Saturday 28 July 2018


It's been coming for a while, but now the latest sales figures appear to confirm it's happened: sales of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series have surpassed those of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence, meaning that A Song of Ice and Fire is now the most popular epic fantasy series published since The Lord of the Rings (at least arguably).

Of course, with only five volumes available compared to The Wheel of Time's fourteen, A Song of Ice and Fire has had far more readers than Wheel of Time for some time (roughly 18 million to 6.5 million), but the overtaking in terms of outright sales remains a significant and impressive achievement.

The first Wheel of Time novel, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990 by Tor Books and was a massive hit, shifting 40,000 copies of the first-run hardcover. The later novels did even better, and every book in the series from The Path of Daggers (1998) through A Memory of Light (2013) hit #1 on The New York Times bestseller list in the week of release. As of Robert Jordan's sad passing in 2007, the series had sold 44 million copies in North America and roughly 70 million worldwide. Brandon Sanderson completed the final three books in the series, with global sales of the series surpassing 80 million by 2014 (according to Jordan's French publishers) and increasing further. Current estimates suggest sales of between 85 and 90 million.

A Song of Ice and Fire, in contrast, was a slow but steady grower. The first book in the series, A Game of Thrones (1996), did not sell well on release and only started doing better with the paperback edition (ironically, apparently due to a Robert Jordan cover quote, with George R.R. Martin himself crediting a cross-pollination of fans of both series for helping increase his story's popularity). The second novel in the series, A Clash of Kings (1998), brushed the lower reaches of the bestseller lists but it only started hitting the big time with the third volume, A Storm of Swords (2000), which reached #11 on the New York Times list.

By the time A Feast for Crows was released in 2005, the popularity and profile of the series had boomed and it had sold over 5 million copies. Despite increasing delays between books, the popularity of the series continued to increase. As of the release of A Dance with Dragons in 2011, the series had sold well over 12 million copies worldwide. That same year, the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, based on the books, was launched and this resulted in a titanic explosion of sales. A Song of Ice and Fire sold over 9 million copies in 2011 by itself and sales continued to accelerate dramatically. Overall sales of the series hit 58 million in April 2015 and 70 million in August 2016, on the twentieth anniversary of the first book's publication.

Industry sales figures now show that A Song of Ice and Fire has sold 45 million copies in the United States alone. The publishing rule of thumb is that global sales once a book series has exceeded c. 20 million copies (with a film or TV adaptation available) are more than double that of the US. We can therefore declare with overwhelming confidence that A Song of Ice and Fire has sold more than 90 million copies worldwide, putting Martin just ahead of not just Jordan, but also the late Sir Terry Pratchett, whose 41 Discworld novels have sold more than 85 million copies worldwide since 1983.

Remarkably, A Song of Ice and Fire's success has spread to the spin-off material, with companion volume The World of Ice and Fire reportedly selling more than 1 million copies since its publication in 2014 as well. Sales of The Wheel of Time's first companion volume (1997's World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time) were apparently much more modest and of the second volume (2015's Wheel of Time Companion) very poor in comparison.

This impressive achievement may only be temporary, however. Amazon is developing a Wheel of Time television series and we can expect an impressive boom in sales for that series when that finally hits the air (most likely in 2020 or 2021), whilst sales of A Song of Ice and Fire are likely to start tailing off once the TV series stops airing next year. And of course, although ASoIaF's achievement is noteworthy, it still has a way to go to catch up on J.K. Rowling's 600 million copies of Harry Potter sold.

The scale of A Song of Ice and Fire's achievement should not be underestimated, however, and this will explain the increased eagerness the publishers have to get their hands on The Winds of Winter.


insurrbution said...

No doubt some of this probably has to do with the HBO series. I remember in the early days of the show's history, and between Books 4 and 5, it was still 'niche.'

I'm definitely looking forward to Books 6 and 7 (those that complain about the delays....yes, it kind of sucks but look when the other books were published. Waiting shouldn't be a surprise by now.)

Fire and Blood has also been pre-ordered, and I've got A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and the Lands of Ice and Fire.

Ghost said...

Hopefully the WoT TV series do well and their sales overtake GoT. Maybe that'll lit a fire under Martin and get him back to writing.

Ilya said...

"The publishing rule of thumb is that global sales once a book series has exceeded c. 20 million copies (with a film or TV adaptation available) are more than double that of the US."

My brain is struggling to parse this sentence. Is it me? Or is something missing from this sentence?



Ann said...

One can hope

Anonymous said...

Why do you think he'd care? Up until now WoT had sold more units, do you really think he'd cares if WoT surpasses ASOIAF again?

Jim said...

It is hardly surprising that aSoiF has overtaken WoT after close to 8 seasons of worldwide TV and media coverage from the TV show. It would frankly be deeply shocking if it hadn't. The really impressive feat is that WoT is almost on par without any kind of adaptation and minimal media coverage ever. It is actually by far the best selling work of epic fantasy without an adaptation, possibly by a factor of 5 or something. When/if the WoT adaptation comes out on Amazon sales of the books will of course skyrocket, especially since Amazon has strong incentives to push book sales in connection to the TV show.

Adam Whitehead said...

"My brain is struggling to parse this sentence. Is it me? Or is something missing from this sentence?"

If you take the US book sales of a series which has a TV adaptation, that's a baseline for the total worldwide number of sales. So WoT's US sales (56 million) don't translate into 112 million worldwide (as far as we know; his international publishers were quite adamant it was 80 million four years ago) because of the lack of an adaptation, but ASoIaF's do because GoT has been a massive global success. In fact, the reach of GoT is absolutely huge, reaching countries in South East Asia and even the Middle East where western fantasy is usually completely ignored, with corresponding booms in sales there.

You have to be careful on these rules of thumb as they do change with time - for years it was assumed Hollywood movies need to make 2x their budget to turn a proper profit but more recently it appears to now be 3x - but this one seems rock solid.

vacuouswastrel said...

Jim: the other impressive thing about WOT's sales is how condensed they were. WOT came out six years earlier than ASOIAF, but its massive blockbuster sales were mostly in the 1990s (Jordan's last three installments, from 2000-2005, were widely criticised even by fans and he rather slipped from the head of the genre around that time).

Of course, that doesn't help their case compared to ASOIAF, which has been even more concentrated in sales - mostly just the last few years, after the first couple of GOT seasons.

But it is eye-opening compared to people like Tolkien or Lewis, whose works were continually re-introduced to generation after generation for forty (or in the Hobbit's case sixty or seventy) years even before WOT came around, whereas WOT's sales came mostly from a single generation in a single decade.

Anonymous said...

ASoIaF was always the biggest new, "adult" hit in fantasy though. At least since the internet (2000s).

Anonymous said...

I've bought and RE-BOUGHT each series several times. Because both series took so long between each entry, every time a new one came out I'd decide to 'finally' read them all to catch up. I bet many people did this over the decades, thereby inflating sales. Because WOT has so many more books, this effect has happened more often for it.