Five publishing conglomerates now control 80 percent of book publishing industry sales. The big fish are Bertelsmann, Viacom, Longman-Pearson, News Corporation, and Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck. Bertelsmann, based in Gütersloh, Germany, reported a net income of a net income of € 2.4 billion in 2006.
But this 80 percent of sales comes from less than 5 percent of the total number of book titles published. In fact, if you go deeper into the statistics, you discover that only a thousand titles, or a bit more, are selling better than 50,000 copies, and the remainder — well over 90 percent of the total number of titles published — are averaging fewer than a thousand copies total sales each. In a previous post I reported that the Booker Prize finalists (leaving aside the overrated Ian McEwan) were likely averaging fewer than 800 copies each.
It’s tempting to see this as analogous to the widening gap between the rich and the poor on the social level; however that might be, it’s clear that the book industry is really two different industries, and this accounts in large part for its disfunctional quality. On the one hand there is an industry that is similar to Hollywood (and in fact is controled by the same conglomerates) and then there is a much larger yet more marginal industry that is more similar to YouTube.
“Alternative” publishers and authors — who really produce the bulk of all books published — need to free themselves from the mindset of traditional mainstream publishing. The Hollywoodization of publishing has created an arena in which they mostly can’t compete. Instead they need to turn their backs on the blockbuster mentality and embrace alternative marketing, new technologies, and original distribution avenues. The challenge has always been to put books together with the appropriate readers. Thanks to new social web applications such as Facebook we now know exactly what kinds of things many people are interested in — information that used to come only from expensive market research. Publishers need to find ways of using this information to market books more efficiently to audiences that will produce a good return within the economies of scale of nonblockbuster publishing.