Miscellaneous Thoughts on Publishing

Several of the comments in the blogsphere during the Macmillan-Amazon dust-up focused on the point I and others had raised about the fact that, depending on the publisher, from thirty to sixty percent of all books lost money and that those losses were made up by the better-selling books. A number of commenters to various blogs essentially protested that publishers shouldn’t be “subsidizing” books that couldn’t carry their own weight, so to speak. At the time, I didn’t clarify this misconception, but it nagged at me.

So… almost NO publishers print books that they know will lose money. The plain fact of the matter is that when a publisher prints a book, it is usually with the expectation that it will at least break even, or come close. At times, publishers know a book will be borderline, because the author is new, but they publish the book in the hopes of introducing an author whose later books, they believe, will sell more. While the statistics show that 30%-60% of books lose money, the key point is that the publishers don’t know in advance which books will lose money. Yes, they do know that it’s unlikely that, for example, a Wheel of Time or a Recluce book will lose money, but no publisher has enough guaranteed best-sellers to fill out their printing schedule. Likewise, they really don’t know who will become a guaranteed best-seller. Just look at how many publishers turned down Harry Potter. Certainly, no editors ever thought that the Recluce books would sell as well or for as long as they have. Not to mention the fact that there are authors whose books were at the top of The New York Times bestseller lists whose later books were anything but bestsellers. The bottom line is simple: Publishers do not generally choose to print books that they know will lose money just to subsidize a given book or author. They try to print good-selling books, and they aren’t always successful.

Last week, Bowker released sales figures for the book publishing industry that revealed that only two percent of all book sales in 2009 were of e-books, while 35% were of trade paperbacks, 35% were hardcovers, and 21% were mass market paperbacks. Interestingly enough, though, while chain bookstores sold 27% of all books, e-commerce sites, such as Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, sold 20% of all titles, including hardcovers, trade paperbacks, and mass market paperbacks. People talk about how fast matters can change, but even “fast” takes time. Jeff Bezos started Amazon in 1994. Today, based on the Bowker figures, Amazon probably accounts for between nine and fourteen percent of all U.S. book sales, but that’s after sixteen years of high growth. A study by Nielsen [the BookScan folks] also revealed that forty percent of all readers would not consider e-books under any circumstances. To me, those figures suggest that, while e-books may indeed be the wave of the future, the industry isn’t going to be doing big-time surfing on it for many years to come.

Total book sales were down about three percent last year, but fiction sales were up seven percent. The overall decline was linked to a decrease in sales of adult nonfiction. That indicates there was definitely an increased market for escapism in 2009.

And one last thought… in 1996, Amazon was still struggling, and there was a question as to whether it would really pull through — and then Jeff Bezos introduced the reader reviews, and Amazon never looked back. Because readers could offer their own views… they bought more books from Amazon. Do so many people feel so marginalized that being able to post comments changes their entire buying habits? The other downside to reader reviews is that the increasingly wide usage of the practice — from student evaluations to Amazon reviews — reinforces the idea that all opinions are of equal value… and they’re not, except in the mind of the opinion-giver. Some reader reviews are good, thoughtful, and logical. Most are less than that.

So, in yet another area, good marketing has quietly undermined product excellence.

6 thoughts on “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Publishing”

  1. hob says:

    Mr Modesitt, I remember once you wrote that cover illustrations have a huge effect in book sales–do you feel if inside illustrations, black and white or color, were included in your sf novels it would sell as well or better than your fantasy series?
    Additionally, is having no internal illustrations outside of maps etc a personal choice on your part or a cost/time rationale of the part of your publisher?

  2. Jim says:

    I would wager that the success of Amazon with the reader reviews is based more on whether the buyer has the same tastes in reading material as the reviewer, and to a lesser extent may be swayed by the better written reviews.

  3. Michael Bourgon says:

    Crowdsourcing. There's three things that make the reviews useful:
    1) You know who these people are. You can go look at other reviews and see what they think of other books. As Ebert once said: a good critic is someone that, even if you totally disagree with, is able to help you determine if _you'd_ like something.
    2) Numbers. While I would happily trade 10 reviews on Amazon for one of the same quality as Roger Ebert's, there are far more people reviewing things than that. Your latest novel, 2 months on, has 10 reviews. The Magic of Recluse has 119.
    3) Verbosity. Read not just the "like/dislike", but _why_. I'll read 10 reviews on Amazon; there's almost always one or two well-written ones (which people vote up).

    People who spend the time to write things online do it for a reason, be it to vent vitriol or (hopefully, and more frequently) generate a useful discourse. Much like this response, come to think of it. If someone's taking 10 minutes out of their day to comment on something, it touched them.

  4. L.E. Modesitt says:

    The publisher is the one who makes the decisions on internal illustrations — but they are expensive and are very seldom used in adult fiction of any sort. Personally, I doubt that illustrations in my SF books would increase their sales markedly, but that's a guess on my part, and unlikely to be put to the test.

  5. Michael Bourgon says:

    The author usually has almost no input on the art, inside or outside. The point of the art is to get people unfamiliar with an author to pick up and look at a book (see Charlie Stross' blog about the cover for Saturn's Children). Since the internal illustrations would only be seen after they'd picked up the book, the cost benefit is almost 0 (and thus probably wouldn't be done).

    That being said, I now wonder why so many fantasy novels have the internal maps and illustrations. The only time I think I've ever seen a Science Fiction novel with one was in Chalker's Well World novels. Curious.

  6. Jessica says:

    Although I do like to read reader reviews on Amazon, I don't find them useful for my personal buying choices. What I do find very valuable on Amazon are the professional reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, etc. Before Amazon, you could sometimes find these on special flyers at a Barnes and Noble store, but it was difficult to consistently find the professional reviews for every book you consider buying. Now it's easy (and I find those reviews useful as well as entertaining).

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