Will bookstores become merely holiday stores?

by Tess Gerritsen

The common wisdom in the book biz is that you want to bring out your big-name books in the fall, to take advantage of the Christmas shopping season.  I’ve long wondered just how much impact Christmas actually has on book sales.  Now, thanks to Amazon, I’ve been able to look at some real numbers and report back that the common wisdom is true.  Christmas really is a great time for bookselling.

Late last year, Amazon began offering free Bookscan data to authors who are enrolled in Amazon’s Author Central program.  Bookscan records sales of print books in selected markets across the country, and they claim their data captures approximately 75% of all sales.  (I’ve heard from other sources that the number is closer to 65%.)   It does not include e-book sales to Kindle, Nook, etc.  Authors are only able to see their own sales data, so you can’t compare yourself to other authors’ sales, but this gives us more data than we could ever access before.  And it’s all free.

 If you’re a published author, register now!  It’s easy, it allows you to post a profile, link to your website, and post a blog directly onto Amazon’s site.  When I saw the announcement that I can now access my Bookscan numbers via Amazon, I began keeping track of my sales.  (Because Amazon only captures a month’s worth of sales data at a time, you’ll have to check back regularly and keep track of your own numbers.)  Week by week, I’ve watched how my sales changed as Christmas approached.  I followed, in particular, my  most recent title ICE COLD.  Admittedly, it was published way back in June 29, 2010, so it wasn’t a fall book. It’s still in hardcover, but it’s now shelved in section and wouldn’t be particularly visible in bookstores. Still, I wanted to see if even a summer book would show a bump during the holiday shopping season.   

Here’s what the Bookscan numbers told me.

The first week of data available was November 22 – 29.  I’ll use the number of copies sold that week as my baseline figure.

November 29 – December 5: the sales of ICE COLD were up 27% from the first week.

December 6 – 12:  sales were up 30%  from the first week.

December 13 – 19: sales up 51%

December 20 – 26: up 60%.

December 27 – January 2: sales dropped back down to what they were the first week.

So there you have it.  Even a book that was a mid-summer release saw a nice uptick in sales thanks to Christmas shoppers.

Even more interesting were my sales figures for all my titles, combined.  This includes my entire backlist, all now in paperback.  Here’s what I found:

Week 1 (November 22 – 28):  baseline

Week 2: up 15%

Week 3: up 38%

Week 4: up 115%

Week 5: up 98%

And this is interesting.  In week 6 (after Christmas), my overall sales remained 77% above baseline.

So even backlist paperback titles get a boost from Christmas shopping.  No surprise — paperbacks make great stocking stuffers and they’re inexpensive.  Or perhaps it’s because people go on vacation, and they need some leisure reading during those weeks.

Not only do these numbers tell us that Christmas shoppers buy books, it also gives us a hint about the future of bookselling.  And it’s this: when it comes to buying gifts, real books, printed on real paper, continue to be a popular item.  Even though we’re in the midst of an e-book revolution, with up to 50% of book sales projected to be in digital form within the next few years, print books will continue to sell during gift-giving holidays.  

I can’t help but picture those mall “pop-up” stores that appear and disappear according to season.  Halloween shops, for instance, which turn up every September and are gone by November.  Or Christmas shops, which sell ornaments and gift-wrap during November and December, and vanish in January.  

Luckily, bookstores have more than one season to cater to.  There’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  Graduation.  Back to school.  And then there are birthdays, all year round.  Such events demand a physical gift that can be wrapped and handed to the recipient.  Which means, if it’s a book, a book printed on paper.  

For that reason alone, I don’t see bookstores vanishing from our landscape.  

I’m traveling this week, so can’t respond to comments.  But I hope other authors will share what they found out about their own book sales during the holiday season.  And if you haven’t registered with Author Central, do it now!

19 thoughts on “Will bookstores become merely holiday stores?

  1. Matthew Baldacci

    I like that Tess is sharing this info, and I'll try not over-explain why. Given this data- which has always been true – will authors choose to sell more units at Christmas and give up places on the bestseller list? You'd be surprised how many want bestseller list over units sold. Note that this data is most applicable to an author at Tess' success level.

  2. Alafair Burke

    I love having access to my own Bookscan numbers through Amazon, but do worry that it's just yet another statistic for me to obsess over when I should just keep my head down and try to write the best book I can.

    I also saw the same trend you describe over the holidays, so "yea" for that. The kindest thing a reader can do for her favorite writers is to introduce their work to friends. Word of mouth recommendations are the best PR we can get.

  3. JT Ellison

    Tess, this is great info. I saw an uptick over the holidays too – with a big peak on Dec 26. But wow, I do hope that the stores stay in business.

  4. michael

    I bought ten books as gifts this Christmas. One was print, nine for Kindle with their buy e-book as gift button.

  5. Kagey

    These numbers don't really surprise me, either. My husband is notoriously hard to buy for, so I always give my mother book titles as gift ideas for him. I save up my own book wish list for the Christmas season, and the stack I receive usually lasts me until summer. We got books signed by a favorite author for my mother-in-law.
    We're also the aunt & uncle who love to give books. Gift box sets of favorite series for the tweens, fun tactile board books for the tots. I even found early chapter book versions of Tom Sawyer this year for a special 1st grader. (I may live to regret introducing the idea that crossing your fingers behind your back means you can fib, but what the heck!)

  6. pari noskin taichert

    Books and gift certificates are our standard gifts. Period. I loved seeing the numbers though. Thank you, Tess.

    And yes, Ruth Cavin was a wonderful person. I didn't know her well, but enjoyed knowing the little I did.

  7. Sandy

    This is a timely blog. I just received an email from The Mystery Bookstore in LA saying that it is closing its doors as of 31 January 2011. Amazon and the economy were too much, they explained.

  8. Grace

    Interesting post, thanks Tess. I can only hope that someday I will be able to check out my own stats.

    Thanks Debbie for the link. She was astounding.

  9. J.D. Rhoades

    I never buy books after October 1st. I just put them on my amazon wishlist, then tell everyone I know to check it, but to then buy from indie stores :-).

  10. Allison Brennan

    My prediction is that there will be a big shake-up, but there will continue to be bookstores, though different than what is today. To survive, they'll need to sell more than books. They'll essentially become book and gift stores, and if anyone went into BN over the holidays you'll see what I mean! The nice thing about the BN gift section was that they had toys and puzzles that aren't generally available at Toys R Us; interactive books/games; and a lot of "extras" for readers–great for readers who don't want you to buy them books because they're stubborn and want to pick out their own (whoops, just my daughter!) There'll be food and coffee, maybe even wine bars, something that will draw in people. Specialty stores, specialty sections for books. I also think books will be sold in more places, but fewer titles, which is good for the mega-sellers and key debuts, but not-so-good for the mid-list–except that I do think with specialty stores, you'll see "special" books on sales, i.e. cozy mysteries about antiques in antique stores; cat mysteries in pet supply stores; etc.

  11. Laura

    Our bookstore has a cafe (that serves wine) and is a very popular spot for lunch. I'd say, what I worry about more than Amazon or e-books is department stores, and large chain bookstores (I watched You've Got Mail last night and it hit a nerve!) I worry that one by one they'll inch the indie bookstores out of business.
    Great post Tess, I love seeing the figures change at Christmas. Another element we've found that really has an effect is that if a staff member has a favourite author their books tend to sell, based on word of mouth and glowing recommendations.
    Laura 🙂

  12. Sylvia

    Great information Tess. I gave books to a few people for Christmas. It's a great way to give match an author with a personality and know they'll hit it off. I can't always give hardcover and often, if it's a series I'd rather buy the first one or two in paperback and given than splurge on the latest hardcover and have them work backwards.

    I do have a friend who I had lent my first Cornelia books to and you know it's a great gift when you can say – "you'll totally love the opening line – it's so you!" when the line is …"So here's what I love about New York City: if someone acts like a dumb asshole and you call them on acting like a dumb asshole, the bystanders are happy about it. Anywhere else I've ever lived they just think I'm a bitch."

    Now Tess, I'm happy to say that I have a friend who – the more blood and goo the better and your books are feeding the need.

  13. Rachel Allshiny

    I just worked my 5th Christmas season in a bookstore (large chain, sorry folks) and those numbers don't surprise me at all. My favorite part about the week or two before Christmas is that so many of our newer titles are sold down / sold out that I replace them on the front tables with books I think people should buy – even if that book has been out for several months.

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