The Alphastream Game Design Blog
How do the sales of 5E settings, sourcebooks, and accessories compare to adventures? Let’s take a look at the BookScan data and find out. Because, while adventures historically are thought of as selling poorly, settings and sourcebooks have been said to sell well.
Now, in truth, looking at data provided by Ben Riggs, I find that 1E and 2E sales of adventures are often on par with 1E/2E setting books and sourcebooks. 4E deliberately tried to publish fewer adventures and more sourcebooks (think Player’s Handbook 2 and 3, or Psionic Power, or Adventurers Vault 2). The 5E strategy is different, as we shall see.
If you have not seen the previous two articles in this series, I recommend starting there, then coming back to this article.
The top setting book is the oldest… the not-particularly-highly-regarded Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide with 162k sales. It does cover Forgotten Realms and was sold at a time when there were few releases, but it continues to sell reasonably well. If you argue that D&D should abandon the Sword Coast, the high sales for this book suggest otherwise.
The second on the list is Eberron with 142k sales, and it also has the best indicators in the graphs we created on our Patreon Discord. Wildemount does well, as does Ravnica and Van Richten’s. It is worth noting that the Tal’Dorei book on BookScan is the Green Ronin one, which all told does extremely well for being a third-party product. (Click any image in this blog to see a larger version.)
The top five are true settings and are comparable in sales to adventures. SCAG is higher than any adventure. Eberron is just 5k sales below the top adventure, CoS. Wildemount is just 4k shy of the second adventure, Dragon Heist. If we take the top 10 on each list, the top 10 adventures have 984k sales, the top 10 settings have 930k sales. This may rank as a surprise for some, but it may help explain the continued emphasis on adventures or settings as adventures.
Spelljammer is arguably both an adventure and setting and I included it on both lists. Many on this list include an adventure, and we could perhaps argue that CoS was the Ravenloft setting default until Van Richten’s showed up five years later. In truth, most D&D products try to offer a bit of everything (sourcebook, setting, adventure). Is ToA not a Chult setting book, with character options and magic items and monsters?
For the above reasons, it is hard to pin down what is truly a sourcebook in the 5E era. I’ve argued that we have just a few in 5E – far fewer than previous editions. (Take Ravenloft, for example. In the 2E era, it saw an astounding 9 boxed sets, 1 hardcover book, 4 monster products, and 24 accessories, for a total of 38 total setting and sourcebook products. There were also 26 2E Ravenloft adventures. Yeah, that is not how 5E approaches a setting. In ten years of 5E we had one adventure that doubled as setting, Curse of Strahd, then a luxury reprint of that same adventure, and finally the first true Ravenloft setting book, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.)
Okay, so back to 5E’s top sourcebooks. Xanathar’s is the amazing hit, with 522k sales. And Tasha’s sold an unbelievable 125k in the first 4 weeks (Xanathar’s sold 72k in that period)! It and Volo’s are very close in total sales with 347 and 341k. It is interesting that Tasha’s has not overtaken Xanathar’s! In 2023, the year-to-date sales are essentially equal, so if Tasha’s does catch up it won’t be anytime soon. It is also interesting that these books continue to sell really well, but WotC plans on replacing them after the 2024 update is released.
Even spots 4-7 are very strong, all above 100k sales. I can’t explain Van Richten’s being lower than most, because to me it’s one of the finest of all 5E products. Maybe it speaks to why D&D usually doesn’t go deep on any one setting. Interest seems to quickly decline in further products.
Update, Oct 2023: Ex-D&D team lead Ray Winninger said on Twitter “VRGtR most certainly did not sell poorly. I admire what Alphastream is trying to do, but there are serious holes in his data.” No question that there are holes, but which ones is he seeing? I asked. He said a few things we already know: “Hi! Digital is a huge hole; there is also intermittent AMZN participation in Bookscan (particularly in COVID times), hobby and mass channels, and non-US English language.” He adds, “Up until I left WotC, virtually every (non-licensed) 5E book set a new sales record in its particular category. (ie. the audience as growing ever larger.) I’m aware of two exceptions, one on my watch. I doubt that’s still true.”
The most likely explanation is that the intermittent BookScan data likely particularly under counts Van Richten’s initial sales. Perhaps digital sales were strong as well. If Ray is right that every book outsold similar books of its type, then VR could have had the first-year sales higher than Wildemount or Eberron? If so, that would lift Van Richten’s to the top 20 5E products in terms of sales.
Ray Winninger adds, “Something else for you to think about for your estimates: the alt covers don’t really show up in Bookscan at all. (They’re available exclusively to hobby.) That’s 10s of 1000s of additional sales in the first week. (Exact number increased over time).” “Also, DDB growth may have slowed, but it grew like a weed for years. It’s a very sizable chunk of the biz.”
This is interesting, because 10’s of thousands of sales for alt covers would indeed bolster those sales. But, in theory, should do so at similar ratios to how the products are selling. So, it shouldn’t impact Van Richten specifically, but rather be another way in which BookScan is a smaller part of the pie than it would be for traditional publishing for the products with alt covers. To me, the big news here is that gaming stores are selling 10s of thousands of alt covers. That’s a huge boost to overall sales for very little work, making D&D even more profitable. And, it means stores are very much still a vital source of sales just on the basis of alt covers!
If you weren’t particularly pleased with Mordenkainen’s Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse, this data seems to say you aren’t alone. It sells poorly compared to the original Volo’s and to Fizban’s (released seven months prior). I had heard store owners complain that the Rules Expansion Set did not sell well, and that certainly seems to be the case. In January to July of 2023 three times as many people bought the original Volo’s (despite being technically out of print) than the revised gift set. Furthermore, the gift set does worse than several 3E products (in green). Now, we could argue that the high price point is equivalent to three or so regular sourcebooks… which still puts the gift set 8th on the above list and still last compared to all other 5E sourcebooks.
On the patreon Discord we discussed whether One D&D, or even Tasha’s or Multiverse changes, could have resulted in the decline in sales. Could the changes to the foundation of 5E be eroding confidence and hurting sales? I don’t personally think so, but we lack the data to be sure.
We don’t have 10 sourcebooks to compare to the top 10 adventures or settings, but we don’t need them. Just the top three sourcebooks beat the combined 10 from the other categories! Sourcebooks, at least under the 5E strategy, are almost as strong as core books. With, of course, the exception of the multiverse updates.
The top accessories on BookScan are led by the second DM’s screen and the D&D Character Sheets, with 212k and 130k sales. After that, it is a drop to 41.6k and below and we see a mix of licensed and even 4E products. Not much news here, though it is worth noting that many of these items are selling more copies than Call of the Netherdeep and Radiant Citadel. Some of these accessories can be much cheaper to create and publish than adventure or setting books.
The BookScan data also has about 22 items that I considered to be Non-Gaming. All of these are licensed products created by another company. By far the biggest is the Heroes’ Feast cookbook with 207k sales. In second is the Art & Arcana visual history book with 81k (and the deluxe version in 16th place for another 21k sales). Non-gaming products include children’s and young reader books, novels, Stranger Things and Rick and Morty graphic novels, movie books, and the like. All told, the 22 products add up to 911k in sales on BookScan (which may be the majority of these kinds of sales). That is more than double all of the Critical Role BookScan novel and book sales. It is also bigger than the total BookScan D&D totals for Accessories. And, of course, it is a significant advantage the D&D brand has, to have such a strong non-gaming. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on this in an upcoming article.