Amazon’s 2012 bestseller list shows publishers and indie authors need each other

Amazon (s AMZN) released its list of the bestselling books of 2012 on Friday morning. The list is a great summary of one of the key themes in book publishing in 2012: Self-published authors and traditional publishers need each other.

In October, Publishing Perspectives editor-in-chief Ed Nawotka wrote a story that’s stuck with me. “What Author Could Possibly Need a Publisher?” appeared in Publishing Perspectives’ Frankfurt Book Fair daily (PDF). The story was about 50 Shades of Grey, the erotic trilogy by E.L. James that began its life as Twilight fan fiction and was then published by a small Australian publisher before being snapped up by Random House’s Vintage in a seven-figure deal and widely distributed. Nawotka wrote:

“Simply put, amid the continuing economic recession, the publishing industry needed Fifty Shades of Grey. James didn’t need a publisher as such, but once she turned to the pros, her relatively modest success was turned into a maelstrom of money. And, for 2012 at least, put bestsellers — and one might argue, the publishing industry itself — back in the black.”

Four of the authors on Amazon’s 2012 adult top-ten list — which counts Kindle and print copies together — either originally self-published their books or published through very small publishers. Here they are, including the traditional publishers they signed with:

1. Fifty Shades Freed: Book Three of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E. L. James (first released in January 2012 by The Writer’s Coffee Shop; acquired by Random House in March 2012)

3. Fifty Shades Trilogy: Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed 3-volume Boxed Set by E. L. James (Random House)

4. Bared to You: A Crossfire Novel by Sylvia Day (ebook self-published on April 3, 2012; acquired by Penguin in May 2012)

6. The Marriage Bargain by Jennifer Probst (ebook first released by Entangled Publishing on February 14, 2012; acquired by Simon & Schuster in August 2012)

7. Reflected in You: A Crossfire Novel by Sylvia Day (the second book in the trilogy, published by Penguin on October 3, 2012)

In a statement, Sara Nelson, Amazon’s director of books and Kindle, said it’s “interesting to note that four of the five contemporary romance titles in the top 10 list, including the Fifty Shades trilogy, were originally independently published and went on to become huge best sellers.” That’s true but leaves out what happened between the books being independently published and becoming huge bestsellers: A traditional publisher entered the scene.

I don’t want to downplay the success of these titles before they were traditionally published and distributed in print. 50 ShadesBared to You and The Marriage Bargain all hit the New York Times (s NYT) ebook bestseller list before being acquired by big publishers. The 50 Shades trilogy had sold 250,000 copies, mostly as ebooks, before it was bought by Random House; The Marriage Bargain sold over 150,000 copies as an ebook in its first three months of publication, before it was bought by Simon & Schuster. But the books either weren’t in print or were only available via print-on-demand. In June, Sylvia Day told BookPage:

The biggest and most obvious advantage to traditional publishing is the print run and distribution for Bared to You. There’s no way I would’ve come anywhere near 500,000 print copies, nor would Bared have ever been found in Walmart, Target, Costco, BJs, Kroger, etc. as a self-published book.

The remaining five books on Amazon’s list were traditionally published. There are no solely self-published titles on the list.