Why Selling Books Is Hard

The numbers are terrifying. According to R.R Bowker LLC (which issues ISBN numbers used by librarians to track titles), in 2003 there were 300,000 new titles and re-editions published in the US alone. Compare that to 2011, when that number jumped to 3,000,000. Then look at 2019, when, according to Berrett-Koehler Publishers, it jumped again to more than 4,000,000. That’s ten times more than were published in 2007, when book sales peaked (Source: R.R. Bowker’s publishing statistics). In 2010, google estimated that there were 129,864,880 books in existence, and by Techcruch’s maths, there’s one new book published on Amazon every five minutes. No other industry has so many new products launched per year and the result is the average book sells less than 1,000 copies in it’s lifetime.

Those stats are alarming, and other sources bear them out. It seems that publishing has reached a state of hyper-competition. So how is a new fiction writer able to get noticed in such a tidal wave of constant new content? Answers on a postcard, please (Or in the comments below).

I have none of the answers, but I’ve made enough mistakes to know some of the things that don’t work. Marketing has always been tricky, and I can’t say that I have a natural talent for it. The whole situation reminds me of something I told a friend in 2006, regarding the music industry. Back then I was working in recording studios trying to cut it as a record producer/ sound engineer. I dreamed of a future in comfy, expensive soundproof studios, drinking coffee, moving microphones and tweaking faders, but I entered the industry at a time when the walls were crumbling.

Illegal downloads and the emergence of ever-cheaper technology that allowed musicians to record at home for however long they liked for the price of one day in a studio destroyed the recording industry. All of a sudden, there was no money in making or selling music. And it didn’t just hurt the record labels; the whole supply chain collapsed.

Every studio I know closed down during this time. Even Abbey Road was almost shut-down and turned into a museum. It seemed there was no longer a future in music for young musicians and sound tech’s alike without the support of record labels, who had become less profitable and even more risk averse. With this in mind, I said that the next several generations of top musical talent would never be heard by a global audience. The idea of taking a risk on the next big thing and lifting them out of obscurity with a national and international distribution and marketing campaign was gone. It was too risky and expensive. Labels needed cheap, easy to produce, safe content that wouldn’t cost the company jobs if it didn’t sell, not artists with new ideas that are tricky to place in the market.

New artists would play in local bars and pubs, I said, developing their talent for an industry that couldn’t support them. Some talented people would give up, due to economic necessity, and others would walk away disheartened at the lack of opportunities. Imagine a world where the next John Lennon, David Bowie and Mick Jagger had to quit music and take up regular jobs. That’s the kind of thing that undoubtably happened in the music industry after the year 2000, and the parallels with the current publishing industry are hard to ignore, although the causes are different. By the way, I’m not saying I compare to any of those famous music artists in literary terms, but I bet someone out there writing now does, and we may never get to read them. In fact, they may never get to write their best work before they have to give it up.

The only real money in music these days is touring. Author’s don’t really have access to that kind of market. Book tours are usually done at the publisher’s expense, and due to the abundance of new content the average book has a less that 1% chance of being stocked in bookstores.

And the numbers are not improving. So why bother writing in this kind of climate? You might as well not bother, is the advice some might give, but that would be wrong. This isn’t meant to discourage you. It’s a cliche to say the rewards are in the process, but it’s true. I would warn anyone from starting a creative endeavour for the sole purpose of making money, because it’s unlikely to happen, and you’ll burn yourself out if sales are the only thing you measure success by. The wall of competition is immovable, but the writing itself is where the action is. So, if you have that as a primary goal, writing I mean, as well as longevity in mind, and you can handle rejection, you’re the kind of person who should be writing. You never know, you might self-publish and develop your own audience and do very well. So carry on. I will, even if my next book, Mika Ito (Coming this August) tanks. I’ll keep writing and improving. I might never publish again but I’lll keep banging on this typewriter. Who knows why? You’ve got to have a hobby, I guess, and this one is mine. So if you’re in the same situation, keep at it. If you write something you like, you’ve already won.

Happy Easter, everybody.

PF

April, Easter Sunday. 1:38pm.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year

https://malwarwickonbooks.com/published-every-year/

https://ideas.bkconnection.com/10-awful-truths-about-publishing#:~:text=A%20book%20has%20far%20less,up%20to%201%2C500%20(superstores).

https://techcrunch.com/2014/08/21/there-is-one-new-book-on-amazon-every-five-minutes/

https://mattwilkens.com/2009/10/14/how-many-novels-are-published-each-year/

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