Winner Take All in Books

Two depressing things for any fiction writers out there.

The wonderful Miss Snark (literary agent) More more more! describes how:

publishers demand that writers sell increasing quantities of subsequent
books they publish. Book one can sell five thousand copies, book two
six thousand but by book five you’ve got to sell forty thousand. If you
don’t, the publisher doesn’t renew the contract. It’s very similar to
get promoted or get out in the military. If you don’t make a certain
rank by a certain age, they ask you to retire.

The reason is increasing returns (in the form of fixed costs) in the book publishing industry:

The reason publishers want zillion copy sellers from one writer instead
of ten writers each selling one-tenth of a zillion is because of unit
cost.

Unit cost is the cost of each book sold. Add up all the
cost for printing, editorial time, design time, and a percentage of the
fixed cost like heats light and water and voila and voila: what it
costs to make a book happen. That cost is almost same if you sell 3000
books or 30000 books.

The end result of increasing returns is a winner-take-all market. It is the search for the next blockbuster rather than the building of a set of steady sales. It is wealthies woman in Britain if you write Harry Potter and zilch otherwise. And it is not healthy for book readers.

The point is confirmed by a piece in the December edition of Quill & Quire, in which agent Denise Bukowski argues that "There has been a sea change in the fiction marketplace" in which life is getting tougher for most mid-level and even good-selling authors.

Fact: Foreign rights to American novelist Edward P. Jones’s bestseller The Known World, which last year won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, were not sold until after it had won those awards.

Fact: U.K. star Andrea Levy;s Small Island, which not only won the Orange Prize but also was recently declard "The Best of the Best" of the first 10 years of the prize, was turned down all over New York. Picador finally picked it up for a pittance as a paperback original, after it won the prize.

The reason is partly the big chain structure of today’s book industry.

And in the U.K. one bookselling chain rules the market, and one man does all the buying for it: he has refused publishers’ sales reps access to his stores. Consquentuly, many boks are available in the U.K. over the Inernet.

I presume she is referring to Waterstone’s. Is there a chance that online book sales will counter this trend to fewer bigger books? Let’s hope so.

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