Friday, January 5th, 2018 was a tipping point for the book business. Or at least a proof-of-transformation point.
Michael Wolff’s take-down of Donald Trump, Fire and Fury, was rushed into the stores to beat a threatened injunction by the White House to have it blocked. By the weekend, you couldn’t find a copy anywhere. The publisher, Henry Holt, was printing a second run before the first one left the plant.
Media reports claim that Henry Holt printed 150,000 hardcover copies, but just five days after publication – five days! – over 1,000,000 copies had been sold in all editions, including eReaders. What’s more, Fire and Fury sat atop the New York Times bestseller list.
A decade ago, this would have been a huge problem for an industry where one book (like a single blockbuster movie) can make an entire year for a publisher and lift the whole industry. Failure to get the book into stores in time leaves millions of dollars on the table.
This happened in Canada in 2010 when Johanna Skibsrud’s novel, The Sentimentalists, won the Giller Prize – the top literary award in the country – and a guarantee of big future sales. The problem was, The Sentimentalists was published by tiny Gaspereau Press in Kentville, Nova Scotia. The initial print run was 1,000 and the publisher printed 2,000 more when the book got onto the Giller Shortlist. Bigger publishers would have put in contingent orders for 30,000 to 50,000 copies if their book won.
Kobo had been in business for all of a year, but we had The Sentimentalists in our library and were able to satisfy the pent-up demand by thousands of Canadians eager to get their hands on Canada’s hottest novel.
It happened again on a much bigger scale when Penguin Random House published 50 Shades of Grey. By June 2015, that single volume had sold over 125 million copies worldwide, made erotic fiction respectable, and become the fastest-selling paperback of all time. In fact, 50 Shades made so much money for its publisher that, in the middle of one of the darkest years ever for traditional publishing, they were able to give every one of their US employees – from senior executives to warehouse interns – a $5,000 year-end bonus.
But the breakout potential for Wolff’s Fire and Fury isn’t just because of the book’s subject and the Trump zeitgeist. It’s because eReaders like Kobo make it possible for every instant bestseller to sell even more copies just as instantly.
Kobo has millions of readers. Lots of them still read printed books. But printed books have shifted in the last decade from…well, from being the only source of reading books before eReaders were invented in 2006, to being the main source of books, to becoming a secondary source of book and magazine reading. Today, the industry has gravitated to a steady state, with printed books, eBooks and audiobooks all growing and nipping at each other’s heels.
Is this like what’s happening in the music industry? Yes and no. Downloading music didn’t just replace CDs and record stores one winter’s night. It took time (albeit less time because of some bone-headed decisions by recording company executives). But today, record stores are like typewriter stores. You can’t find any. There are bookstores, but the big giants are much less dominant than in the past and have had to shift their product lines from books, to gifts and other goods. Some small independents have survived and always will because book selling, even more than music, is a curated business.
Meanwhile, here in the world of eReaders, you can now get thousands of audiobooks via your Kobo app, and the new generation of Kobo readers is much more sophisticated than our first models in 2010.
We don’t publish sales figures for individual books. But I can tell you that on Friday, January 5th, the sales of Fire and Fury enjoyed one of the biggest single-day sales of any eBook. Tellingly, its sales didn’t dip slightly after that first weekend. They rose higher on Monday and have kept rising since. We also recruited many more new readers whose first book, no coincidence, was Fire and Fury.
In other words, with the issues of book distribution solved via eReader technology, one of publishing’s unsolvable problems – how to feed a runaway bestseller – is disappearing fast.
And yes, Fire and Fury is a tipping point book, for all kinds of reasons beyond its contents.