Books vs. Movies: What Sells Better?

Allow me to be that guy: The book was better.

And that sometimes extends into sales as well.

Let me acknowledge right here that there isn’t a great way of doing this. First of all, there’s no way I’m going to go through every book and movie comparison out there. (I’d say Yester salaries are pretty meager, but that would require their existence.) Getting actual total revenue on all books would be difficult, so I’m just going to problematically assume Amazon prices. Nor can I very easily take into account DVD sales or rentals…not to mention shares of Netflix accounts. There are issues of inflation, and should films get credit for popcorn sales? Yada yada yada…You get it.

Still, all that said, it’s interesting to see that book sales sometimes drum up more revenue than the box office.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King

Worldwide book sales of the trilogy: Over 150 million.  Exact numbers are hard to come by, but most estimates agree on that figure.

Now, lets take the cost of the trilogy: $27.95 for the trilogy in mass-market form when ordered off Amazon. Multiply that by the figure above and you come up with a revenue number of $4.19 billion. Again, not perfect…but a pretty solid figure.

The film trilogy, meanwhile, saw total worldwide box office sales of $2.9 billion.

Point: Books.

The Great Gatsby

Movies are facing an early deficit, so we’ll go ahead and include both Redford and Leo’s renditions as Gatsby here.

Worldwide book sales: 25 million. No Lord of the Rings, but impressive. Going by the same Amazon pricing, The Great Gatsby goes for $9 a pop, coming out to $225 million.

The 2013 ($144.8 million) and 1974 ($20.6 million) versions of the film combined for box office revenues of about 165.4 million. Again, there’s an obvious discrepancy between eras for film and the worth of the dollar, but we made the rules and so we’re going to again award this round to the books.

Harry Potter (all seven of ’em [well, eight movies])

This pattern doesn’t always hold true. And in this case, we can pit the series of books against the series of films.

For the books: This is the best selling series in history. At least 450 million copies of books in the series have been sold. The books have been translated into 67 languages and are also the fastest selling books in history. Total receipts for the books alone are hard to calculate since they have had such broad international success. Most copies on Amazon go for between $6 and $11, so let’s say $2.7 billion on the low end. Let’s also note here that this is a really low low end, because when those books first came out they were closer to $20 a pop. Yikes.

Still, it was no match for Potter on the big screen. The eight movies generated about $7.7 billion worldwide. Let that sink. (The Guardian found that the Potter films outsold the books as well.)

The Takeaway

My point isn’t that books outsell movies, or even vise versa. As I said way up top, it’s hard to even do a real comparison. If some statisticians want to take the ball from me and try and give this a real analysis, you might note that Google’s pretty bereft of research on the topic.

I should add that my look above only considers a few massive franchises, and with the Potter series it wasn’t even really close. In the case of Gatsby and Frodo, films were demanded by the books’ cultural ubiquity. Usually, books benefit from films getting made because it brings more attention to the literary counterpart.

But as a book lover myself, it is interesting that sometimes the glitz and glamour — even with films as massive as Lord of the Rings — aren’t as financially dominant over their word-on-page counterparts as all that glitz and glamour might suggest.

photo credit: Timothy Vollmer, Creative Commons/flickr