Remedial Publishing Math

Yesterday, Victoria Strauss tweeted a link to The Ugly Truth About Getting Your Book Published, in which Phil Cooke is just the latest voice to proclaim the Awful Truth about Publishing.

The article flaunts various numbers to show that book sales are PLUMMETTING, and everything is AWFUL!  (He also includes strategies for dealing with these awful truths.  Coincidentally, Cooke runs Cooke Pictures, a media/publicity consulting company who will happily help you survive this terrible storm … for a fee.)

(ETA: Phil Cooke commented to say that he does not, in fact, charge a fee for his services.  And then follows up with a sockpuppet.  Sigh…)

For example, “Bowker reports that 560,626 new books were published in the U.S. in 2008, which is more than double the number of new books published five years earlier (2003) in the U.S. These figures include print-on-demand and short-run books, which is where most of the growth has occurred.”  (Emphasis added.)

And then, from point number three, “Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have MathFail.  Let me break it down with simple and totally made-up numbers.

Let’s say a decade ago, 1000 different books were published, and each book sold an average of 10,000 copies.  1000 x 10,000 means 10,000,000 books sold overall.

Then print-on-demand technology leads to an explosion of self-publishing and vanity presses.  Ten years later, we have twice as many books being published.  But the average PoD title sells what, 100 copies?  Let’s be generous and call it 200.  Assuming no change at all in traditionally published[1. I hate that phrase, but can’t think of a better one right now] books, we see:

1000 x 10,000 = 10,000,000 traditionally published books.
1000 x 200 = 200,000 PoD books.
10,000,000 + 200,000 = 10,200,000 total books published.
10,200,000 / 2000 = 5100 average copies per book.

Oh noes!  Average book sales have been cut almost in half!  It’s the end of publishing … even though, in our made-up example, traditionally published books are selling just as well as they did a decade ago.

If you want to educate me, show me useful data.  Be specific.  Don’t just flash around misleading and utterly useless generalizations.

Want another example?  “A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.”

MathFail Redux.  If you sell a book to Tor or Baen or DAW, you have an extremely good chance of having your book stocked in an average bookstore.  “Sell” to Publish America, and your chances are closer to 0%.  But lump everything together, and you can get your average to be nice, scary, and utterly meaningless.

“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.”  And how many of those titles are out of print?  Specialty books?  Vanity Press?

It’s true that publishing is in a rough place right now.  Print runs really are down, overall … but not necessarily to the extent implied in Cooke’s article.  Things are changing, and we’re working to keep up and adapt.  It’s not the end of print, the end of publishing, or the end of the world.