The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing

Steven Piersanti, Senior Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Updated March 1, 2023

  1. The number of books being published every year has exploded.

    According to the latest Bowker data (Publishers Weekly, February 20, 2023), 2.3 million books were self-published in the US in 2021, which was the third year in a row that more than 2 million books were self-published. This is the number of new titles that received an ISBN from Bowker. Several years ago Bowker stopped releasing the numbers of new titles that were not self-published, but a recent industry estimate is that each year “between 500,000 to 1 million . . . new titles are published through traditional publishers” (Dean Talbot, “Number of Books Published per Year,” WordsRated, February 2, 2022). So the total number of new titles being published each year in the US—combining self-published and traditionally published titles—is approximately 3 million. And here is the truly shocking figure: the annual number of new titles published each year has grown by more than ten times in the past sixteen years. According to Bowker, just 282,500 new titles (combining self-published titles and traditionally published titles) were published in the US in 2005 (Bowker Report, April 14, 2010).

  2. The book marketplace has become over-saturated.
    By 2020, Bowker had given out 40 million ISBN registrations to US publications (Dean Talbot, “Number of Books Published Per Year,” WordsRated, February 2, 2022). The majority of these publications are still available for sale on and on other bookselling sites, but the marketplace simply cannot absorb all these books. At the same time, people are getting more and more of their information from the internet and from social media.
  3. The book marketplace has hardly grown at all in the past 20 years, despite the explosion of books published.
    Book industry revenues reached $25.3 billion in the US by 2000, according to the Association of American Publishers (Publishers Weekly, March 5, 2001). By 2020, book industry revenues were no higher than they were twenty years earlier: $25.7 billion in the US according to the Association of American Publishers (Publishers Weekly, October 8, 2021). Book sales did climb by 12.3 percent in 2021 (Publishers Weekly, September 16, 2022), but then they fell back by 6.4 percent in 2022 (Publishers Weekly, February 10, 2023), according to Association of American Publishers’ figures. And if we adjust these numbers for the effect of inflation, then book industry revenues actually declined by 38 percent between 2000 and 2022 (applying the CPI inflation calculator of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
  4. Average book sales are shockingly small—and falling fast.
    Combine the explosion of books published with the flat total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to NPD BookScan—which tracks about 85 percent of bookstore, online, and other retail US print sales of books (including—only 789 million print books were sold in 2022 in the US in all publishing categories combined, both fiction and nonfiction (Publishers Weekly, January 9, 2023). Thus, the average book published today is selling less than 300 print copies over its lifetime in the US retail channels. Even if e-book sales, audio sales, sales outside of the US, and sales outside of retail channels are added in, the average new book published today is selling much less than 1,000 copies over its lifetime in all formats and all markets. What is skewing these figures down are the tiny sales of most self-published books that have flooded the marketplace. However, sales of traditionally published books are also shockingly small. Kristen McLean, lead publishing industry analyst for NPD BookScan, recently revealed findings from BookScan’s study of print retail sales in the US of new titles by the top ten publishers in the US trade market (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Disney, Macmillan, Abrams, Sourcebooks, and John Wiley). BookScan found that only 6.7 percent of the new titles released by these companies were selling more that 10,000 copies in their first year of sales, only 12.3 percent were selling more than 5,000 copies in their first year, and only 33.9 percent of these titles were selling more than 1,000 copies in their first year (Kristen McLean response to the blog “No, Most Books Don’t Sell Only a Dozen Copies” by Lincoln Michel, September 4, 2022).
  5. A book has far less than a 1 percent chance of being stocked in a particular bookstore.
    For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to up to 1,500 (superstores). Yet millions of business books in print are fighting for that limited shelf space. Bowker found that 197,372 business and economics titles were self-published just in 2021 (Publishers Weekly, February 20, 2023), and thousands more business and economics titles are released each year by traditional publishers.
  6. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell new titles.
    Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. Making any book stand out has become increasingly difficult. Each title is competing with millions of other titles available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. In a crowded marketplace, brand-name authors and books stand out, and an increasing portion of the limited sales are going to mega-bestsellers (Publishers Weekly, November 4, 2019). Sales of new titles are claiming an ever-smaller share of publishing revenues. In 2005, sales of new titles accounted for 48 percent of retail book sales in the US, but today new titles sales have shrunk to only 32 percent of retail book sales (Publishers Weekly, April 19, 2022, citing NPD BookScan figures). Result: investing the same amount today to market a new book as was invested five or ten years ago will yield a far smaller sales return today.
  7. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
    Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities consider important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.
  8. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.
    Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors—to cut costs and prop up sales. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from experienced authors now have an extensive section (often ten to twenty-five pages) on the authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books. Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in hundreds or thousands of sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on how authors support their books.
  9. No other industry has so many new-product introductions.
    Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. Yet the average new book generates only $10,000 to $50,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these new-product introduction expenses—leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense. This—more than anything—limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.
  10. The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of change.
    The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition, severe supply-chain disruptions, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing, including the closure and sale of many publishing companies and publication programs each year. Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

  1. The game is now pass-along sales and pre-orders.
  2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.
  3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
  4. In a crowded market, brands stand out. 
  5. Master new digital channels for sales, marketing, and community building.
  6. Build books around a compelling, simple message.
  7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short.