October 11, 2017

Recommended mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, nonfiction

recommended mysteries - All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony DoerrFrom time to time, I post lists of recommended mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, historical novels, biographies, or books about science or business. Here I’ll include the 15 best of these lists. Each of them contains a number of individual titles with links to the reviews I’ve posted on this blog.

Fiction lists

48 excellent mystery and thriller series

This list just scratches the surface of what’s available, but I’m confident that at least some of the very best mystery and thriller series can be found below. All these series have one or both of two things in common: the protagonist is the same from one book to the next, or (in just two cases) the series are rooted in a particular time and place, though the cast of characters varies. There are just two exceptions to this rule: the work of Ross Thomas and John Grisham. I’ve included both authors because many of their characters appear in each of several novels—and because they’re so good I can’t bring myself to ignore them.

My 27 favorite science fiction novels

In times past, science fiction was widely regarded as pulp literature suitable only for 14-year-old boys. Those days are long past. Now the field is often referred to as speculative fiction. Which is as it should be. In this list are the 27 science fiction novels that have lingered in my mind—in some cases, for fifty years or more. Some are dystopian novels, others alternate history, imagined futures, or time travel; some are set on Earth, others elsewhere around the galaxy.

75 readable and revealing historical novels

My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history. You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’re writing.

24 compelling dystopian novels in series

Among the works included here are outstanding trilogies by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Blake Crouch, and Hugh Howey, and a connected series of three novels by Paolo Bacigalupi that has not been marketed as a trilogy. In my reviews, I’ve awarded almost all of these books ratings of 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 stars.

A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios

In the companion post linked above, I listed two dozen dystopian novels that were published in series. Here I’ve listed 15 standalone works. These posts are a result of some of the research I’ve conducted in preparation for writing my newest book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.

My 10 favorite espionage novels

Over the past seven years, I’ve read and reviewed more than 60 espionage novels. My ten favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of 5 out of 5 stars on its review.

15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others)

The 15 detective novels listed in this post may not be the 15 “best” detective novels, even by my uniquely idiosyncratic criteria. I’d read a lot of work in the genre even before I began writing these reviews in January 2010—and there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of detective novels I’ve never read. This list consists exclusively of those I’ve selected from among the 200 or so that I’ve read and reviewed in this blog. I gave every one of these books a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

Nonfiction lists

34 great biographies I’ve reviewed

Roger Ailes. Catherine the Great. William Armstrong Custer. Steve Jobs. Malcolm X. These are among the men and women featured in the 34 biographies I’ve awarded four or five out of five stars in my reviews.

Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books

Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed.

8 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history

Three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang. He enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields, incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History. Many other scholars have since followed in Christian’s footsteps, bringing their own unique perspectives to bear on this fresh approach to understanding our lives and the world we live in. My list includes eight of the best books to emerge in this field.

17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era

In addition to the many World War II novels I’ve read and reviewed in this blog, both mysteries and trade fiction, I’ve read a great many nonfiction books on the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’ve listed 17 of the best I’ve come across in recent years. They cover everything from economic policy in the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany to the role of business and the conduct of the war itself.

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

For good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read seventeen such books. I recommend them highly.

35 biographies worth reading

The 35 books listed here cover a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures, every one of them prominent in a significant way, from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great to Clarence Darrow, Allen Dulles, and Steve Jobs. Most of the 35 fall into a few categories that describe some of the topics I’m most interested in: espionage, science, business, and American history.

35 excellent nonfiction books about politics

One way or another, I’ve been at least peripherally involved in electoral politics ever since I was in high school. Which is why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction—it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog six years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. This list includes only the 35 nonfiction books that have appeared in this space.

14 of the best recent nonfiction books

Caveat emptor: I don’t pretend that the 14 books in this list are THE BEST nonfiction books ever published. They’re simply some of the best ones I read and reviewed during the first five years I posted to this blog, every one of them a source of enlightenment that deepened my understanding of the world we live in.

October 2, 2017

Even more fun facts: which authors have written the most books?

authors

Classic authors, most of them bestsellers in their time.

 

 

You’re gonna love this.

Once upon a time, back in the distant reaches of the twentieth century—well, actually it was 1984—one of my clients assigned me to ghostwrite a fundraising letter that Isaac Asimov had agreed to sign. I approached the task with some trepidation, both because I knew Asimov’s reputation as a prolific author and because I had actually met the man once and knew how prickly he was (but that’s another story).

Eventually, I managed to draft the letter and, as directed, I sent it off to Asimov’s New York apartment via FedEx. I phoned two days later in hopes the famous man had actually had a chance to read my deathless prose. His wife answered. When I asked to speak with him, she said, “Oh, no, he’s much too busy to talk. He’s writing.” (Well, of course! What else would the man be doing?) She added that she was certain he’d get back in touch with me.

Sure enough, the following day I received a FedEx package from Asimov. Fearfully, I extracted the draft copy—and was flabbergasted to note a signed permission slip and, miraculously, what appeared to be absolutely no changes in the text. However, when I examined the text more carefully, I noted one alteration in tiny handwritten script.

I had written “As the author of more than 300 books . . .”

Asimov changed that to read “As the author of more than 310 books . . .”

Ultimately, the celebrated author of both popular science and science fiction books went on to write a total of more than 400 volumes. Is he the most prolific author, living or dead?

Not by a long shot.

A widely circulated post on Trivia-Library attributes that dubious honor to a certain South African writer named Mary Faulkner, who died in 1973 at the age of 70. The Guinness Book of World Records reportedly ranks her as “history’s most prolific novelist, [who] wrote under six pen names.” Faulkner wrote a total of 904 books.

Writers much better known than Faulkner (Georges Simenon, John Creasey, Barbara Cartland, Alexandre Dumas) as well as others much more obscure who are included on the Trivia-Library list of “20 Most Prolific Authors and Writers in Literary History” are each credited with writing between 258 and 850 books. And that doesn’t even include the two people I have known personally who have each written more than 400 books. (One writes science fiction, the other mostly porn.)

But wait. Even 904 novels won’t cut it.

Further investigation turns up a report that “In 2006, Guinness World Records declared L. Ron Hubbard the world’s most published and most translated author, having published 1,084 fiction and non-fiction works that have been translated into 71 languages.”

Don’t recognize the name of this illustrious wordsmith? He was the paranoid schizophrenic, pathological liar, and fugitive from justice who founded Scientology. He died in 1986 at the age of 75 with a fortune equivalent to nearly a billion dollars today. (Hubbard’s the man who famously said, “If you want to get really rich, start a new religion.” Ahem!)

But hold your horses. Isaac Asimov, Mary Faulkner, and L. Ron Hubbard combined don’t even register in the same octave as the prodigious Philip M. Parker. This superhuman individual, a 54-year-old professor of management science at INSEAD, a top-rated global business school based in France, claims to have authored more than one million books. (My source is This Is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Research, by Marc Abrahams.)

You read that right. One million books—and he’s only been writing them since 2008. (However, Amazon lists only 133,501.)

Here are a few of Professor Parker’s deathless titles:

  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Bathroom Toilet Brushes and Holders in the United States
  • The 2007–2012 World Outlook for Rotary Pumps with Designed Pressure of 100 P.s.i. or Less and Designed Capacity of 10 G.p.m. or Less
  • Avocados: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide
  • Webster’s English to Romanian Crossword Puzzles: Level 2
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Golf Bags in India
  • The 2007 Report on Wood Toilet Seats: World Market Segmentation by City
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Frozen Asparagus in India

Just makes you want to rush right out and snap up an armful of these gems, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not. And especially when you learn that Professor Parker doesn’t actually write any of these books. This obviously clever man has instead written a slew of computer algorithms that do the writing for him, turning out, say, at least six books about the outlook for bathroom toilet brushes.

Bianca Bosker, writing for Huffington Post, reports that “Parker started by generating market reports sold to banks, consulting firms and government trade agencies interested in the sales outlook for, say, rubber or corrugated cardboard. Now, he hopes to use the algorithms to help with language learning and education in developing countries. Thanks to Parker’s automated radio broadcasts, people in parts of Malawi are hearing weather forecasts in the local language for the first time—and are already changing their farming patterns as a result.”

This is the fourth of recent posts here highlighting “fun facts” about books, authors, readers, and publishers. Previously, I posted Fun facts about books, authors, and readersMore fun facts: how many books are there, really? and  Yet more fun facts: who is the world’s bestselling author?

 

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?

how many books In 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!

This is the second of four recent posts here highlighting “fun facts” about books, authors, readers, and publishers. Previously, I posted Fun facts about books, authors, and readers. You’ll also find Yet more fun facts: who is the world’s bestselling author? and Even more fun facts: which authors have written the most books?

 

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.

 

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