To sell more books, you should write about cats

print.12I love a good statistic. Statistics can clarify the magnitude of a problem, an action, an attitude or an opportunity. But a statistic by itself, without commentary, can be misleading. So in today’s post, I’ve tried to pull together a few of the interesting statistics about book reading, writing and buying that were shared at the Australian Society of Authors National Congress a couple of weeks ago. (You can read my first post about the congress here.)

Paper book sales have declined by 30% 

The first statistic that hit me where it hurts was that sales of p-books have declined by 30% since 2010, according to Sandy Grant, founder of publisher Hardie Grant. Sandy then went on to say that e-books are now 20% of their market, thus taking up some of that 30% decline, leaving, he felt, a general decline in book buying across all forms of about 10% in the last 3 years. He quoted one of the major publishers as saying they are rejecting books that they would never have rejected 5 years ago, books that might have sold an adequate 2,000 copies back then, but which would now sell less than 1,000 copies.

Write a book about cats

However, all is not lost. If you are writing a book about a cat or, even better, a book featuring cat photographs you are onto a winner. Sandy Grant said that of his big sellers at the moment, 4 of them are cat books, each selling about 20,000 copies. At this point I was thinking that I should perhaps give up authorship entirely. It’s not that I have anything against cats, it’s just hard to imagine these books being wonderful works of art into which you could lose yourself, like a novel. But of course that isn’t the point of them—they are entertainment.

We want the next book now

Which brings me to the next lot of statistics, from Joel Naoum at Momentum, Pan MacMillan’s digital-only imprint. Joel said that the mainstream e-book market is focussed on entertainment, which is why genre fiction, especially romance, works so well. I liked this perspective, this way of saying that e-books are potentially carving out a particular space in the market, a space that is perhaps different and complementary to the space that p-books might have. Romance fiction works so well, according to Joel Naoum, because once the reader has finished one book in a series, they can immediately purchase, download and read the next book. These readers want their books now, not in one year’s time, which even led one speaker to suggest that the way of the future might be for all three books in a trilogy to be released at once, rather than one book per year for 3 years. Literary fiction and narrative non-fiction are apparently only a small percentage of the e-book market because either the readership is different, or the compulsion is different.

The conversation did make me muse on the pleasures to be had in waiting, in expectation. This is, in essence, the backbone of good fiction—that we both want and don’t want the book we are reading to finish; we really want to find out what happens, but we know that when we do, the experience we are enjoying will have ended. But what of the pleasure and expectation in waiting for a book to be released? The chance to imagine what might happen to the characters in the story, to daydream, to be creative and to envision lots of different scenarios, or just the one scenario in particular that you wish to come to life. Do we lose something in this immediacy, this instant delivery, or is it a positive thing that people want to read a book so much that only instant gratification will do? I’m not sure that there is a right or a wrong answer to this question.

Readers are congregating around breakout books

The other piece of information that Sandy Grant shared and that I was interested to hear because I have mused about this in other blogs is that breakout books, the big sellers in any year, are selling more copies. But Sandy attributed this to there being a narrower range of reading happening—people are spending more on that breakout book, but to the exclusion of buying other books. Which is fabulous if you’re the author of the breakout book, not so fabulous if you’re not.

But I suppose that’s one reason why we keep writing, in the hope that one day, we’ll be the author of the breakout book that appears in everyone’s christmas stocking. Oh, and because we love it.

What do you think? Are you partial to books about cats? What about waiting versus instant gratification? Is there a book you’ve wanted so much that you’ve downloaded it the instant it was released? Is this set of statistics uplifting or sobering? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, or anything else you’d like to remark upon.


  1. I *am* partial to books about cats, Natasha. Ducks, too. But never at the expense of novels. 🙂

  2. Glen Hunting

    You seem to be confirming that the genre market(s) are still viable but highly competitive, and that the art market (or literary fiction market) has long had only a tiny minority share. The same is surely true of cinema and television, and even theatre to a lesser extent. Occasionally a genuinely artistic work strikes a chord with thousands of people and scores a sales gong, but this is very much an exception that is virtually impossible to predict and market for.

    Because it’s so hard to make art and commerce mix, particularly nowadays with globalisation and economies of scale, I’m very much in favour of governments (or other benefactors) contributing financially to the creation and distribution of artistic works. Again, this is unavoidably competitive, even across the various forms and genres, and with only limited resources available the contributions are often very small. But in broad terms, I regard this as a public service for the public good. And when I say ‘public’, I mean the minority of people who want access to literary fiction (or its analogues on stage and screen) that would otherwise struggle to ‘pay its way’ and ‘see the light of day’.

    I can understand your frustration with all those best-selling cat books swamping the market (no offence to cats or cat-lovers.) As far as you ‘feeling like giving up authorship’ goes, if it ever looked likely that, for whatever reason, your novels wouldn’t be published again or wouldn’t sell beyond 1000 copies (or so) if they were, would you continue to write them? Has your attitude to publishing or the role of publishing in your overall purpose changed between the time you went back to study creative writing and now?

    • Yes, benefactors would be lovely. And I think it’s great that genre fiction sells so much; in a way that might help to subsidise a wonderful book that might, for whatever reason, have limited reach. I don’t want to sound like I’m advocating that publishers should publish books that they know won’t sell; obviously a book should be able to stand on its own two feet, ideally. I know most writers write the books that they want to write and that therefore they think will sell because they have passion for them. Trouble is, it’s just so hard to predict what will capture the public’s imagination. If only there was an algorithm for that! (which would take all the fun out of it though!)

      • Glen Hunting

        It might be more pragmatic (or perhaps more submissive?) for the writers who are writing primarily out of their artistic drives to accept that the chances of their work finding a wide audience, or even finding a publisher, are pretty slim. It’s been like that for a long time, and it only seems to be getting worse.

        The perception and acknowledgement of ‘quality’ can be so changeable. ‘Moby Dick’ was lambasted when it first appeared, and sold pitifully few copies. After releasing another two or three ill-received titles, Melville eventually couldn’t even get a contract. It was only in the early 1900’s that people started paying attention to Ahab and the white whale, and now the book they come from is regarded as a landmark work.

        • Hi Glen, yes, quality is difficult to define and even more difficult to align to sales. If sales equalled quality, then Fifty Shades would be a work of art akin to the best of Austen or the Brontes.

  3. annabelsmith

    Some really interesting statistics here. I seriously cannot believe the cat thing though. I mean, I like cats, but their ridiculous popularity baffles me. In terms of series, I’m in favour of instant gratification. When there’s a year or more between installments, you forget some of the details from the first books and there is not such a sense of continuity. After I finished Hugh Howey’s Wool, I donwloaded Shift immediately.

    As for breakout books – grrrrr.

    • Yes, the cat thing was perturbing especially as, like I’ve said in my above comment to Amanda, one of the books was called something like, “Things My Cat Has Peed On”. You can’t seriously tell me that that has more literary value than Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. Yet it’s sold nearly 20 times more copies.

      And thanks for your comments on the instant gratification thing. It’s an interesting idea, releasing all the books in a series at once. I wonder if it will catch on in the way some of the speakers at the congress thought it might. I’m not such a big reader of series so it’s hard for me to judge. But pity the poor author who has to write 3 books at once.

  4. marlish glorie

    I think for many writers it can take several or more books before they deliver the “breakout book”. Bit like stepping stones. But crucial stepping stones. And one author who I feel followed this trajectory was the English writer Graham Swift. Until his 1996 Booker Prize winning novel Last Orders, (which was also made into a movie starring Michael Caine), he had written five novels and an anthology of short stories. I well remember reading some of his early work, (back when I was on speaking terms with T-rex), and while they might have been well-crafted and interesting, they were pretty damn bleak. I suspect sales were distinctly on the low side. Then bingo! Or so it seemed, he produced the brilliant novel Last Orders. The best novel I’ve ever read about family and friendships. The question I ask myself, and you, and Mr Swift if it were possible, is this — without those earlier novels would he ever been able to write Last Orders?

    • Hi Marlish, I think you’re right, although I think one of the things I’ve noticed is that sometimes, lately, a breakout book may not necessarily be a great book, or even the writer’s best book. If all breakout books were great books then I think your point is absolutely right – that the author would never have written that book without the books that came before it. But sometimes breakout books can be disappointing – a la Fifty Shades of Grey, which is a stepping-stone god knows what!

  5. iris lavell

    Hi Natasha, great post and good reminder of the discussion. I think these things go in waves. There’s nothing as satisfying as reading a really well written book and the little bit of effort pays off in spades. I think writers just need to keep the faith. There’s room for all.

    • It was a great discussion, wasn’t it? I liked the opportunity to hear all different perspectives from the industry, and from a range of people I would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet, simply because they don’t come to Perth. And yes, faith is the most important thing of all.

  6. you’re looking at this the wrong way: you should be grateful for all those cat books.

    Only by shifting truckloads of cat books, celebrity cookbooks and cricketing memoirs can publishers keep solvent and have some money to invest in emerging writers who struggle to sell a thousand copies.

    You say you wished there were benefactors to support the arts, but that’s what the publishers are. Most publishing houses are struggling to break even, and are run as a hobby industry by dedicated and underpaid enthusiasts. If any other industry were run like publishing, it would have been bankrupt long ago. Most houses are kept afloat by being the playthings of a rich person, or by being the small arm of big conglomerate. The few surviving truly independent houses are reliant on their cat books to keep going.

    If they are lucky they get a breakout writer, and regardless of their literary merit you should be grateful to them, because every Kate Morton or Christos Tsiolkas helps launch several dozen emerging writers. A breakout writer gives them the income to invest in the sort of books ‘of literary merit’ that the publishers can be proud of, that appeal to that small elite Double Bay cheese-and-wine set with whom the publishers mingle.

    There are two sorts of books: those that they publish to make money, and those that they publish to impress other publishers. And out of several dozen such ‘quality’ books they might just get one more breakout writer. But the publishers are no better at predicting who that might be than anyone else, so they use a shotgun approach: launch a dozen first-time writers and see if one of them hits the target.

  7. I saw and heard your ‘tongue-in-cheek’ Natasha. Enjoyed it too!

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