Thursday, April 12, 2018

Why Do The Big 5 Publishers Dominate Best-Seller Lists?

The best-seller lists are still dominated by traditional publishers, specifically the Big 5.  But in an era when twice as many published books are self-published, how is it that just five big publishers own much of the best-seller lists?

More than 86% of all Publishers Weekly hardcover best-seller spots in 2017 consisted of books from only five publishers.  Over a third of all hardcover bestsellers were published by Penguin, Random House, Harper Collins had 16% and Hachette Book Group had 13.4%.  Simon & Schuster had 11.5% and Macmillan 8.0%.

The story for trade paperbacks was not much different – over 78% of bestselling paperbacks came from the same Big 5, led by Penguin Random House at 29%.  Harper Collins was close behind at 22.7%.

Two notable gains from 2016 to 2017 was Harper Collins. Their number of hardcover best-sellers, grew by 25%.  Macmillan more than doubled its share of paperback best-sellers in 2017 over the prior year.

So why do only a handful of publishing conglomerates dominate the best-seller lists?  Here are a few reasons:

1. They publish a ton of books, so the odds are they will have a fair share of the best-seller lists.

2. They have the resources to advertise, promote, and sell their books.

3. They filter wisely, choosing to publish books by big-name authors, those with built-in platforms, on subjects that have been proven to sell well.

4. The industry discriminates.  Stores load up on books from the Big 5 because they are known entities and have a working relationship with them, whereas stores don’t deal with individual authors and smaller presses as often.

5. Could it be that consumers do value the book’s label  (imprint) and buy Big 5 books because of branding?

6. The Big 5 diversifies what it publishes, ensuring it’ll secure some winners no matter what.

7.  Media bias plays a role.  It reviews, interviews, and covers books and authors from the Big 5, favoring them over others that are lesser known to them.

8. The Big 5 sponsors events and makes their presence in the book community felt.  Stores, libraries, and consumers respond by supporting their books.

9. Finally, another reason why big publishers seem to dominate the best-seller lists is that self-published authors and smaller presses sell their books differently.  Many of them will sell books directly to the public --- online, at events, or through bulk sales orders. Many of these sales don’t get counted towards best-seller list sales.

So, if you want to be a best-selling author not only does it take publicity, big marketing budgets, and luck – and a timely, well-written book by a known author – it will likely require a publisher that is part of the Big 5.  Even though the Big 5 doesn’t come anywhere near publishing a quarter of all books published, it publishes about 80% of all best-sellers.

“Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one.”
--Augustine Birrell, ‘Book-Buying’, Obiter Dicta (1884)

“There is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself, an index to majority opinion.”
--George Orwell, Selected Essays (1968)

“Literary fame is the only fame of which a wise man ought to be ambitious, because it is the only lasting and living fame.”
--Robert Southey, quoted in Forster’s Life of Landor (1876)

“It’s very difficult to write about being happy.  Very easy to write about being miserable.”
--Philip Larkin, in interview in The Observer (1979)

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.”

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