The Wall Street Journal has run a long prominent story about Henry Holt’s expensive acquisition of, and inadequate success with, Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder. Short version: big advance, big marketing budget, major push, not enough sales. Lots of sales, mind you, but nowhere near as many as they were aiming for.
These things happen. It’s why a project like that is called a gamble.
But enough about The Interpretation of Murder. What irritated me about the story was having the Wall Street Journal trot out the completely bogus standard paragraph about the state of publishing:
Much like Hollywood, book publishing is becoming a winner-takes-all contest. A publisher has to find a title with huge potential and single it out for special attention. If the book gets traction, the upside is limitless. If it fails, there’s a long way to fall. When a book doesn’t sell right away, the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant. With 172,000 books published last year, shelf space is limited.I think they’ve got that paragraph set up as a macro—and they’re not the only publication that uses it.
I’ve been hearing the “publishing is becoming a winner-take-all sweepstakes” riff since I started working in the industry. It’s not true, and it’s not becoming true. I suspect it’s generated by lazy news departments that can’t be bothered to take notice of books that aren’t blockbusters, and from this conclude that blockbusters are all that matters in publishing.
Bestsellers aren’t the whole of publishing. Every year, we publish a great many okaysellers. You guys buy them because they look interesting, or because a friend has recommended them, or because you liked another book by that author. Marketing push only goes so far.
A quick test: raise your hand if you only buy bestsellers. No? Okay, raise your hand if the majority of your book purchases are current bestsellers. Right. Now raise your hand if your bookbuying decisions are based on marketing buzz. If you still aren’t raising your hand, you’re a normal book-buying reader, and the Wall Street Journal is chin-deep in hogwash on this point.
And while I’m on the subject, that “172,000 books published last year” is neither reliable nor pertinent if you’re talking about bookstore shelf space. “All books published” includes books you’ll never see in a bookstore at all, like manuals for operating and maintaining equipment, industry trade guides, and family genealogies.
Even if you limit the number to “trade books”—i.e., books that get bookstore distribution—the number is hard to pin down. A lot of university press and regional press titles get distributed to a handful of bookstores. Are they trade books? Those authors and those publishers would say yes, and I can’t see any good reason to contradict them, at least not to their faces. Still, there’s a big difference between books offered for sale at a handful of bookstores, and books offered for sale at bookstores everywhere.
If you’re talking about new titles that would come through a large urban bookstore in a single year, one rough but reliable estimate I’ve been given (by a source that declined to be named) is that it’s about 10,000 titles. Jim Macdonald once did a rough shelf count of a B&N superstore and came up with an estimate of 100,000 and 120,000 titles total, old and new books combined.
Almost none of them are bestsellers. They’re all in print, and many will remain so for a long time, while the front-of-the-store pyramids of red-hot bestsellers come and go. And next year, and the year after that? Same pattern. The Wall Street Journal really needs to get out more.