The new year hadn’t even had a week to catch its breath before the first year-end numbers for 2014 appeared. The definitive numbers—if you can call any numbers “definitive” in traditional publishing—won’t show up until late February or early March. But the early numbers reveal quite a bit.
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I often find Publishers Marketplace’s analysis of the publishing industry useful, not because it’s accurate, but because it gives me a fairly clear snapshot of what the traditional industry’s thoughts on the business are. Publishers Marketplace’s focus on traditional means that it misses a lot of the trends and changes that happen because of indie.
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Nielsen Bookscan reported that print book sales—in the outlets that report to Bookscan—went up 2.4% in 2014 over sales from 2013. Half of the gain in sales—1.2%—came from a better-than-expected holiday season.
In that first week, Publishers Marketplace went deeper into the numbers than Publishers Weekly did and came out with some fascinating information, some of which I’ll deal with in the next week or two. But here’s the take-away:
All of the year’s gains and then some came from backlist, however, not newly-released titles. Frontlist unit sales fell 2 million units to 276 million, while backlist sales rose 17 million units to 359 million…
Those of us who’ve been publishing indie have known how powerful the backlist is since 2010. Fortunately for most of us early adapters, the traditional publishing industry didn’t get the memo for about three years. They started to get a clue in 2013 that there was wine in those dusty old bottles, which is why it’s become harder and harder to get rights reverted from traditional publishers in the past couple of years.
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Traditional publishers still don’t have a complete clue about the importance of the rise of the backlist, as evidenced by this comment from Publishers Marketplace:
[backlist sales rose]…reflecting the lack of new breakout hits…
Sorry, Publishers Marketplace, no. The backlist rose because the industry is changing. The way books are being sold everywhere, not just online, is changing. Readers are changing.
Well, actually, readers are staying the same. They want “what they want, when they want it, and at a reasonable price” to quote Kevin Spacey on the lessons Netflix learned from House of Cards.
Readers have always wanted that. But traditional publishing, like all other media in the 20th century, was based on the scarcity model: if you make readers hunger for a book, they’ll pay more when they see one. They also buy it immediately, and they’ll be grateful for what’s offered, rather than buy what they like.
The internet broke the scarcity model.
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Because the entire traditional publishing business is based on the scarcity model, Publishers Marketplace can’t understand the rise of the backlist. The rise doesn’t fit into the scarcity model.
Here’s the logic of the situation when looked at from the scarcity model: if people are buying “old” books, then the new books aren’t satisfying. The new books aren’t “good.”
That analysis was true-ish before backlist was constantly available. I say true-ish because, remember, not a lot of “old” books were available—just the ones that readers would keep recommending to their friends, so publishers couldn’t take those books out of print.
Back then, breakout books happened for two reasons: First, the books stayed on the shelves long enough to get word of mouth; and second, the books dominated the conversation.
It’s almost impossible to dominate the conversation now. Traditional publishing doesn’t control every book that makes its way into the media now. One book might get some traction, but definitely not all of the traction.
And the conversation moves faster as well. We might discuss Book A today, but tomorrow we could be discussing Book J. Or not discussing any traditionally published book at all.
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My dollars are finite, just like yours are, but book-buying dollars are not. Now that more books are available to more people, book sales should—logically—go up.
And they are. But they are going up outside of the traditional models. At least 20,000 of my ebook sales in 2014 did not get counted by any traditional measure—Bookscan or otherwise. I say “at least” because I don’t know if Smashwords sales count toward Bookscan numbers or if some of the other ebook sites (like Kobo) count as well. I do know that Amazon and Barnes & Noble ebook sales get counted.
So there is a shadow industry. There always has been. Even Bookscan itself says that it only covers 80% of the print book business. That’s up, by the way, from the old days, when Bookscan was less than 50%. There’s a lot of give in that 20%. And that’s in the traditional industry.
There’s even more give when you consider indie publishing. A lot of indie writers publish their print books without an ISBN, so the books don’t get tracked by traditional means. I suspect Bookscan covers 80% of the traditional market, but in all of trade publishing? I think that Bookscan misses a lot of books. How many? I have no idea. I doubt anyone does.