Too Many Books, Too Few Shelves

If we can’t stop the presses, we should at least slow them down. U.S. publishers produced almost 300,000 new titles last year, a number that Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly referred to as “a ridiculous number.”

With bookstore sales rising a modest 3.6% in the last five years, we have more and more books competing for what amounts to the same exact shelf space. Clearly, something is wrong.

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As a heavy book reader myself, I contend that we need better books not more books. I can’t tell you how many books I started this past year and never finished. Why? Because, frankly, they weren’t worth finishing. Most of them left me underwhelmed. The authors would have done better to boil down the content and make it a magazine article.

But publishers appear to be addicted to cranking out more and more titles. It reminds me of a scene from an old episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel are working in a chocolate factory. Finding themselves in the Wrapping Department, they must keep up with the increasing speed of a factory conveyor belt. Since the ladies initially appear to be keeping up with the flow, their supervisor increases the speed of the belt until Lucy and her friend are overwhelmed.

Editors and book marketers face a similar predicament. “If only we had just a little more time to spit-shine this title,” they mutter under their breath. But the conveyor belt keeps delivering a seemingly endless flow of titles. Worse, Publishers desperate for growth keep piling additional titles onto the backs of their already-overworked employees.

It’s time to stop the madness. We don’t need more titles. We need better titles. The only way this is going to happen is if publishers stop focusing on quantity and begin focusing on quality.

Last year, our company introduced some 700 new titles. I don’t care how you cut it, that’s a lot of books. It is basically two books a day. Every day. All year long. Worse, 23% of our titles drove more than 90% of our revenue. Or to say it another way, 74% of our titles accounted for less than 10% of our revenue. Hello? (And, I’ll bet money that our experience isn’t unique. I’d wager that almost every other publisher’s experience is similar.)

But to really appreciate this, you have to understand that the work is pretty evenly distributed among all titles. Every title must be contracted, edited, typeset, proofread, packaged, cataloged, sold-in, merchandised, and promoted. Whether you sell a million or a few thousand, it still requires a similar amount of work.

So, based on this, we came to a fairly obvious conclusion. We can cut the title count and eliminate a significant portion of our workload, without reducing our revenue or our profit margin. All we have to do is eliminate our worst performing titles—or in the case of frontlist, the titles that are forecast to perform the worst.

You may think, Well, that’s fine in theory but forecasting is a tricky business. As Yogi Berra once famously said, “Predictions are difficult, especially about the future.” But as it turns out, not so much—at least not as far as it concerns our “A” and “B” titles (the top tier). In aggregate, our forecasting on these titles is about 95% accurate. If anything, these titles tend to outperform our expectations.

These books are generally more predictable. They are typically written by known authors or from authors who at least have media platforms and can help us promote them. Obviously, we have to find the next generation of talent, so we can’t afford to completely eliminate new authors. In fact, we will continue to take risks on those relatively few manuscripts that are exceptionally well-written. But we can still do a much better job of focusing on the authors and the content with the most potential.

The problem comes at the bottom of the list—the “C” and “D” titles. These titles are less predictable and, as a result, pose the greatest risk. Our forecast accuracy is about 60% here. These titles usually have the least potential for a reasonable return on our investment. It is easy to get excited about a new author or a new title, but the truth is that you never know what you have until you publish the book and see if people are willing to part with their hard-earned cash to buy it.

Regardless, we feel we can do a much better job of focusing on the best authors and the best content. As a result of this exercise, we have determined to cut 50 percent of our new title output. We believe that by doing so we will put at risk less than 10% of our revenues (and even less of our margin). More importantly, by slowing down the conveyor belt, we believe we can improve the quality and more than make up for any potential decrease in revenue.

Borrowing a phrase from the Marines, “we are looking for a few good books.” We are still working through the title list and are not prepared to announce who stays and who goes. However, our ultimate goal is do a better job delivering excellent books—books worth finishing—to the marketplace.

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  • Jack Repenning

    Your “focus on the top” strategy sounds suspiciously like “barrier to new writer entry.” Maybe the ideal formula is neither more, nor fewer books, but rather some way to do the “C and D” books at lower cost.

    E-publication, for example, has the obvious savings of paper and press. You don’t actually mention those costs, which probably means they’re not as important as the human work (which seems credible). But are there other ways to shave costs on “C and D” books? In the explosion of E-publication lately, I’ve definitely noticed that many publishers were e-publishing scans of older paper-published books that seem suspiciously light on the proof-reading. Maybe that’s a shavable cost for new works as well?

  • Georgiana

    As the old wise saying goes ~ “Quality over quantity” is always best. I want to invest my reading time with substantial books that have inspirational messages that I can personally relate and apply to my everyday life. Learning new ideas and gaining new insight is also important as well.

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  • Chris Donato

    I’m so very grateful for this post. Thanks also for pointing the finger at yourself—a lot of fluff has hit the shelf from Thomas Nelson over the years. I’m a bibliophile and I can’t agree more that there’s way too much wasted paper out there.

    I also can’t wait to hear the “end” of this story a year from now when you divulge how this plan works out (cutting 50% of  new title output while risking less than 10% revenue).

    • Michael Hyatt

      Actually, I wrote this post three years ago. It has had a big impact on us in terms of enabling us to focus our resources on fewer titles. It was a very good decision, and we have stuck with it.

      • Chris Donato

        That’s great to hear. Thanks again for blazing the trail in this regard!

  • Adam Smith

      I was thinking of writing a post on this and just never got to it, but I totally agree with you. People aren’t writing with the New York Times Bestseller list in mind at all these days. In fact I’d say that authors are happy and are satisfied with mediocrity. Glad to see Thomas Nelson come out with a stance to make authors think before they write and submit their transcript. It will make us all better.

  • Adam Smith

    And for those that aren’t quite where they need to be in their writing but have to publish their content, you have shown that the ebook is a great option.

  • Matthew

    Often great books sell poorly and poorly written books sell well. Many impacting books only impact a few, but those few can change the world. And how does something like this accelerate a celebrity driven Christian culture? Would people like P. Yancy be discovered as great writers in this climate, people who have no mega-church or national platform behind them? OK choose quality over quantity but will you choose great books or national celebrity who have the best chance to sell. I am afraid the best intentions are led astray by thirst for profit most often.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I’m sorry, but I disagree. Too many publishers throw too much mud at the wall, hoping some of it will stick. When you focus on fewer products, you can publish with more intention—and more success. We are still publishing plenty of books by first-time authors. In fact, the two of the three books we have on the New York Times bestsellers list this week are written by first-time authors. Neither of them are celebrities.

  • Susan Wilkinson

    Halleluia. Glad you said it.  Amen and Amen.

  • Chris Neiger

    As an aspiring writer this one is difficult to read, but I have to say that I aggree. There are way to many books on the shelf and some of them just aren’t good.

  • Bob Christopher

     Michael, excellent post. I applaud your efforts. The Gospel is way too important to settle for anything less than the best. Authors, both rookies and seasoned vets, should be both encouraged and challenged by your words. I certainly am.

  • Robert Ewoldt

    I totally agree; publishing less, but focusing more on making those few really good. 

  • Cynthia Leighton

     Yes! Bravo for daring to say so and preparing to take action.

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  • Rick Carr

    I don’t disagree that there are probably too many books out there, and many that possibly should never have been published. However, I’d like to offer another perspective.

    Some years ago, I took a draft of my book to Kip Jordan of Word Publishing. I was working for Word Music at the time, and asked his opinion of the book, not seeking to have Word publish it, just getting an expert opinion of my manuscript. Kip told me my book deserved to be published. He told me it was good, better than a lot of what’s out there. However, since I was an unknown, Kip said if a large company like Word or Nelson were to publish it, it would just go in the catalog, with no marketing dollars behind it. If a sales rep read it and really liked he might give it an extra push, but other than that, it would just be there – in the catalog and on the automatic release program – with no advertising or in-store marketing pieces. He said the irony is that marketing dollars of big companies go to their top tier authors by contract – the Billy Grahams, Chuck Colsons, etc. – even though they have huge platforms and really don’t need it like the lesser known authors do.

    In sales, the “80/20 rule” rules. 20% of your ______ (books, albums, salesmen, accounts, customers…) account for 80% of your sales. (Your 90/23 skews the rule a bit.) Most business don’t feel they can afford to ignore the other 20%. Come to think of it, that way of thinking is why there’s a shortage of a key drug to fight leukemia. It’s no longer one of those 80% items for the drug companies.

    When I was in retail, there were often new albums that I really enjoyed, but they weren’t selling. There would be hit songs from an album on radio, 1, 2, then 3. I’d be about to return my unsold stock when all the sudden the album would start selling. When that happened, I often asked customers why they chose that particular album. Almost without fail, they would say, “It was when the 3rd single hit radio. I figured if there were 3 songs that I liked, I’d probably like the whole album.”

    When I was with Word, I cannot tell you how many new artists never got that 3rd single. And because their sales never took off, after one album, or maybe two, the record label would drop them.

    While all other costs may be fairly equal, the marketing support is far from the same for A titles, B titles, and C & D titles. Maybe, just maybe, if the marketing dollars were spread more evenly, at least some of the C titles could move up a category or two.

  • Sybil Light

    I think publishers need to produce those titles that readers/consumers want to read/buy, that libraries want to pitch, that people want to talk about, that groups wants to talk about around their living room, that intrigue the mind and stretch imaginations.  Trim? Yes.  I don’t need to say anymore.

  • Steve

    I appreciate what you’re saying. As a customer, I don’t want you to publish the books you think I will buy, but the books you think are worth buying. Perhaps it’s roughly the same list, but, to me anyway, it’s an important distinction.

  • Rhoda

    I couldn’t agree more! As I read new books I keep thinking that the few old golden ones I have are so much better! And with Christian books many times I think we would be getting more from re-reading the old ones rather than buying new, though I guess that doesn’t work too well for a publishing company :)

  • Jenn Lull

    Yes. I’ve found a lot of books have given me 300 pages of action or story and then try to wrap the whole thing up in 5 pages. Please people, start writing actual endings to books. This isn’t the movie industry, I expect better from authors, editors, and publishers.