A Five Billion Dollar Publishing Business
Each week I read The New Yorker magazine and always find a great deal of publishing information tucked into the pages of this magazine. There are articles about writers, editors and other things related to the arts and entertainment which I find fascinating to read. Tucked into the Talk of the Town section of the November 7th issue, James Surowiecki writes a fascinating article about an aspect of publishing which I’ve rarely seen discussed—textbooks. Check out this quote, “College students now spend more than five billion dollars a year on textbooks, while states spend another four billion on books for elementary and high-school students. And the revenue is not being spread around: five publishers account for eighty per cent of new college-textbook sales in North America.” (my bold emphasis)
I know college textbooks cost more than the average book—and this article explains they average around fifty dollars with books in the sciences running over a hundred dollars. It gives a different perspective to the increased costs of paperbacks and hardcover books. I recall many years ago when I was a college student purchasing some used textbooks to try and hold down this expense. As the article concludes, “The real losers in this game (the textbook market) are those who buy textbooks and hold on to them: graduate students, bookworms, and lazy people.” The article provides an interesting peek into this market.
If you ever need a dose of reality in the publishing business (and each of us need it from time to time), I recommend you go to Dan Poytner’s page where he keeps track of some statistics. Some of this information is frightening but good to keep in mind as you put together new book ideas and book proposals. Here’s a few of these statistics to keep in mind (the entire document is about 26 pages):
One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Many do not even graduate from high school.
58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.
42% of college graduates never read another book.
80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.
70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
57% of new books are not read to completion.
These statistics are no secret in the publishing business. It’s a reality that each editor and publishing executive faces as they sort through the submissions looking for the next bestseller. Yes, there is a way to beat these statistics and produce a bestselling product—but it takes way more creativity and energy than most would-be authors are willing to put into it—or even recognize.
Before you get depressed from reading this reality check information, understand that each editor and each literary agent continues actively searching for the next bestseller. Last week I received an email from a writer looking for a general market literary agent and wanting a referral (something I rarely do—so please don’t ask). Every agent that I know is constantly reading their mail and their in-box. Now they may quickly dismiss material which is not shaped right or have the right opening—but they are searching for the next book which will capture the public’s attention. Our responsibility as writers is to create the best possible proposal or novel to catch their attention.