A Startling Book Statistic
When I was in New York City late last week, I had hopes to write something about the Writing Life but the time wasn’t available. I’ll have to use those experiences in upcoming entries. It was a quick and busy trip. I had a single day (last Friday) to connect with a few literary agents and editors. It takes a bit of advance planning to set up these sessions but I always find them fascinating and fruitful.
On the airplane, I was reading a new book which is the first of a series of books called “Author 101” called Bestselling Book Proposals, The Insider’s Guide to Selling Your Work by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman with Mark Steisel (Adams Media). Because I’ve written Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success, you may wonder why I keep reading these new titles. There is always more to learn (a key part of my ongoing writing philosophy) plus each one of these books contains different insight into the overall process. My book remains the singular title on this topic written from the perspective of an acquisitions editor.
The first chapter of Bestselling Book Proposals provides a fascinating array of facts about the publishing business. Here’s one detail that made me sit up and take notice, “Publishing a book is a long, complex, arduous, exacting, and expensive process. According to industry figures, 80 percent of the books published fail. One percent of all books sold account for 5o percent of all publishing company profits.” I emphasized the bold information and it’s not bold in the book.
The number of failures seemed high to me (or maybe it is simply realistic). As a bit of a research project, I set about to ask a couple of insiders on Friday. I asked one top literary agent who is a former editor at a major New York publisher and he instantly discounted it asking, “What constitutes failure for a book?” I didn’t have an answer but it could mean a number of different things.
Later that morning, I met with a second leading literary agent. I showed him the same quotation and asked about it. He also speculated about the word failure and what it means. “Does it mean the book doesn’t perform as the publisher expected? Or does it mean the book fails to earn back the book advance? Or what?” Again I had no answers but each agent didn’t want to take much energy to focus on this statistic. It would depress these optimistic hopeful literary agents. Whether an editor or an agent, each of us believe in books and the potential of each book idea to succeed. We don’t want to focus on the failure aspects or it will be hard to keep putting new ideas into the marketplace.
In the afternoon, I connected with one of our fiction authors from Howard Publishing. In his day job, this author is a top editor at a well-known magazine. Out of curiosity I pointed out the same statistic to see his reaction. He validated it saying, “It’s definitely true, Terry. Think about all of the books that fail to earn back their advance.” Typically publishers attempt to set the book advance so the author will earn back the advance during the first year of publication. It doesn’t always happen in the first year. It may take several years for the author to earn additional income or it may never happen (one of those books which fail).
From my view, the statistic reveals the cautious way that editors and publishers have to approach the key decisions about which books to publish. It’s a difficult business and to remain in business, wise decisions have to be made. Often authors don’t understand why their book is rejected. As an editor, I understand the limitations on my own time to tell them (read can’t take the time). Instead you receive a form letter that says it wasn’t right for our publishing program. At least I console myself that the author gets a decision—and a few of them actually get book contracts.
On the way home from the airport, I was listening to another publishing executive on tape talk about the challenge to locate and produce a bestselling book. He put the statistic a slightly different way saying, “Of ten books, six will fail to earn back their advance, two books will break even and two books will make money.”
Our challenge is to work as authors on an idea which will make money (or in another way—find readers) and touch lives. It’s possible but it involves many different factors—and it begins with excellence in your manuscript and book proposals.