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.

The power of bulk sales (Building a Book IV)

The power of bulk sales (Building a Book IV)

A few years ago, I self-published What To Do When It’s Your Turn. We now have more than 150,000 copies in print. That’s amazing for a book that lists for $32, is in color and is hardly a traditional business book. It’s not sold in stores, and is rarely found on Amazon.

How did it become a bestseller?

The biggest amplifier of the success of the book is the way I chose to price and ship it. More than a third of the book’s sales have been to people who bought ten or more copies at a time. Each of these people bought a few, then a few more, then a bunch.

Arithmetic is on the side of the publisher who can embrace the power of bulk sales. When a reader finds that a book resonates, she can invest in buying more copies and give them away. And books that are given away are books that get read.

It’s worth pausing for a second to consider the significant shift that this represents. Traditional publishers have always been wary of bulk sales. It’s so difficult to figure out that an entire company (our friends at 8CR) is devoted to making it easier. The traditional model is that a bookstore might sell 50 copies of your book. Or that a particularly successful PR match might lead to a TV show or radio appearance that sells 1,000. But the thinking is that the middlemen are stores and media outlets.

But what if instead, the middlemen are your readers and fans?

Traditional bestseller lists work hard to avoid bulk sales. They don’t count as ‘real’ apparently.

But the author’s goals are different. The author merely wants to spread the word. Lists are for groceries.

Cat Hoke’s new book, A Second Chance, is about forgiveness. It’s not just a memoir, but a call to action for each of us, a chance to change the way we engage… not just with criminal justice, but with each other.

As the voluntary publishers of her book, we’re counting on bulk sales from individuals and organizations to replace the book media that used to exist but is now missing for most authors. By encouraging people to buy five or ten or fifty books for their organizations, we accomplish three things:

1. Most important, we give the reader’s organization a new vocabulary. When a team reads a book at the same time, they change in sync. They develop new words, new approaches and new cohesion. I’ve seen this happen firsthand with The Dip and Purple Cow.

2. The Proustian magic of the book format carries far more weight than an email or a video can. Handing someone a book is a respectful act, the way to open a door of possibility.

3. Priming Amazon’s pump with a significant number of bulk pre-orders ensures that we won’t run out of stock on pub date at the end of February.

Here’s a preview galley of the first thirty pages of the book.

We’ve donated 20,000 copies of the hardcover to Defy so that every copy sold generates nothing but contribution to their important work. My hope is that Defy’s supporters, plus readers of this blog will step up and invest in ten or twenty books for their friends and family. Thanks to Pamela Slim and Marketing Over Coffee for getting us started. I know that it’s a stretch, particularly for a book you haven’t read yet, but I’m hoping the galley will help you see the power of what Cat and her team are building.

You can check out the book (in hardcover and Kindle, and soon audio) here. Thank you.

The secret to designing a cover (Building a Book III)

The secret to designing a cover (Building a Book III)

Most books are self-published. Perhaps half are non-fiction.

And the number of self-publishers who miss this secret is astonishing. Here you go:

The purpose of a book cover is to remind you of a book you’ve read that you liked.

The goal is not to invent a new way to design a book cover.

The goal is not to prove to the world that you have good taste.

And the goal is not to save money by designing it yourself in Microsoft Paint.

The thing is, the eye is discerning. It can instantly tell the difference between the real thing and something that’s almost the real thing.

I had the privilege of working with our Creative Director, Alex Peck, in designing the cover for Cat Hoke’s new book.

Alex is a craftsman. And a designer. He understands the power of design thinking, and always begins with, “what’s it for?”

In the case of Cat’s book, the what’s it for is simple: The purpose of the cover is to establish quite clearly that this is a book of substance, by a professional, a woman with something important to say.

In the book world, this is communicated NOT with cutting edge fonts and colors, but with nuance. With the patina of experience. With 100 tiny adjustments, with line spacing, shading, shadows, stickers, emblems and embellishments.

It’s painstaking but it’s worth it.

Here are just a few of the iterations that Alex went through:

The book is being printed and comes out in late February. If you want to see the final cover, here it is.

Does it pay to own a small bookstore?

Does it pay to own a small bookstore?

A student asked this question. My answer:

…it’s a bit like asking if it pays to be a poet. The answer is, “it depends.”

It certainly doesn’t pay to be a poet who only makes money from a few journals who pay a few dollars a poem.

But it might pay to be Bob Dylan.

All an elliptical way of saying, in my opinion, at the scale you’re at, you can’t make a profit in the way you hope.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t sell books. You might need to sell baskets of books (for gifts) and memberships in book clubs (for connection) and coffee to go with the book (because–caffeine and community).

The books are an excuse to have a business, but they’re not a business.

Of course there are exceptions, but they tend to be real estate dependent and at a much larger scale.

I think the same thing is true for “does it pay to write a book.”

Not like it used to. Not like it should.

But writing a book might be the seed that you can grow into reputation and influence and connection. It might be the chance you need to discover the challenges that others need your help with. And it might merely be joyful.

Commercializing the thing that doesn’t lend itself to making a profit merely makes you sad.

Building a book (part 2)

Building a book (part 2)

Amazon is it.

There are now two channels for non-fiction books in the USA.

There used to be 4,000.

The second channel is “special sales.” This means sales to organizations, sales at events, sales through your team. It means, most of all, using the book as a method to spread the word.

The first channel, as I’ve already mentioned, is Amazon. For many business books, it’s more than 70% of the total retail sales of a book. That’s up from 1% about twenty years ago.

Most publishers still act as if the dog is the universe of retail bookstores and the tail is Amazon. That a book needs to be scheduled and optimized and rolled out to the retail ecosystem, and Amazon sales are part of what follows.

With the book we’re doing for Defy, though, we didn’t have the resources or the team to build that sort of on-the-ground rollout. So instead, we’re going all in with Amazon. The hardcover and the Kindle edition are the whole bet.

[An aside: I love booksellers. I shop at real bookstores often. I think they’re priceless. I wish everyone would visit one every day, and buy more than coffee when they did. But, alas, the public has made it clear that, for the kind of books I write and publish, the bus has already left the station.]

[Another aside: I’m pausing here, remembering all the years my mom ran the bookstore at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, and my talks at the American Bookseller Association conference, and book signings at bookstores large and small. A four-hundred year tradition continues, books (particularly kids books and gift books and novels) will be handsold for years to come. But for many categories like this, Amazon is it.]

This brings us to Shawn Coyne’s rule of 10,000: The job of the publisher is to get the first 10,000 books into the world, to prime the pump. After that, the book (and thus the author, through his or her work) do the rest.

We think we can do that with the Amazon platform (and your help). It’s not everything a full-service publisher can do, but we hope it will be enough.

Cat Hoke’s book, A Second Chance, is now officially on-sale at Amazon.

The elegant, powerful landing page was built for us by Zach Obront at Book in a Box. Zach and his team are bringing a new approach and a new attitude to the creation and publication of non-fiction books. By leveraging the power of a single platform, they’re making it easier for people without the experience Alex Peck and I have to build books. Thanks, Zach, for being so generous and volunteering your time and expertise on Cat’s book.