Tag Archives: book

The 10 awful truths about book publishing

Thanks to my friend Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, who edits the extraordinary “BKCommunique,” the newsletter of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, I’m reprinting here a recently updated list of no-holds-barred observations about publishing written by Steven Piersanti, the company’s President (and also my publisher and friend). You’ll be surprised by what Steve reports.

1. The number of books being published in the U.S. has exploded.

Bowker reports that over one million (1,052,803) books were published in the U.S. in 2009, which is more than triple the number of books published four years earlier (2005) in the U.S. (April 14, 2010 Bowker Report). More than two thirds of these books are self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and other print-on-demand books, which is where most of the growth in recent years has taken place. In addition, hundreds of thousands of English-language books are published each year in other countries.

2. Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published.

Book sales in the U.S. peaked in 2007 and then fell by nearly five percent between 2007 and 2009, according to the Association of American Publishers (April 7, 2010 AAP Report). Similarly, bookstore sales peaked in 2007 and have fallen since, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 22, 2010). The major bookstore chains have been especially hard hit, with a 12 percent sales decline between 2007 and 2009 (Publishers Weekly, April 12, 2010).

3. Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.

Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to Nielsen BookScan – which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com) – only 282 million books were sold in 2009 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 11, 2010). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

4. A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to approximately 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are 250,000-plus business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

5. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.

Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with many books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. New titles are not just competing with a million recently published books, they are also competing with more than seven million other books available for sale. And other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. Result: investing the same amount of effort today to market a book as was invested a few years ago will yield a fraction of the sales previously experienced.

6. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

7. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.

Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from agents and experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the author’s marketing platform and what the author will do to market the book. Publishers still fulfill important roles in
helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

8. No other industry has so many new product introductions.

Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. Yet the average new book generates only $100,000 to $200,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense. This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest
in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.

9. The digital revolution is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales.

We are in the early stages of an explosion in digital versions of books and digital sales channels for books and portions of books. However, early indications are that the digital revenues are replacing traditional book revenues rather than adding to overall book revenues. The total book publishing pie is not growing, but it is now being divided among even more products and markets, thus further crowding and saturating the
marketplace. And although some digital costs are lower, other costs are higher while price points are lower – making digital profits even slimmer than print profits thus far.

10. The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.

The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition in a small industry, rapid growth of new technologies, and expanding competition from other media lead to constant turmoil in book publishing. Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

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The future of books

The summer after I finished fifth or sixth grade (I forget which), my photo appeared in my home-town newspaper along with a two- or three-paragraph story. In the photo, I was carrying a teetering stack of books, my weekly haul from the public library. The story quoted one of the librarians about my seemingly unquenchable thirst for reading. As I recall, I would have won the prize as the library patron who had read the most books that summer — if there’d been such a prize.

I still read lots of books — 100 or more a year — and I’m not even a particularly fast reader. But something has changed in the last half-century. I now read books almost exclusively on my Kindle or my iPad (mostly on the former).

I love these new reading devices. Amazon.com has reported a substantial upsurge in book sales to its Kindle customers — about 50%, I believe — and I’m very much part of the pattern. I read more, I read faster, and I find myself remembering more of what I read. So, I’m always puzzled when friends tell me they HATED the Kindle they bought or wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book on an iPad.

In fairness, I’m an early adopter of new technology. The iPad promises a new reading experience? Sign me up! The new Kindle offers a screen with higher contrast? You’ve got me! I’ve never thought “new” was always better. But in my experience it often is, and it’s certainly worth trying.

It’s occasionally tempting to accuse the Kindle-haters among my friends of being Luddites. Then I recall that the Luddites were workers whose jobs were being consumed by the mechanical monsters they confronted, so that analogy would be unfair to them.

Yes, I too lament the protracted death of bookstores. I’ve always loved to wander at a leisurely pace through the aisles of a well-stocked independent bookstore (or even, I confess, a Borders or B&N at times). I used to appreciate the feel in my hands and the unmistakable smell of newness of a new hardcover book as I opened it for the first time. But my life goes on even though I experience these pleasures so much less frequently these days.

Many people seem to equate the advent of the e-book as the death-knell of books and publishing. Of course, it’s certainly true that the publishing industry is restructuring in major ways, but that’s a process that began years before e-books became widely available. It has as much to do with the rise (and now the seemingly imminent fall) of the major bookstore chains and, perhaps even more so, with the increasingly large role played by the big-box discounters.

The problems of publishers aside, it’s nonsense to think that the printed book is a dying phenomenon. Last year, according to a friend who runs a publishing company, one million titles were published in the U.S. — a much larger number than had been the case only a few years ago. Apparently, there’s been a spike (or flowering, depending on your point of view) in self-publishing, which accounts for hundreds of thousands of titles. As far as I can tell, Americans may be buying fewer books, magazines, and newspapers, but I’d have to be convinced they’re actually reading less.

So, the world is changing. What else is new? Growing numbers of people now read e-books in addition to, or perhaps instead of, printed ones. But the e-book itself is obviously a transitional format. When it costs no more to print in color, or to include photos or other illustrations, the black-and-white age of the typical printed book will certainly fade. And it’s only a couple of steps further to the multimedia “book” that incorporates audio, video, and interactive features.

If you’re one of those people who can’t part with the feel and the smell and the heft of a printed book, five or ten years from now you may still be reading in the age-old format that began (shakily, it now seems) with Johannes Gutenberg.I expect to be navigating my way through the colorful and engaging content of a multimedia “book.”

Books on paper aren’t going away, at least not anytime soon. Eventually, probably decades from now, the book will become an artifact of a time long passed. What will have replaced it? What is the book of the future? I won’t begin to speculate. But I’m convinced that billions of educated people will be “reading” at least as much as we are now, learning a lot, and enjoying it immensely.

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