Sunday, March 05, 2006

Publishing in the 21st Century (Part 1)

From time to time I go spelunking through the Publisher's Weekly web site. I can't do this often, as it's bad for my mental health; when faced with so many blunt reminders of my utter insignificance in the world of contemporary letters, I develop a sudden and inexplicable urge to adopt a female pen name and bash out a series of trashy chick-lit vampire novels. Fortunately this urge passes quickly and my sanity always returned.

So far.

Still, PW makes very interesting reading for those of us who work in the fiction trade. When you ignore the fluff pieces and press releases and start to dig into the business news and numbers, you begin to develop a sense that there is something profoundly wrong with the entire industry. Case in point: in 2004 (the last year for which audited numbers are available), American publishers book released 195,000 new titles. Of these, 25,184 were new works of fiction aimed at adult readers. Looking at the trends over time, there was a 64-percent increase in the number of books produced annually between 1999 and 2004.

The problem is that during that same period, total industry-wide sales increased by barely 10-percent. Now, anyone here who's ever taken an Intro to Econ course: what happens when you have a rapidly increasing amount of product chasing a slowly increasing number of dollars?

On top of the deflationary pressure, then, the American book industry as it exists today is also mind-bogglingly wasteful. Industry-wide, returns are running slightly over 30-percent -- that is, for every three books shipped to bookstores, one is returned unsold. In the mass market fiction category things are worse, with returns currently running at about 45% of gross. At close to two books shipped for every one sold, that's a lot of innocent trees that have died in vain, and that doesn't even begin to count the number of books that are printed and just end up mouldering in some warehouse somewhere.

Nor does the situation look like it's going to improve any time soon. In 2004 alone, 11,458 new publishers -- each presumably with a list of books they intend to publish -- registered their businesses with the U.S. ISBN agency.

Clearly, technology has dramatically lowered the cost of entry into the publishing business. The challenge for the writer in the 21st century is no longer one of finding a publisher; you can hardly turn around without tripping over half a dozen, most of whom seem to be operating on the Rooney & Garland "Let's put on a show!" business model. No, the challenge now is: how do you find readers? The lackluster sales figures being posted by the industry-leading publishers would seem to indicate that even they, with their enormous advertising budgets, don't know the answer.

Or as our friend Mark M puts it rather neatly: "Information is no longer a scarce resource - attention is."

To be continued...