The thrill of the Thrillers sub-genres

Sitting at 6.7% market share of all print book sales in Canada for 2017, Fiction / Thrillers is far from a small subject category. We're also continuing to see year-over-year growth with an increase of 5.4% from 2015 to 2016 and another 6.2% moving into 2017.

According to Google Trends, searches for "thriller" have risen by 50% in Canada over the past 12 months. While all these searches are likely not specifically related to books, it potentially corresponds to recent popular movie and TV adaptations of thrillers like It (Stephen King), Red Sparrow (Jason Matthews), The Snowman (Jo Nesbo), Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy), and Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn). The increased sales trend of thriller books is not just happening in Canada; in the UK, Nielsen BookScan reported a sales increase in the Fiction / Thrillers category of 19% between 2015 and 2017.

The adult Fiction / Thrillers category contains 13 sub-genres, plus there are thriller sub-genres in Young Adult Fiction (Thrillers & Suspense) and Juvenile Fiction (Thrillers & Suspense), which we'll look at separately.

Which of the 13 adult Fiction / Thrillers sub-genres are showing growth? We're going to look at the five categories that accounted for more than 1% of sales (or market share) in the Thrillers category in 2017.

Some notes on our methodology: The subjects we explore are not comprehensive but are a group of sub-genres where we found notable year-over-year growth. To find these categories, we ran reports in SalesData for all BISAC subjects and compared their growth between 2016 and 2017. We then limited the categories to those that are more granular than what we traditionally examine. For example, Nonfiction / Self-Help came up on our list, but since we look at this category in our other research, such as The Canadian Book Market, we manually dove into its third-level subject headings to see how those categories performed. (The sales we're looking at come from our comparable store panel and do not represent all sales tracked by BNC SalesData. Comparable stores refer to a static group of retailers that have been reporting to SalesData since 2013. This way, we avoid tracking artificial growth resulting from new stores being added into the SalesData panel.)

Top five Thrillers sub-genres

  Category share of Thrillers in 2017 % Change from 2015 to 2016 % Change from 2016 to 2017
Suspense 63.3% 9.7% 19.7%
Crime 12.5% 57.6% 13.5%
General 9.0% -22.4% -74.1%
Psychological 6.3% 31.9% 13.5%
Espionage 4.2% 36.3% -1.0%

In the table above, we outline how year-over-year sales have changed between 2015 and 2017. It's important to remember that one or two big titles can make a difference when looking at sales of any category but in particular with sales within the smaller sub-genres. In 2017, the Suspense sub-genre was dominated by sales of Dan Brown's Origin and Ruth Ware's The Woman in Cabin 10

Of these top-selling Thrillers sub-genres, the ones where we are seeing steady growth over the last two years are Suspense, Crime, and Psychological. The Espionage sub-genre steadily declined between 2013 and 2015, before jumping in 2016 and remaining relatively flat into 2017.

Interestingly, we're finding a notable decline in Thrillers / General. We've seen a steady decline in the number of ISBNs in this category as well, so the standards lovers in us are wondering whether this might be indicative of publishers categorizing books more specifically in hopes of reaching more relevant audiences. (If so: yeah!)

Fiction / Thrillers comparable store sales 2013-2017

Thrillers is a very frontlist-heavy category, with most of the sales taking place in 2017 being for titles with a 2017 publication date. The 16 bestselling titles for 2017 were all from that publication year. 

The 10 top-selling authors in 2017 along with their top-selling titles

  1. James Patterson (Cross the Line, 9781455585328)

  2. John Grisham (The Whistler, 9781101967683)

  3. Stephen King (Sleeping Beauties, 9781501163401)

  4. Ruth Ware (The Lying Game, 9781501151804)

  5. Dan Brown (Origin, 9780385514231)

  6. David Baldacci (The Last Mile, 9781455586448)

  7. Michael Connelly (The Wrong Side of Goodbye, 9781455524204)

  8. Lee Child (Night School, 9780804178822)

  9. Lisa Jackson (Whispers, 9781420141689)

  10. Paula Hawkins (Into the Water, 9780385689632)

The 10 top-selling titles in 2017

  1. Origin by Dan Brown (9780385514231)

  2. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (9781501151774)

  3. The Whistler by John Grisham (9781101967683)

  4. The Rooster Bar by John Grisham (9780385541176)

  5. Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (9780385689632)

  6. Camino Island by John Grisham (9780385543026)

  7. Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King (9781501163401)

  8. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware (9781501151804)

  9. Night School by Lee Child (9780804178822)

  10. It by Stephen King (9781501175466)

When we look at the top 20 titles of 2017, 17 were in the Thrillers / Suspense sub-genre. Unfortunately, we aren't finding a lot of Canadian authors in either the top-selling authors or the bestselling titles lists. The top Canadian title for 2017 was the Giller-winning Bellevue Square (9780385684835) by Michael Redhill in the Thrillers / Psychological sub-genre, and coming in next was Linwood Barclay's Parting Shot (9780385687164), which was categorized as Thrillers / Suspense. 

Juvenile and YA

In addition to Fiction / Thrillers, there are two other non-adult thriller categories: Young Adult Fiction / Thrillers & Suspense and Juvenile Fiction / Thrillers & Suspense. While the focus of this post is on the adult sub-genres, we also want to show the sales trends for these other two categories.

While the sales patterns in the Juvenile and YA Thriller sub-genres were a bit unpredictable, we're finding consistent growth over time, as indicated by the trendlines in the graph below. It's important to recognize here that we've also seen huge growth in the number of ISBNs that are available in these sub-genres between 2013 and 2017, with an increase of 245.9% for YA and a considerable 518.1% for Juvenile. 

Juvenile and YA Thrillers & Suspense comparable store sales 2013-2017

Graph showing  Juvenile and YA Thrillers & Suspense comparable store sales 2013-2017.

Trends in 2018

When looking at year-to-date unit sales for books in the adult Fiction / Thrillers category, we find that sales in 2018 have increased by 6.7% when compared to the same timeframe in 2017. Newcomer A.J. Finn is in the first spot for The Woman in the Window (9780062799555), followed by Stephen King's The Outsider (9781501180989). In the top 10 titles, we see many familiar names: John Grisham, Dan Brown, Ruth Ware, and Lee Child. Joining the top 10 in 2018 is Bill Clinton and James Patterson's The President is Missing (9780316412698). 

Stay tuned for the list of top 10 Thrillers for 2018 that will be shared in The Canadian Book Market 2018, to be released in March.