Discoverability is a matter of life and death for book sales, and despite the promise of social networking and online advertising, it is increasingly difficult to compete in the crowded book market. Common sense in the publishing world blames self-publishing for the tidal wave of books that has made discoverability such a challenge. But common sense is merely what a lot of people think, and sometimes it is wrong.
I’ve heard both self-published and traditionally published authors bemoan the flooding of the market with so many “amateur” self-published e-books, which the bitterest complainants characterize as rushed-to-market-before-it’s-ready slop. The argument goes that all of these new “bad” books are creating noise and making it harder than ever to find “good” books.
Are amateur digital authors crowding the market? Let’s look at the data.
For 2002-2012, Bowker’s Books in Print has over 11.5 million books in its catalog, representing all of the books with ISBN numbers that were published for sale in North America. All of these books were published by a sum total of 121,092 unique publishers or imprints. My research assistants and I collected information on and identified these various types of publishers. We estimate that about 76% of these publishers were indie authors publishing either on their own or through companies like Smashwords.
Notably, the median number of books published by these various indie publishers was only one book. When we switch to looking at authors themselves rather than publishers, we find that the median number of books by an indie author is two, typically one title that was published in more than one format. While many of these books were published in the last couple of years and we may yet see more contributions from these indie authors, so far the charge of “amateurism” seems to stick to these one-title wonders. One might expect a professional writer to be more prolific. Indeed, traditionally published authors have a median of seven books or four titles. (In another post, I’ll address the phenomenon of hybrid authors, or those who both indie and traditionally publish.)
Are indie authors flooding the market? No, not exactly. There has indeed been rapid growth in the number of self-published books. However, by our estimates, self-published books, whether poor or excellent, account for only 3.3% percent of all of the books in Bowker’s Books in Print. Output by other types of publishers dwarfs the contributions of indie authors.
The publishers we identified as traditional publishers produced 25.2% of the total number of books. Another 5.5% of books were published by publishers we were unable to classify; some of these publishers may be indie authors, but they would be a rare breed with more than five pen names. Even so, the number of books by these unclassified publishers and the indie authors we have identified are still relatively small in comparison to the output by traditional publishers, while all three of these groups together are still only a third of the entire catalog. What about the other millions of books?
There is a much larger story in these numbers that has received very little attention and has not yet filtered into common sense. A full 66% of the books published in North America from 2002 through 2012 were published by a handful of reprint publishers. Reprint publishers take out-of-copyright works and reproduce them.
As it turns out, a number of self-published and traditionally published books were also reprints.
This business model has exploded thanks to technology for digitizing content and for printing on demand as well as to the popularity of electronic retailers, which have almost unlimited book real estate, unlike brick and mortar stores. Even a Barnes and Noble superstore might only have room for 100,000 books. Moreover, whether a book is sold as an ebook or printed on demand, digitization has ensured that books no longer need go out of print. Thus, they remain available and in competition with the newest releases long after they are new.
As a result, the biggest competition to all current authors for digital shelf space has come, not from a flood of self-published books, but from a tsunami of books by dead authors that aren’t going away anytime soon.