Romance readers are voracious in ways that are hard to understand if you’re not in that life. We are always hunting for “new to me” authors, preferably ones with huge binge-readable backlists. Since readers have always used bestseller lists to aid discoverability, it seems worthwhile to dig into the USA Today bestseller list, which is the gold standard for romance. I don’t think there’s a correlation between quality and bestseller status, it’s just a single snapshot of romance sales. But I think there’s a lot to learn about readers from the overall trends and patterns on the USA Today bestseller list.
Every Thursday, the newspaper publishes a list of the top 150 books; they describe their methodology on the site. Unlike the New York Times, which separates lists by format and genre (hardback, trade paperback, or combined paper + eBook, fiction, nonfiction, etc.), the USA Today list ranks combined sales on a single list. It’s a fascinating, democratic mish-mash of picture books, literary fiction, and genre blockbusters.
In order to get a snapshot of romance bestsellers this year, I did what any rational, reasonable person would do and created a database to track the USA Today bestseller list. From the first week of January through the first week of October, 422 distinct romance titles made the list. It’s possible I missed a few, because some romances were miscategorized. For example, author Christine Feehan had four books make the list, and while three were categorized as romance, one was labeled general fiction. Meanwhile, some fiction was miscategorized as romance, such as The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarity.
Here are the three most obvious conclusions about the USA Today romance bestsellers.
It’s easy to see why romance authors implore readers to buy their books during release week: More than 85% of titles appeared on the list for only one week. Some popular authors who have been around for decades—Danielle Steel, Christine Feehan, Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber—had multiple books listed for multiple weeks. Most multiweek listers were published by Big 5 houses that can get books onto shelves at big-box stores as well as at bookstores. I don’t have substantial evidence, but it seems there is a strong correlation between the USA Today lists and what’s on the shelves at Target, Walmart, and Costco. Indie authors without a shelf presence incentivize first-week buying in another way: Release day prices are the lowest and go up after the release week.
When it comes to romance, the e-book is king. BookBub and other e-book sales services work: 20% of USA Today romance bestsellers only made it onto the list after a price drop. Luckily, tracking e-book pricing is a snap with eReaderIQ.com, and there’s a clear correlation between e-book price and appearance on the USA Today bestseller list. A large percentage of romance bestsellers were e-books that were only available in paper through print-on-demand services such as Lightning Source.
The list makes a strong case that when it comes to book buying, price is what matters most to romance readers. Only 7% of this year’s bestsellers were priced at $9.99 or higher, while 75% of the books were less than $6. Some traditionally published books stayed on the list longer or reappeared on the list again due to e-book price drops. For example, The Savior by J. R. Ward was released on April 2. It listed for two weeks at its full price of $13.99, and then reappeared on the list in September after the e-book dropped to $2.99.
Romance readers are always looking for ways to feed the beast. We’ll use the library, but we’re also buying lots of books. The pricing data illuminates why so many romance readers are worried about skyrocketing book prices. In the past year, more traditionally published romances were being sold in trade paperback format rather than in mass market, meaning book prices effectively doubled. Readers have been asking each other in befuddlement, “Who is buying all these $10 and $12 e-books?” The answer, at least according to these lists: no one. Twenty-three authors wrote the 32 titles priced above $9.99 and. of those, only Abby Jimenez and Casey McQuiston were debut authors, with Helen Hoang and Jasmine Guillory listing with a second novel. The other 19 were authors who have been publishing for at least a decade and have dedicated fans willing to pay top dollar for new releases.
There’s a lot of clear signaling from publishers that they intend to price romance like other books—but romance readers don’t read one book a month, they read 20. Savvy readers stretch their book budgets as far as possible, and we can’t help but notice that indie and traditional publishers willingly slash the price to promote sales. Smart romance consumers have clearly learned the message that e-book pricing is a waiting game we can win.