Mainstream and alternative book publishing

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.


some book publishing statistics

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  1. This is a stunning revelation. It is difficult to understand such poor sales for even Booker winners. Your solution is somewhat drastic but, if you can not win them, I suppose you have to join them!

  2. Thanks for sharing your insights into the book publishing industry. This is food for thought indeed.

    Do you think the emergence of online publishing (and things like eBooks) has already had a significant impact on the industry? What do you think will happen to the industry in 10 or 20 years’ time? I imagine new media would give “alternative” publishers a better chance of competing with traditional/mainstream publishers.

  3. Jeana

    I’m not convinced online publishing and eBooks will have a significant impact on the industry. These online alternatives apply little, if any, quality control. They allow authors to publish anything they want, and we are all notoriously bad judges of our own work!

    Even the owner of admits that he makes his money from “publishing bad books”.

    What worries me is that, while people will buy these books at first, they’ll soon learn that buying books from online publishers is a lottery, and they’ll stop being willing to take the risk.

  4. As an editor, I do believe in the value of the editorial function. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons it is not always exercised with the same discrimination today as formerly, and many commercial publishers could — should — also admit that they make money from “publishing bad books.”

    I’m still not sold on e-books, but I think online publishing has already accomplished a lot. Most of all, I think emerging technologies offer new opportunities in the areas of marketing and distribution.

  5. is poised to make a great impact on this industry. It is the exact answer to the alternative solutions that this stale industry needs.

  6. Marc Trujillo

    I am the author of a book manuscript, Day in Life of Francisco Garcia, and I seek publication. It is about a young Mexican national in the American Federal prison system for being “illegal.” This story is of interest to a large number of Americans and I think could have appeal. If you a Lit Agent or publisher of current social issues, I would like to show you this manuscript. Thank you for your attention.