September 22, 2017

Yet more fun facts: who is the world’s bestselling author?

world's bestselling authorChances are, any book that you might write will never make you the world’s bestselling author. Sales for most books written today are pathetically low. As I noted in an earlier post, the average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling fewer than 250 copies per year and fewer than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

So, what about fiction? Well, somewhat more works of fiction are sold in the US than nonfiction. With greater competition, it might be fair to estimate that the average novel would sell even fewer copies than the average nonfiction book. But let’s give it the benefit of the doubt, and say that fiction sells twice or three times as well as nonfiction. That would result in the average work of fiction selling a few hundred copies. If you’ve written a novel, that might not make you feel any better.

And you might find what follows to be completely depressing.

A list of the “Top 10 Bestselling Authors of All Time” informs us that Will Shakespeare tops the list with a total of between two and four billion copies of his work having been sold over the centuries. That probably makes Will the world’s bestselling author. However, the British mystery writer Agatha Christie is in the same league, credited with a total between those two numbers as well.

Third on the list is British romance author Barbara Cartland with between 500 million and one billion sales, followed by Danielle Steele, Harold Robbins, Georges Simenon, Sidney Sheldon, Enid Blyton, Dr. Seuss, and, finally, J. K. Rowling. The author of the Harry Potter series has sold only a paltry number by comparison, somewhere between 350 million and 450 million.

You might take this last list with that proverbial grain of salt. All the authors on this list are either English, American, or French. Surely, there are Chinese writers who would qualify for the top 10! Maybe Japanese or Russians, too.

For more facts about books and publishing, go to The 10 awful truths about book publishing. And if you are in fact a writer, you might be interested in How to sell books in today’s market.

 

September 15, 2017

More fun facts: how many books are there, really?

books-on-shelvesIn a guest post here on October 4, 2016 (“10 awful truths about book publishing”), publisher Steven Piersanti remarked on the huge numbers of books being published today. Here’s what he wrote:

According to the latest Bowker Report (September 7, 2016), more than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an incredible increase of 375% since 2010. And the number of traditionally published books had climbed to over 300,000 by 2013, according to the latest Bowker figures (August 5, 2014). The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources.

But Steve’s article referred only to books that were recently published and in the English language. Taking another look at the piece, I began to wonder how many books have been published in the whole world, in every language.

Well, Google has an answer to that, of course! As of August 5, 2010, that number stood at 129,864,880. Staggering, isn’t it? (Actually, I’ve seen an estimate published elsewhere, though I can’t remember where, that the total number of titles published since Gutenberg’s press started operating is 150 million.)

As you’re probably aware, Google Books has been scanning books in enormous numbers for many years now, as have many libraries. Google reported in October 2015 that the total number of titles scanned was over 25 million. The company intends to scan all 130,000,00!

If you’re thinking of writing a book, you might keep these numbers in mind. Getting anybody’s attention with a book these days is a tall order. And don’t expect your book to be a bestseller. So few of them are!

September 5, 2017

Fun facts about books, authors, and readers

Fun factsA recent newsletter from the Author’s Guild pointed me toward a fascinating infographic by Brendan Brown entitled “Which Country Reads the Most?” The article was full of fun facts, including many surprises for me. Here, for example, are a few particulars about books and publishing around the world:

  • The five countries that read the most are India, Thailand, China, the Philippines, and Egypt. India tops the list with the average person reading 10.7 hours per week. The USA is far down the list at 5.7 hours per week, well below the global average of 6.5 hours per week.
  • The five bestselling books worldwide are Don Quixote (500 million copies!), Xinhua Zidian (400 million), A Tale of Two Cities (200 million), The Lord of the Rings (150 million), and Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (107 million).
  • Four-fifths (80%) of Britons had read a book in the last year, putting them ahead of the Germans (79%), the French (73%), and far ahead of the Italians (56%).
  • Book publishing is the largest media and entertainment industry, with an estimated total value of $151 billion per year. Film and entertainment are second at $133 billion. Music is at $50 billion.

And here are a few things I didn’t know about books, publishing, and readers in the USA:

  • The United States makes up 30% of the global publishing market. China is second at 10%, followed by Germany (9%) and Japan (7%).
  • 27% of US adults didn’t read a single book in the last 12 months. The American average is 12 books per year.
  • Nearly 40% of Americans read print books exclusively. Just 6% read digital-only books.
  • The number of ebook readers in the US is expected to stagnate at 90 million within the next five years.

In footnotes to the infographic, Brown cites a long list of sources for this information, including The Guardian, the Smithsonian, and USA Today. The sources seem credible to me.

You might also be interested in Good news for book publishers—and readers of books!

 

July 26, 2017

My new book: a fresh look at dystopian novels

new bookAfter the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the US, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Brave New World returned to the bestseller lists. The reemergence of these classic dystopian novels prompted me to take a closer look at the genre. In the months that followed, I refreshed my memory of the three classics and other dystopian tales, re-read some, and read dozens of others for the first time. Along the way, I’ve reviewed a great many of those books. At some point about three to four months ago—I don’t remember exactly when—I decided to pull together all my thoughts about the field in a new book. Maybe 15,000 words, I thought. But, to nobody’s surprise except my own, the project grew into a 52,000-word manuscript. It’s available now on Amazon.

Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction

If you’re a science fiction fan, like to speculate about the future, enjoy reading novels that challenge your preconceptions—or if you’re simply concerned with the direction our society is taking—you’ll enjoy my new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. Well, maybe not enjoy, but find it thought-provoking.

You can learn more about the new book here for the Kindle edition, or here for the paperback. CreateSpace set the paperback price at $9.73. The Kindle edition costs just $2.99. Click here for a free preview of the book.

About the new book

Dystopian fiction reflects the world as it is and imagines what the future might hold. In an age of eroding civil liberties, a widening gap between rich and poor, unending conflict abroad, the increasing impact of climate change, and the ever-present threat of pandemic and nuclear holocaust, dystopian novels are relevant as never before.

Hell on Earth analyzes 62 dystopian novels. I’ve categorized the books by the themes that are dominant in them: totalitarianism, climate change, nuclear war, overpopulation, genetic engineering, religious extremism, artificial intelligence, runaway consumerism, and pandemic. I’ve added my own thoughts about a global financial collapse and terrorism, and, just for fun, discussed five alternative histories in which Nazi Germany wins World War II. After all, life under the Nazis would certainly rate as a dystopian experience.

Each chapter includes a brief introduction to the topic, followed by a short discussion of each of two or more novels and a concluding section in which I’ve analyzed the prospects that the calamity described in those novels will actually come about. In the book’s final chapter, I’ve extended that discussion, speculating on the likelihood that one or more of these trends or technologies will lead to a future none of us would want to live in.

I’ve published Hell on Earth through CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, services of Amazon.com. Although nearly all my previous books were published by established publishing houses, I elected to self-publish in this way because I feared that the extra six to twelve months required to work with a publisher would drastically reduce the timeliness of the book.

A brief excerpt from the Introduction

Sometimes we read because we’re scared.

Novels such as 1984 and Brave New World that depict a grim future for Western civilization have been popular for decades. As the threat of nuclear annihilation became clear in the 1950s, the number of such titles multiplied, and their popularity quickly grew. The trend continued as other factors entered public consciousness: increasing awareness of the threat posed by global climate change, the emergence of deadly new communicable diseases, and the growing use of artificial intelligence to take on jobs held by humans—among other nightmarish trends. Now, if anything, the popularity of such novels is accelerating. Ever since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on November 8, 2016, millions of Americans have been fearful of what might lie ahead.

Should we fear that Mr. Trump is leading us down the road to a totalitarian future? The answer is obviously no. The difference between “alternative facts” and Newspeak is enormous.

But should we be scared? That’s a very different question. I’m firmly convinced the answer is yes. The many dystopian novels I’ve read have helped me understand that. Read on, and it may help you, too. 

You can read my review of one of the nonfiction books that figures in Hell on Earth here: Surveying the future of technology in the mid-21st century. Another is here: Will robots create a jobless future?

June 28, 2017

Five “good” technologies that endanger us

technologies that endanger

Man talking on the phone while driving his car. Credit: VVNG.com

By Jeevan Sivasubramaniam

My friend Jeevan Sivasubramaniam—Managing Director, Editorial, at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.—has written a short article that meshes very well with my recent review of The Driver in the Driverless Car by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever. With his permission, I’m reproducing it here.

 Vivek Wadhwa’s latest book discusses how technology is not always the savior and the answer most people assume it will be. As is the case with all things, technology comes with possible blind spots and dangers which if not recognized and acted upon early on, could prove to be detrimental to us both physically and psychologically.

It is never the intention of those who create new technology to also create new dangers or problems, but some of the biggest advances in technology have also brought with them a slew of challenges and problems. Here are just five:

  1. Hands-free technology and cell phone use while driving: David Strayer at the University of Utah used a driving simulator to put people with a blood alcohol level of .08 behind the wheel to test their reactions and speed. A few days later, he tested the same people sober, but on a hands-free cell phone. The results showed that speaking on a cell phone—even hands free—was as dangerous as driving with a blood alcohol level above legal limits. It’s not so much fiddling with buttons that puts you at risk, but rather that the conversation itself engages parts of your brain that would be better focused on the road.
  2. High-speed laser printers. Remember the old printers and how it would take them ages to just print out a single page? Today’s laser printers are much faster and able to generate more than a page a second at the higher end. But these sleek machines also contribute to indoor air pollution. Some models of laser printers shoot out ultra-fine particles which can, if inhaled, lodge deep in your lungs. Not every printer is a health hazard, and printers that emit a large number of particles are required to indicate as much to the consumer. The problem is measuring how much is being emitted and at what range those particles are dangerous and require consumer notification. In one study of 62 printers, 40% of those tested emitted a large number of particles, but only 17 printers were indicated to consumers as high-particle emitters.
  3. Laptops. With wi-fi being everywhere and portable technology being every bit as good as desktop computers, more people are now using laptops than desktops. But men who work with laptops ontheir laps may be hurting their reproductive chances. One 2011 study found that men who were exposed to electromagnetic radiation from laptop wi-fi for several hours a week had sperm with DNA damage and decreased motility. And it’s not just the laptops doing the damage. A recent meta-analysis of past studies, led by researchers at University of Exeter, U.K. suggests that men who store their phones in their pants pockets risk exposing themselves to radiation levels that may also lower sperm levels.
  4. A constantly connected world. At first it seems a tech paradise: we are almost constantly and consistently connected at all times and able to retrieve information and interact with others regardless of where we are and what we are doing. However, research shows the technology we process each day is actually rewiring our brains, between the multitasking and the addiction we feel when we’re without it. “We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at UCSF medical school, told the New York Times in 2010. “We know already there are consequences.”
  5. Technology and education. The use of technology and computers in the realm of education has often been lauded as a breakthrough. However, research actually shows that while students who used technology moderately outperformed their peers who used technology rarely, students who used technology consistently performed far worse than both. There is a push to create tech-classrooms of the future, but there is also a growing concern that technology adversely impacts the learning process.

 

 

May 18, 2017

Just how many books are there, really?

how many booksIn a guest post here on October 4, 2016 (“10 awful truths about book publishing”), publisher Steven Piersanti remarked on the huge numbers of books being published today. Here’s what he wrote:

According to the latest Bowker Report (September 7, 2016), more than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an incredible increase of 375% since 2010. And the number of traditionally published books had climbed to over 300,000 by 2013 according to the latest Bowker figures (August 5, 2014). The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources.

But Steve’s article referred only to books that were recently published and in the English language. Taking another look at the piece, I began to wonder how many books have been published in the whole world, in every language.

Well, Google has an answer to that, of course! As of August 5, 2010, that number stood at 129,864,880. Staggering, isn’t it?

As you’re probably aware, Google Books has been scanning books in enormous numbers for many years now, as have many libraries. Google reported in October 2015 that the total number of titles scanned was over 25 million. The company intends to scan all 130,000,00!

If you’re thinking of writing a book, you might keep these numbers in mind. Getting anybody’s attention with a book these days is a tall order.

 

December 23, 2016

What? Literary critics I agree with?

literary criticsI never thought I’d say this, but here it comes. I have discovered that there is, indeed, some overlap between my choices in reading and those of some of the country’s top literary critics. On December 16, the New York Times published lists of the ten top books of the year as chosen by each of its four book reviewers: Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, Jennifer Senior, and Janet Maslin. To my amazement, I found three books I’d reviewed on each of the lists of Senior and Maslin. Does this mean I’m becoming . . . gasp! . . . a literary critic? Good grief, I hope not!

Here’s the tally: Jennifer Senior included Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, and High Dive, a novel by Jonathan Lee, on her list. (I’ve linked each of these titles, and the three that follow, to my review.)

Janet Maslin’s list of ten top books included Noah Hawley’s novel, Before the Fall; Joe Ide’s IQ; and The Trespasser by Tana French. All three fall into the category I term “mysteries and thrillers.” Admittedly, I wasn’t hugely impressed with Tana French’s latest effort. But I greatly enjoyed the other two.

Something very strange is happening here. Out of the hundreds of thousands of books published in the course of the last year, I found myself largely in agreement with fifteen percent (15%) of those picked by two widely followed professional literary critics. I never thought the day would come.

For solace, all I can say is that the other two Times critics, Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner, listed books I either tried and failed to read or ones I would never think of reading. And, of course, both Senior and Maslin each included seven such titles on their lists of ten. Maybe things aren’t quite as dark as they seem.

For the record, whenever anyone disparages my reading choices as “lowbrow” or “not serious,” I point to the plays of William Shakespeare and the novels of Charles Dickens. Those two icons of literature in the English language wrote not for literary critics but for popular consumption, much as Stephen King and thousands of other authors do today. Of course, I recognize that book shelves around the world are crowded with really bad mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, and historical novels. I do my best not to read the junk. But in every genre there are great stories told and great writing to tell them — even though they may never show up in The New York Review of Books.

OK, I’ll get off my hobby horse now.

October 4, 2016

10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing

book publishingSome years ago my friend and publisher Steven Piersanti, founder and president of San Francisco’s Berrett-Koehler Publishers, wrote an article entitled “10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing.” He has updated the piece from time to time with the latest data. Here’s the most recent version, dated September 26, 2016.

By Steven Piersanti

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

According to the latest Bowker Report (September 7, 2016), more than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an incredible increase of 375% since 2010. And the number of traditionally published books had climbed to over 300,000 by 2013 according to the latest Bowker figures (August 5, 2014). The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources. Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely over-saturated.

2.     Book industry sales are stagnant, despite the explosion of books published.

U.S. publishing industry sales peaked in 2007 and have either fallen or been flat in subsequent years, according to reports of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Similarly, despite a 2.5% increase in 2015, U.S. bookstore sales are down 37% from their peak in 2007, according to the Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 26, 2016).

3.     Despite the growth of e-book sales, overall book sales are still shrinking.

After skyrocketing from 2008 to 2012, e-book sales leveled off in 2013 and have fallen more than 10% since then, according to the AAP StatShot Annual 2015. Unfortunately, the decline of print sales outpaced the growth of e-book sales, even from 2008 to 2012. The total book publishing pie is not growing—the peak sales year was in 2007—yet it is being divided among ever more hundreds of thousands of print and digital books.

4.     Average book sales are shockingly small—and falling fast.

Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan—which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com)—only 256 million print copies were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2016). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.

5.     A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average 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 there are several hundred thousand business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

6.     It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.

Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than thirteen million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. Result: investing the same amount today to market a book as was invested a few 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 make 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 only 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 (usually many pages) section 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 sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

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 $50,000 to $150,000 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 turmoil.

The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing (such as the disappearance over the past decade of over 500 independent bookstores and the Borders bookstore chain). Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

Strategies for Responding to “The 10 Awful Truths”

1. The game is now pass-along sales.

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 big new idea.

7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short.

 

October 1, 2015

Which countries read the most?

reading habitsI’m indebted to Bryan Fuller for passing along a link to his fascinating — and surprising — article, “Interesting facts about reading habits around the world,” which appears on the website Interesting Facts. As one of several well-chosen illustrations accompanying the article, Bryan created a colorful infographic that shows the picture worldwide. You can access the map here. Excerpts from the article, and a link to the full piece, appear below.

India: 10:42

With its citizens reading 10 hours and 42 minutes per week on average, India tops our list. In India, non-literary fiction is rising in popularity. This is thought to be because of the rise in TV, mobile phones and the Internet. People want to read material that is easily accessible and cheap.

Many readers in India are first-generation English readers. Urban children in India are the most likely to read for pleasure, with schools placing high importance on keeping children passionate for books. There are regular book festivals, and schools are holding book weeks dedicated to reading.

Thailand: 9:24

Thailand is second on our list, with a time of 9 hours and 24 minutes on average per week. Traditionally, reading in Thailand involves accessing meanings through symbols, similar to Chinese characters. It is often easier in Thai to express words through symbols, and much like we read English without thinking, Thai people can easily tell the meaning of a symbol based on the other symbols around it.

In 2010, it was found that the average student reads for pleasure about 20 minutes a day. Fiction lists lower for Thai reading preferences, with journals topping the list, followed by Internet.

China: 8:00

China ranks third with eight hours on average. In a 2010 study, 69 percent of respondents believed that reading is important for their own development. This trend was evident in respondents aged 19 -29.

In 2009, it was found that a little over 70 percent of people read. 50 percent read books, where 58 percent read newspapers, and 46 percent read magazines. 7 percent read text online. Townspeople are slightly more likely to read than urban people in China. On average, 15 minutes a day are spent reading books, 21 minutes reading newspapers and 16 minutes reading magazines.

Read the full article.

December 14, 2014

Why I didn’t read “The 10 Best Books of 2014”

booksYou didn’t ask. I know. I’m going to tell you, anyway. Because I’ve had it about up to here with The New York Times Book Review.

I admit it: my taste in books is much narrower than that of the NYT staff, which could probably fill an auditorium. Certain categories are off limits for me. Poetry, for example. Romance, horror, sports, graphic novels, short stories, memoirs of people I’ve never heard of, “experimental” novels. That’s for starters. But since millions of titles are published in English every year, I’m left with an enormous range of options. So no fair calling me narrow-minded just because my reading habits are more focused on history, science, politics, business, current affairs, popular novels, humor, science fiction, mysteries and thrillers.

On the heels of its recent publication of “The 100 Notable Books of 2014,” today’s edition of The New York Times Book Review contains a pared-down list of “The 10 Best Books of 2014.” (Actually, I didn’t compare the two lists, so I don’t know for sure that these 10 “best” are all also “notable.” If they’re not, the magazine has a lot to answer for.) Five of the 10 titles are fiction, and five nonfiction. Fair enough. Let’s take a look.

Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. A World War II novel about Nazis and the French Resistance, so, yes, I might just read this one yet. Not because it’s the “best.” But because I was already intrigued by its staying power on the bestseller lists. Which means a lot of people seem to think it’s really good. (That’s how I finally got around to reading Gone Girl, which could just be the most devilishly clever thriller I’ve ever read.)

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. “Part elegy and part primal scream.” No, thank you. I’ve got my own screaming to do.

Euphoria, by Lily King. “An intelligent, sensual tale.” Not my cup of tea. Even if it is about Margaret Mead in New Guinea.

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma. “Deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender.” The front page every day is unnerving enough for me.

Redeployment, by Phil Klay. A “brilliant debut story collection.” Pass. I can’t get my teeth into short stories.

Nonfiction

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, by Roz Chast. A graphic novel. Enough said.

On Immunity, by Eula Bliss. A “spellbinding blend of memoir, science journalism and literary criticism.” They almost had me at “science journalism,” but the rest is a turnoff.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee. Never heard of her.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. This one I read, and I loved it. It’s an outstanding example of environmental journalism. My review can be found here.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, by Lawrence Wright. I’m tempted, because I admire the author’s previous work: his Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (reviewed here) was drop-dead brilliant. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine that a book focused on two weeks with Menachem Begin to be anything but tedious.

So, what do I think were the best books of 2014? Glad you asked. My list of the 18 titles I most enjoyed is here. As you’ll see, there’s no overlap. Big surprise!

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