Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lauren Abramo adds it up

Numbers don’t mean a whole lot to me. I was always much better at the arts/humanities portion of my education than the math/science one. That’s not to say I don’t find math absolutely fascinating—I actually do, I swear!—I just don’t get it the way I do literature and language.

Without a ton of context, statistics don’t tend to make an impact on my brain. But there are some numbers that even the biggest numerophobe in publishing really ought to know. Here are some you might find interesting:

  • U.S. publishing is a $35 billion industry, the Book Industry Study Group reported at BEA last year—net revenues reached $34.59 billion in 2005, which was an increase of 5.9% over the previous year. We may tell ourselves that in this age of video games, technology and instant gratification people are reading less and less—but if that’s true, we’re certainly paying more and more for the books we’re not reading. That same report projects that revenues will break $40 billion by 2010.

  • How many books does it take to bring in that kind of money? Well, approximately 200,000 new books are published each year, reported PW in 2004.

  • And how much paper does it take to print so many books? According to the New York Times (via the Authors Guild Bulleting in Summer 2006), Random House buys 110,000 tons of uncoated paper to publish books each year.

  • Many of us know that the Bible has more copies in print than any other book, but what’s number two? Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, with more than 50 million copies in print and still going, according to Publishers Weekly from 2/12/07.

  • In 2006, Bowker, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading source for bibliographic information,” published a survey based on 13,000 novels published in the U.S.
    • 1,550 of those with a location that could be identified were set in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland.
    • New York and London were the two most common cities used as settings.
    • The same study showed that 65% of romance books, 61% of science fiction titles, and 58% of mystery/detective novels were published in paperback (meaning both mass market and trade).
    • And just how long were those books? The average for sci-fi was 329 pages with romance on its heels at 324. Mysteries were just shy of 300 at 292, followed by westerns at 261.

  • So just how long does it take to write those 13,000 novels anyway?
    • Tom Perkins, ex-husband of Danielle Steel, wrote Sex and the Single Zillionaire in 100 hours over 30 days.
    • Compare that with Donna Tartt and Shirley Hazzard. Tartt published The Secret History in 1992, then spent the next decade writing her second novel, The Little Friend.
    • Hazzard’s follow up took even longer—2003 saw publication of The Great Fire, 23 years after her debut, The Transit of Venus.

  • And do they sell well? The standards for success really do change from book to book based on any number of factors—category, author’s platform, size of the advance, size of the marketing budget—but everyone agrees that the majority of books fail to earn out their advances (meaning that the author’s royalties never accrue to the point that they actually earn more than they were paid up front). What percentage? An exact number is probably impossible to pin down, but it’s said that 80-85% of books published don’t earn out.

  • And how can we know how many copies of a book have sold? The closest we get to reliable public information is via Bookscan, a tracking database operated by Nielsen, the same people who tell us what everyone’s watching on TV. (As you may know, it’s not a perfect system since Bookscan only reports sales from certain segments of the market. If a book sells a large percentage in the “special sales” category—i.e., via outlets other than traditional book channels, including stores like Wal-Mart, which declines to report—Bookscan might not give a particularly good idea of how well that book is selling.) Just how accurate is Bookscan? They claim to be 70-75% accurate, according to a Publishers Weekly article from 2004. Of course that also changes depending on what type of book you’re talking about. Bookscan is more accurate for books that sell primarily via traditional book retailers, and less accurate for categories—like mass market fiction, cookbooks and children’s—that sell a large volume outside those channels.

Some numbers are critical to understanding how publishing works, and others are just an interesting way of looking at what seems like a completely abstract world. What statistics do the rest of you find fascinating? Which sets of numbers comfort or terrify you? What numbers do you wonder about?


  1. The numbers that worry me the most are on the checks I receive from publishers.

  2. Wow, I never knew that so much went into publishing. Thanks for a well-written and entertaining piece.

  3. Great nitty-gritty look at the numbers, and I wish there was more of this sort of information being widely disseminated. That 80-85% (of books that fail to earn out) figure is pretty staggering. :-)

  4. Let's big up London as a location. I like that stat.

    I hear that 76% of statistics are made up on the spot.

  5. Remember that not earning out their advance does not necessarily mean the publisher did not make money--simply that their profit margin was a bit smaller than it could have been.
    If an author does not even come close to earning out their advance? Well, that's another story.:)

  6. At a writer's conference someone mentioned that something like 99 % of all books published in the US each year sell something like less than a 100 copies each... Very vague indeed but also very depressing. As I didn't get a chance to ask where these numbers came from I'm wondering if this can be true?

  7. I was a numbers/math/science gal as a kid - lowest scores were in social studies and english. So I ask you, why am I a writer????
    I guess b/c there's so much more life and passion in it - and it was a natural progression from the avid reader I was/am;)

    ANYway, numbers...
    Yes, the Bible is the #1 seller - but is it the #1 read? Unfortunately, I'd say no.

    The fact about #'s not earning out their advances tells me why a small publisher gave me a smaller advance than the big ones do...she doesn't have sales of THE SECRET to back her up!!

    Numbers I'm mostly concerned with lately all seem to relate to TIME - how many days left I have of peace and quiet for writing before school's out for the many ms's I have many weeks/months each has been out...number of months to wait before status querying...number of neuroses I have accumulated keeping track of all these...;)

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  8. 95% of people think that Mark Twain said, "There are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. The remaining 5% know that it was actually Benjamin Disraeli, including Twain who merely popularized the statement. Or I could be making it all up. Anyway, thanks for the interesting take on the book biz!

  9. Do you think 80-85% of books don't earn out their advance becasue of lack of publicity on the publisher's part?

    After all, people don't usually go in search of buying something that the don't know exists.

  10. >we’re certainly paying more and more for the books we’re not reading.

    I think part of the reason for the increase in revenues is that people are buying more hardcovers and fewer paperbacks. Hardcovers are more expensive than paperbacks, so revenues are going up.

    Another reason is that books in general cost more than ever. Adjusted for inflation, the numbers may not look quite so good. (Similarly, if you adjust for inflation, Gone With the Wind is still the number-one grossing movie.)

    Even so, it's nice to know that there's still money to be made in publishing!

  11. Good post. I like it.

  12. Great numbers and stats. However, I got to see you as more of a people person. It was great meeting you in Austin and seeing how you network.

  13. I find Ms. Dystel's comments in her June 19th post rather alarming:

    "A quick turndown is a submission that has obviously been sent to many other agents and editors. Most of the time, I simply don’t find this kind of wholesale submission attractive and, because there is so much else on my plate, as soon as I see that the material has been indiscriminately submitted to others, even to agents at my own agency, I pass and go on to the next idea."

    Ms. Dystel, with utmost respect for you I must ask: Do you expect writers to submit to just one agent at a time? When most agents take up to 4 weeks to respond, and some do not reply at all?! To expect writers to send an average of one query per month, and wait to hear from that respective agent before sending another, is vastly unfair and rather elitest in thought. Do you submit to just one publisher when you send out your client's work? Or multiple publishers? The goal is to solicit interest. Furthermore, if adhering to the "rules" insinuated by your comments, a writer could spend a year sending out no more than 12 queries, and by then life has passed him by, as has the timeliness of his work.

    Please reconsider your statement and position on simultaneous submissions. It is vastly unfair to writers when so much is turned down and so much is subjective (on what side of the pillow any given agent awakes on a particular morning).

    Thank you for your time.

  14. I just wanted to add to my prior post above....after reading over my past notes on 'sent queries' and for further clarification:

    It is taking up to four weeks for most agents to respond, or longer, and a good number are not responding at all, despite each query being personalized (not form) and accompanied by an SASE. I will typically send out 5 to 10 queries at once, to carefully selected agents, then wait a few weeks for replies, before considering another batch of mailings, if I have not received interest from any agent.

    Just wanted to further illustrate my point and convey to you that my queries are never written haphazardly. In fact, some of the replies I receive from agents contain gross misspellings and poor letter format. Being a teacher with a dual Masters and a published writer, I am perplexed that what agents demand in queries, they do not match in their replies.