This is part of a series of posts about recent developments in English language science fiction publishing in the US and UK that have caught my eye.
Data Guy, with the support of Hugh Howey setting him up at authorearnings.com back in 2015, has been one of the sources of data I use to try to figure out what’s going on in English Language science fiction publishing. His stats are by no means the only source I use, but with his methodology open to scrutiny, comment, and change (or it was until recently), it has been one of the most trustworthy.
Last night he gave his latest report into the state of science fiction and fantasy at the SFWA Nebula conference, which is a prominent group of science fiction and fantasy writers.
The various panels have been recorded and are viewable on YouTube. Some I found worth a look and perhaps I’ll dig into them here another time. There were talks about maximizing the value of your backlist, and how to use Kickstarter, but here I want to talk about Data Guy’s statistics in which he talks about the sales of science fiction and fantasy books across all formats in the US in 2017, and in trend terms since 2005.
Obviously I am interested, because this is principally where I earn my living. The UK statistics are more patchy, but every time I look into British science fiction sales, it does seem to be following very similar trends to the US.
I suspect Data Guy will post something official to authorearnings.com before long, but I thank Data Guy and SFWA for their generosity on sharing the presentation because you can find it on YouTube here.
Here are a few thoughts.
The big picture
I’ve started blogging about the state of SF publishing in recent months, so I was apprehensive. Was Data Guy going to drop a bombshell and contradict my own assessments?
Fortunately, we matched pretty well. I’ve been saying that in the past decade US science fiction book sales have doubled and that earnings from authors have at least tripled. Consequently, there are significantly more full-time professional science fiction authors than ever before (although still only a small fraction of those writers who would like to earn enough to write SF full time). I’ll leave that to you to judge how closely those assertions fit with the set of stats presented at the Nebula Conference.
For me, the surprises came deep down when science fiction was broken into sub-genres.
But before I can comment on them, here is a cut-out and keep caveat regarding book classification.
There’s an important caveat here. If a title sells 10,000 copies, and it is classified by the publisher as both military science fiction and space opera, then Data Guy’s figures will count 5,000 sales in the Military SF category and 5,000 in space opera. Some books get as many as five categories, and so their sales are split five-ways for the stats. I can’t think of any other practical way of handling this, but that will have an impact.
So too will the fact that categorization is a means for publishers to put their titles in front of the audience they want to buy it today. That might mean a different audience from last month as publishers move their proposition in front of fresh eyes. For our data analysis, we want categorization to be accurate, but that’s not why book categories exist.
Those caveats aside, here are a few of the standouts for me, and these came through specifically eBook sales:
Military SF is overwhelmingly the most popular category of eBook sale. No surprise there, but the degree of its dominance was shocking.
Military SF eBook sales are overwhelmingly dominated by indies, as was space opera. That wasn’t a surprise, but I had expected more sales from Amazon’s imprints (principally 47 North), and Big-Five publisher space opera eBooks sold even lower than I’d expected. I think if we had seen a trend then 47 North would appear more dominant a few years ago.
Anthology eBook are no longer predominantly traditionally published. When I started eBook publishing in 2011, a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors were selling short story collections and multi-author anthologies. And the vast majority sold only a handful of copies. That seems to have changed. Anthologies remain a small part of the eBook market but a majority are now SelfPub and NewPub. Back in 2011, the best sellers were the old-school “Year’s Best” anthologies. These still sell, but have been overtaken by new anthologists and new publishing. We need another caveat here because ‘anthology’ has come to mean more than a set of the kind of short stories that might have been published in Analog or Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Nonetheless, I feel I speak with some authority here. Anthologies carrying one of my short stories have collectively clocked up about four months at the #1 spot in the amazon sf anthologies bestseller chart in the past three years, and I’ve seen my peers at the top of the charts. It is as Data Guy says: they are mostly indies.
If you sum the space opera, military SF, adventure, galactic empire, and alien invasion categories (let’s call ’em the the Pew Pews) that comes to around 13 million eBooks sold in the US last year. Roughly. And overwhelmingly these are NewPub and SelfPub published. Furthermore, going very roughly by the charts, about 11.5 million of those sales are going unreported in any ‘official’ industry statistics.
It’s only one statistic, but that last one summarizes why I talk to science fiction fans and authors from different parts of the business and get a completely different view of the commercial health of the genre. And that’s not surprising when you consider that in my experience, the titles and authors of those 11.5 million annual US book sales (according to these stats) are almost unknown to the traditional side of fandom (though not to traditional publishing).
There’s a lot more going on in SF publishing than Pew! Pew! eBooks, but in terms of unit sales, according to Data Guy’s statistics, it’s about the same size as the entirety of print sales not only for all of science fiction, but all of fantasy too.
[And another vital caveat here – this is for adult science fiction and fantasy. Add in huge-selling books in YA and mainstream categories that could be regarded as science fiction and fantasy, and the results would be completely different. For example, at its peak, the Hunger Games series was selling a comparable amount to the entirety of adult science fiction according to official stats.]
That’s it from me. If you haven’t seen it, go watch the video. It’s about half an hour.
Tim C. Taylor is a British author of popular science fiction who quit the day job in 2011. For a free starter library of exclusive stories, which make great jumping off points into his multiple book series, and regular updates about the Human Legion Universe and more, join the Legionaries by following THIS LINK.
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