THE 10 AWFUL TRUTHS ABOUT BOOK PUBLISHING
1. The number of new books being published in the U.S. has exploded.
Bowker reports that 291,922 new books were published in the U.S. in 2006 (Publishers Weekly, June 18, 2007). This includes 47,203 new books in categories covered by BK books: business, economics, sociology, personal finance, philosophy, and psychology.
2. Book industry sales are flat, despite the explosion of new books.
The Association of American Publishers reports that U.S. book sales in 2006 were $24.2 billion, down 0.3% from $24.3 billion in 2005 (Publishers Weekly, May 28, 2007). And U.S. book sales were almost flat from 2000 to 2004 (Publishers Weekly, May 30, 2005).
3. Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.
“Here’s the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies” (Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006).
4. Bookstore sales peaked in 2004 and have been declining since.
Bookstore sales declined 1% in 2005, 3% in 2006, and 4% in the first five months of 2007 (Publishers Weekly, February 19, 2007, and July 16, 2007).
5. A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.
For example, the number of business books stocked range from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to approximately 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are 300,000-plus business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.
6. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.
Many book categories including business, current affairs, and self-help have become oversaturated. It is increasingly hard to make any book stand out. New titles are not just competing with almost 300,000 other new books, they are competing with more than five million previously published books available for sale. And other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. Result: the same amount of marketing investment and effort today as a few years ago will yield a fraction of the sales previously experienced.
7. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already has hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. They have no time to read anything else. 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.
8. 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. Nearly all book proposals that we receive from agents now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the author’s platform and what the author will do to market the book. Publishers still provide an important role of making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.
9. 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, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. And the average new book generates only $100,000 to $200,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these product expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense. This more than anything makes publishing a crazy business.
10. The bookselling 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, low staff salaries, 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.
(The big lesson, based on my personal experience as an author: Be good at #8 or don’t bother.)