Publishing Sees the Numbers and Still Misses the Mark

If it seems like I’m hitting on traditional publishing this week, I am. More than a few reports have come out in the last week or two that caught my eye. The latest is a report out of Publishers Weekly (as linked by The Passive Voice) about 2020 book sales numbers. Among the facts noted, print sales increased over 2019’s numbers by 8.2%. That was the largest increase since, iirc, 2005. That should be good news for the industry. The problem comes in where those numbers actually fall.

Backlist titles accounted for 67% of all print units purchased in 2020, up from 63% the year before. In 2010, backlist accounted for only 54% of all unit sales. McLean noted that the increased popularity of online shopping was a major reason in the growth of backlist, since it is easier to find backlist books than it is to discover new titles online.

The McLean the above quote refers to is Kristen McLean, executive director of NPD Books. You know what NPD Books is even if you don’t recognize the name. It’s Bookscan–or, more accurately–Bookscan is part of it. Bookscan, for those of you who don’t recognize the name, is the publishing industry’s version of the Neilsen Ratings. It uses an arcane method of determining the number of books sold by crunching the numbers from certain stores in certain outlets instead of publishers actually tracking their own inventory. In other words, authors’ royalties are based on this hand-wavium and getting screwed by it. All because publishers won’t get with the times and track inventory.

But let’s get back to the quote. 67% of ALL PRINT UNITS sold last year were backlist titles. That means older books are selling much better than all the new books–you know, those books publishers think will help bring unity and right-think to our country–are. I don’t know about you, but to me that says the publishers are missing the mark and that they have done so for years.

But McLean has an explanation for this: the internet makes it easier to find these backlist titles. Duh. But it also means it is easier to find the new books. So why aren’t they a larger part of the market? (Maybe because so many of them are NOT what readers want to read?)

According to NPD’s Checkout service (which measures receipts across a wide range of retailers), online sales rose 43% in 2020. McLean believes a large portion of consumers who shopped online for the first time in 2020 will continue to shop online this year, because of its convenience and the fact that physical retailers are unlikely to fully reopen until the summer and fall. The slow vaccination rollout is also likely to cause more “upheaval” in the physical retail market, as stores that hung on through the holidays may find it difficult to bounce back. McLean sees mass market retailers, who did well with books last year, continuing to champion books—especially children’s titles.

So, Covid is why online sales went up. Not the fact there are fewer and fewer brick and mortar bookstores. Not because these sales have been increasing each year. It’s Covid. But McLean is hedging her bets, saying this trend will probably continue because of the convenience. Yes, I just rolled my eyes. She really has a grasp of the obvious all the while missing much of the point.

Not once in the article will you find anything that breaks with the narrative we’ve seen from Bookscan over the years. The numbers (such as they are) are there but most traditional publishing outlets will continue on the same course they’ve been on for the last several decades. They will continue pushing print books, especially new publications that won’t sell as well as older books. They won’t sit down and consider why the older books are selling as well as they do. They will continue denying the fact that a large percentage of the reading public wants e-books but they want them to be reasonably priced.

The reading public isn’t dumb. They recognize the fact the cost of producing an ebook doesn’t come close to the cost of producing a print book. There are not physical components to the ebook. No paper to buy, no pages to print, no transportation to the warehouse and then to the bookstore. No additional charges for editing and, if the publisher is using the right software, no additional cost to convert to digital format. So why charge basically the same for an ebook that you do for a hardcover?

But there is another factor publishers aren’t taking a long hard look at. With fewer bodies actually going to stores, much less bookstores, there are fewer impulse buys of print books. The reader won’t be walking down the aisle and see a book cover that intrigues them or catches their eye. The reader won’t then pick up the book and check the back cover or flyleaf.

And that means publishers are either going to have to do a better job at promoting new titles and not just the titles pegged as the new best thing or the targeted best seller. People are buying backlist titles because they know the author, they remember the series or it has been recommended to them by people they trust. New titles? Shrug. Maybe they know the author but many buyers will wait until the book goes on sale because of the ever increasing cost of print books.

For example, #1 on the NYT best seller list right now is James Patterson’s The Russian. This is the 13th entry into one of Patterson’s series. It retails for $28 and sells on Amazon for $19.58 in hardcover and and $14.99 as an ebook. Compare that with the #1 best seller in Mysteries & Suspense on Amazon. The Shadow Box by Luanne Rice sells in hardcover for $14.95 and the Kindle price is $4.99. If you’re a member of Kindle Unlimited, you can read the book for free. Rice’s book is #2 in the Kindle store. Patterson’s is #40. According to Amazon, Patterson’s book is 276 pages long and Rice’s is 368. You tell me where the value is.

I don’t want to see the publishing industry crater. But I don’t hold out much hope for it unless it takes a very hard look at its business practices. Right now, traditional publishing, especially the larger publishers are teetering on the edge of destruction. These publishers need to make some hard decisions or we’re going to see a major upheaval in the industry sooner, rather than later.

Off-topic, I did an update to this site yesterday. If you check out the menu above, you’ll note there is now a drop-down menu under my name. Next to that is a new tab. It lists my publishing schedule (and covers where I have them) for the year. This will be updated as blurbs are written and as books come out. I’ll also be updating with release dates once those are determined.

Until later!


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