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The State of Book Publishing Part I

The State of Book Publishing Part I

The various media industries have been disrupted in recent decades. This is not news. But they have not been disrupted in the same ways. I have mentioned previously that <Shameless Self Promotion Warning!> I have a book coming out, on the evolution of the rules of baseball. Its release date is March 8. Feel free to pre-order here, or even better yet, here. <Shameless Self Promotion over.> Signing the contract made me wonder about the state of publishing generally, and whether I would have been better off self-publishing. This piece is my analysis of both questions. This first part is about the state of the industry today (or, more honestly within the past two years, for which there are sort-of numbers). The second part will be my wearing-pajamas-in-the-basement take on the industry’s future.The State of Book Publishing Part I

Media disruption happens in distribution, supply, and revenue sources. How these play out depends on the medium.

Distribution is the common element, with the mainstreaming of the internet in the mid-1990s allowing people to distribute anything that can take the form of a digital file. Formerly there was a supply chain of middlemen warehousing and shipping physical items to retailers who sold the items to customers. With digital files, in principle there is no need for either the distributor or the retailer. In practice, the customers often tend to prefer going to a convenient single source for their digital file needs, so there is in fact an intermediary. But this still removes the costs of shipping and storing physical items, with the result that there is no need to limit inventory.

Next I consider supply in music and books. Recording an album with decent sound used to require an expensive recording studio. Nowadays the equipment is cheap enough so as to be widely available. So if you decide you have a burning desire to lay down some tracks, cost is not a barrier. Writing a novel, on the other hand, is and always has been a matter of an individual sitting down and writing, whether with a quill pen on paper or on a computer. Technology has made the process easier, but the process was never the major barrier.

Then there is revenue. It is all very lovely to be able to create distribute content, but unless you are doing this as a hobby, you need to get paid for it. The music industry was in full panic mode back in the Napster era because it wasn’t clear that people were willing to pay for music anymore. When buying music meant purchasing a physical object–an LP or a CD–pirating was a marginal problem simply due to the practicalities involved. But with the internet, why would people pay when they could easily get the same thing for free? This eventually resolved itself, partly because people always were willing to pay for content–it was just a question of how much–and partly because downloading pirated music was never all that great an experience after all. But it turns out that people love the streaming subscription model, which restores that intermediary, who in turn has the leverage to pay rights holders a lot less than they used to earn. So the recording industry is still a thing, but with smaller mounds of cocaine.

Journalism of course was the big loser. It got disrupted from all sides. Its content was a combination of reported and opinion journalism. The opinion journalism was kind of a big thing. A newspaper columnist was a senior journalist who had been around forever and seen anything. The claim was that his (gendered pronoun used intentionally) experience gave him unique insights that he passed on to his readers. Hence the early critique of bloggers as guys sitting in their pajamas in their parents basements. These bloggers, the claim went, lacked to experience to bring anything to the discussion. It became pretty clear early on that these senior columnists weren’t bringing unique insights so much as they were old guys droning on and on. As for reported journalism, any but very local stories would be widely enough reported that the internet reader could find it for free from someone. The new distribution system set established journalism companies against one another, with a race to the bottom. At the same time the revenue side collapsed as advertisers rushed to Google and Facebook. And don’t underestimate the devastation caused by Craigslist. Classified ads used to be a major revenue source for newspapers, and now are gutted.

This brings us to book publishing. The big disruption there is the rise of the ebook, which in turn led to the rise of self publishing.

Self publishing is nothing new. There have always been outfits that were only too happy to take whatever you wrote and produce a book from it, so long as the check cleared. It could be a very professional looking book, too. My church back in the 1950s did a church history. It is on good paper with excellent binding and well executed photographic plates. It is surprisingly interesting and well written, too, but the people who produced the physical book didn’t care about that. There is no market for this sort of thing, of course, I was handed a copy when I became a member. I assume there is a cupboard full of them somewhere, but I never asked.

This legit self-publishing blended smoothly into vanity presses. What is the difference? Legit self-publishers never claimed that they gave access to the book distribution network. Vanity presses claimed, or at least strongly hinted, that they would get your book into stores, without the ugly necessity of an editor standing between you and your dream of literary fame and fortune. This was bogus, of course. Stores had no interest in carrying this stuff.

This access to the distribution network is what has changed. Or rather, there is a new network. The old one is still there and relevant for bookstores, but the new network is for ebooks. This new network is in the mid-to-late stages of consolidating (for the US market at least) into Amazon. And the thing is, Amazon happily carries anything that isn’t affirmatively illegal. It simply doesn’t care.

The new technology resulted about ten years ago in a self-publishing revolution. The tools were available so that a non-techie author could create and upload ebook files, and there were enough readers to matter who were willing to pay real money for them. A few authors tried this, and some started to notice that they were making more off their ebooks than from their day jobs. Some who went full-time found themselves with six figure incomes. The word spread, and now there is an active marketplace for self-published books.

There also is a third category of book, in addition to paper and ebook: audio. This of course isn’t anything new, going back to books on tape. What is new is that it is a big growth area, what with the kids and their smart phones.

So how is the publishing industry doing? This is really two questions. The first is how is traditional publishing doing, and the second is how is self-publishing doing?

The State of Book Publishing Part IFor the first, here is a chart showing traditional publishers’ revenue for the past ten years. It is pretty much the definition of “flat.” This isn’t disastrous, but in light of inflation (which has been low, but not zero) and population growth, this is not good. But how about if we take publishing as a whole? This is trickier. Measuring book sales is problematic under the best of circumstances. Measuring ebook sales is even harder, if only because Amazon isn’t in the habit of releasing this sort of data. There is one person, going by the handle of the Data Guy, who claims to have real numbers. He isn’t very transparent about his methodology, but it seems to involve a lot of web crawling around Amazon, collecting books’ sales rankings and converting these into units moved. Are the results trustworthy? Heck if I know. They remind me of the Nielsen Ratings, which everyone always knew were more or less bogus, but better than any alternative so everyone agreed to pretend that they were valid. Regardless of how good the Data Guy’s numbers are, they are what we have, so there you go. For what little it is worth, they don’t seem implausible to me. I am, however, using their fuzziness to shamelessly round them off as convenience dictates.

So I took date from the Data Guy, mostly from here, and crunched it up using my superpower, which is the ability to do simple arithmetic. Some caveats: We need to distinguish between going by units sold versus dollars. I will be going with dollars, since that really is the heart of the matter. Ebooks are cheaper than paper books, and self-published ebooks are much cheaper. Going by units would result in a much larger slice of the market being self-published, but units don’t make the world go round. The distinction between traditional and self publishing also is not wholly clear cut. A self-published author might have one-author imprint. Two self-published authors might share an imprint, and perhaps work together in marketing their books. And so on. It seems to me that once the concern has its own bank account, with money flowing from that account to the authors, and if it has someone who can reject a book as being crap, then it is a small traditional publisher. But telling which is which from the outside is not always obvious. On the other hand, this is mostly around the margins, so best not to overthink it. Finally, take this discussion as being about the US market. I can’t speak to other places.

Moving on to interesting tidbits: roughly half of all paper books are sole through Amazon, the other half being through bookstores. Paper books are almost entirely traditionally published. This is not due to technology. Print-on-demand makes it entirely feasible to self-publish a paper book, but in practice the market for self-publishing is almost entirely in ebooks and, to a much lesser extent, audio. Looking at books sold online, paper has over 60% of the market. Put those together, and paper accounts for over 80% of sales, with traditional publishing holding the vast bulk of this. The remaining online sales are split with about 30% ebooks and 10% audio. Those ebooks sales are something north of 60% traditionally published, and the audio books about 70%.

Put all this stuff together and wave our hands a while to forget any questions about how solid they are, and call it about 10% of total book sales are self-published. On the one hand, that is pretty impressive for a category that didn’t exist until recently. That is a substantial chunk of change going out to the authors, and bully for them! On the other hand, this isn’t anything that says that traditional publishing is circling the drain. On the gripping hand, tack on another ten percent to that chart of book sales and a moribund industry now looks like a mature industry showing modest growth.

This answers the question of where the industry is at today. The next installment will look to the future. But I had another question: Was I a fool to sign that contract? So far I have talked about books in general, dividing up only by format. It turns out that if we split up fiction and non-fiction, they are divided between formats and publishers very differently. I take my numbers from here, which are 2016 numbers. They might have changed, but probably not a whole lot. About a third of the way down is a slide breaking unit (as contrasted with dollar) sales down by format and publisher, for juvenile non-fiction, juvenile fiction, adult non-fiction, and adult fiction. I would rather have used dollar sales, but I didn’t find this data. Remember that self-published books are almost always priced at a fraction–often a small fraction–of a traditionally published book. So the numbers would be more extreme using dollar sales. But even by unit sales, traditional publishing sells 88% of all adult non-fiction books. If we just look at paper books, it is more like 95%. Moving from data to impressions, if you took out memoirs and self-help books (the most fiction-like of non-fiction books) the remainder would be a tiny sliver. There is an active market for self-published books, but not for all kinds of books. Those readers eagerly seeking out self-published books aren’t looking for abstruse histories of baseball rules. So while for some sorts of books there is a good argument to be made for self-publishing, this is not true for the sort of book I wrote. So it goes.

Is this split between traditional and self-publishing the new status quo, or is it where we happen to be right now in what will prove a long, painful implosion of traditional publishing? I will look at that in my next post. Spoiler alert: I think the situation is stable, or close to it.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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26 thoughts on “The State of Book Publishing Part I

  1. I’ll withhold most of my comments pending Part II. One, though, seems relevant here.

    Pirating of non-fiction, particularly expensive textbooks, has come back with a vengeance. It started with technical journals, whose subscription and per-article prices were beyond the reach of both individual scholars and institutions in much of the world. Once that infrastructure was in place, it was easy enough to add books. American college students noticed quickly. Why pay $180 for that text when you can download the identical PDF for free? Why carry around 40 pounds of paper and a laptop computer all day when you can load the textbooks onto the computer? Once textbooks, genre fiction. You can’t download the latest Charlie Stross Laundry Files novel from Russia on release date. But you can within a few weeks.

    The channels for obtaining the source go beyond someone breaking the encryption on a purchased copy and uploading it. A friend of mine published a textbook. It was not released in any e-book format. When I found that it was available on the primary Russian pirate site, she did some investigating. What they had was a bit-perfect copy of the PDF file that was used to transmit the content from publisher (one of the university presses) to the printer. TTBOMK, no one has ever determined where along the line the file was stolen.

    Tongue only partly in cheek, you’ll know if and how quickly you’ve made it by when a copy of your book shows up on the Russian pirate site.

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      • Library Genesis currently “carries” 13 of the 15 books on the NYTimes’ nonfiction hardcover best sellers list. The two not there (yet) are Kamala Harris’s and The Sopranos Sessions, both released on Jan 8 this year, two weeks ago. They have all of the Times’ top ten paperback nonfiction. I picked the first book that Amazon gave me for “baseball history” — Babicz and Zeiler’s National Pastime — and Libgen had it. A 7MB PDF that I downloaded that appears to be what would have been sent to the printer. I’d have to tear the PDF apart to check that — the usual giveaway is when licensed fonts are included. But the cover page illustration is at the kind of ridiculous resolution the printer would need.

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        • Sure, you can get a pirated book if you want to. The question is how much does this affect legit sales? Is the typical consumer of pirated books someone who will reluctantly buy the book legitimately if that is the only option, or is it someone who was never going to pay good money for a book no matter what? I don’t have real data, but my suspicion is many more fall into the latter group than the former. Also, reading a book as a PDF sucks.

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          • Yeah, I look at things through my own twisted lens. Most of the time I have a non-fiction book out, it’s research rather than just reading. PDFs are, IMO, much better for that — search, copy-and-paste, comments unconstrained by the size of the margin, etc. Better than epubs, too, since page numbers in the index map to something that’s easily found.

            Mostly I use Libgen as a library. I could run down to the University of Denver and use my alumni library privileges, but traffic’s a hassle and most of the books are warehoused and it takes two days to get them retrieved. Or I could request the books by inter-library loan, and it’s two weeks. Journal licenses are technically “students and faculty”, but DU bends the rule if I’m physically in the library on campus. Is the library market a thing these days?

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      • Unless someone’s dumb-ass publisher is having some sort of spat over digital works.

        Only books I’ve ever pirated (and I would prefer *not* to, as the pirated copies have really annoying errors in formatting) were by an author whose ebooks are available everywhere *but* the US.

        They’re older works, nostalgia kind of read thing, and they’ll occasionally pop up on Amazon for about two weeks before disappearing again, and the best I’ve come up with is there’s some back-end argument over who owns the American digital rights because they’re from the 80s. So Amazon keeps getting “put them up/take them down” legal orders….and no one actually wants to spend the money to go to court to settle it.

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  2. My father wrote a few textbooks, published by the standard textbook houses. But he was never satisfied with them, nor with his agent’s handling of it. So, he switched to having the university book store print up what he wanted, with less of the fluff/boilerplate that gets tacked on. He was much happier this way. They were cheaper for the students and he could tailor them for the classes he was teaching.

    I have more of this kind of thing, in boxes and on shelves, from other family members and what they have put together. Sometimes university presses, sometimes by the bookstore, like my fathers, sometimes by vanity presses. But what unites all of them is the labor of love that went into each piece. Which is not too different than what gets self-published now.

    At one time we had magazines, from Astounding to The New Yorker, that featured fiction. Allowing new authors to break into the market. As they matured they became more exclusive, featuring better authors to draw more sales. But they faced a different competitor, TV. Sales fell off.

    All of that is to say that people are creative and need an outlet. So they find one. People also like to be entertained and be informed. How those two needs find an equilibrium is always changing.

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    • I touch on the pulp magazines in Part 2. They were replaced after World War II by mass market paperbacks. We SF readers tend to lose sight of this because the SF magazines were the survivors of the massacre of the pulps, and so we tend to get the chronology wrong. SF was only a small corner of the pulp fiction industry. How much of this correlation includes causation is less clear. We can certainly assign some of the blame to TV, but I don’t know how much.

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  3. From what I understand, the number of books needed to be a best-seller is radically lower than what was the number of albums needed to be a big hit. A gold-certified album meant 500,000 copies sold. A platinum-certified album meant 1,000,000 albums sold. A book selling in the low five figures (20,000-40,000) can count as a huge seller because most books sell around four figures or less.

    There is a big elephant in the room about what makes someone a reader and what doesn’t. One of the things that grits on me when discussed here before is that people read before there were alternative audio and visual entertainments from movies, radio, TV, and now video games. The more “neoliberal” people like to argue that it is hunky dory okay for people to prefer watching TV to reading books, it’s the market!

    One weird issue for me is that even our work ethic seems to think of reading for pleasure as a decadent activity. I’ve heard numerous people say “If I have the energy and concentration to read, I should be working/studying.” Or “I would love to read more novels but I just have too much work to do.” They can then freely talk about all the TV they watched the night before.

    But there is a weird cultural thing (and it might not be limited to Americans) where reading is something people feel like they should do but they really don’t like doing. This includes educated professionals whose success counted on them being able to read and comprehend written material.

    The question is why and how did we get here.

    Another fact is the “Life is too short for difficult books” thing that I brought up on Sunday.

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    • My guess is that the golden age of reading occurred because there were fewer options. I’m also not sure whether people ever really read difficult books or authors more. In his history of the 1920s, One Summer, Bill Bryson wrote that the really big popular authors of the Jazz Age are not the people we see as big today.

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        • Publisher’s Weekly has lists of the top selling books for each year going back to 1895. They make for a fascinating combination of a small number of perfectly familiar names, some who tickle in the back of the brain, and a bunch whom you have never heard of. The secret is that you have never heard of them for a good reason. There may be some forgotten gems in there, but they are under a lot of manure. Popular fiction generally doesn’t age well. The occasional spectacular exception should not blind us to this truth. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publishers_Weekly_lists_of_bestselling_novels_in_the_United_States

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          • Let’s look at 1895:

            Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush by Ian Maclaren
            Trilby by George du Maurier
            The Adventures of Captain Horn by Frank R. Stockton
            The Manxman by Hall Caine
            The Princess Aline by Richard Harding Davis
            The Days of Auld Lang Syne by Ian Maclaren
            The Master by Israel Zangwill
            The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
            Degeneration by Max Nordau
            My Lady Nobody by Maarten Maartens

            Trilby probably doesn’t ring a bell, but another character from this book, Svengali the evil hypnotist, might. Also George du Maurier was the grandfather of Daphne, best known as the author of Rebecca.

            Richard Harding Davis was better known as a war correspondent.

            Israel Zangwill was important in the Zionist movement. His play “The Melting Pot” popularized that metaphor for immigration.

            The Prisoner of Zenda is still read today, and still widely ripped off. (The plot is that the king of a small country vanishes, and his identical-looking cousin is prevailed upon to fill in for him.)

            Other than that, I draw a complete blank. (Maarten Maartens is a cool name, though. Like a Dutch Ford Madox Ford.)

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    • I read all the time and always have. Where I find it harder to get sold is on new books, particularly fiction. The major publishing houses seem to put out a lot of novels by young photogenic MFAs about young MFAs in New York who can’t find fulfillment or who find it through yoga and S&M or whatever I can’t say I find those books engaging, so I find myself reading mostly older novels, which I can get through the library. I don’t want to say that there’s more variety on Netflix or in the cinemas- I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie- but I have the impression that the supply chain for new writers isn’t what it used to be. Or, as Jim Harrison put it, it seems like what happened to the arts establishment happened in publishing.

      So, I should, by all accounts, be reading more self-published books. It’s just not so easy to hear about them.

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      • First of all, Jim Harrison was awesome. Second, I have noticed this also. And I read like you, anything and everything. I blame the MFA programs, for the “writers” who fail get jobs in publishing. And talk about a bubble. There are about four current writers that are really good, and most of the rest is just crap. Genre fiction is different but usually falls into the same pattern.

        Lately, much of what I have been reading is from the late Victorian era through WWII.

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        • There are about four current writers that are really good, and most of the rest is just crap.

          That is a pretty extreme statement. I can easily think of four contemporary writers of literary fiction whose work I love and there’s probably not much overlap in our lists. That suggests to me that there are plenty of good contemporary writers.

          The MFA/publishing industry problem and its obsession with upper-middle class angst is a thing, but it’s not the only thing.

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          • Out of curiosity, who? I am thinking of Murakami, McCarthy, Le Guin, and Houlebeque. So far I haven’t found a drop off in the quality of the writing of any of them, at least not to speak seriously about. The last few McEwan books I have read have not been up to snuff, there was a real drop off in Saturday and the next few. Ellroy’s latest is a real stinker and I have a feeling that foretells a poor future. I may be a little too harsh on Chabon, but I feel that he takes the easy way out in the same way Stephen King does. Colson Whitehead is someone I want to like, but I don’t think he pushes the envelope enough.

            I will admit to being out of the book business in a full-time sense for a good decade and might be missing a few of the newer authors. But my feeling is that while there are more than a few who could put together a good and beautiful sentance, they aren’t pushing. Either themselves or their readers.

            Also, I am thinking of fiction, so that might change the calculus a bit.

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            • I was just thinking of the last few “new” fiction works that I read and that gave me a non-exhaustive list of very good writers. Helen DeWitt just put out a book of short stories. It’s a little esoteric, but The Last Samurai might be my pick for the best novel so far of this century. I recently read The Underground Railroad, but I haven’t read anything else by Whitehead. Maybe his other work is underwhelming, but that book demonstrates that he can definitely write. The Sympathizer is a great book as is Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings. Paul Betty’s The Sellout is another great book and it’s funny and not McSweeney’s/Andy Borowitz “oh, I see why that’s witty” funny, but actual laughter funny. That list right there contains two Pulitzer winners and two Man Booker winners. So yeah, there are issues with literary fiction, but still many great writers working right now.

              From your list, I’ve only read Houllebecq. I’ve read everything before Submission, which frankly sounds like trolling to me, but he can definitely write and he definitely has interesting things to say.

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              • Firstly, I always look for new writers, and you have given me plenty. So, thank you. Secondly, Go, Go And Read Murakami! I led a book club here at the OT on his breakthrough Norweigan Wood, of which I consider some of my best writing. A Brief History Of Seven Killing looks good, so I will start there, as soon as I finish the latest from Murakami.

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      • I discuss self-publishing in part 2. Spoiler: I don’t think they are for you.

        As for current trends in traditionally published fiction, what you are describing seems to be bad literary fiction, of which there is an over-abundance. In fairness, there always has been. It’s just that looking back, time has conveniently separated the wheat from the chaff for us.

        I traditionally also read a lot of SF. It seemed to me back in the ’80s and ’90s that the field was getting sclerotic, and I was losing interest. Maybe it is just me, but I have been seeing a lot more interesting stuff over the past decade. Look at the list of Hugo winning novels for the past ten years and you will find that straight white guys are in the minority. I just finished The Three Body Problem, which won the 2015 award, in translation from the original Chinese. The next three years running were won by N. K. Jemisin, who is as far from being a straight white guy as is possible, and is terrific.

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  4. I really enjoyed this perspective. I first became aware of the process involved in books, and the self-publishing v traditional publishing when I did read throughs and edits for my uncle who is a writer. He really debated, and for him settled on self-publishing. It worked out in his instance where he has since had opportunity to write two more books with a publisher because of the decision he made. But to the point, his reasons for going and succeeding with a historical fiction book line up with your reasoning for traditional publishing and how “niches” like baseball rules need avenue to that specific interest group. Looking forward to part II.

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  5. I’ve been finding that fiction, much like TV& movies, is suffering from formulaic glut. Too many stories follow too many familiar tropes in painfully obvious ways, such that I get quickly bored because I know where everything is going long before it gets there. Finding authors that can keep me guessing is a challenge.

    BTW, Three Body Problem, how is the translation?

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