Return of the Amazon Zombie Memes

zombie hunting

Legacy publishers just refuse to let those zombie memes die! Whether it's claiming that Amazon is a monopoly or that all eBook sales are declining, champions of the publishing status quo keep regurgitating patent falsehoods no matter how many times they're refuted.

You really can't blame them. How else can the Big Five trick aspiring authors into signing draconian, unconscionable contracts? Why, without their zombie memes, big publishers might have to raise royalties, drop non-compete clauses, or price eBooks reasonably to attract and keep authors!

And we can't have that.

Another propaganda piece rife with legacy pub zombie memes recently came to my attention. The article is by Berrett-Koehler Publishers and bears the equivocally-worded-to-sound-more-frightening title "10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing".

Let's carefully search each of these "truths" for hidden zombie memes, shall we?

BK's quotes appear below in italics; mine in bold.

1. The number of books being published every year has exploded. According to the latest Bowker Report (October 9, 2013), over 391,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2012, which is an amazing increase of 422 percent since 2007. The number of non-self-published books issued annually has also climbed over the same period to approximately 300,000 in 2012. The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 400,000 since 2007, to approximately 700,000 annually. And since 2007, nearly 10 million previously published books have been reissued by companies that reprint public domain works. Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely oversaturated.

I won't deny the Bowker Report numbers. I will point out that jumping from those numbers to concluding that the market is oversaturated rests on the unstated premise that publishing--and eBook publishing in particular--is a zero sum game.

It's not hard to believe that there are around 400,000 new self-published books each year. Hell, those numbers are from 2013. Let's think big and say they're up to one million now. Ebooks aren't like cars or even toasters--things each customer only needs one of. As Joe Konrath explains:
Ebook sales aren't a zero sum game. A sale of one ebook doesn't preclude the sale of another, because this is a burgeoning global market with hundreds of new customers introduced daily, and people naturally horde [sic] more than they need. 

2. Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published. Adult nonfiction print unit book sales peaked in 2007 and have declined each year since then, according to BookScan (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014, and previous reports). Similarly, bookstore sales peaked in 2007 and have fallen each year since then, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 12, 2014, and previous reports).

Nice try. Note the weasel word "book industry", and how the following phrase "explosion of books published" implies that self-published books mentioned in the previous paragraph are included. The result is that the reader thinks that ALL book sales are declining.

Which, as Fortune demonstrates, is bullshit.
According to the figures from Author Earnings — which are based in part on regular samples of Amazon sales data — what’s really been happening is that the market share of established publishers has been declining, while sales of independently published e-books have been growing.

Do I think that legacy publishers are outright lying? Not necessarily. After all, the "Book Industry" has bee synonymous with them for so long that ignoring indie authors is second nature.

3. Despite the growth of e-book sales, overall book sales are still shrinking. After skyrocketing from 2008 to 2012, e-book sales leveled off in 2013. Unfortunately, the decline of print sales outpaced the growth of e-book sales, even from 2008 to 2012. According to BookStats data reported by the Association of American Publishers (May 15, 2013), revenues in the entire U.S. book publishing marketplace fell again in 2012, to $27.1 billion. The total book publishing pie is not growing—the peak was hit in 2007—yet it is being divided among ever more hundreds of thousands of digital and print books.

There it is again. That's it. I hereby declare that equating the entire Book Industry with the membership of the AAP is now an official zombie meme.

Here's the real story.
In nearly all media coverage of the AAP’s declining ebook revenue, their sales — the sales of just 1,200 traditional publishers — are being conflated with the overall sales of the entire US ebook market. The substitution is so automatic, that most of the journalists breathlessly repeating stories about a ‘shrinking US ebook market’ are completely oblivious to the difference.
Again, the overall book market isn't shrinking. The legacy publishing market is shrinking, and indie is picking up the slack.

4. Average book sales are shockingly small—and falling fast. Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan—which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com)—only 225 million books were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

The misinformation is layered thick, here.

A) Granting that average book sales are small, immediately appealing to the debunked zero sum canard makes this whole argument suspect.

B) More weaseling, this time by mentioning Amazon as a false sign of completeness. But BookScan only tracks sales of  books with ISBNs. Look at the Author Earnings chart above. What category of books has seen the most growth while trad-pubbed book sales sagged? That's right--indie books without ISBNs.

C) Check out the sudden shift from measuring the sales of all books (which BookScan doesn't, anyway) to US adult nonfiction. Those figures could be true, for all I know. It's weird to focus on non-fiction, though, since fiction sells far better.

5. A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore. For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to up to 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are several hundred thousand business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

Warning: there is only one carriage whip manufacturer left in the United States!

On a totally unrelated note, Amazon has infinite shelf space. 

6. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books. Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than ten million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. Result: investing the same amount today to market a book as was invested a few years ago will yield a far smaller sales return today.

The "All Books Are Legacy Books" zombie and the "Publishing Is a Zero Sum Game" zombie have joined forces! Whatever shall we do?

How about not wasting money on ineffective advertising, and instead building a web site that people want to visit and selling them your book directly?

7. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities. Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

Good job, BK, you actually brought up an interesting point.

With Western civilization fracturing and stratifying into divided groups and classes, the very concept of art with mass appeal is becoming obsolete.

And you know what? As an author I'm fine with that.

"Awful Truth" #7 reads like it's aimed at the starry-eyed naif who expects his book to be chosen from the slush pile and handed a ticket for the express elevator of trad author success. A seven figure advance, a national marketing blitz, movie and TV deals--these were only ever given to 1% of the 1% of authors.

That's OK, because unlike before, when a writer's only alternatives to making it big were languishing in total obscurity or, perhaps worse, midlist hell; more authors than ever have the chance to earn a living through their art.

If you can be satisfied with living comfortably instead of extravagantly, all it takes is 1000 true fans.

Personally, I prefer building relationships with a tight-knit community of patrons than hawking my wares to faceless masses I'll never know.

Although, if the faceless masses really want to pay me their hard-earned money for my books, I won't complain.

8. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers. Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books. Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

You're two for seven now, BK. Keep up this trend, and you may salvage a shred of legitimacy.

It's absolutely true that you, the author, are responsible for marketing your book whether you sign with a publisher or not.

By the way, those "sales channels" the publishers have a lock on are the highly limited and declining dead tree outlets mentioned earlier.

As for "crafting books to succeed", judging by their own numbers, trad publishers have apparently forgotten how to do this.

Self-publishing means taking on the responsibilities of a writer and a publisher.

But publishers are increasingly pushing their traditional responsibilities onto authors.

So tell me, BK, why exactly do authors need you--or any legacy publisher--again?

9. No other industry has so many new product introductions. Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. Yet the average new book generates only $50,000 to $150,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these new product introduction expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense. This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.

The truth parade continues! Good job.

NB: if you want an idea of the total sunk costs for each of my self-published books, take the low sales figure in the quote above, minus some zeroes. I'm just a punk self-pubbed author, but my profit margins blow the Big Fives' out of the water.

The real awful truth that these numbers expose is how inefficient legacy publishers are.

Once again--why do I need them?

10. The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil. The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing (such as the bankruptcy of Borders and many other stores). Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

And BK fails to stick the landing by stumbling over the old "All Publishing Is Legacy Publishing" zombie.

The biggest technological changes that pose the most serious challenges to traditional publishing are Amazon and the indie published authors who are eating the Big Five's lunch.

But don't worry, Big Five. Just keep reading The New York Times, who know the real score--that the "Book Industry" is fine.

Meanwhile, those who don't lie awake at night dreading the imminent demise of the Book Industry can check out my book. (The sequel's on the way.)

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