Photo credit: Rebecca Bolte
As the founder of Microcosm Publishing
, which I’ve owned for the past 23 years, my greatest joys have been explaining and debunking industry myths to devout readers. I frequently meet people in public or on a cross-country train whose idea of the book industry is broken and backwards. My favorite encounter was when I told two New Yorkers that I am a book publisher and they immediately responded with, “I’m so sorry.” To which I could only say, “Why? We just finished our best year ever.” I could see how after a year of only reading New York Times
op-eds you’d be left with the impression that our industry is tanking off the rails. And to be sure, publishing is changing. But not in the ways that you might think.
Here are my top 10 party tricks to impress book lovers everywhere:
10. The U.S. price of the book is hidden in the bar code.
Pick up the book closest to you. Look at the back cover and find the bar code. If it’s less than 10 years old, you’ll see a string of 13 numbers hugging a bar code. On most books published in the U.S., to the right of that you’ll see a second bar code with only five numbers. Normally the numbers begin with the numeral “5,” which indicates to the computer “U.S. price.” The next four numbers are the publisher’s list price. So if the second bar code segment reads 51995 that means that in the U.S. the price is $19.95!
9. Book sales and the publishing industry are growing year over year since the recession ended.
This is normally the detail where I get the most pushback. Certainly we could argue about the causes for it all day long. Publishing received a large boon in the form of bestselling books by YouTube stars and adult coloring books. But it’s more than that. From 2009 to 2015, the number of indie bookstores increased by 35% and sales at those bookstores grew as well. My childhood bookstore, Mac’s Backs Paperbacks, reported their best sales years ever when the competing Borders store closed. This is a common story as customers shift from Barnes & Noble and Borders to indie bookstores.
8. Most books are no longer sold in bookstores.
In most markets, gift and specialty shops, like boutique stores, gardening supply shops, craft stores, airport gift shops, grocery stores, and record stores, are actually selling more books than bookstores. Combined, industry-wide, these two channels comprise around 51% of books sold. For comparison, Amazon comprises around 30% of book sales for most publishers. Of course, it’s unlikely that gift and specialty would comprise 51% of sales for most memoir, fiction, or poetry. And that is partly why these subjects are seeing their sales decrease while adult trade nonfiction continues to rise.
7. The reason that book sales appear to be shrinking is because there are more books in print today than at any point in the history of the world.
Today, 8,000 new books will be published. Likewise with tomorrow. And the day after. The majority of these are self-published memoir or fiction books from authors who decided to self-publish after a handful of publisher rejections or based on faulty promises of major corporations exploiting their emotions. This volume of competition is unsustainable and leaves even the most impassioned readers to throw up their hands because it would be more than a full-time job to even keep inventory of the new fantasy books being published every hour.
6. Most books fail because of improper title development.
books don’t succeed because the value simply isn’t there or the work was rushed and haphazard, but for the most part books fail to sell because it’s impossible for readers to understand why they would read the book. This reality becomes abundantly clear as soon as a roomful of industry professionals begin looking at a collection of a publisher’s flops. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a book wrapped in a beautiful painting that gives absolutely no idea of what the content might be or why someone might read this book. Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of subtitles or cover designs where I can narrow a book down to one of three possibilities of what it might be about. Is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it about transgender history or is it a self-effacing memoir? One of my favorite examples of this is Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness
. It’s an amazing book about the history of products in the black market, from strawberries to pornography. But looking at the title and cover, you’d assume it’s a throwback to the 1970s fear of cannabis infecting the minds of our children. I can see what probably happened. Schlosser’s previous book, Fast Food Nation
, was highly successful and adapted into a Hollywood film. It has a very clear emotional payoff to the reader. The publisher must have been very excited to continue this trajectory. Whenever I even try to loan my copy to friends with a ringing endorsement they say, “No thanks. That’s okay. Not interested.”
5. Bestseller lists are cooked, not organic.
These lists are purely marketing rather than demonstrating a proven sales record, as a reader might imagine. You can read many blogs that will instruct you on how to hack your way onto the New York Times
bestseller list or other ways of manipulating these calculations. The Bell Curve
, a book premised on classist, ableist, and racist pseudoscience about education, landed numerous daytime talk show appearances for the author, anticipating release. As a result, the advance orders for the book were very substantial. These advance sales landed The Bell Curve
on numerous bestseller lists. Of course, while the launch was one of legendary marketing genius, there were problems. While its “merits” are still being debated today, the book largely went unread and many copies of the book were returned unsold. I encountered more copies in remainder bins than in bookstores.
4. Supporting your local independent bookstore over an online platform supports the entire ecosystem better.
In most industries, the owner of the intellectual or physical property sets a wholesale price that stores purchase their products for. This is called “net pricing.” However, with books, publishers set a fixed “list price.” Different kinds of vendors receive various discounts, depending how much work is involved and how they handle the books. A certain online retailer has effectively argued that it is entitled to the largest discount of all due to the supposed “marketing” that it offers. As a result, publishers (and often authors) are paid more money when they walk into your favorite independent bookstore and purchase their books. Publishing is a volume business with very small margins. Microcosm’s books have a margin of 3.01% after printing, royalties, paying our staff, promoting, and shipping the books. As a result, we’d much rather work in a happy and healthy partnership with a local bookstore that is willing to collaborate with us than an abusive corporation that imposes terms upon us. Please consider that when shopping.
3. Your public endorsement as a reader of a book that you love is the greatest gift that you can give to the author and publisher.
The only reliable method to sell books is getting readers to “buzz” about them. Major houses launch hip new divisions or small presses to operate as imprints in order to figure out how to commodify what is cool. Even the most successful authors are almost always too close to their subject matter to understand how to talk about it or communicate its emotional payoff to the reader. They need your help! If you can give an authentic statement about what you like about a book on social media that will not only make someone’s day but it will coalesce with other voices to create sustained life for a wonderful book.
2. Digital is dead.
Any way that you slice it — no matter whose numbers you trust — print books are outselling ebooks by somewhere from 3:1 to 24:1. As recently as 2011, I amused myself by attending sensationalist talks like “Saving Print Book Sales.” The fear was that digital would completely cannibalize print. Launched during the recession, ebooks never took off like anyone hoped or feared. And they have already plummeted and flatlined around their current figures for the past few years. Of course, there are exceptions for romance novels, throwaway fiction, business books, or things you’d be embarrassed to be seen reading on the bus, but for the most part humans prefer reading a paper book. For Microcosm, digital sales are around 1% of our net sales. The other 99% is print. Of course, we’ll have some books where it’s closer to 33% digital and others where we never sell a single ebook. As far as I can determine, and including gift, institutional, technical, textbook, and special sales, ebooks probably hover around 4% of books sold. One reason for this might be that people who feel quite comfortable stealing an ebook would never feel comfortable putting a book under their trench coat and walking out of a bookstore. There is little reason to believe that eBooks will see growth until there are significant cost increases to paper book production and supply chains. Sales have diminished so much that we no longer hyphenate "ebooks" or even capitalize the “b.”
1. Sixty-six percent of books sold in the U.S. are from an independent press, not from a Big Five “Major” House.
Partly this has to do with the explosion in the number of independent presses, going from 3,000 indies in 1970 to hundreds of thousands of small presses today. There’s also been a tremendous change in technology as digital typesetting and digital printing eliminate the cost and risk to publishers with a firm hand in professional development and reaching an audience. But this is the statistic that is most staggering to process for people outside of the industry. To be clear, the “Big Five” aren’t going anywhere. They own rights to publish books that sell hundreds of thousands or millions of copies each year and pay for each of their new titles. They have offices across the globe and access to the smartest, most experienced people in the job market. But still, isn’t it a bit reassuring that a small publisher with a lot of heart can get the sale over companies with all of these resources?
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is a self-made autistic publisher and filmmaker who draws origins, inspiration, and methods from punk rock. He is the founder/manager of Microcosm Publishing and cofounder of the Portland Zine Symposium. He has been featured in Time Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Utne Reader, Portland Mercury, Oregonian, Broken Pencil, Readymade, Punk Planet, Profane Existence, Spectator
(Korea), and Maximum Rocknroll
. He is the author of A People's Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business; Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business on the Spectrum; Manspressions: Decoding Men's Behavior; Make a Zine; The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting; Beyond the Music; Bamboozled; Bipedal; By Pedal
, and more.