Don’t write off vampires just yet!

There has been some gleeful reaction to this USA Today article, which states that sales of vampire fiction have dropped compared to 2009.

Never mind that the article is actually summing up a whole lot of trends, that Stieg Larsson has been selling a lot of books, that Nicholas Sparks has been selling a lot of books, that Suzanne Collins has been selling a lot of books, that George W. Bush and his ghostwriter have been selling a lot of books, that books which have been adapted for film are selling a lot of copies. None of which is exactly surprising to anyone who has been paying any attention to US sales trends at all.

However, the point that everyone is focusing on is that Stephenie Meyer has been selling fewer books in 2010, which somehow translates into vampire books were selling worse in 2010. Now it’s not all that surprising that Stephenie Meyer has been selling fewer books in 2010. Breaking Dawn, the finale of the Twilight series, came out in 2008, as did her standalone The Host. That’s two years ago. Paperback editions of Breaking Dawn and The Host as well as the movies have been sustaining Meyer’s high sales in 2009 (though it would be interesting to compare her sales number in 2008). However, most people who are interested in Twilight will probably have bought the books by now, people who became interested in Twilight because of the films will probably also have bought the series by now. And while Stephenie Meyer had a new book out in 2010, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, it was a comparatively short novella and is still available only in hardcover. It’s similar to The Tales of Beadle the Bard, which was a success for J.K. Rowling but not nearly as successful as Harry Potter.

What is more, Stephenie Meyer selling fewer books does not necessarily mean vampire fiction selling worse, because Charlaine Harris, P.C. and Kristen Cast, Richelle Mead, Kerrelyn Sparks, J.R. Ward etc… have all hit bestseller lists at one point with vampire novels. Nor does it mean that paranormal fiction is selling worse, because paranormal does not necessarily equal vampire. There has been a definite increase in books about angels, there are books about werewolves, witches, wizards, telepaths and any other supernatural theme you can think of. Many of which are doing well.

Since I research this stuff, I have collected some data of my own. Namely, I have been recording how many books which fall within the framework of my PhD thesis (which is somewhat broader than what USA Today defines as paranormal) make the various New York Times bestseller list as well as the first page of the USA Today list every week.

For those that don’t know how it works, the New York Times has about ten different bestseller lists for fiction, non-fiction, hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, YA, etc… They have four different bestseller lists for YA alone. USA Today lists the top-selling 150 books every week and does not differentiate between fiction, non-fiction, YA, hardcover, paperback and so on. The basis is different as well. The New York Times uses reports from certain bookstores, USA Today uses Bookscan data. So in short, you get some very different data sets.

Comparing my collected 2009 and 2010 data (my data set for 2008 is sadly incomplete), I notice the following:

First of all, going by my dataset, the number of speculative fiction/romance hybrids that made the USA Today bestseller list is remarkably consistent in 2009 and 2010. In fact, the 2010 number is a little higher (by four books). Now I cannot track actual sales and I only record a place on the list, not which place it is. So sales for speculative romance may well have been lower than in 2009. But regarding the number of places on the USA Today bestseller list alone, there is no difference between 2009 and 2010.

The divided up New York Times bestseller lists gives us a somewhat different picture and tells us a little more. For starters, paranormal romance, urban fantasy and futuristic romances sell best in mass market paperback and least well in trade paperback format. That’s actually pretty obvious, as both romance and SF/fantasy are traditionally mass market genres. If an author is popular and successful enough, he/she will be published in hardcover first, so you do get a number of hardcover bestsellers from these categories. Trade paperbacks are more commonly found in literary fiction, chick lit and erotica, you’ll find very little speculative romance there (and much of what you find are borderline cases). Interestingly, however, the number of trade paperbacks that fall into the range of my inquiries and made the New York Times bestseller list has risen from 2009 to 2010, while both hardcover and mass market paperback have dropped.

The biggest sales for paranormal romance, urban fantasy, futuristic romance, etc…, however, can be found in YA. Unfortunately, I didn’t collect the YA data for 2009, but in 2010, there were more than twice as many speculative romances on the New York Times YA bestseller lists than on the mass market paperback list. At one point, two thirds of the list were taken up by various speculative fiction/romance hybrids. The numbers would probably be even higher, if the New York Times didn’t rank series of three and more books as a series rather than as individual books. So Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn and The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner are all only listed under Twilight. None of this is really surprising, considering how many of the big names in paranormal fiction these days are YA authors.

Again, we don’t know how those bestseller list ranks translate into actual sales. And as Kristine Kathryn Rusch explains here, those numbers can vary widely depending on when the book was released, who the direct competition was, etc…

In that view, it is notable that adult mass market paperbacks, i.e. the most common medium for this genre, of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and futuristic romance sell best in later summer and early autumn. In both 2009 and 2009, there is a notable rise in the number of books on the list between approx. week 30 and week 40.

The cause of this upswing is not Stephenie Meyer at all – remember, she’s on the YA list – but Charlaine Harris or rather True Blood, the HBO show based on her Southern Vampire series. True Blood is a huge critical and commercial success in the US and whenever the show is on, viewers flock to buy the books it’s based on. At one point, all ten of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire novels to date were on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.

What is more, you can almost directly map the upswing of paranormal romance and urban fantasy books on the New York Times bestseller list onto the broadcast dates for True Blood. In 2008, when True Blood was broadcast not in the summer but in the autumn, the upswing happened later as well.

So what about the falling sales numbers, which were notably on the New York Times mass market paperback list? Again, it’s the time factor. True Blood debuted in 2008. Since it runs on HBO, a pay-TV channel that not everyone has, it took some time for the show to gain viewers via word of mouth, DVD sets, etc… By the time the second season started in 2009, the show had collected many new viewers, some of whom in turn bought the books. By the time the third season started in 2010, there were fewer new viewers coming into the by now established show. What is more, anyone who was going to buy the books had probably bought them already.

So are we seeing a downturn in paranormal romance and urban fantasy? Time will tell. But Stephenie Meyer selling fewer books alone is not a reliable indicator for anything.

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