Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Cautionary Tale of Basic Economics and Publishing

One of the first things we learn in basic economics classes is the principle of supply and demand. You remember the concept. Supply and demand balance out and that is what creates the price of the product you are selling. Heck, I learned this in 7th grade from an amazing textbook, where we learned about Mucho Dinero living on this island. Surprisingly, it was really good and I do remember so much of these basic concepts.

I am afraid, however, that publishing in general, and this includes editors, agents, and certainly writers, are forgetting this basic principle. At this point, the market is so flooded with authors, it is hard for the equation of supply and demand to balance out. Add in the rise in so many self-publishing, e-publishing, POD, and small independent presses, that we are so over the top and the industry is just not going to be able to handle it if we continue at status quo.

Yes, I know we see numbers of increases in readership in some companies vs others. I know we are constantly throwing numbers out of the difference between e-pub and hardback sales, but the one thing that has not changed, and in fact, we have seen a decline in it, is the readership. Here are some numbers to consider. According to one study:

1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. 
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college. 
80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. 
70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. 
57 percent of new books are not read to completion. 
70 percent of books published do not earn back their advance. 
70 percent of the books published do not make a profit. (Source: Publishers Weekly) 

Yes, I also know we can find a lot of numbers that probably say some other things as well. The point though is that although we have drastically increased these opportunities for authors, the number of readers out there really aren't changing. They might be shifting from print to digital or they might shift from a traditional publisher to a self-pub author, but that is it.

I think a great comparison to look at here would be the television industry. We now have more than enough channels to watch. Heck, we could never watch every channel currently in our cable package. For our family we have close to 300 channels to pick from. But here is the kicker. I want you to think about which shows and particularly, which stations you watch. The number is pretty limited. My bet is also that you are not spending your time watching those small "independent" channels or for that matter the "local access channels." These smaller channels come and go all the time as someone thinks they have a great idea as another one disappears due to lack of funding.

Now relate this back to trying to find a "new author" on your Kindle, Nook or other reading devices. If you scan through all the titles in your genre, you have 100,000+ titles. So we sort by cost (which is what we do with those cable packages to reduce from 800 channels to 300), but even then, we still end up with far too many to look for. In a recent search I did, just to see how many authors were "selling" their books for $0.00, I ended up giving up after finding 700+ for that price (and no, I did not "buy" any book). There were just too many.

But what do we do? We go to the names we know. We go to the bigger publishing companies that have produced for us in the past. We do the same thing with our TV as we return to ABC, HBO, ESPN, and so forth.

In no way am I saying that we need to limit the number of authors out there. I want people to write. I believe in the power of creative writing and our right to share our thoughts, dreams and emotions. We are going to have to find a solution to this one way or another. I am not sure if I know what that answer is right now, but I do remember the problems Mucho Dinero and his friends had when supply exceeded demand. That is where we are at now.

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to comment on this although I am a self-published author. I think publishers missed an opportunity to create a 'name' for themselves in the way that HBO and other TV and movie channels did. Most people not in the business would be hard pressed to name one publisher. Most readers do not look for books by publisher. Many publishers diluted their name brand by having many differently named imprints.

    (I can't take credit for this perspective as I first read about it on Nathan Bransford's blog)

    I agree that the number of readers and the numbers of books read has not kept up with the greatly increased number of books. I'm not sure what the solution could be although I suspect there will be some drop off when it is shown to be no easy route to fame and fortune.