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.
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.
By Steven Piersanti, President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Updated September 26, 2016
Vector illustration credit: Vecteezy!