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Nine Odd Things

Here are nine Odd Things about the market for books.

Odd Thing the First

Consumers are fantastically finicky about books. If you like tomatoes, you like pretty much any tomatoes. Sure, you might have a preference for ones that are vine-ripened, local-sourced, certified organic and picked by the light of a full moon. But, really, you just like tomatoes.

It’s not like that with books. It’s not even like that with genres. You don’t think to yourself, “Hey ho, I like historical fiction, so here’s a work of historical fiction that I haven’t read, and the price seems perfectly OK, so I’ll buy it.”

On the contrary, you think, “Yes, that’s a Renaissance-set book, and I like that period, but I’m tired of all that Florence / Rome / Siena intrigue, and it looks like there’s a boring old romance at the heart of this, so no: I ABHOR AND REJECT YOU, book, even though I like books and I like historical fiction and I even like historical fiction set in this time period.”

Another reader, with tastes highly similar to yours, may fall on that selfsame book and love it.

Like I say: readers – finicky.

Odd Thing the Second

Books are cheap.

That may seem like not such an odd thing, really. Tomatoes are cheap too. So are (random list) flip-flops, toilet bleach, china cups and cauliflowers.

But those things aren’t passionately hand-made. They either come from giant factories or commercial nurseries or whatever the product’s factory-equivalent is.

Books are hand-made from the ground up. You choose your story. You slave over it. You handcraft it. You subscribe to excessively wordy emails that may – may – help you improve your work. Then you find an agent (whose tastes and judgements vary widely) and an editor (ditto), and at each stage there’s a devotedly microscopic attention to relatively minor matters – right down to the placement of a comma.

Most things that are made that way are expensive: compare a pot sold by a ceramic artist with a vase you buy at your nearest supermarket.

But books are both handmade (by you) and mass-produced (by a printing press). And they’re very cheap. That’s odd.

Odd Thing the Third

Writers are badly paid, with insecure jobs, with no pensions and terrible prospects.

That’s not the odd bit, however. After all, other jobs like that exist and, in less wealthy parts of the world, there are loads and loads of jobs like that.

Rather, the odd thing is this: people really, really want to do the job. You do. And (often but not always) the people who most want to do the job are ones with an excellent education and the ability to secure terrific jobs in other, more prosperous sectors.

Oh yes, and if I’m allowed to have an O.T. 3(b), then I might add that almost everyone involved in the production and sale of books sells their time for less than they could get elsewhere, Jeff Bezos being one notable exception.

Odd Thing the Fourth

Normally, a prestige product costs more than its more ordinary counterparts. An Aston Martin costs more than a bottom-of-the-range Volkswagen. (I bought my first car for less than £1000 / $1500, and very rubbish it was too. It was bright yellow and once went ninety miles an hour, but only going downhill with a strong wind behind it.)

You can buy 250g of loose-leaf tea from Fortnum & Mason’s, a posh British grocer, for £12.95. Or you can buy 80 tea bags (a similar quantity, in terms of cups produced) from any old supermarket for as little as £0.75.

But books? To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, is currently being sold for £6.55 on UK Amazon. A Time to Kill – a good quality, but still not exceptional, legal thriller – is selling for 12% more at £7.37. I also managed to find a debut legal thriller written by no one you’ve ever heard of selling in paperback for £11.99, an 80% mark-up on Mockingbird. That debut book may be almost twice as good as Harper Lee’s classic, but I’m going to guess otherwise.

It is, admittedly, true that if you look at ebook prices, you’ll tend to see a slightly more orderly lineup, with prices that better reflect prestige, but only slightly more orderly, even then.

The big point here is that highly rated and well-known products don’t really compete on price. As a   rule of thumb, book prices are basically determined by what kind of packaging you choose. That’s like tomatoes that cost twice as much if you buy them in a paper bag than if you buy them in a plastic one.

Which is odd, right?

Odd Thing the Fifth

Most fiction is digital – that is, most fiction is consumed as either ebook or audiobook. There aren’t any public and up-to-date figures for how much adult fiction is digital, but about 70% would be a reasonable guess. If you add in print books sold online, the total would be more than 75%.

So you’d probably guess that a bestselling ebook would have more cachet than a bestselling print book. And guess, furthermore, that a bestselling paperback would probably have more kudos than a bestselling hardback.

You’d probably also guess that stores which only sell physical formats don’t have real authority or weight in the world of books. An analogy might be the world of music, where, sure, it would be nice if your album topped the vinyl charts. But you and everyone else knows that the vinyl charts are a quirky little throwback, and what you’d really most want is to lead the way in downloads or streaming.

Only, this is the world of books, where everything you’ve just guessed is dead wrong. It’s almost perfectly true that the less economic weight something has, the more likely it is to have prestige. Huh?

Odd Thing the Sixth

Suppose you went to a concert and more than 50% of people walked out halfway, the composer or orchestra would presumably be considered useless, right?

And if people went to an exhibition of art, and a large majority of people left without seeing half the rooms, you’d think that the artist must be a load of rubbish.

But it’s commonplace for people to abandon books unread. Data from Jellybooks, an analytics company, suggests that most books are unfinished by most readers. Of the books that Jellybooks have tested, only 5% are finished by more than 75% of readers.

In other words, most books disappoint most of the time.

And that’s after intense scrutiny by agents and editors and all the other people who try to make your book great. And some of the least-finished books are amongst the most-critically lauded.

Which is odd, huh? Oh yes: and if Book X had a great critical following, but then word got out that particularly few readers finished that book … that information wouldn’t alter the critical consensus one iota.

Which is weird, right?

(Almost as weird as the fact that we use the word iota, a letter in the Greek alphabet, to signify insignificance. The phrase not a jot comes from the same source.)

Odd Thing the Seventh

In the music industry, streaming pretty much slaughtered older physical formats.

In the news industry, countless papers have gone bankrupt or have lost a ton of profitability.

In photography, grand old names – hello, Kodak! – went bust, bankrupted by digital.

In pornography, a monster wave of digital content pretty much eliminated the commercial structures that had been in place before.

And in publishing – the industry looks much the same as it always did. Yes, the big publishers now report a steady 25% or so of sales in ebooks. (Self-publishers and digital-only publishers explain why the total share-of-ebooks is so much huger than that.) But really, the experience of a published author today is much the same as it was twenty years ago. The firms are still the same. The production process is still the same. The industry itself considers itself to have been through wrenching change, but that’s code for “wrenching by the standards of publishing.”

Which isn’t that wrenching.

Odd Thing the Eighth

These days, any old idiot can self-publish a book. Assuming you have a cover and a manuscript to hand, you can, in theory, upload your book to Amazon in about ten minutes. A day or so later, that book would be available to essentially every reader in the world.

At the same time, firms exist which do much the same job and don’t always do it better. The only extra wrinkle: they also have the power to sell books through bookstores and supermarkets (though there’s no guarantee that physical outlets will ever actually take your book.)

Those firms have long heritages and, of course, brand names. But as brands go, those brand names are virtually meaningless. People might trust a breakfast cereal because it said ‘Kelloggs’ on the box. Almost no one carries a book to a shopping till on the basis that it has been published by X rather than Y. Readers care a lot about the book and the author. They care about the publisher so little, they barely notice it.

So those brand names have no significance, right?

Well, actually yes. The people who care most passionately about the brands, are the authors who are willing to give up 100% of net royalties from ebooks (which they’d get if they self-published) in exchange for 25% net royalties (which they’d get from their trad publisher), plus the authority of one of those brand names that consumers truly don’t care about.

Somewhat Odd Thing the Ninth

You care enough about this whole damn game that you’ve read yet another stupidly long email from me, even though it doesn’t actually tell you anything that will help you write, edit or market better.

Jeepers. One of us here must be crazy.

Ah well. We’ll get more “how to”-ish soon, I promise

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Comments (29)
    • I'm not just wearing a monacle, I've got blinkers as well! Makes you wonder why we do it, doesn't it? The only reason I can think of is the thrill of seeing your first book in real, physical format that you can touch, and say "I wrote this"!

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      • You're definitely not alone :)

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      • I've been writing for 10 years after some education on the subject. The result has been several poems, a few short stories and a bunch of novels plus an author's page (LCohen.net). Finding an agent or publisher is a drear activity, and when I look at self publishing I am totally daunted. So, is there any possibility of finding someone who knows self pub and marketing who would be interested in providing the expertise on my investment for a share of income?

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        • Another odd thing. Many books are the right size and weight for slotting through letter-boxes and fitting into mail boxes. A fact so odd that a certain Mr Bezos based his startup business on it in July 1995.

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          • I am amazed/horrified at the number of people who don’t finish a book. I can’t stop reading a book once I’ve started. I don’t know why, it just feels wrong. Even if it is crap I finish it and then send it to a charity shop. If it’s not crap I keep it and read it again and again. My best friend is the same although she did tell me that she gave up part way through a very famous book and then felt dreadful as it was the only book she had never finished. 

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            • Difference is wonderful!

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              • I absolutely agree about timing being hugely influential in how we respond to a book. I’d add mood and a whole panoply of personal factors too. I once took the book Rotherweird away with me. On the train, with my wriggling child next to me, I don’t think I managed even the first page. Coming back to it a year later with the time and silence to get into it I had an entirely different experience. This week I had a half-day of potentially scary hospital tests and knew I needed a gripping but not too hard-to-read book to steady my nerves and pass the time. I chose A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris, and though a psychological thriller wouldn’t always be my thing, this was perfect for the moment.

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                • 😂

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                • All very true, except the part about being finicky. Voracious readers exist and they are just that: voracious. They read everything they can find. In fact, if one only likes the very best of something, it means they don't actually like that thing; they like excellence, which is different. Movie addicts enjoy bad movies. Same with books.

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                  • I used to have a collection of bad movies on tape and invite my coworkers over for movie-night, lol, where we featured real clunkers, including, of course, the epic Plan Nine from Outer Space by Ed Wood. And I can finish a campy or quirky book, but in the middle of The Rule of Four I just ground to a halt and abandoned it forever. 

                    Why are bad movies fun but bad books aren't? Maybe because they aren't over in 90 minutes. Maybe. ?

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