According to 2017 estimates released this summer by the Association of American Publishers, sales of adult fiction fell 16% between 2013 and 2017, from $5.21 billion to $4.38 billion. The numbers, though not a major worry, raise questions about the books the industry is publishing and what consumers want to read.

Since 2013, fiction sales fell every year with the exception of 2015. That year they rose 1%, helped by Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and three other novels that topped one million print copies sold. (The AAP tracks all major formats—print, digital, and audio—in its sales estimates.) Interviews and discussions with various industry members uncovered different theories about why there’s been a downturn in fiction.

The most commonly shared view is that it has become extremely difficult to generate exposure for novels. Fiction, more than nonfiction, depends on readers discovering new books by browsing. Now, with the number of physical stores down from five years ago (despite a rise in ABA membership), publishers cannot rely on bricks-and-mortar stores providing customers with access to new books.

Nor can publishers depend on media outlets to make up for the gap left by the shrinking footprint of physical bookstores. Review space in mainstream media has been slashed, cutting off another possibility for readers to learn about new fiction.

The upshot of those developments is that publishers have found breaking out new writers—never mind developing new franchise authors—increasingly difficult.

Creating authors who can draw readers via name recognition alone is crucial to selling novels. Research done by the Codex Group shows that the author is the most important factor in a person’s decision to buy a novel. Codex founder Peter Hildick-Smith says that with so much inexpensive genre fiction now available at “subprime price points under $5” (from such channels as Kindle Unlimited), publishers must invest to develop brand name authors who can command premium-price loyalty.

That process can require a multiple-book commitment. It can also require a type of commitment that’s difficult for publishers: sticking with authors who don’t produce instant bestsellers.

Based on Codex research, a person typically reads an average of three books by an author before becoming hooked on his or her books. Publishers, however, as Hildick-Smith and others interviewed noted, seem increasingly reluctant to support authors whose books don’t immediately sell. “Creating a dependable, bestselling author is a multibook investment that requires different strategies and great persistence,” Hildick-Smith said. “It’s not a one-and-done launch.”

The difficulty publishers have recently had in creating brand name authors can be seen in BookScan numbers. The service, which tracks only print sales, shows that fiction sales continue to be soft. Moreover, the BookScan figures show that no fiction title topped one million copies sold in 2016 or 2017 at outlets that report to the service. In 2015, the only year in the past five when fiction sales rose over the previous year, four novels sold more than one million print copies each, according to BookScan: Watchman (1.6 million), Grey by E.L. James (1.4 million), The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (1.3 million), and Anthony Doer’s All The Light We Cannot See (one million).

Though the ability of blockbuster series to move a wide array of fiction has long been a reality in the children’s market, that only recently became the case in adult fiction: in 2010, the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy showed that series can be one of the most effective ways to sell adult fiction.

Some respondents mused that a broader cultural shift that’s affecting fiction may be afoot. A number of sources said publishers are now dealing with increased competition for consumers’ attention from a widening array of content options on television, where streaming technology has increased their access to new shows. “Maybe,” mused Pegasus Books deputy publisher Jessica Case, “the itch people have for addictive story telling has been scratched to a large degree by TV series binge watching instead of books in recent years.”

Before the proliferation of streaming services, brand name authors did pop up unexpectedly. In 2012, James’s three Fifty Shades titles sold about 14 million print copies according to BookScan (in addition to millions of e-books not tracked by BookScan). But two years later, no novel topped the one-million-print-copies-sold level.

Publishers and booksellers say that in the current market, readers want nonfiction. And, though nonfiction has always been easier to break out, the Trump presidency has made political books the hot category in recent years.

Since at least the 2016 presidential election, “we have become a talking head society,” said Paul Bogaards, executive v-p and director of communications for Alfred A. Knopf. He added that broadcast and cable shows are now mostly interested in interviewing experts in particular fields (mostly politics).

Even with the changes in the market, publishers are optimistic that long-running fiction stars can still be made. Bogaards, who worked on the Larsson titles (which sold more than 6.3 million print copies combined in 2010, according to BookScan), is confident fiction sales will bounce back. “There will be another big novel,” he said. “There always is.”

Adult Fiction Revenue, 2013–2017

(in billions)

2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 Change 2013–2017
Adult fiction $5.21 $4.90 $4.95 $4.43 $4.38 -16%