December 6, 2002
In Book Publishing World, Some Reasons for Optimism
few statistics tell the story.
In 1975, E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" topped Publishers Weekly's annual fiction best-seller list and sold 232,000 copies in hardcover. In 2000, the No. 1 title was "The Brethren" by John Grisham and it sold 2,875,000 copies, an increase of more than 1,000 percent.
More book titles than ever are being published these days, an estimated 114,487 in 2001, compared with 39,000 in 1975, and more people are buying them, according to a new survey of a quarter-century of publishing by Gayle Feldman, a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly and a 2001-2002 fellow at Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program.
So why do publishers complain?
Well, one reason, Ms. Feldman said on Wednesday evening, is that with so many books being published, "it makes it harder for most books to receive any attention." Ms. Feldman spoke, and presented her survey, "Best and Worst of Times: The Changing Business of Trade Books, 1975-2002," at a panel discussion sponsored by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University.
The panel included a publisher, a book editor, a bookseller and Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly, who compiles the magazine's best-seller lists.
Ms. Feldman cited many of the well-known reasons for the long-term boom in book sales. Chain stores like Barnes & Noble and online booksellers like Amazon.com have contributed to the increase, as have the huge promotion budgets for a few books that have made some writers celebrities.
Another factor ó attributed in Ms. Feldman's report to Carolyn K. Reidy, president of adult publishing at Simon & Schuster ó is that "literature and reading became part of the boomer self-definition."
Ms. Feldman said publishers' biggest complaints included the financial pressures that have come with Wall Street-oriented consolidations. In the past, publishers expected a profit of 10 or 12 percent, she said, but now they are expected to come closer to 20 percent profits.
Other complaints from the literary side concern the growing power of marketing people and the weight put on the computerized tracking of sales figures, which affect authors' future advances.
Publishers experienced flat sales this fall before Thanksgiving, and "there was real cause for concern," said Lorraine Shanley, a principal of Market Partners International, a consulting firm. But she said that since then, sales have begun to rise again.
Ms. Feldman also said that even though publishers had announced cuts in their lists in response to financial pressures, the sales numbers were creeping up again.
The survey found better sales for best sellers. Before 1985, only two novels and no nonfiction books had sold more than one million copies during their publication year. Today, one million books sold in the first year is expected for some best sellers.
Some results of Ms. Feldman's survey were surprising. Even though people often believe that commercial fiction does not last, she said, best-selling fiction actually stays in print longer than best-selling nonfiction. And while winning a prize can help sales for unknown fiction writers, prizes have little effect for established authors.
The best-selling types of nonfiction books are largely the same today as in 1975: religious, business, self-help, personal success and beauty books, celebrity autobiographies and books with television tie-ins.
Publishers' complaints also have roots in the past, Ms. Feldman said. In 1945, Max Schuster, the co-founder of Simon & Schuster, was quoted in an issue of Publishers Weekly as saying that American literature was being "processed, stylized, syndicated, serialized, Hollywoodized, networked, televisioned, merged and high-pressured."
But Ms. Feldman's report and the panelists could not help being a little optimistic. Though midlist books may be getting little attention, there are still more being published, the report said. Larry Ashmead, a HarperCollins editor on the panel, said some good books always broke through, despite little promotion. Take "The Professor and the Madman," by Simon Winchester, about the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. "We spent practically nothing," Mr. Ashmead said. "Yet we sold 300,000 books." Still, he added, "Now it is mostly not the better books on the best-seller lists."
But Roxanne Coady, owner of R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., disagreed. "My experience is there are very good books on the best-seller list," she said. She said the fastest-growing category in her store was fiction for young adults, exclusive of sales of Harry Potter books.
Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown, talked about the success of "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, a literary novel published by Little, Brown that is a surprise best seller with some 1.9 million copies in print. "It's getting easier to get people to try first-time, early career novelists," he said.
Ms. Maryles of Publishers Weekly was especially sanguine about the rise of trade paperbacks, independent and university publishers, and good books that "make the independent and regional lists."
Yesterday, Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, which posted a profit for the last six months of 2001 but has also ordered layoffs, said that although he had not seen Ms. Feldman's report, the company was "very bullish about the future." He added, "We are investing in author development and marketing support and technology very aggressively."
At the end of her report, Ms. Feldman summed up the outlook. In book publishing, she writes, "it's always, as Dickens would have it, the best and worst of times."