19 August 2005

Publishing Follies (Part MCMXV)

Several moderately amusing news items concerning the publishing industry have dropped on the desk in the last couple of days. The most deliberately amusing of them is a deconstruction of XLibris's spam campaign to find new suckerscustomers for its vanity publishing campaign. I must quibble with the math used in one place, though: An arithmetic mean is not a good statistical indicator of the "average" XLibris author's experience. That "royalty figure" has been greatly increased by a few—less than 100 according to one of my sources—works that have sold over 1,000 copies. Take away those 100 books (out of over 14,000), and median sales are under 70 copies. That's right—not all that much more than a commercial publisher ordinarily gives the author for free, and roughly the same as the number of copies sent for review (that earn no author royalties).

Slightly more disturbing, we find the divergent recent profit experiences of B&N and Borders. (Stories on this are all over the 'net, so I won't provide specific links—all specific links would do is give you one spin.) B&N had a good quarter, thanks to a certain British teenaged wizard; Borders had a poor one, in some senses, despite said wizard. At least in this cowtown (and in terms of bookstores, that's the right term for Chambanana: the three bookstores near the U of I are pathetic, and there are only three other general stores in town—B&N, Borders, and Pages), it was pretty easy to see why: The Potter celebrations at Borders were pathetic and the stock was in poor condition, whereas the Potter celebrations at B&N were somewhat less pathetic and the stock was in fair to good condition. (I didn't make it down to Pages on release day.) Further, Borders did a very poor job of putting Harry with other books to read "next"; at least at B&N there were some non-Potter alternatives nearby.

Speaking of bookstores and sales, though, consider college textbooks. Or don't; it's pretty frightening. (n.b. I worked at a publisher with an extensive textbook line, and edited several myself.) In any event, one thing that real people (that is, not publicity flacks) can—or at least should—agree upon is that textbook prices have risen at a rate greatly exceeding the rate of inflation over the last couple of decades. The GAO recently studied this matter, in its usual mathematically bound manner. There's a short summary, including some industry spin, at The Book Standard; or, if you're a glutton for punishment, you can download the whole report (PDF, 8.1mb).