Publishing Industry

Are there too many books?

Post written in response to Tanja Tuma’s piece on a Frankfurt Book Fair panel asking the same question This is a question I have tried to highlight at every publishing workshop I lead. Are there too many books published today? But every time we, as a group, or as publishers and authors individually, try to answer this question, we come up with wildly different responses—yes, the rate of publishing is eclipsing the rates of reading and buying; no, there could never be too many books in the world; yes, print runs are shrinking every year; no, readers are still struggling to find great books. These diverse responses, I believe, stem from an incomplete question.


Are we asking:

• Are there too many books published today for first-time, self-published authors to be profitable?

• Are there too many books published today for good books to be found by good, traditional publishers? 

• Are there too many books published today for small publishing houses to support even limited print runs?

• Are there too many books published today for readers to easily discover new books?

These are all pertinent questions. I’ll focus on the first question, as it is the most relevant to those who attend my publishing workshops and to our potential clients.

Are there too many books published today for first-time, self-published authors to be profitable.

I’ll say this much: it’s tough. Supply has outstripped demand. Tuma quotes author Gabriel Zaid, who observed “the reading of books is growing arithmetically; the writing of books is growing exponentially.”

Here’s how it breaks down:

Supply: There were 1 million published books in 2003 at the time of Zaid’s quote, and as of 2013 there are 28 million. The self-publishing industry alone has increased by over 436 percent since 2008, with 458,564 new titles in 2013 alone (and these numbers only account for those self-published books that actually acquired ISBN numbers, as tracked by Bowker).

In 2013 alone, there were 304,912 print books published by traditional publishing houses and just over 1 million print books produced in the non-traditional sector (print-on-demand, reprints, self-published books, etc.). Add to these figures e-books in both the traditional and non-traditional sectors of the market, and the figures are overwhelming.

Demand: American reading habits have declined over the last three decades. A Gallup poll in 1978 found that 42 percent of adults had read 11 books or more in the past year and that 13 percent had actually read more than 50 in the past year, but Pew’s report from 2014 shows that only 28 percent had read over 11 books in the last year, and nearly 25 percent hadn’t read a single book in the last year (contrasted to 8 percent reporting in 1978 that they hadn’t read a book in the past year).

The verdict: Both traditional authors and self-published authors are struggling to make a living off of writing. A survey presented at the 2014 Digital Book World Conference reported that 54 percent of traditionally published authors and almost 80 percent of self-published authors are earning less than $1,000 a year.

Is this a reason not to publish your book?


It is, however, a reason not to publish your book for the money. A small portion of traditionally published and self-published authors will earn enough from their writing to make a living, but the vast majority will need to have a separate—and steady—source of income to support their writing. There are dozens of other reasons to publish—to establish authority in your field, to share your personal history with family and friends, to celebrate a milestone or anniversary, to see your passion in print, etc.—but fame and riches should not rank in the top ten.

Pitching to Publishers: Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

Perhaps the most intimidating part of the publishing process for many authors is pitching to publishers, or more often, the agent/publisher quest—and rightfully so. Finding a suitable partner for your work who believes in you and your work and is willing to invest in it isn’t easy. Knowing where these potential partners even exist—or how to contact them—adds an entirely new layer of complexity. I regularly lead workshops on traditional book publishing vs. self-publishing, and there are several questions that come up again and again: how do I find an agent, how do I find a publisher, how do I put together my proposal? While there is no step-by-step list of advised actions—and fate, luck, and coincidence play frustratingly large roles in the process—I do have a few notes of advice for those pursuing a traditional publishing route.

1) Start by looking for an agent. If you are serious about being published by a larger house (most of which are located in New York), you will need to do the hard work of finding an appropriate agent first. Unsolicited manuscripts (unagented manuscripts) are often read by editorial assistants and interns at large houses, if they are read at all, and you are unlikely to make your way to the top of the slush pile without a seasoned and in-the-loop advocate. If you are hoping to work with a smaller, independent publisher, you may be able to forgo the agent (Orange Frazer Press, for example, seldom works with agents).

2) Proofread your email pitches, proofread your proposals, proofread your manuscript—proofread. I can’t describe how off-putting it is to receive an email pitch from an author (or even a follow-up question on a proposal) riddled with typos. Misspelling the name of our press is hardly the way to make an impression. Make people want to advocate for your work. Be kind, concise, and perfect in your communications with anyone in the industry.

3) Think about marketing. Publishing is a business, and you, as an author, are a potential investment. Your agent, and hopefully your publisher, will want to be confident in your ability to assist with marketing and promoting your book. Do you have a well-read blog, or a significant number of engaged Facebook followers, or a speaking tour in your region, or a reputation as a writer for reputable journals, magazines, and newspapers? Your “platform,” or your marketability, is important to an agent (because they want to make sure they can sell you to a publisher) and your potential publisher (because they want to make sure they will sell the books they produce). Make sure your proposal—if and when appropriate—reflects your marketing savvy and platform.

4) Become an industry insider. The biggest part of finding an agent is knowing who they are, what they represent, who they frequently sell manuscripts to, etc. Online resources like Publishers Weekly, Publishers Marketplace, and others will publicize deals as they happen, so that you can research potential partners for your own project (and have a realistic idea of how similar manuscripts are received and what level of investment they’re receiving in advance/print run).

5) Do your research. I often start my publishing workshops by clearly stating what we do and do not publish (because although it’s truly a 101 workshop dedicated to educating authors about the industry, it often draws writers with manuscripts that are currently looking for publishing partners). If I clearly state that we only publish Ohio non-fiction commercially, sending me your fiction manuscript several weeks later and referencing my workshop and your desire to be traditionally published makes me feel like I either didn’t reach you or you weren’t listening.

6) Proofread. Wait, did I already mention that one? It’s worth saying again. Do not take a casual approach to your manuscript, proposal, emails, letters, cover letters, etc. These make up the first impression of you, your work, and your potential. And, we make a living out of finding typos, so we will notice yours.

Do you have other questions about a traditional publishing path? We would be happy to answer them!

Vanity Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: What's Changed?

SONY DSC The term “vanity publishing” can be traced back through the last twenty years or so to the ’90s, when publishing companies started offering publishing services directly to authors. The perception was that these were authors who couldn’t “make it” in traditional publishing and that these companies offered packages and print runs that would make an author look like a published author, but for a price. A large number of these companies offered terrible services, and thus earned the fledgling “self-publishing” industry a terrible reputation. They overcharged for less-than-professional products, and authors who chose these companies were thought of as desperate and unprofessional.

But is vanity publishing still an applicable term for companies operating in today’s robust self-publishing industry? Not really. In order to understand the evolution of the term, it’s important to understand the evolution of traditional publishing in that same time.

Years ago—before, e-readers, and large retail chains—there were fewer books published per year. Fewer books meant less competition for publicity and a more standard discovery process. At that time, a good review in the New York Times Book Review or Publishers Weekly was enough to launch a book onto the bestseller list.

Now, with the availability of publishing and promoting books online and the number of new online marketing channels available to authors, it is both easier than ever to market a book and harder than ever to sell a book. This puts considerable pressure on traditional book publishing companies, whose margins are shrinking just as their competition gains strength. Traditional book publishing (on a large, general scale) has had to become less about publishing good books and more about publishing sell-able books, ones with viral potential or predictable niche audiences (a title like Fifty Shades of Grey never would have found a publisher’s desk in the ’90s, but the internet earned it worldwide fame, and a six-figure advance, today).

When traditional publishing was stable and well-written manuscripts typically found solid publishing homes, self-publishing was mostly unnecessary. Now, it seems, first-rate manuscripts fall through the cracks due to lack of author platform (read: lack of Facebook followers, Twitter followers, trade publications, and blog readers and subscribers) or lack of a “marketable” genre. Self-publishing becomes less a matter of vanity and more a means of rerouting the market.

When traditional publishers struggle for stability, writers lose out. Potential authors struggle to get worthwhile advances or marketing promises; they struggle to find agents. Why shouldn’t they bring their books to market themselves? If they can find companies or individuals offering professional editorial and design services, and honest contracts, why shouldn’t they direct their own success? Self-publishing is no longer a matter of vanity, it’s a matter of independence.

This, of course, is the opinion of this author. What are your thoughts? Is “vanity publishing” still a relevant term?

Should I Pay for Book Reviews?

Let me start this post by stating: this is not a discussion of whether or not you should pay for a favorable book review, as that is, obviously, unethical. This is a discussion of whether or not indie and self-published authors should pay for reviews from reputable sources (Publishers Weekly and others offer such programs). SONY DSCSelf-published authors still exist in a divided space. Most review publications will specify that books be “traditionally” published, many author fairs explicitly exclude “author-financed” books, and several industry observers have questioned whether or not we should separate books online by their path to publication—traditionally published books in one section, self-published in another.

As an industry, we still don’t know what to do with the hundreds of thousands of self-published titles coming out every year, and our systems for reviewing, featuring, and selling these titles is disjointed at best (and marginalizing at worst).

Book reviews are at the nexus of this issue, as they have long been heralded as the make-or-break moment for an author. A favorable review in the New York Times book review—at one time—could catapult an author to fame, whereas a negative review could leave an author moaning helplessly on his couch for days on end (this is a true story, best left for another time).

Before diving into the question of paid reviews for self-published authors, it’s crucial to notice two trends in the industry as a whole:

1) Review blogs and websites have proliferated, whereas almost every print newspaper in the country has cut its book review section entirely. 2) The book reviewers of yesteryear have lost some of their weight in the book discoverability formula (fewer people read traditional, print book reviews, making them a less significant predictor of a book’s success or failure).

Given these trends, how crucial is it for your self-published book to be reviewed? And, subsequently, should you pay for a review? Here are three things to consider as you make your decision:

1) How often do you read book reviews? Book reviews should target either booksellers and librarians or book consumers in general. You would fall into that second category, so if you, as an aspiring author (and an assumed book reader), aren’t reading book reviews to discover new titles, then you might question whether or not other consumers are. 2) And for the first target audience: what book reviews do your local booksellers and librarians read? Head to your local indie and ask them how they discover new books. Ask the same of the collection development librarian in your community. They probably learn about books from a variety of sources, so take note of which ones they turn to when they are choosing which titles to stock. 3) Certain review sites are aggregated into a bookseller or librarian’s ordering system. For example, Baker & Taylor, the number one book distributor for libraries, pulls the relevant Publishers Weekly and Library Journal reviews for each title into its system. This means that a librarian doesn’t even have to leave her ordering system to read reviews from these sources, making these review sources invaluable. 4) The almighty Amazon. Consider whether or not a traditional book review in a reputable periodical or on a well-read and respected blog will outweigh a hefty number of Amazon reviews. If you are focusing primarily on selling to retailers and librarians, perhaps focus on more traditional review sources (as most indie booksellers won’t care about how many five-star reviews your book has on Amazon). If you’re selling independently, though, and maybe even exclusively online, a thorough—and diverse—stock of Amazon reviews can go a long way. Give free copies of your book to those you think would have an interesting and relevant critique, and ask them to give you an honest and unbiased review on Amazon. A few negative reviews are great—they show a consumer that you didn’t just pay off your friends and family to sing your praises.

At this point, you’re probably realizing that I won’t answer this post’s primary question: should you pay for a book review? I honestly don’t know. I do think, though, that every single book has a unique trajectory, and as such, should be handled and promoted individually. What’s right for your book won’t be right for anyone else in your writer’s group, so think critically about whom you are selling to, what they read and share, and how a review will positively—or negatively—impact your goals.

Paid book review resources for self-published authors:

Publishers Weekly Select

Kirkus Author Services for Indie Authors

Unpaid book review resources for self-published authors:

Book review blogs (this list from Goodreads highlights independent book bloggers):

Library Journal

Print vs. Digital: Everybody Wins?

Our OFP E-book Gallery Last May, I spoke at the Ohioana Library Festival on a panel aptly called, “The Future of the Book.” As you might imagine, the discussion volleyed from “print-is-dead” pundits to book romantics (“I just love the smell of a print book” has become the most popular of clichéd phrases in today’s print vs. digital discussion). I found myself caught in the crossfire, a print-and-digital apologetic, a non-confrontational publisher who feels a desperate need to simultaneously put the elderly woman in the back row at ease (“Of course we will always have print books”) and excite the young people sitting front and center (“We are witnessing a new era for the book!”). The print vs. digital discussion has addled my identity, forcing me into difficult, and often emotional and abrasive, discussions.

But perhaps it won’t always be so abrasive. Last week’s PEW report on e-reading and print reading had the interwebs humming again, and for the first time in a long time, my dual identity found a supporting voice: print is not dead, and neither is digital.

According to the report, the percentage of American adults reading e-books is rising (from 23% in 2012 to 28% in 2013, an albeit modest 5% difference, considering the sharp increases we saw in e-reading’s early days). The report also notes, however, that 7 in 10 Americans reported reading a book in print, an increase of 4% from 2012. The report clearly indicates that Americans are reading both print and digital books, and that only 4% of readers are digital-only readers.

But what if this is generational? Most digital reading advocates will argue that the percentage of the population still insisting on print reading is aging, and that with the newest generation (38% of which have used a mobile device before the age of 2), we will see a steep and steady decline in print reading. If this were true, we should already see a trend: younger people reading fewer print materials than older adults.

This doesn’t hold up, though.

In a PEW report on library and print vs. digital reading released last year (reported on by Digital Book World, no less), it was shown that younger Americans (specifically in the 16-29 age bracket, which would straddle the millennial and digital native generations), prefer mixed digital and print services in libraries. They want apps, yes, but they also want real librarians and physical books. And most surprisingly, they are more likely to have read a print book in the last year than any other age bracket: specifically, 75% of 16-29 year-olds have read one or more print books in the last year, compared with 64% of older adults.

So, to the elderly lady in the back row, and the excited young folks sitting front and center, steady yourself, because it is the opinion of this writer that the numbers are stacking up in our favor, and you can expect an innovative mix of print and digital for years to come.