10 depressing facts about the book publishing industry

Steven Piersanti (President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers) recently published a top 10 list on the trends in the publishing industry. Though the numbers that are cited in the article are from the US, I’m guessing that some trends might be applicable to the world market as well.

First a quick summary of the post and then we move on to what new authors can do apart from popping anti-depressant pills.

1. The number of books published in the US and across the world has gone through the roof. That’s good, you say, right? Hang on for the next point.

2. Books sales have not grown proportionally. In fact, it’s been exactly the opposite in the US (the article doesn’t have data for the international market). Sales have gone down since 2007.

3. ebook sales have gone up. But this rise hasn’t been greater than the fall in printed book sales. This connects back to the earlier point about overall book sales going down.

4. The law of averages also works against authors.
As an example, for non-fiction books in the US, the average copies sold in a year: 250 (goes up to a pathetic 3,000 over its lifetime).
Another example: Percentage of business books that crossed the 5000 copies mark = 6.2%

5. Chances of your book being stocked in a bookstore are less than 1%. Apart from the lakhs of books that get printed each year, there are also the millions that were published in previous years. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough bookstores to stock them.

6. The market is facing oversaturation. Every conceivable niche (that has a decent market) has been bombarded with books. So in all probability, your new book already has competition before it has been published.

7. Markets are shrinking. A general (random) reader is much more unlikely to buy a new book, if there are already other books that the reader’s ‘communities’ have recommended (or forced).

8. Publishers are helplessly raising their hands when it comes to marketing. Marketing costs are an expense that can bleed a company, with no guarantees of recouping those funds. So the best salesman for a book is its author.

9. The Return on Investment for the publisher is going down. Each book is a ‘product’ that goes through the regular (and expensive) product development and marketing cycle. The average book generates between $50,000 to $200,000 (note that the average US book is priced higher as well). This is often not sufficient to cover the costs and make a profit.

10. The uncertainty will continue. The changes in the market, the level of competition, the paper thin profit margins and many such challenges make it extremely tough to say things will be ok in the near or long term.

Hmm. Not exactly the best pep talk a new author was hoping for. So do we all shut shop and give up on our dreams? Let’s not rush to that conclusion yet. As authors outside the US, we could interpret this in different ways.

Numbers, research data and trends are all fine to an extent. It’s good to be aware of them. But it would be foolish to give up on individual plans just because the rest of the authors haven’t had luck.

There are some figures in there that make you wonder. If an author can’t sell 250 books in a year, was the book even worth publishing? If publishers are so choosy about turning down 99% (random number, no statistics to back that) of the queries, then on what basis were these negligible potential books shortlisted? Also, is the contrary true that an new author selling 300 books is above average? If so, then new authors who have more than 250 friends (willing to buy their own copy), don’t have much to worry about. But something still doesn’t connect.

In such cases, rather than get entangled in statistics it’s better to go with the age old adage – Ignorance, or rather selective ignorance is bliss.

The health of the industry and the overall context can’t be ignored. But each new book will create its destiny based on several factors – some controllable and others that aren’t. Decide for yourself what you can control and what you can’t. And keep chasing your dreams.

4 Comments

  1. Sairam says:

    Sameer,
    I liked this post not for what is written. But for how it is written.

    You tell all the bad points.
    And then tell to go ahead anyway 🙂

  2. Sameer says:

    The 10 points are facts from another article. The conclusion is my recommendation on how to deal with those facts.

    Bottomline: When you can’t change the facts, change the interpretation 🙂

  3. Vishnu Ravu says:

    Dear Sameer,
    I just published a romantic novel on amazon e book. I am looking for an agent to get it paper published. Can you suggest some one?

    With regards,

    Vishnu

  4. jasmine doley says:

    I am a minor and i have been working on a romantic comedy novel that also portrays peer pressure and the conflict faced by teenagers on what career line they want to go for .I am nervous about sending the book proposal as I dont know if being a minor will affect my chances of getting my book published.I would be grateful if you would offer me some advice on the matter and how I should proceed.

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