Years that end in zeroes summon a natural tendency to look backwards and forwards. So as we enter this century’s decade of The 20s, we’ll do just that. The ideas in this piece analyze what is mostly anecdata: “facts” that are real, that I’ve vetted with people who have lived through these times with me, and that both explain what we’ve been seeing and foretell what comes next. But these “facts” will be hard to “check”, partly because of squishy definitions for much of the data that is recorded and reported and partly because some of what I cite is internal to various companies although I have been made aware of it.
In 1990, three zero years and three decades ago, the universe of books available for a person to buy or for a store to carry was pretty much defined by “Books in Print”. This annual compilation, at that time primarily delivered as a book itself, passes along the aggregate of what publishers say is available. At that time, the total was in the mid six figures, not more than 500,000 titles. BIP contains duplicates, so the number of available titles was probably less than that, but that’s a reasonable working number.
That means each new book brought out by a publisher was competing against a universe of half-a-million other books.
As we begin 2020, Ingram’s Lightning Source has about 18 million titles in its Lightning print-on-demand database, ready to be printed and delivered to you tomorrow. Of course, there are duplicates to consider and some junk in there too, so let’s say that there are actually 15 million discrete titles. There are also more than 750,000 titles in stock in Ingram’s warehouses, most of which are not reflected in the POD database, which tends to collect titles after their prime sales life has passed.
So each new book brought out by a publisher today may be competing against 15 million other possible titles. The competitive set has grown by as much as 30 times.
When substantial commercial publishers or university or academic presses with real sales organizations published new titles 30 years ago, they routinely sold at least a couple thousand copies of almost every title. Stores that carried 125,000 titles were proliferating at that time, which was about a quarter of the theoretical possibilities and well over half of the titles that had any real commercial appeal. That meant both that the consumer was likely to find what s/he was looking for in one of those giant stores and that the publishers with real access to the retail network could count on a measurable sales result for everything they did.
This is no longer true in the 15+ million title and heavily online retail world we now live in. There just aren’t as many bookstores as there were back then and the ones we have are much smaller. Today it is not uncommon for titles on a major publisher’s list to sell almost nothing, low hundreds of copies or even less.
The difference is critical. Sales of, let’s say, 2000 copies of a hardcover book will deliver about $25,000 or more in sales revenue for the publisher. If the advance was modest and the publisher didn’t wildly overprint, that would probably cover the out-of-pocket expense of delivering the books required to produce that revenue. In other words, most books published by most substantial publishers in those days didn’t cost the publisher out-of-pocket cash.
The publisher did accounting that didn’t always make it easy to see that. Publishers would do their “title P&Ls” throwing in a bogus number, 35 to 50 percent, for “overhead”. That could make a book that sold 2000 copies look like one that sold fewer than 1000 for profitability-accounting purposes. So many publishers convinced themselves that they were not just about always recovering costs and making money. But they were.
When Thomas McCormack was CEO of St. Martin’s Press, which he was for about the last three decades of the 20th century, he exploited that understanding to the max. McCormack saw that the true revenue picture meant that the more titles he published with the same corporate overhead, the more money his company would make. St. Martin’s relentlessly expanded their title count year after year. And they grew consistently.
The key insight was that overhead is mostly fixed, not variable. And calculations that pretend that it is variable lead you to very erroneous conclusions.
Another important reality of the new title economics that existed then was that the backlist grew steadily. Not every title that recovered its costs would sell for a long period of time, but many of them did. Others produced additional revenue from rights sales: foreign, paperback, book clubs. So the short-run economics that encouraged title count growth also created companies that were constantly expanding their asset base to produce future revenues.
The predictability of a substantial minimum sale from established publishers back then was the result of two things that have since changed. One is the number of titles effectively competing for sales all the time, the explosion from half-a-million choices to 15 million. But the other is that the sales base shifted. Thirty years ago, the sales came mostly from a highly disparate retail network, which did have some big customers but also had hundreds of smaller ones that had to be addressed individually, preferably by a human being who showed up to “present” the title choices. Big publishers had tactical advantages to employ for both the chains and the individual accounts.
The major accounts naturally gravitate to the major suppliers. They are important to each other. The big publishers have the biggest books, the biggest budgets to spend on marketing and promotion, and the authors whose store appearances will pull in the most customers. But everybody, large or small, put their books in front of the big chain accounts. Thirty years ago that meant both the mall chains, Walden and Dalton, and the expanding superstore networks of Borders and Barnes & Noble.
But the vast array of independents, several times larger than it is now in numbers of stores and even more dramatically larger than today in shelf space, depended on visits from local reps to know what to stock. And there the smaller publishers were much more variable. Many didn’t cover individual bookstores effectively.
So with bigger stores, a smaller number of titles, and filters that favored placement of the larger publishers’ books, the net result was that big publishers achieved a pretty high minimum sale right to the bottom of their list. And the ultimate consumers chose from the books that were in stores, not the entire universe, and publishers with real sales organizations had a significant advantage.
All of this began to change with Amazon’s arrival in 1995. Online sales grew relentlessly, but slowly at first. Twenty years ago Amazon was still a single-digit percentage of the total book business in the US. Today it is probably more than half.
And while big publishers can (and do) develop capabilities for direct-to-consumer contact that help them promote sales through Amazon, their tactical advantages have largely receded. Particularly since Amazon has also focused on individual author books (“self”-publishing), they frequently sell very large numbers of titles that have only a small publisher, or even no publisher, attached.
And from the consumer perspective, shopping at Amazon (or any online retailer working with the Ingram database, which includes other big brand merchants) gives them the choice of any book, whether the publisher has a good sales force or not.
With more titles competing for sales and the advantage of blanket coverage by the big publishers diluted, it is no longer true that every title on a big list achieves a substantial minimum sale. Big publishers are having the experience of three-figure unit sales — and sometimes even less — on books they issue, and not infrequently.
The net result is that new title publishing has become much riskier and more expensive for all publishers. They naturally react to that by publishing fewer new titles, and that describes the tactics of just about every publisher in the business over the past decade. And a smaller percentage of those titles go on to become enduring backlist.
While it is true that the much-more-online marketplace will more readily discover and exploit a backlist title that is rejuvenated by circumstances (like an author’s death, success of a subsequent book by the same author, sudden timeliness based on new events) than the store network did (or does), that effect does not, for commercial publishers, make up for the lack of new titles entering the active backlist.
If this analysis is right, the inevitable result is that commercial trade publishing will (continue to) shrink. (And it will also consolidate. The big publishers today substitute for new title production by buying other people’s backlists.) The number of titles entering the marketplace might not shrink, because self-publishing authors and other entities that see benefit to putting out books will continue to add titles. Those publishers are not primarily motivated by profit. But publishers who are primarily motivated by profit will keep seeing, as they have, that the financial risk of putting out a new title keeps growing.
Publishers have found ways to turn the new world into an advantage for their backlist (which is why they find acquiring others so attractive). They can capitalize on a break more readily than they used to because an increasingly-online marketplace does not require inventory to be “in place” for sale. They can sell outside their home territories more easily than they used to, if they have the rights. And they are finding that audio versions of titles are productive now when they wouldn’t have been before because production is cheaper and easier and the same online marketplace that processes ebooks will process audiobooks, often delivering them to the same devices that the ebooks go to.
What could be deceptive is that the new world of less new title production and the shift to online sales is making profit growth attainable, almost routine. Cash investments go down and overheads go down (less shipping and billing and warehousing). Returns, which are expensive, also go down.
But, unlike the growth that came from an expanding title base 30 and 40 years ago, today’s growth can not be sustained on the present course. (In fact, the new audio growth is itself a delayed benefit from the old title base expansion!) Backlist title decay — lower sales in each format for most titles year after year — is still a fact of life; a backlist beating last year’s sales is only an occasional event. There will be an end to audio sales growth for publishers as the available backlist is exploited and those available to be acquired also are diminished in number.
And the non-commercial portions of the business will continue to churn out new titles to compete with the output of publishers. The growth of the competing title base will not stop.
All of this is fine if you are an online retailer with a growing customer base. It is okay if you are Ingram. Reducing the average sale per title with overall top line stability is a growth formula for them. So is being in the business of helping shrinking publishers reduce their overheads and inventory investments. But for commercial publishing, it means inevitable shrinkage and consolidation. Just as circumstances 30 and 40 years ago favored growth, circumstances now mitigate against it. And it will take somebody with a better imagination than mine to figure out how to turn that around.
As I wrote this piece, I only wished I had Robert Riger, my co-author of The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know, to discuss it with. The book came out last March 2019. We had turned it in to Oxford in December 2017. Robert died suddenly in January 2018. He had one of the biggest brains, biggest hearts, and biggest personalities I have known in this wonderful business. Doing this kind of thinking makes me think of him.
And it also makes me think of my father, Leonard Shatzkin, whose seminal book was In Cold Type, published in the early 1980s (but it is one of those 18 million books in the Lightning database!) The whole understanding about how misleading it was for publishers to see their businesses as the sum of profit-and-loss statements by title belonged to him. Tom McCormack built St. Martin’s into a big publisher by being one of the first people in the industry to see it clearly enough to act on it. And it is one of the foundational understandings of “how this all works” that I got from my Dad and that have enabled my “career”, such as it has been.
And one more stray thought I will bury here where few will see it. While it is absolutely true that centuries begin with the year 1 and end with the year 0 (because the first century started with the year 1, not the year 0), I would maintain that decades start with the first number of the decade. I mean, 1930 can’t be part of the 20s, but 1920 isn’t! So I feel comfortable wishing anybody who got this far a Happy New Decade of the 2020s.