Sic Transit Gloria Mundi – The Fate of Classic SF

Note: start reading this thread on Amazon sales data with Scraping the Gorilla – Picking data off of Amazon


In a previous post I looked at a few top selling titles. Here I turn to authors, both current best sellers and renowned science fiction authors with a corpus of older, respected works. There is also a third category of indie authors who have been forthcoming about their success by indicating total sales. It is interesting to compare their long term sales with present estimated sales.

First, the current hot genre authors.  (See previous post for caveats.)

Veronica RothBig 624,614$33,122 4.3Y
Nora RobertsBig 67,968$10,159 4.2M/R/F
George R. R. MartinBig 65,408$9,809 4.1F/Y
John GreenBig 68,787$9,380 4.5Y
James PattersonBig 66,633$8,685 4.0M/R/F/Y
Terri OsburnAmazon4,124$7,141 4.3R
Donna TarttBig 64,553$6,983 3.6M/
Harlan CobenBig 63,811$6,788 4.1M/R/Y
Johnny ShawAmazon3,548$5,968 4.2M
David BaldacciBig 63,875$5,037 3.9M/R
Lee ChildBig 64,343$4,905 3.7M/R
Mary Higgins ClarkBig 62,830$4,838 4.0M
Stephen KingBig 63,304$4,038 4.2M/F
Liane MoriartyBig 63,469$4,024 4.5M
Janet EvanovichBig 62,730$4,003 4.0M/R
Jessie HumphriesAmazon2,285$3,990 4.3M/Y
James DashnerBig 63,323$3,585 4.3Y
Rick RiordanBig 62,104$3,455 4.5F
Suzanne CollinsBig 62,672$3,439 4.6Y
Debbie MacomberBig 62,538$3,203 4.4R
John SandfordBig 61,709$3,112 4.0M/R
Dr. SeussBig 62,937$3,083 4.6Y
Cassandra ClareBig 62,545$2,942 4.5Y
Stuart WoodsBig 61,740$2,928 3.8M/R
Gillian FlynnBig 62,333$2,841 3.8M
Daniel SilvaBig 61,342$2,599 4.2M/R
John GrishamBig 62,636$2,491 3.8M/R
Diana GabaldonBig 62,386$2,464 4.3R/F
J. S. CooperSelf2,262$2,398 4.3R

Note: Big 6 are the various publishing arms of the following six corporations: Hachette, Holtzbrinck/Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster. These companies comprise over 300 imprints. “Small” refers to a publisher with between 3 and 19 authors among the 60,000 titles examined. Large is 20 or more authors. “Self” means that either the publisher has only one author , or that this author appears to own the publisher’s DBA.  Genres: M=Mystery & Suspense; R=Romance; F=Fantasy & Science Fiction; Y=Teen & Young Adult

The specific numbers in the table are doubtless inaccurate (particularly for the top authors) but the rough overall picture I believe is sound. As with titles, while non-fiction and literary fiction authors would interleave this list, together they would be in the minority. It is encouraging to see that authors can sometimes earn a decent return for their labors.

Next, let us look at a few renowned science fiction and fantasy authors from NPR’s list of the 100 best science fiction or fantasy stories. Her are those authors with the fewest sales.

AuthorUnitsRoyaltiesRatingNoted for
Susanna Clarke13$144.0Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Walter M. Miller Jr.13$133.8A Canticle For Leibowitz
Michael Moorcock13$244.0The Elric Saga
Peter S. Beagle17$174.4The Last Unicorn
Roger Zelazny18$284.2The Chronicles Of Amber
Jasper Fforde22$354.4The Eyre Affair
David Eddings22$284.0The Belgariad
Gene Wolfe23$364.1The Book Of The New Sun
Audrey Niffenegger24$243.6The Time Traveler's Wife
Robin McKinley25$274.1Sunshine
Mary Stewart26$514.4The Crystal Cave
China Miéville27$323.8Perdido Street Station
Vernor Vinge29$354.0A Fire Upon The Deep
Iain M. Banks32$564.1The Culture Series
Larry Niven34$393.8Ringworld
Daniel Keyes34$314.4Flowers For Algernon
Richard Adams38$504.2Watership Down
T. H. White38$334.1The Once And Future King
Kim Stanley Robinson38$473.7The Mars Trilogy
Connie Willis38$403.9Doomsday Book
Stephen R. Donaldson40$634.2The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever
Anthony Burgess41$434.4A Clockwork Orange
Jacqueline Carey41$514.1The Kushiel's Legacy Series
Raymond E. Feist44$524.0The Riftwar Saga
Marion Zimmer Bradley46$584.0The Mists Of Avalon
Richard Matheson57$564.0I Am Legend
William Gibson71$783.7Neuromancer
Lois McMaster Bujold81$1534.3The Vorkosigan Saga
Gregory Maguire81$733.9Wicked
William Goldman83$694.2The Princess Bride
Piers Anthony96$734.0The Xanth Series
Dan Simmons100$903.9The Hyperion Cantos

It is disappointing to see that these giants of science fiction and fantasy are not better appreciated by today’s readers. Still, thanks to online retailing, their works are more available to young readers today than ever before.

A final table examines present sales for authors will long term sales that are known to be high.

AuthorYears publishedAve. units/dayCur. units/dayIncreaseTitles
B5.6 1,021 1,486 46%28
E2.9 1,898 2,006 6%28
M4.1 1,985 1,066 -46%20
N3.1 3,750 1,976 -47%37
W4.0 1,023 67-93%17

This is the “glory is fleeting” bit. While it may be tempting to posit that the two authors at the bottom, with the most disastrous slump in sales, are there because they only have one or two titles. There is, however, no correlation in this dataset between increase/decrease and number of titles.


If the reader has suggestions for other interesting analyses, please leave them in the comments.


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