Publishers are very choosy about which books they consider worth publishing. It’s a very expensive business and so they have every right to choose only those books they believe will find a readership, and make them a profit.
That is certainly a reasonable position to take.
But, after their thorough and exhaustive selection process, of the books they decide are good enough, less than 10% actually make them any money.
It could be that the tastes of the public are so refined and demanding that even if you pick out the best of the best, only a fraction are good enough to make the grade in the eyes of a discerning public.
Or, it could be that the people choosing the books to be published have no idea what they’re doing.
After all, they are supposed to be experts, experienced and knowledgeable. So why is it so many books fail to find an audience? And more to the point, how do these companies manage to make a profit?
Let’s say you are a book publisher and you have ten books on your slate, and a fixed amount of money to spend on promoting those ten books.
How you promote those books will depend on the genre and the type/size of the market you intend to aim each book at. You won’t spend equal amounts on each book, but since you chose these ten books from many hundreds, you will certainly try to make them all big sellers if possible.
Then something strange happens. One of the books starts getting a lot more attention than the others. This can be for various reasons. It could just be extremely well written and entertaining. Or it could be about some contentious issue that’s big in the news. Or it could come at just the right time to benefit from some fad the kids are into. Or it might be seen being read by a celebrity. There are lots of reasons, both literary and random, why it might suddenly start getting reviewed and discussed and have movie rights optioned.
And all this will generate free publicity and create a demand for the book.
As the publisher, you now have a decision to make. In terms of pure finance, the smart thing to do is to take your marketing budget and put it all behind this one book. Even though it’s already getting loads of promotion for free, you can capitalise even more by buying up ad space in the newspapers reviewing it and so forth.
It’s just business.
If you spend $100 promoting Book A and you get back $500 in sales, and you spend $100 promoting Book B and you get back $200 in sales, then you should probably put all $200 into promoting Book A and make $1000. Of course that means you put nothing into Book B and nobody even knows it’s been released.
Not only that, but probably best to put the most creative people on that one book, and let the interns have the other nine.
So it’s not just that nine out of ten books fail, it’s that the industry will gladly sacrifice nine books for that one blockbuster.
But if I tell you to choose a hundred books out of a thousand (those thousand all being decently written novels on various subjects), does it really matter which hundred you choose? After all, we’re just going to push them out there, see which ones do well and then back those hardest while allowing the others to fall by the wayside. Don’t you think any one hundred books chosen at random would have a pretty good chance at having four or five winners in it?
There’s nothing wrong with the free market approach (let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks) as opposed to the elitist approach (I know this is a great book and I’m going to convince people they need to read it).
The difference is, the free market approach doesn’t require the people behind it to have a love of books. They don’t even have to be able to read. It helps if they can identify certain tropes of successful books (big hooks, fast paced openings, likeable characters), but they don’t know why one action thriller sells millions and another sells a couple of dozen. And they don’t care.
Which is why I think no one is very upset about the decline of the big publishers and the difficulty they find themselves in now with internet and digital technology. It’s just business.
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