Thursday, August 11, 2011

10 Million Books Sold; Why Not More?

Why is Babar a bust?

Most book series do not sell 10.1 million copies, but Babar, which turns 80 this year has.  By the measures of book publishing this is a wild success that less than one in a million get to experience.  I think it’s a failure.

First, do the math. It averages out to be 125,000 books sold per year, for 80 years.  There are 42 books in the series, meaning each title, on average, accounts for 3000 sales per year.  Nice, but not stunning.

Our nation now has 310,000,000 Americans.  When the series first launched in 1931 there was almost an entirely different population than today’s.  This means that over a half-billion people or more have lived in the U.S. since the series launched.  To sell 10 million books to 500,000,000 people is only a success rate of 2%.

Now, of course, this all seems ridiculous.  Babar is one of the best-known, most widely read, top-selling children’s books of all time.  Damn, the math and the stats. It beats the competition, hands down.

So my next question is this:  If a book or series becomes as successful as Babar did, how come the sales total isn’t a lot higher?  I mean, once a book breaks through, catches on, and has a multi-generational following, why doesn’t it sell a ton more?  What happens if something reaches critical mass but yet doesn’t then complete the deal and sell tens of millions more copies?  How can something be wildly popular and yet not get purchased by 98% of the population?

I guess one factor is each book represents multiple people.  In a family of three, four or five children they may read the one copy that was purchased.  Don’t forget millions of readers who read it in school or borrow it from the library.  Still, it seems odd that something is good enough to sell 10 million copies but not 20 or 40 million.

Babar wasn’t my favored choice as a child.  Give me Dr. Seuss books or Curious George any time.  But Babar should get his props for being one of the all-time best-selling books series ever – even if the series failed to sell more.

2010 Sales Won’t Be 2011 Totals

In the fast-paced world of book publishing, we see a clear trend in a number of areas.  According to PubTrack online retailers account for 35% of book sales (by dollars) – up from 26% a year ago.  So, online went from accounting for 1 in 4 to 1 in 3 of all book sales in just 12 months.  Part of this is due to Amazon’s growth and more of it is due to e-book sales rising dramatically.

E-books, which can only be sold online, account for 6.4% of all book sales (in dollars), up by quadruple from a year ago.  Hardcover book sales decreased from being 42% of the market to 38% while trade paper increased to 38% from 36.6%.  Mass market books declined by almost 20% as a share of the marketplace and audio books declined 33%.

The top five selling outlets for books in 2010, according to U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review, were as follows:

Barnes and Noble                22%
Amazon                               20%
Borders                                14%
Book Clubs                            8%
WalMart                                8%

Obviously Borders’ 2011 numbers will shrink greatly and disappear completely in 2012.  What will replace it?  Likely more online sales, more e-book sales, and maybe a trickle increase from other outlets. Some point-of-purchase or impulse sales may just be lost forever.

One thing the book publishing industry has not fully accounted for is all of the books sold by authors directly, whether from a Web site or at an event or bulk sales to an organization.  For all we know book sales could be up by a lot.  There’s no way to tell or measure it.

Loving Books In Paper

The Chicago Tribune ran a column about how it’s time book publishers “fight dirty” to promote the printed book. I would agree.  Why don’t we see media campaigns pushing the allure of the printed book, especially to the younger generation that’s bombarded with ads to buy a Kindle?  There are appealing aspects to physical books:

·        Cover design and back copy
·        Flipability:  you can find information easily
·        Textile touch: the world is in your hands
·        The smell of printed pages
·        You can highlight text and make notes
·        Something to savor and share with others
·        Discoverability:  you can skim through and uncover things you weren’t seeking out
·        The weight of the book feels substantial and lends a sense of permanence and authority

What’s Your Digital Footprint?

I think the formula for successful book promotions is 40% traditional media; 30% online activity; and about 30% targeted marketing via speaking gigs, outreach to organizations, events, key word ads, etc. At least that is how your time should be spent, but not necessarily your budget.

When it comes to online media the key areas are:

·        Book reviews on Amazon and targeted or high-traffic sites
·        Blogger coverage
·        The online side of a traditional media company (
·        Social Media (Twitter, Facebook YouTube)

How you spend your time on these things is up to you.  Wherever you find success you will go at it until the well dries up.  Every day there is a new outlet to approach and a new way to build a tribe.

Should you send out 30 tweets tonight or spend that time networking with 10 existing Facebook contacts?  Should you contact a speakers bureau, a radio show, a magazine editor, or create a video for your site?  Do you find guest-blogging pays off more than your own blog? Is it worth your time to post comments on other people’s blogs?

All of these things can work for you but budgeting your time is just as important as budgeting your money. 

Many PR activities may cost nothing but they do have a price tag on your time and your mind.  Sometimes I wake up in a Twitter stupor, ready to click, send, retweet before my first cup of coffee.

What’s your digital footprint?

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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