April 30, 2018

Macmillan is on course to have two million-copy-sellers in one year


James Comey

As we noted earlier this week, James Comey’s memoir A Higher Loyalty had an historic opening weeks of sales, with more than 600,000 units sold across all formats, and more than a million copies in print. According to an Associated Press report, the last pieces of non-fiction to sell that quickly were Bill Clinton’s My Life (Random House) and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue (Harper) which, needless to say, is interesting company to be in. And, in the New York Times, Alexandra Alter notes that the breakneck pace of Comey’s book sales far outstrips both What Happened by Hillary Clinton and Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.

We’ve covered this issue in depth, and there are few more points that merit attention.

For one thing, it’s worth noting again that A Higher Loyalty and Fire and Fury are both published by imprints of Macmillan, which means that, in a year that has seen book sales fall across pretty much all categories, a single company will (assuming Comey’s sales continue apace) capture two million-copy books. This contrasts sharply with last year, when no single book sold more than a million print copies, according to Publishers Weekly. While it’s old news that success at the highest levels of publishing often depends on a publisher’s ability to create mega-bestsellers, it’s striking to see such a profound consolidation of top-end sales. By comparison, last year, the top two bestsellers according to Publishers Weekly were Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Knopf) and Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur (Andrews McMeel).

For another thing, the runaway success of these two books makes it somewhat difficult to parse the market more generally. We did a deep dive into Trump’s effect on the bestseller lists last week, and noted that, through April, the top end of the New York Times bestseller list was surprisingly diverse, though it certainly bore the odious stamp of the Trump administration. The really tricky question is: how should we read these results in light of the fact that the number one bestseller may have sold in its first week more copies than the next four titles combined?

This recalls a point that Constance Grady  made at Vox back when Fire and Fury was really taking off: the variance at the tip-top of the charts is striking.

In 2014, the two best-selling books of the year were true cultural events: The Fault in Our Stars, which sold 1.2 million copies over the course of the year, and Gone Girl, which sold just under a million.

The third-best-selling book of the year? Awful Auntie, a children’s book that sold just over half a million copies.

Which means that the difference between the third-best-selling book of the year and the No. 1 best-selling book of the year can be more than 500,000 books, an increase of 100 percent.

This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in now. We might debate whether it’s a result of our collective disbelief over the Trump presidency, the systemic changes transforming publishing over the last fifteen years, or something else. But so long as our politics and economy lurch from once crisis to the next, and so long as our economic and social life continues to be dominated by ever larger conglomerates, it’s unlikely to change.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.