This isn’t the sort of thing that happens every day by any means, but occasionally something happens that makes a book take off fast. For example, that pseudonymous J.K. Rowling novel we mentioned earlier. I gather that its sales weren’t exactly setting the world on fire prior to The Revelation, which means that it wasn’t exactly well-stocked at bookstores that cater to bestsellers.

Suddenly, from right out of nowhere, boom! It was written by J.K. fairy-tale-success-story goddess-of-childrens-books Rowling. And now everyone wants to read it, out of curiosity if nothing else. I would be very surprised if there was a remaining copy on any bookstore shelf anywhere by now. Even Amazon lists it as “temporarily out of stock.” (Pretty clever for the publisher to manage to leak the news at this point. I’ll just bet they don’t end up having to pulp very many returns of this title!)

Except…guess what? That out-of-stock only applies to the $20 hardcover. The $10 e-book can’t go out of stock. So while that paper book is all sold out, and the “out of stock” notice has to be turning away some people whose patience would barely hold to the 1- or 2-day Amazon Prime shipping but don’t want to wait more than that, the e-book just keeps on going.

(Side note: I’m almost positive that e-book price was $11.99 when I checked earlier today. If Amazon adjusts its prices downward to the $9.99 point when a book sells a certain number of copies, well, that’s yet more proof of just how well the e-book is selling, isn’t it?)

You can’t always tell how many books you’re going to sell. That’s one of the reasons behind allowing over-ordering and pulping returns—though books get returned and pulped far, far more often than not. The problem will be exacerbated if publishers ever manage to get rid of the pulping-returns system, though this will of course be outweighed by the savings of paper and fuel in 99.9% of cases.

But e-books never go out of stock. So when you have a book suddenly explode into being a runaway bestseller, all those e-reader owners can read it with no waiting—and not get frustrated, decide to wait ‘til later, and then forget they wanted it.

Advantage: e-books!


  1. There is a second lesson there for authors not named Rowling or King or Patterson or…

    The book had been very well reviewed, yet as the TV types made clear last night, it was hardly stocked at the bookstores they checked. No promo effort. No big launch event, just the standard mid-lister treatment every book without a big “name” attached to it gets: three months on a shelf–two copies spine out–and then oblivion.

    Except in this case, after steady but unspectacular sales in the 4 digit range, *suddenly* an “intrepid reporter” figured out that the well-reviewed-but-failing title was actually written by Rowling.
    (Yeah, right… And he wasn’t tipped by a Bloomsbury contact. Really!)

    Rowling did this as an experiment to see how good a writer she is, outside the Potterverse, and to find out what people are buying when they buy her books.

    We all know the answer, now: she really is a pretty good writer but she could never make a living at it, the traditional way, if her name wasn’t J.K. (Harry Potter) Rowling. Because what peope are buying is her brand. (Which is no mean thing.)

    Thing is, she might make a half-decent middle-class living as an indie author; the new book looks like a nice start for a series of mysteries and after 3-4 volumes, those steady but unspectacular sales could easily have supported her and her family–not in a mansion–but certainly in Privet Drive. 🙂

  2. I read Stephen King’s On Writing recently, and one of the things he said was that the best way to become a bestselling author was to already be a bestselling author. I think this little experiment by Rowling and her publisher just proves the point.

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