The shift is real and it’s forever (books by the numbers)

The shift is real and it’s forever (books by the numbers)

Books (and bookstores) have been around for 500 years, and one thing the industry has improved is data gathering. By store, by genre, by format, by author. The data is there… authors can ignore it in their quest to make a ruckus, but the trends are worth knowing about, especially if you’re a publisher or work with one.

Mike Shatzkin and the folks behind Bookstat know precisely what’s going on.

Four highlights:

  1. Amazon sells nearly half the books sold in the US now. It’s only going to keep going that way. Barnes and Noble and other outlets are shrinking quickly.
  2. ebooks account for more than half of all books sold, and in some genres, it’s way more than that. Again, it’s only going to keep going in that direction as more genre books shift and outlets disappear. An entire generation of readers is coming along that will encounter books without ever visiting a ‘real’ bookstore.
  3. Self-published and small press books at low prices dominate unit sales. You can sell a lot more ebooks for $3, and if you want to reach a lot of people, that’s what’s happening.
  4. As always, books have always been a long tail business, but now more than ever. The bestselling book of the year will likely be read by fewer than 1% of the people in the US. There’s no other form of media that’s even close to that low. In exchange, though, there are millions (not a typo) of books hanging out at the long tail. Which is fine if you’re a reader, but tough if you’re a writer.

Most of all, it’s worth noting that book sales are lumpy. The overall trends don’t matter to a single book or a single author… you only need 10,000 devoted readers to make a living. I expect there will be bestselling hit books for another twenty years. But, we’re now living in radically different times, and it doesn’t pay to act as if the world hasn’t changed.

What does this mean for publishers?

We need publishers. We need them because most authors need financial and moral and organizational support to do the year or five of work necessary to create an important book. And we need them because most authors aren’t interested in doing all the hard work necessary to build a permission asset and promotion engine necessary to make it as an author. Readers need them too, because many want a curated, thoughtful book when it’s time to buy something.

But publishers can’t persist in their high-volume, low-conviction approach to the market. It used to work–because shelf space was king, and pumping out plenty of books got you more shelf space which gave you more chances to have more hits. So, why not?

Now, of course, shelf space is free. Literally, figuratively and actually free.

Publishers have to shift to the approach that successful VCs follow. Low-volume and high-conviction.

Once they make that commitment, they need to invest the time and money to actually build a permission asset. To connect directly to readers (people like you) instead of merely catering to bookstores. I know I’ve been saying this for twenty (!) years, but I’m still right.

Build that asset and the quick speed to market and low inventory risk of Amazon become your friend, not your enemy. Amazon doesn’t care who wins or loses–they’re the casino, they win no matter what. But if you’re building a book worth reading, an idea worth sharing, it’s important to pick your audience and ignore everyone else.

Books matter because there’s nothing like the experience of quietly engaging with ideas. It makes us better. It creates opportunities for those that hope to invent and share ideas. I hope we don’t lose books any time soon.