On Book Publishing…

Linked below is a very sobering article about how the publishing industry works. The author read all the transcripts from the antitrust case stemming from Penguin Random House trying to buy Simon & Shuster (it was blocked).

From the testimony, the author draws out some statistics:

  • The industry is “hit driven,” meaning almost all books fail, and business is kept alive by the tiny percentage that succeed
  • 96% of books sell less than 1,000 copies; 50% of books sell less than a dozen copies
  • The big hits are consistently celebrity books and “franchise authors”; these are the people who get advances you can live on

(Something else I learned from a friend: lots of “traditional” publishing houses will only publish your book if you guarantee a minimum purchase. Consequently, this friend had pallets of her book in her garage. Also, if you want your book on the front table at an airport bookstore, that’ll be $7,500 per week, thanks.)

I’ve published four books about CMS(-ish). O’Reilly published the first, I self-published the next two through Amazon, and the fourth was published through some other means (I just co-wrote it; I didn’t do much with production).

In the technical space, physical book publishing has nose-dived. I can tell you from my experience with O’Reilly that they’re way, way more interested in online access and video tutorials these days. The publisher A Book Apart just recently went under. And the other day, I realized that the computer book section at Barnes and Noble was only about three-feet of shelf space, way in the corner.

I’m left wondering if books are the right medium for transmitting larger bodies of information in this age. Don’t get me wrong, I love books – I have a home library of some 1,300 titles. But if you really want to get information across to an audience, is a serial, chapter-by-chapter book the right way to do it anymore?

(Note that I differentiate this from reading for pleasure. There’s still value in a serialized narrative, but that’s very different from learning or reading for information.)

There have been amazing advances in the ePub standard. I read an entire book (ha!) on ePub3, and the format is less of a book, and more of a container for an interactive experience. You could create something in the ePub format that only vaguely resembled a “book” in the traditional sense.

I have another friend who wrote something amazing in Notion (or Roam?), the note-taking app. It became a source to generate a website that had inter-connected chapters that we’re only loosely organized into a series.

I have a couple more books in me, I think. Mark Demeny and I are playing around with a second edition of “Web Content Management: Systems, Features, and Best Practices” (the O’Reilly book) and there are a couple other topics bouncing around in my head.

But, increasingly, I think a “book” might just become just one more transmission format for a domain of information that needs to be absorbed, and probably not even the most effective one.

No one buys books

Everything we learned about the publishing industry from Penguin vs. DOJ.

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