Long Tail of Books? Actually No.

Thanks to Dave for seeing an article I missed in the paper this morning.

Although lots of people talk about how the fragmenting of mass culture is changing, it turns out no one is actually doing anything about it, so we end up with influential but sloppy books based on an anecdote, a hunch, and a whistle.

Now we have the Canadian Heritage-commissioned Book Retail Sector in Canada report about the book market in Canada. Here are some numbers:

  • The overall trend is "more sales for fewer books.”
  • Number of new titles from Canadian publishers: 12,000 in 1998 to 17,000 in 2004 (40% growth).
  • Total unit sales over the same period: up only 11%.
  • As a result "both the average sales per title in Canada and the average print runs in many title categories have been falling in recent years"
  • Of the 675,000 titles available in in Canada in 2006, 45% did not sell a single copy.
  • 10,000 titles (2.7%) accounted for 64% of unit sales.
  • 500 titles (less than 0.1%) accounted for 22% of unit sales.
  • In 2006 Indigo accounted for 44% of domestic book sales; independent bookstores 20%, non-traditional retail (Costco, hardware stores etc) 20% and online booksellers only 4%.
  • Average household expenditure on books: $106.
  • Promotion matters: "a title’s placement and promotion within retail outlets is a highly important selection filter for book shoppers faced with a huge range and volume of available books."
  • Indigo’s Toronto-based buying team buys for all Indigo stores in the country; if an Indigo buyer decides not to carry an individual book, the publisher of that title effectively loses access to roughly half of the Canadian retail channel.

There’s a lot more in the report, which is likely to be a benchmark for some time.

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Sounds discouraging. Does that suggest that independent bookstores must follow the Toronto fashion trends set by Indigo, just to keep in step?
    Mini skirts and the Secret sells, up go the sales,
    It will be interesting to see the detailed report footnotes on regional interests and regional sales.
    Kathleen Molloy, author Dining with Death
    La Mort au menu

  2. There are two silver linings in the report.
    – Independent bookstores, after a period of losing out, are now holding their own.
    – Independents can’t compete against the big boxes and Amazon when it comes to pricing blockbusters, so they need to make money of the midlist instead.

  3. “both the average sales per title in Canada and the average print runs in many title categories have been falling in recent years”
    In manufacturing this would be seen as progress. Reduction in minimum economic batch size enables a greater variety of prodcut variants to be produced, each of which sell less than previous, but the total increases.

  4. It’s worse than I thought. Back here
    I challenged the assumption that “a proliferation of niche *markets* will lead to a proliferation of niche *suppliers*, and hence the dilution of the authority of the big suppliers”, which I think has a lot to do with the populist appeal of the Long Tail (where it goes beyond “you can get *anything* on Amazon these days!”) But I did go along with the assumption that niche markets were in fact proliferating. Maybe not.

  5. The trouble with good comments is that you have to think about them when you’d really rather be watching DVDs of The Wire.
    Dipper – I see what you mean but that does conjure up a few tall columns on a bar chart being replaced by a lot of short ones, and that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening in books. There are a lot of short columns, and a mighty lot of columns with no height whatsoever, and a few very very tall columns. I didn’t see an explicit statement that the big sellers are selling more than before, but I think it was at least broadly hinted at.
    Phil – one surprise to me is that online bookselling is still a relatively small portion of the whole, so I don’t think the report has a lot to say about the relative effectiveness of online vs real bookstores in promoting niche markets.

Comments are closed