Article posted as part of the Black Horse Western weekend at The Tainted Archive
They say you can prove anything with statistics, so I intend to prove that the Black Horse Western series and its tales of gunslingers and their Peacemakers are more popular than the boy wizard and his magic wand. The amazing thing is, it's true!
The evidence comes from the UK's PLR system. British authors are lucky in having a scheme in which they receive a small payment every time a book is borrowed from a UK library. Currently this stands at around 6p per loan and when an author has several books out this mounts up to a worthwhile payment. The scheme though has a second advantage of letting authors see how many times their books have been borrowed. At the very least this provides welcome comfort that someone has actually read your books, but over time it provides interesting results to mull over about both the success of your own work and also the state of the western generally.
On a personal level my 1st IJ Parnham BHW The Outlawed Deputy was published in 2001 and my 18th Sharpshooter McClure is out this month. Nine years on the first book along with its Large Print Linford Western version is still being borrowed around 50 times a month. During those years the book that has been most popular with borrowers in terms of average loans per year is Dead by Sundown and the one that has been least popular is Mendosa's Gun-runners with the former attracting 75% more loans than the latter. I initially found this bemusing as I rate Mendosa's Gun-runners as being one of my better novels to the extent that when people ask me which of my books they should try it's one of the ones I usually mention. I never mention Dead by Sundown as it didn’t strike me as being particularly special. On the other hand Dead by Sundown is a good title for a western and it has the best cover I've ever had, one that has a great composition and which ties in perfectly with the title. Mendosa's Gun-runners has a dull title and the cover was fairly generic.
This theme continues. My second most successful book is The Last Rider from Hell, which has a good title and a nice cover, and my second least successful is Calloway's Crossing, which has a good cover but a dull title even though again it's one of my favourite books. Continuing down the list, also in the bottom half as regards average loans are Yates's Dilemma and Calhoun's Bounty, both of which have great covers, but perhaps their relative lack of success hints that titles with a named person aren’t so interesting to readers. Having said that my other titles that feature a name Devine's Law and Wanted: McBain have been popular, but then again their titles sound more dynamic than vague concepts such as a dilemma or a bounty. There could be many reasons for the spread of borrowing, but I'd offer the reasonable conclusion that the title is very important in giving a book a better chance of someone taking it off the shelf.
Totalling up these statistics I found that after nine years the title that has been borrowed the most is The Last Rider from Hell. That was my second book and it has now been borrowed 11,000 times. As at June 2009 an IJ Parnham western has been loaned 87,000 times and with someone taking out one of my books every 29.4 minutes I should reach 100,000 loans on March 17, 2010 (at 9.22am approximately). I'm also currently the 1498.3th most borrowed author. I find that all encouraging. But even more encouraging is that I can detect no sign of waning popularity no matter how I play around with the figures. Trends are in truth hard to work out as new BHWs are always the most popular. The first year after publication is when the most loans happen. Thereafter loans fade away so every year an individual title will be borrowed fewer times than it was the previous year, but if I compare the trend of my recent books to that of my earlier ones the conclusion is an interesting one.
The Gallows Gang in 2009 came out in January as did The Last Rider from Hell in 2002, but the recent book was borrowed more often in its first half year than the old book. Massacre at Bluff Point from 2007 hasn't tailed off as quickly as Bad Day in Dirtwood did from 2003. It's the same with the rest. But apparently library lending statistics show that library loans in total fell over the last decade by around 20%. If that decline was across the board the trend ought to show up, and yet my latest titles are doing as well now as my earlier ones did, if not better.
This health becomes even more apparent when considering the Large Print versions. Traditionally these are borrowed around 50% more often than the normal print versions, and my more recent Large Print titles are noticeably more popular than my earlier ones. Obviously I can't with assurance say that my figures, which PLR derive from a statistical sample and which next year could plummet as a different part of the country is sampled, prove the western generally is healthy, but I am certainly not getting a picture of a dying genre, declining readership, and budget-strapped libraries cutting back. The picture for me appears to be that BHWs are as popular as they ever were and Large Prints are growing in popularity, and as someone who has now accepted I'll never be able to see the small print on product labels again I understand why.
Taking this analysis to its logical conclusion, I looked at how many BHWs have been published since my first book. The answer is 874 and so I've provided about 2% of the series. I reckon I'm an average author being neither much more popular nor much less popular than others are and so I'd estimate that all BHWs and their Large Print reprints are loaned at least 1 million times annually. According to the PLR site only four authors are currently being loaned more than 1 million times headed by James Patterson. JK Rowling wasn't one of the four and therefore she was loaned less than 1 million times. Ergo Black Horse Westerns have more fans than Harry Potter... So, fellow BHW writers, the next time someone discovers you’re a writer and feels obliged to ask if you're doing as well as JK Rowling is, you can reply that you're not, but the series you write for is!