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.

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.

Question: Do you think publishers need to trim their lists? You can leave a comment by clicking here.