Thursday, April 14, 2016

Is Today's Book Industry Better Off Than In 1980?

Back around 1980, sales for the entire book industry were about six billion dollars – around the same amount of revenue in a year for Philip Morris Company back then.  What was the industry like – 36 years ago – when it was estimated that 220,000 books were in print, selling an average of 1,200 copies each annually?

I came across a book while rummaging through the musty, narrowed shelves of an aging antiquarian shop in Manhattan, called In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis by Leonard Shatzkin. He opened his 1982 book with this missive:

“This book appears as the trade book industry in the United States is entering a profound crisis.  Some of the effects – just the beginnings – are already being felt.  Publishing houses are generally reducing staff and publication lists; authors agents are expressing frustration at the failure to get contracts for manuscripts that, perhaps a year ago, would have routinely been granted advances of $7500 or $10,000;   publishers are expressing vexation with high returns of unsold books from retailers and the royalty rates demanded by authors.”

Back then, as now, the industry had problems with returns, distribution, and pricing.  But things have changed since then.  The big chains and Amazon and ebooks really improved things like title variety, book availability, and fast delivery.  New problems arose – and there are still complaints about how books get sold – but the 1980-era book industry is no longer the model for 2016.

In reading the book, it was interesting to see how things used to work, as it seemed like a more laborious task to acquire, produce, sell, and market a book back then.

Take a look at his insight on how different the book field is vs others:

“No other consumer industry produces 20,000 different, relatively low-priced products each year, each with its own personality, requiring individual recognition in the market.  In very few other consumer industries does the product have so short a life.  The average book is dead in days or weeks; 90 percent are dead, in their original editions, within a year.”

The author noted book prices steadily rose back then.  In fact, from 1967-1979, book prices outpaced the Consumer Price Index.  I don’t believe prices have been rising the last decade the way they should have.  

He also noted that back in 1980, except for a few favored locations like New York City, a full-range bookstore was hard to find.  He cited 1972 US Department of Commerce data that showed a bookstore served approximately 27,000 people, but it included religious stores and college stores.  By considering only general bookstores and book sections of department stores, a bookstore existed for 50,000 people.  By contrast, a drugstore back then served 4,900 people and an auto supply store tended to 10,000 people.  I don’t know how that compares to today but I do know there are about 2,200 independent bookstore locations.  Then you have Barnes & Noble with another 600-700 stores.  You have places like Costco, Target, airports, drugstores, supermarkets, etc. selling books too, not to mention online sites like Amazon and Apple.  One would assume that books are more readily available now than back then.

The author felt that trade book publishers fell short of their potential.  “The most important failing has been in the costly and haphazard method by which books move from publisher to consumer.”  He also said: “It has been true for a long time that books cost too much, they are sold in too few places, the title one wants is too hard to find, the sales life of a book is distressingly short, and that authors earn a pittance for their creativity and even so, find it tremendously difficult to get their early work published.”

I guess no one is jumping to enter a time machine to be transported back to 1980.  Add to that criticism the words of James Lincoln Collier, a prize-winning writer who said in a Publishers Weekly story back then that most authors – without income outside their writing – would be below the poverty line. Actually, a recent PW piece showed this is exactly true today as well.

Collier said back then:  “I calculate that writers today pay, out of their own pockets, about one-third of the true cost of producing most books.  The stock truth is that, as presently constituted, the publishing industry exists only by the grace of subsidies provided by writers.  In the United States, all publishing is vanity publishing.”

Are we better off than 1980?  Most certainly yes.  We have better systems of production and distribution.  Authors have the choice of how to be published and by whom, if anyone. The industry has many challenges and concerns, both from the perspective of authors, retailers and publishers, but it is a healthy and growing industry.

I leave you with Shatzkin’s correct and lasting assessment: “Any misfortune for book publishing is a misfortune for all Americans.  Books are too important to our lives; we cannot be indifferent, or even casual, about what happens to the industry that produces them.”

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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. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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