According to Nielsen BookScan The Testaments sold 103,177 hardbacks in its first week, making it the fifth biggest hardback fiction launch since records began (around 2000), by far the biggest fiction roll-out of the year (so far anyway).
But as with many other big releases the figure also contains pre-orders, sales made prior to publication, but recorded by Nielsen BookScan in the week the title ships.
In the case of major releases, the consumer can have many months to order a book before it is released. Hilary Mantel's next Cromwell title The Mirror & the Light is available to buy from Waterstones today, even though it is not published until next March. At the moment Amazon's bestseller list contains three titles in its top 10 not yet released, including David Cameron's memoir For the Record, out on Thursday.
Pre-orders are obviously a smart way for retailers to test the market without having to worry about making any stock decisions; for publicists they reward the hard-work that goes behind any new title announcement. But they also play into the hands of the bigger retailers, especially Amazon since it has the machinery to accept orders early, price dynamically, and manage an effective roll-out on publication (in theory at least), and to a lesser extent Waterstones.
However, the way the trade treats pre-orders is interesting—publishers will now boast ahead of time that their new release will be next week's number one, based solely on those orders made before publication. Books can now have huge opening weeks, virtually guaranteeing the number one spot, but then fall away surprisingly quickly. In some cases titles will appear to break into the charts as if from nowhere, for example the two social media hits Hinch Yourself Happy and Pinch of Nom, which clearly benefitted from pre-selling to an established audience not being tracked by your average publishing pundit.
One way of gauging the phenomenon is to watch the percentage fall in second week sales compared to the launch week. For example, using Nielsen data, the differentials look higher for the unexpected hits, than for, say The World’s Worst Teachers.
Hinch Yourself Happy
Week 1: 160,302
Week 2: 61,210
% fall: 61.8%
Pinch of Nom
Week 1: 210,506
Week 2: 122,073
% fall: 42%
Week 1: 52,674
Week 2: 33,967
% fall: 35.5%
The World’s Worst Teachers
Week 1: 86,001
Week 2: 77,247
% fall: 10.1%
According to Bookstat, which estimates sales based on tracking the relative positions of titles on retailer websites, The Testaments sold about 45,000 copies across all formats from these online retailers in the build up to the release of the title on 10th September.
The figure, which does not include pre-orders of the book through high street bookshops, is derived from an analysis of online sales from the date the title was made available for sale to when it was eventually released. Within that number, 30,000 printed copies are estimated to have been sold ahead of publication, e-book 12,000 and audio a further 3,000.
The numbers suggest that Amazon has captured about a third of overall print sales in the run up to and including publication week (consistent with what we understand to be Amazon's marketshare of the print book market). Interestingly however, most of its sales were generated ahead of publication, after which point the high street, indies, and in particular Waterstones took over, benefiting not just from launch events but visibility in store during that initial period.
Other titles riding high in the pre-order game are Philip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth, which had pre-sold 26,000 copies up to 10th September, while David Cameron's For the Record, had shifted a tenth of that up to the same point. However, the Cameron book now sits in 4th spot on Amazon's bestseller list suggesting that the weekend interviews and serialisation in the Times has fermented not just interest but also business in the week ahead of publication.
Once we might have said that all publicity is good publicity, so long as the book is actually on the shelves. But the growing pre-order market means that publicity can be good at any time, and that the life of a book now begins well before it is published. It also reveals how important it has become as a tool for Amazon, making claims that the giant retailer released early copies of the Atwood book deliberately look implausible. In fact, it could be that there is no better time for Amazon to sell a book than before it is actually released. The longer the lead time, the more visible the embargo, the better it is for Amazon.