Friday, July 23, 2010

From the Vault: By the numbers

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  If you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Lauren

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 Bulletin 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?

Originally posted in May 2007.


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