I now belong to an organization called the Independent Publishers of New England, and it sent an email around last week summarizing trends in publishing. The email is about four years old, but I'm sure the trends it describes have continued. It does not bode well for the future of serious writing. Here it is.
Steven Piersanti, President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Updated September 26, 2016
1. The number of books being published every year has exploded. According to the latest Bowker Report (September 7, 2016), more than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an incredible increase of 375% since 2010. And the number of traditionally published books had climbed to over 300,000 by 2013 according to the latest Bowker figures (August 5, 2014). The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources. Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely oversaturated. [Note: self-published books topped 1,000,000 in 2018.]
2. Book industry sales are stagnant, despite the explosion of books published.
U.S. publishing industry sales peaked in 2007 and have either fallen or been flat in subsequent years, according to reports of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Similarly, despite a 2.5% increase in 2015, U.S. bookstore sales are down 37% from their peak in 2007, according to the Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 26, 2016).
3. Despite the growth of e-book sales, overall book sales are still shrinking.
After skyrocketing from 2008 to 2012, e-book sales leveled off in 2013 and have fallen more than 10% since then, according to the AAP StatShot Annual 2015. Unfortunately, the decline of print sales outpaced the growth of e-book sales, even from 2008 to 2012. The total book publishing pie is not growing—the peak sales year was in 2007—yet it is being divided among ever more hundreds of thousands of print and digital books.
4. 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 BookScan—which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com)—only 256 million print copies were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2016). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.
5. A book has far 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 up to 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are several hundred thousand 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 have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than thirteen million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. Result: investing the same amount today to market a book as was invested a few years ago will yield a far smaller sales return today.
7. 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.
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. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books. 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.
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, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. Yet the average new book generates only $50,000 to $150,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these new product introduction 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.
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, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing (such as the disappearance over the past decade of over 500 independent bookstores and the Borders bookstore chain). Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.
STRATEGIES FOR RESPONDING TO “THE 10 AWFUL TRUTHS”
1. The game is now pass-along sales.
2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.
3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
4. In a crowded market, brands stand out.
5. Master new digital channels for sales, marketing, and community building.
6. Build books around a big new idea.
7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short. [end email.]
Great books, both fiction and non-fiction, are works of art. Authors who can write them are extremely rare--and the capacity to write them has nothing to do with race, gender, or sexuality. From the 18th until the late 20th century, I would argue, the major western nations had some mechanism--however imperfect--for identifying, publishing, and marketing really superior works, and large segments of the public would read them. Most published books fell far short of greatness, and some great authors labored in obscurity, but the overall mechanism worked fairly well.
That is no longer the case. I personally think that publishing has self-destructed by giving in to the values of marketing, and looking for niches and trying to replicate previous successes. The same thing has happened to film. In such an environment, a truly original work has little or no chance of being taken by a major publisher or even represented by an agent--since the agents' role is now to anticipate what the publishers want. I realized quite a few years ago that most of my favorite books would never be accepted for publication today.
One can, as I did last year, publish work one's self, but it's very difficult, even with professional help, to get effective publicity for it.
Thus to every writer with serious aspirations, I would recommend this passage from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece, The First Circle, set in a Soviet technical institute that doubles as a prison camp. The inmates are engineers and scientists, and one of them, Sologdin, has just presented a breakthrough design to the learned Professor Chelnov, whose political unorthodoxy landed him in Stalin's prison system a long time ago. The project is a scrambler telephone--ordered for the personal use of Comrade Stalin himself. Sologdin is not sure that he wants to submit his breakthrough to the institute's leadership at all. I quote:
"How shall I put it? [asked Sologdin.] Isn't there perhaps a certain moral ambiguity?. . .It's not as if it were a bridge, or a crane or a lathe. Our assignment is not for something of great importance to industry--it's more like making a gadget for the boss. And when I think of this particular 'customer' picking up the receiver we'll make for him. . . .Well, anyway, so far I've been working on it just. . .to test my strength. For myself."
"He looked up.
"'For myself.' Chelnov knew all about this kind of work. As a rule it was research of the highest order."