Miquela

    I don’t buy ebooks at all, and I think I probably bought about the same number of books in 2011 and 2013. However, I buy mostly used books, so…

  5. Jaime

    I bought my first ereader/tablet last year. A large portion of my book buying has shifted to ebooks, although I did buy print books as well.

    Genre hasn’t shifted. All but two of the books I bought last year were Science Fiction and Fantasy. The other two were non-fiction research books.

  6. sheela

    I’ve been making a conscious effort to limit the number of books I bring into the house (since my bookshelves were so crammed), which has meant getting more books from the library. I also have a Kindle so I’ve purchased more e-books in the past year.

  7. Amanda D.

    When I worked retail, there were one or two people who would come in once a week and buy a huge stack of genre mass market paperbacks. Just the market for e-reader devices in other words. I have a hunch that these number reflect ebooks slowly replacing mass market paperbacks as the fast, easy, one time use format.

    I try to only buy books that I would read multiple times do the rest of my reading through the library. My print book purchases probably increased slightly in 2012.

  8. Laer Carroll

    I never buy hardbacks. I get them through the library. If I want to re-read them, I then get the trade or mass-market paperbacks.

    My bookshelves are already huge. I must strive to keep them from over-running the rest of my home!

  9. jmb

    Buying lots of ebooks as there is no longer a bookstore in my neighborhood & the one across town doesn’t always have the ones I’m interested in reading. Probably more than last year due to convenience advantage, including space when it comes to impulse reads.

  10. --E

    I went against the trend and bought more books, most of them in print editions. I’m not a huge reader (working in publishing can have that effect), but I refound my love of reading last year and bought maybe 15 print books and 5 ebooks (one of those was actually Scalzi’s ebook bundle, so more than 5 ebooks, really–call it five e-purchases).

    Three of the ebooks were one series (Hunger Games). One was a self-pub by an established author (Harry Connoly’s Twenty Palaces).

    I read all 4 individual ebooks and one of the novels in the e-bundle. I read 7 of the 15 print books. So that means something, too, I suppose.

    Oh, I should note I’m only talking about novels, here. I bought a couple of books of essays, and one of the books in the ebundle was also essays (and I read it). I also bought four or five nonfic how-to and reference sort of things.

    Of the paper books, I bought most of them online (B&N), and maybe two or three in store (also B&N).

  11. patrickg

    I wouldn’t be *too* perturbed. If the number of sales is down 20-something %, and the number of ebook sales is 20-something %, there’s a nice (maybe too nice) overlap there.

    I think also the rise of indies, and being able to purchase from some publishers directly (esp said indies) would have an impact. Pricing remains an issue – at least here in Australia where we get stung.

    If an ebook interests me, if it’s $5 or under I almost always buy it; if it’s $7 or under, I will mostly buy it; if it’s $10 or under I will only buy it if I’m mad keen; and if it’s over that I skip it. Many publishers – Hachette comes to mind, and TOR-through-Macmillan) – insist on charging >$12-$15 here in Australia, and that is not just new books but back-catalogue, too.

    They are missing out on a small, but dependable source of revenue stream for e-readers in Aus like myself. Why would I bother with that when publishers like Small Beer, Angry Robot (though their quality control leaves much to be desired, imho), Ash Tree, Poisoned Pen, Nightshade, etc etc all sell direct, cheap, great authors?

  12. Janice in GA

    I just looked back through my Goodread stats for 2012. Every book that I read last year was either an ebook or an audiobook. That includes 42 new ebook purchases, 10 new audiobook purchases,, and a few freebies or re-reads of previously read ebooks or audiobooks. Almost all of them are sf/fantasy.

    I’m definitely not buying fewer books than I used to. I think the last time I bought a paperback was to reread a Robert McCammon book that wasn’t available as an ebook at the time.

    That said, I do buy paper magazines and knitting books for reference purposes.

  13. Pingback: A Chart that Shows a Dismal Trend in Sales of Print Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

  14. Liz Bourke

    I bought as many books in print last year as ever (more, probably), and more ebooks than ever, but I suspect one reason for print sales to be down globally is chain closures, and the continued less-than-vibrant economic climate.

  15. Jared

    If I remember correctly, some ridiculous proportion of the UK’s 2011 genre sales was made up of George RR Martin. (With new book, new season of TV, etc – sorry, don’t know about US numbers). Curious how the non-GRRM 2011 numbers compare to the 2012 numbers, because it may be that the huge DROP OF DOOM happened a year earlier and we just didn’t notice.

  16. steve davidson

    My ourchase of print books remains pretty steady year to year. The number of ebooks I am getting has increased – but that is mostly for review convenience. {(quicker, easier and less expensive to get a copy for that purpose).

    Earlier in this week there were several blog posts (tablet right now and can’t find the links) illustrating that bookscan’s numbers were not just ‘off’, they were as much as 80%+ off..

    Of course if that is true for every year of reporting, the graph remains the same. If it has fluctuated wildly, the graph is meaningless.

  17. Dan Thompson

    I bought my first e-reader in 2011-Q4. Prior to that, I probably bought about 20 SF/F print books a year. Since then, I’ve bought maybe two print books and about 40-45 e-books. So while, my total purchases have increased sharply (as I read much faster on my e-reader), my print purchases have plummeted.

    Certainly, you mentioned Macmillan’s 25% e-book percentage, but I have a suspicion that genre readers have moved to e-readers more quickly than the rest of the readers. That means that the percentage of genre purchases that shifted to e-books will be grater than 25%. It would be interesting to see if folks like Baen, Tor, or Pyr have released any data on print vs. e-book sales.

    And then, of course, there’s the indie’s. I have no data on their percentage spread across the genres, nor do I know how much they’re eating into print sales. However, they would definitely not be included in your Nielsen Bookscan data.

  18. Adrianne

    I bought fewer than 10 paper books last year, and more than 180 eBooks.

    Of the eBooks,

    1/3 of the books I downloaded last year were Amazon/BN/smashwords freebies.
    1/3 of the books I purchased last year were less than $5
    Of those I paid full price for, only 9% were over $10.

    I paid an average of $4.27/book, not counting the fact that some of the books I bought were bundles.

    I was willing to pay $10 or more for a book only 9% of the time, and those books were nearly all non-fiction or gift books.

    Worse, I’ve over bought books for $2 and $3. I now have more than 150 books in my tbr list, which is more than I’m likely to read in 2013. And they’re all books I *want* to read. So I could buy no books this year and still have plenty to enjoy.

    Traditional publishers aren’t going to be happy if most people are like me.

  19. Pingback: Scary Numbers in SFF print trade - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  20. D.G, Stebbins

    As a historical translator who often works with the rat-eaten reed scrolls of rooks, heavy clay cuneiform tablets of unicorns and crumbling parchment scrolls in the ancient archives of Lemuria, I have found the magical tablet a great relief to carry all of my Earth shore books.

    I bought a dozen of your spell eBooks with magically appearing pages last year. When I showed the wizards of Azmerith that I was carrying over 1000 spell books in my magic tablet they nearly ate their beards. They marveled that such a ponderous stack of volumes could weigh less than a dragon’s egg. This is not to say that I don’t admire your paper books; I did buy half a dozen, mostly non-fiction paper books last year.

    Unfortunately, the wizards could not duplicate the magic of the tablet to deliver parchments or clay tablets from Azmerith to Earth. They may discover a new spell or magic ink in the future but until then you’ll have to go to the Azmerith Chronicles to read the legends of Azmerith, Mu, and Lemuria. Please visit to learn more about the upcoming new fantasy series of freshly translated legends and tales from the mystical world of Azmerith.

  21. James Davis Nicoll

    I have to say I have listened to a lot more audio material this year than all the years before and if I had to point at one cause, it would be buying a tablet onto which I could pour the contents of X Minus One, Exploring Tomorrow, Mindwebs, WHA’s production of A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, CBC’s production of THE KRAKEN WAKES, Alien Worlds, CBC’s Nightfall, CBC’s Vanishing Point, and Seeing Ear Theater.

    I don’t have a good reason for not listening to this stuff on my PC. I just don’t.

  22. Josephine

    I read 2 or 3 new hardback books per week (fiction and nonfiction), but I get them from the public library or for two dollars at used bookstores. I was laid off from my job last summer and can find only part-time work, so I can no longer spend almost $30 for a new hardback. Among the millions of unemployed and under-employed people in the USA, at least some are like me … unable to afford our previous book addiction (i used to buy 2 or 3 hardbacks per week). The irony is that now that I’m working part-time (not my choice), I have more time to read.

  23. Rebecca

    I use the library a lot. I don’t have any kind of ereader and after spending much of the day looking at at a screen it’s the last thing I’d do for fun! When I want to keep a book I try to find it second-hand in hardcover, first in town and then on line. I buy books as gifts and get second-hand ones if I can. I bought fewer books this past year because I had less money! More books leave the house these days than come into it, partly the effect of sending a daughter off to college (with the money.)

  24. Michael Giltz

    It’s not genre but SIZE that makes a book especially appealing in ebook form. I’m reading Peter F. Hamilton’s “Great North Road” on ebook but it’s not the fact that it’s scifi that made this a must decision but the 900+ pages. Similarly, I had the final volume of William Manchester and Paul Reid’s Churchill biography in galley form for weeks. But I wouldn’t have dreamt of lugging it on the subway and waited until I had all 1200 pages downloaded onto my Kindle before tackling it. A mass market mystery or YA book wouldn’t make me blink but I don’t think I’ll ever choose to read a big book in physical form again.

  25. Mandy

    Ever since I lost my full time job, I have not been able to buy hardcover books at brick and mortar stores. I rely mostly on Public Libraries. If I am hard pressed to buy a book, I look for a used paperback on Amazon. It is the economy – buying new books has become a luxury for many. When I was employed, I used to spend $1000 per year on books, easily.

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