Book writing not rewarding, on average

From via mt's shared posts:

Here's the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies" (Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006). And average sales have since fallen much more. According to BookScan, which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books, only 299 million books were sold in 2008 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined. The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

That is depressing reading for anyone thinking of writing a book. Fortunately I'm not (though I did wonder about a vanity-published Stoat :-). Mind you there has been an explosion of utter tosh out there; book writing has now become so much easier.

What I wonder is, how long can this go on? Every year now there are more books published on any given topic than anyone could ever hope to read. I vaguely watch for new sci-fi novels, and it is clear in that segment. And the best don't age quickly, so why do we need all these new books? The answer, of course, is that we don't: there is a supply-glut driven by peoples' desire to write.

[Update: ironically, my last paragraph overlaps with para 5 of the original. And of course i didn't funish reading the original before writing this -W]

More like this

As Fran Lebowitz (according to Wikipedia, btw, famous in part for not writing a long-overdue novel about rich people who want to be artists and artists who want to be rich) has noted, "The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting."

In the literary world, even pretending to listen becomes unnecessary. I think many of us write more and read less these days.

[Ha yes. You remind me that I'm guiltly of producing some of this vast torrent of words. Still, mine are worth reading :-) -W]

These observations are even more true in the arts. It's very difficult to add value in a world where so much of value is already available. I wonder why people watch new movies, where 95% of them are dreadful and pointless, when they could watch old movies or even a few-year-old movies where the dreadful ones can easily be filtered out. If people followed this advice, though, most movies would never get made.

Eli had a colleague who wrote a book that was so important that people literally chained it to their desks (and there are pictures) so that the grad students would not "borrow" a copy. Eli's solution was to get a version in Russian where he could use the tables and graphs. His colleague told him that writing that book was the worst paying job he ever did.

[I think you should post the pix - it would be fun -W]

This reminds me a lot of the film industry. While there are huge box office hits, they are only spectacle, large budget films. Still there are more movies than ever being made. I hope movies will still be made, and that online distribution and specialty art houses fill the void. This is similar for books. Only star authors will sell large amounts. My hope is that a blog like format can exist for longer form writing.

I've been around publishing for a long time, in various aspects of the business, and part of the problem with the statistics is that it doesn't really allow for the fact that large numbers of books are published for highly specialized audiences, whether academic, business, legal, personal, whatever.

It's true that the commercial trade publishing business tends to follow a form of Gresham's Law--the bad drives out the good, but that always been true. People in the publishing business have been whining about it for as long as there has been a publishing business. I would go so far as to speculate that medieval monks toiling away in their scriptoriums resented having to spend so much time making copies of the Romance of the Rose instead of nice psalm books.

95% of everything is crap. The only problem is: marketing types pick out the wrong 5% to advertise the hell out of (it is impossible to advertise the crap out of).

By Katherine (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

this makes me seriously wonder about the viability of publishing houses.

i've never been seriously tempted to write a book, but if i were, i'd take one look at those figures and ask myself what exactly i needed a publisher for. 250 copies sold per year, on average? 3000 sold over the title's lifetime? hell, i could finance that size print run myself, and handle that kind of distribution effort in my free time. marketing? if you can't get a couple hundred bites (annually, remember) with some google adwords and internet word-of-mouth, how good a writer can you be? assuming my first few (hypothetical) titles would not manage to be vastly better than average, "vanity" publishing starts to look like the only sensible way to go.

by the time a new author's work would be selling enough that you'd need the aid of a publisher, they should be beating a path to said author's door for a share of the then-proven profits; and until then, enduring the legendary rejection gauntlet would just be a waste of time and effort. well, okay, that does leave a niche for big publishing houses, still --- but not as a way into the market for new authors with their first book just written.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

Perhaps the kindle or iSlate will help out writers. I always wondered how many bought "The Honest Broker" (has Pielke Jr ever said)?