U.S. e-book sales were set to overtake printed books in 2017, according to a study conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Though the results for the year’s e-book and print sales have yet to be released, e-book readership has been steadily growing since digital books were first introduced (as shown in the chart below).
The promise of the computing revolution has turned into necessity. The “digital world” is now not the future; it is simply the world. And our busy online and offline lives necessitate we make things easier on ourselves. E-books are increasingly the simpler option for readers.
E-books take up little space, cannot get worn or torn, and are completely mobile. The debate among readers who prefer e-books and those who prefer physical books has been had. The average person’s library now consists of a mixture of virtual texts, paper, and ink. We have a publishing landscape where you must choose carefully which formats to publish to, for the best chances of literary success.
Though the data on digital vs print sales are readily available, finding out which types of book sell better as e-books and which sell better in print is hard. If you are an e-book publisher or author, this is valuable information. Perhaps you only have the capital to publish to one of these formats. Maybe you are wondering whether you should offer your book as an e-book in addition to print, whether it will be worth it. Looking at the publications that have performed best in the e-book market through its formative years could spawn significant insights.
If we were to pinpoint the birth of e-books, 2007 would be a good place to start. Amazon launched its revolutionary Kindle reader and international e-book store; Steve Jobs presented the original iPhone to the masses, sparking a new breed of mobile device that would eventually become an e-book reader too (as well as everything else). These two events, as well as the tidal wave of developments in personal computing that followed, ignited the beginning of a literary culture in which personal libraries exist with one foot in the physical and one in the digital world…
Knowing the Kindle bestsellers for each year since the store opened may facilitate a better understanding of the type of e-books that sell. In this post, we look at the top selling e-books on the Kindle store from 2007 to 2018 (or of “all time,” since no data precedes this). See who has had the most success with their digital editions.
The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
Customer Reviews: 5,632
Ken Follett’s 12th-century historical drama concerns the build of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. Follow three ambitious men through 40 years of societal and political disruption, as their personalities converge and conflict around the project. Tracing church politics and the progression from Gothic architecture out of the preceding Romanesque period, this is a highly informative and entertaining novel.
Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
Customer Reviews: 8,593
In her debut book from the internationally-known Twilight Saga, Stephenie Meyer sets an age-old story of forbidden love in a mysterious fantasy world where humans and monsters collide. Follow star-crossed lovers Edward and Bella, who struggle to find peace, and each other, against a backdrop of small-town suspicion and familial isolation. With their “normal” teenage lives and their love at risk, they are forced to forge new paths and fight for their destiny.
The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
Customer Reviews: 5,500
As we first discovered in 2003’s The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s novels are “tapestries of veiled histories, arcane symbols, and enigmatic codes.” This follow-up is another high-stakes race for answers, with returning character Professor Robert Langdon at its center. This time the turmoil takes place in Washington D.C., where Langdon must decrypt ancient symbols and solve clandestine mysteries to save his friend and mentor. This is an epic story with surprises around every corner.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
Customer Reviews: 6,008
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo follows journalist Mikael Blomkvist and assistant Lisbeth Salander as they attempt to solve the mystery of a murder that occurred over 40 years ago. Lisbeth, a 24-year-old hacker with a photographic memory and a dragon tattoo, and Mikael, down-and-out 42-year-old investigative reporter, forge an unlikely but nuanced relationship amidst a sea of strange happenings. Suspenseful and dark, Larsson takes us on a series of twists and turns that reveal dark and disturbing secrets.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Customer Reviews: 10,006
Set in 1962, Jackson Mississippi, The Help details the lives of black maids working in white households and the changing social codes between the two cultures. Centering around bitter maid Aibileen, her brash friend Minny, and young, white socialite Skeeter, this is a stunning reflection of three different women breaking out of their socially-prescribed roles. Two worlds collide, as three inspirational ladies forever change how people behave in this American town, through a period rife with social tension.
Fifty Shades Freed, by E. L. James
Customer Reviews: 84,947
This is the third and final installment in the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James, chronicling the erotic relationship between newly-married Anastasia Steele and her lover Christian Grey. Anastasia tries to adapt to a controlling yet seductive husband, a new lifestyle as wife to a wealthy billionaire, and being commissioning editor at a large publishing house. Fraught with tension, deception, yet still smothered in sexiness, this final chapter in the story sees the two beloved characters struggle to transition into the fresh permanence of their relationship.
Inferno, by Dan Brown
Customer Reviews: 21,024
The next edition in the franchise after The Lost Symbol, this story takes us to Italy, where a confused Professor Langdon wakes up in a hospital. After an expert female assassin threatens his life, Langdon and his resourceful doctor are forced to escape. What follows is a hunt for the truth that puts the characters up against a villainous scientist, hellbent on the destruction of the world. To save it, Landon and his accomplice must solve ancient clues and unravel the mysteries of Italian art and symbolism in a thrilling narrative with plenty of surprises.
The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green
Customer Reviews: 37,931
This troubling tale of a young teenage girl diagnosed with terminal cancer is quickly turned on its head when she meets a young boy at her support group. An emotional rollercoaster, the story reveals the positive influence of a witty, charming young man on a young girl’s life, as they embark on an adventure to find the author of their favorite book. Humorous and then heartbreaking, John Green’s novel is a classic, untold story of teenage love and existential angst that is sure to get even to most stone-cold readers shedding one or two tears.
2015 / 2016
The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins
Customer Reviews: 58,142
Rachael is the typical everyday commuter. Her train always stops outside the back of the same house each morning, just enough time for a glimpse into the lives of those inside. She begins to obsess from afar about the couple who live there and the life they lead — the life she always wanted. It is harmless amusement, until she sees something she cannot forget, leading her to become much more involved in the couple’s life than as simply a “girl on a train.” This mysterious tale gets dark and unsettling quickly but is equally impossible put down.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Customer Reviews: 10,107
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian thriller set in an age of declining births in which all fertile, healthy women are forced to become handmaidens to governing families. The story takes focus on Offred, a handmaid who may only leave her commander’s house once a day to retrieve food from the store. The life she led before has been forcefully taken — her clothes, her freedoms, her child, her husband. Feel her fight, as she attempts to take it all back among the extreme hypocrisies of a failing government unable to see past the idealistic social system it created.
What can we take away from this data? What do the best selling e-books of all time have to tell us about what makes an e-book successful?
Firstly, our list shows that fiction has consistently been the most popular content category in e-book publishing. This is supported by the majority of reader surveys, which show a preference for fiction across all segments. It must be noted that the current figures we have for non-fiction sales and readership, show steady growth over recent years, and are not so far off those for fiction. Yet fiction is clearly more suited to the average consumer.
So what does our list tell us about what makes a successful e-book novel?
In 2016’s The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jocker reveal an algorithm so accurate it can predict the likelihood of a manuscript making it as a New York Times bestseller. The criteria used to evaluate the potential success of a novel are unsurprisingly present in most books on our list.
One of the most significant elements of a successful novel, according to Archer and Jocker, is “colloquialism.” A colloquial, conversational style, not only makes fictional stories readable, but also more accessible to a contemporary audience. Even the first e-book star, Pillars of The Earth, is a prime example of a historical bestseller, written using contemporary colloquialisms and linguistic structures to suit today’s readership.
Another criterion of a winning novel is a “decisive main character.” A main character gives readers a central perspective from which to understand the arc of a story. Decisiveness is a desirable quality as it lends itself to fast-paced, event-based narratives as opposed to drawn-out periods of indecisive, inner contemplation. Though a character’s inner thoughts and point-of-view can give readers something to relate to, novels that focus primarily on the inner psychology of characters, as opposed to the events, actions, and happenings they are involved in, do not appear on our list at all.
All the Kindle bestsellers have at least one strong, decisive main character, apart from Pillars of The Earth (though a good case could be made that its primary perspective is that of the narrator, or the town of Kingsbridge itself, upon which the book takes focus). The Help has Skeeter, The Lost Symbol has Robert Langdon, and Fifty Shades Freed has Ana. These main characters help us to orient ourselves within an imagined world, telling us who to identify with, whose actions to pay attention to, and whose decisions to reflect on.
The third most significant feature of a successful novel, described in The Bestseller Code, is “a plot shape with a regular beating rhythm.” Strangely enough, the plots of the New York Times bestsellers share shockingly similar ups and downs to each other. From scene to scene, they offer periods of relief followed by periods of conflict, confrontation, and activity. What’s more — this is the case regardless of genre or style. Just look at the below list of bestsellers with the same scene-to-scene rhythm as Fifty Shades of Grey:
Ten New York Times Bestsellers With A Narrative Rhythm Like Fifty Shades of Grey:
- Dan Brown, Inferno
- Lee Child, Killing Floor
- Jackie Collins, Lucky
- Michael Connelly, The Burning Room
- Sylvia Day, Entwined With You
- Dave Eggers, The Circle
- Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling
- Chad Harbach, The Art Of Fielding
- Stephen King, Cujo
- Jodi Picoult, Leaving Time
We don’t have a “best-seller-ometer” algorithm to analyze our list of e-books with. But it is clear that the best selling e-books have similarly fast-paced, action-filled narratives (and not simply because at least one of them appears on Archer and Jocker’s list too). Just flicking through the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, you will find a plot structure that follows the same, predictable “beating” between high- and low-intensity scenes.
While data and analyses can help us to understand key features that make an e-book sell, there can be no substitute for reading these books. Whether you are fanatic about fiction or not, seeing how these novels subtly and masterfully use the English language to implement the techniques discussed above could be highly beneficial, to both publishers and writers. If you know the rules to follow to make your text more accessible and appealing to the masses, you will also know the rules to break and how to exhibit originality when you work within them. Use the knowledge you now have to go forward with a more nuanced understanding of what the best e-books have in common, so you can succeed in this highly competitive market.