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What is Causing the End of the Megabestseller? The Better Question is Who

Key Takeaways

  • For authors: The threshold for "Bestselling Author" status is shifting, and the sales volume previously seen for singular tiles or series is no longer accurate.

  • For booksellers: The book-buying and reading habits of the Millennial generation may be the strongest contributor, given their splintering genre preferences coupled with strong consumer habits.

  • For publishers: Those publishing professionals willing to adapt to the present market, à la Colleen Hoover, are well-positioned to benefit from the new ruling definitions and metrics.

 

Second only to the end of days itself, American media outlets (and American publishing professionals in particular) love to predict the end of the print book as a profitable and salable commodity.

Let’s take a look at the conversation around print sales at the recent Book Manufacturing Mastered conference.

Publishers Weekly's coverage of the conference reported VP of IT Strategies Marco Boer foretelling the end of the megabestseller:


"He attributed that trend in part to increased competition from other sources of entertainment, pointing out that the Harry Potter series (whose final volume was published in 2007) were the last to sell tens of millions of copies. 'Last year, the bestselling titles were by Colleen Hoover, and she sold 2.75 million books.'"

I have to confess, I almost laugh when I read these kinds of statements. Of course the definitions shift and change, devolve and evolve. We are never stagnant. But while I almost laugh, a bigger part of me wants to know why.

Without delay, I defer to the literature (pun absolutely intended) in all forms: data sheets and reported experiences. For an industry based on the core of human connection but built with the implementation of commercial, capitalist theory, we're remarkably quick to lean solely on the logic or the experience. We're in a constant battle of the left brain against the right brain.

That won't solve anything. Instead, I propose we layer the texts to fully understand our circumstances and the opportunities they hold.

Let's take a wide perspective to try to determine the causes behind the split in consumer behavior that has Boer and others wondering if the megabestseller, as we know it, has indeed fossilized.

The Human Context

The cause of the megabestseller's imminent extinction is undefined in the PW article. But there are active and quite vocal conversations around the lack of definition for the “millennial genre,” those books whose authors are both members of and writing about the experiences most familiar to the generation born between 1981 and 1996.

My favorite coverage of the undefined but potent genre is written by Julia Rittenberg for BookRiot, which includes this timely identification:


“The concerns of millennial novels are more fractured, most likely because of the dissolution of the monoculture and the growing diversity of published authors that allows us to read widely about many different people.”

This doesn't even account for the lack of true diversity in Publishing, but that's truthfully an entirely different article. What we do see here, however, is the clear acknowledgment and acceptance of the splintering readerships.

In the same article, Rittenberg quotes writer Betsey Reed in her own contemplation of the "millennial genre":


They [Millennials] care more about being relatable to a specific audience than a universal one… Their fictional worlds lambast our need for external validation and commodified selfhood of the kind that feeds late capitalism, even as they acknowledge their complicity and the impossibility of extrication.

Remember this quote. It's going to become very useful in the coming paragraphs.

Now that we've established the fracturing definition of the millennial experience, we have to ask: is it potent enough to change the understanding of a successful title?

The Data

In my opinion, yes.

Despite all of the well-warranted noise around #BookTok and the Gen Z influence on book sales through the app, the generation leading the charge in book buying is definitely Millennials.

This 2020 dataset, admittedly, needs to be updated given the many (*ahem*) unprecedented changes since collection and release. That said, this survey by Best by the Numbers combined with this data from the Library Journal clearly identifies:

  • Millennials read the most out of all surveyed generations, with 80% of respondents reporting having read at least one book in any format in the prior 12 months.

  • If they don't purchase the book, a reported 39.5% of Millennials borrow books through their library (trailing only 0.9% behind the categorical leader, Gen X).

  • 60.1% of Millennials will buy a book that they enjoyed after borrowing it through the library and 77.2% will purchase other books by the same author of one they enjoyed borrowing from their local library.

Additionally, the Library Journal study of 2020 reported the genre preferences of each generation. While Gen Z took the lead when it came to preference quantity, with 17 genres appealing to 10% or more of their reporting sample, Millennials had a strong preference for 10 genres across fiction and nonfiction including:

  • General fiction

  • Classics

  • Erotica

  • Urban/street lit

  • Health & Wellness

  • Business & Careers

  • Sociology

  • Technology

  • Sports & Recreation

  • Parenting

This is a strong lead on their predecessors, with Gen X showing no definite preference across fiction genres and only preferring one non-fiction genre (Crafts/Hobbies). Baby Boomers prefer a concise three: Thrillers, Cooking, and Home Decorating.

What This Could Mean

The splintering of the millennial generation's reading tastes may in fact be a key element causing the demise of the megabestseller given their prominence across book-reading and book-buying shown in recent (*ish) data. And while Gen Z may be the loudest or most visible fan-base for many titles thanks to social media, I believe that their interests are so diverse that they aren't able to deliver quite the same jolt to retail trends as their Millennial counterparts.

So while we may not see another breakout Harry Potter success for some time, as Boer predicts, there is still ample room to create a bestseller with a loyal and rabid audience base.

Let's revisit Boer's mention of Colleen Hoover. You've probably heard of her, been told about her by a friend who is a fan, or seen her books at the very front of your local bookstore if you haven't read one of her books yourself. I haven't read a single title, so take this as a purely academic interest. As Boer said, last year, her titles sold a combined 2.75 million units. And while her titles are largely classified as Young Adult (YA), her readers skew older.

In its coverage of the Hoover phenomenon, The Guardian quoted former publisher and current TV scout Hannah Griffiths:


“The big reveal of YA lists...is that the average age of the reader is 35. The books are young emotionally, but they’re not being read by young people. It’s like comfort eating.”

Similarly, an Op-Ed in The New York Times by Pamela Paul evaluates the appeal of Hoover's writing noting:


"Fiction of this sort reflects a strain in the culture that has shifted from a fascination with the other — the rich, the powerful, the exclusive — to a more inward preoccupation with the self and the desire to see oneself reflected in the stories one consumes."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It's awfully close to what Rittenberg and Reed mentioned. Hoover may be a singular case, but she seems to aptly capture the attention of a powerful segment of the largest book-buying demographic.

So yes -- while YA books are targeted at younger readers, and Millennial readers can't be definitively identified, and print sales are unlikely to hit those ceiling-shattering figures seen in the early 2000s any time soon -- these aren't standalone phenomenons. They influence and inform each other.

And I can add another dollar to my piggy bank of non-contextualized doomsday predictions.


 

Rose Friel probably reads about Publishing trends too much. That's why she began Foreword Literary Consulting, LLC: to equip aspiring authors and industry professionals with the resources, tools, and guidance they need to achieve their goals. Rose has worked with numerous bestselling and debut authors alike among the trade, hybrid, and self-publishing models, and consults with small publishing teams and nascent independent publishers on building and refining their SOPs.

Her heart lies with the creative community that moves the industry forward, even if their name isn't on the binding or sales sheet.

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