Tag Archives: electronic books

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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iPad vs. Kindle

No, I’m not going to tell you that one is vastly better than the other. It’s not that simple.

Early adopter that I am, I purchased my first Kindle not long after the device came on the market. Within weeks, I had found a new love-object. It quickly became apparent that I was able to read books much more easily, quickly — and, yes, pleasurably — on the Kindle than on paper:

  • More easily, because I could carry the Kindle with me anywhere, snatching 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there to move a little further into the meat of whatever book I was reading;
  • More quickly, because the line length, using the large type I selected, was short enough to allow my eyes to skim more rapidly over the text; and
  • More pleasurably, because I wasn’t forced to bend books at the spine, hold them down with my elbow, or prop them up with a pillow because, since they were often thick hardcover editions, they were uncomfortable to rest on my lap in a chair or my stomach in bed.

The advent of the Kindle 2 made this happy camper turn somersaults. I loved the longer battery life and was even more pleased that no longer could a subtle swipe across the device turn the pages far back or far ahead and cause me to lose my place.

That helps explain why I’ve read a total of somewhere between 150 and 200 books on the Kindle — and practically none on paper.

Now, enter the iPad. Tempted though I was when the iPad was first announced, I resisted the impulse to be the first kid on my block to own one . . . until I learned that Amazon.com had created an app that would allow me to download books previously available only for the Kindle. (The library of available books on Amazon.com is vastly bigger than what’s available anywhere else, and especially from Apple.) I immediately bought an iPad and reveled in the oohs and ahhs of my coworkers and friends at the sheer beauty of the device.

Then I tried to install it. Unbeknownst to me, the iPad is not a self-contained computer. It must be installed through a “real” computer — in this case, my new HP laptop running Windows 7. Turns out, though, that Windows 7 isn’t overly fond of the iPad. After an hour or two of futility, I turned to a friend for help who is a certified, grade-A geek. It took him more than three hours to get the machine running. I had further trouble getting it to “sync” with my laptop, but that’s another story.

Apple includes an edition of Winnie the Pooh with full-color illustrations as a starter in the iBooks library, and as you may already have seen, it is wondrous to behold — nothing short of gorgeous. But I was more interested in reading books from Amazon.com, so — with some renewed difficulty — I downloaded the Kindle app and several books from my archive at Amazon. Another delay ensued when I couldn’t figure out where those books had gone on the iPad, but another techie friend solved that problem without difficulty.

Finally! Days later now, I opened my first Kindle book on the iPad — and felt cruelly betrayed.

Here’s what you can’t do with Kindle books on the iPad:

1) You can’t adjust the size of the type. You can only switch from landscape view to portrait view and back again.

2) You can’t look up words in the dictionary, because there is none.

3) You can’t get a sense of how much of a book you’ve read, because not only is there no pagination (there isn’t on the Kindle itself), there is no indication of the percentage of text you’ve completed or any comparable mechanism.

4) You can’t see the cover in its full-color glory. (You can’t do that on the Kindle, either, but you most certainly can with iBooks on the iPad.)

In short, buying an iPad to read books from Amazon.com is a non-starter. Perhaps the Kindle app will be improved, but it will have to go a very great distance to equal the amazing performance of the iPad with books from Apple’s online store. Here are a few of the many capabilities of the iPad in book-reading mode:

1) You can switch from landscape to portrait view, or vice versa, and lock either one in place.

2) You can adjust the font size by tapping an icon located in the upper-right-hand corner of the page.

3) You can adjust the brightness of the backlighting by tapping on another icon, located right next to the font symbol.

4) You can search the book using a keyword or phase by tapping a third icon — a magnifying glass — in the upper right. That action pulls up the keyboard, allowing you to enter a search term in a drop-down window.

5) You can switch from the book you’re reading to another book in your iBooks collection by tapping the Library button in the upper-left-hand corner of the page.

6) You can switch to the table of contents by tapping an icon in the upper left, and then tapping the number of the chapter you want to read.

7) You can tell how far you’ve read two different ways: the iPad calculates the total number of pages in your book and shows at the bottom of each page the number of pages you’ve already read (such as “586 of 2570” with the font set at a large size); and you can see at a glance how far a button has progressed from left to right along a line of dots stretching across the bottom of the page, thus giving you a sense of whether you’re one-quarter or one-third or one-half the way through the book.

8) You can see how many more pages are left to read in each chapter, because, in faint gray type at the lower right, that information appears (“43 pages left in this chapter”).

9) And, of course, you can see the book cover in full color — not to mention any full-color photographs or illustrations the book may contain. And black-and-white photos appear as sharp as on even the most advanced computer screen.

So, why haven’t I trashed my Kindle and switched all my book-reading to the iPad? Here are the drawbacks:

  • I can carry the Kindle with me everywhere. The iPad is too big, too awkward, and just a little too heavy to carry around.
  • Amazon.com still offers by far the world’s biggest selection of electronic books. The company has a virtual monopoly on that market (though that may change over the long run).
  • The iPad has the same annoying tendency that handicapped the Kindle 1: just brush the screen accidentally, and you might turn two pages or ten. (Yes, it’s cool to be able to turn the page with a simple swipe of the finger — but not so cool to find yourself ten pages ahead of yourself without even realizing it until you notice the lack of continuity from the page you were reading to the one that’s come up in front of you.)

So, iPad vs. Kindle — who wins?

They both do. I’m sold on reading electronic books instead of the paper variety.

And I expect I’ll be using both these devices until one or the other of them matches the attractive features of the other, addresses its own drawbacks, and gains access to electronic books offered by all sellers, not just its own in-house stock.

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