I and others who have been involved in the world of independent press publishing and distribution have been saying for the last couple of years that these are boom times for our part of the industry. I believe I even went so far as to claim we were living in the “golden age” of independent press publishing.
Making a case for this view has been frustrating for two reasons. The large publishers dominate the publishing news, and they are not enjoying anything like a golden age. Their laments about skyrocketing author advances, hideous returns, canceled books, wholesale staff reductions, and flat sales have drowned out the much better news coming from the independents.
The main frustration, however, has been the lack of hard numbers to demonstrate the growing importance and prosperity of independent publishing. Many small publishers and distributors could point to very impressive sales gains, but these were individual successes. No one was keeping track of the relative importance of big versus small publishers in general, so that a trend could be identified.
Now we have some hard numbers. The following quotation is from a press release issued by Barnes & Noble in November of last year: Reflecting trends of the past several years, sales of best-sellers were less than 3% of company sales, while sales of titles from smaller publishers, independent and university presses continue to grow. Purchases from the top ten publishers declined to 46% of the total compared to 74% just three years ago. This condition continues to reflect a wider range of consumer interest in less-known works of serious fiction and non-fiction titles than has previously been recognized.
These changes easily explain the pain being felt by the trade divisions of the very large publishers. But let’s turn these percentages around so we can look at them from our point of view. If three years ago the books of the ten largest publishers generated 74% of B&N’s sales, books produced by smaller publishers generated 26% of those sales. If last year the ten biggest publishers’ share had declined to 46%, then smaller publishers’ books accounted for 54% of B&N’s sales, a swing of 28 percentage points, and an increase of over 100%.
This is a stunning shift, a sea change, a whole new world of possibility for independent publishing.
Now let’s convert these percentages into dollars. B&N reported bookstore sales of a little over 500 million for their third quarter last year. Assuming that this was a representative quarter, their sales were about two billion dollars for the year. The smaller press books must then have generated over a billion dollars in sales for B&N.
And of course B&N, while it is the largest book retailer, is only a part of the retail book market. A reasonable extrapolation from their reported sales, and their proportional weight in the market overall, puts the independent publishers’ share of the whole retail book business at four to five billion dollars.
Of course, the eleventh biggest vender to B&N is still quite a big organization. In fact, a publisher selling $1,000,000 at retail through B&N would fall at about the 400th place in a list of vendors organized by size. Still (according to reliable sources close to the investigation) publishers of this size and smaller account for some 20% of B&N’s smaller press sales or about $216,000,000 of their yearly turnover. Extrapolating as above to the book market in general, this still leaves over a billion dollars in sales at retail for quite small publishers.
As Everett Dirkson used to say about government spending, “A billion here, a billion there-pretty soon you’re talking about real money!”
What has caused this startling shift, so very favorable to the growth of our part of the trade? And will it continue? Much of the cause, I think, is the fragmentation of the mass market into many very specialized interest groups. Americans increasingly define themselves, and develop a sense of self-worth, by cultivating very narrow interests. These narrow interests are pursued through the purchase of special-interest books, and also through subscribing to niche magazines, watching offbeat cable TV shows, and joining Internet groups.
A personal example: When asked at a social gathering what I have been up to lately, I tell people with special pride and excitement that I am building a wooden boat in my basement. Feeding this new interest of mine has so far required the purchase of five boat-building books, and if the boat doesn’t float, I will have to buy even more. The books I need on this subject are very unlikely to have been published by a major house. This is because most special-interest groups, such as the one made up of wooden-boat nuts, are simply not large enough to support trade publishing on the traditional New York model, with its high overheads and advances, and therefore long print runs. To be special, a special-interest group can only be of a certain size, i.e., quite small. Such groups are, however, big enough for independent publishers, which is why our share of the market should continue to expand.
Of course, success as an individual independent press is by no means guaranteed by the fact that our share of the market is expanding (burgeoning!). We will have to continue to live by our wits, keep a tight lid on our costs, promote like crazy, and produce beautiful books. But there is now a very large and fast-growing marketplace for our titles, a great deal of scope for our ambitions. This is the golden age of independent publishing.Chris Roerden has been a full-time freelance editor since 1983, after 25 years in niche publishing. She can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone, 414/781-5412.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.