last year

Wondering why nearly all my book reviews are favorable?

booksIf you’ve read more than a few of my book reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I rate every book on a five-@ system, and that I usually award books a rating of @@@@@, @@@@, or at least @@@. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve described a book as less than @@@ more than a couple of times since I began posting to this blog in January 2010.

This is no accident, and it’s not because I’ve never met a book I didn’t like. There are hundreds of thousands of new books published in English every year, not to mention the millions of older books that have been republished and are still in print. Well, not to put a fine edge on it, most of these books are crap.

Once upon a time, an educated person could actually read every book in print. Those were the days long before the United States had yet to be born. Most books available to Westerners were published in Latin, and every book was a rare book. That was a very long time ago. What we today call the information glut began no later than the nineteenth century. So, any conscientious reader has long had to be selective. Very selective. Which is the most important factor in explaining the question I posed in the title to this post.

My ratings run very high because:

  • I choose only books I really want to read — because I follow the author or am interested in the theme or setting or genre. For instance, I read a lot of history, current affairs, science, business, science fiction, thrillers, and historical fiction, but never romance, poetry, self-help, cookbooks, or books about sports, gardening, fashion, or art. I’m deeply interested in China, India, and Africa, and in World War II, espionage, poverty, and politics. (You get the point.) Fiction or nonfiction, it almost doesn’t matter.
  • If I find when I’ve read partway into a book that I don’t think it’s worth reading after all, I simply stop reading and turn to another book. And I only review books I’ve finished. Cover to cover. (Well, except for the notes.) This is not a rare occurrence. In other words, I’m a very picky reader.
  • Though authors now sometimes send me their books to read, I rarely accept one for review. It has to meet my standard criteria, or I won’t read it.

So, there you have it.

a couple of years ago

Do publishers market books?

book-marketing-oprah-285x300Sadly, the answer to the question in this title is, for the most part, no.

Most book marketing today is done by authors, not 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 author’s marketing platform and what she or he will do to publicize and market the book. 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.

My friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking sales and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. This is from his most recent report. 

a couple of years ago

Who actually buys books today?

obama at prairie lightsAuthor, beware!

Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities. Everyone in the potential audience for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any of them. 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.

If you’re thinking about writing a book, keep this in mind: last year in the United States more than 300,000 new or revised titles were published. Another 184,000 went into print for the first time in the UK. (In China the number was 440,000!) To say that you’ll have a lot of competition is a understatement of the highest order.

My friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking sales and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. This is from his most recent report. 

3 years ago

Is it harder, or easier, to sell books today?

1427870747_8eda2cb1acIt’s 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’s increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than ten 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.

My friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking sales and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. This is from his most recent report. 

3 years ago

“So many books! Why isn’t mine in the store?”

rsz_bookstoreMy friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking sales and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. Here’s what he reported most recently:

A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore. One hundred to 1,000 or more titles compete for every available bookstore shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from fewer 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.

 

3 years ago

How many copies of books do authors sell?

rsz_signing_books_at_keplers_2013-9-10

That’s me signing copies of “The Business Solution to Poverty” at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California.

My friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking sales and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. Here’s what he reported most recently:

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 225 million books were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined. (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014).

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, you wanna write a book and get rich, do you?

BTW, my book with Paul Polak, The Business Solution to Poverty, has sold a total of 7,000 copies in its first 11 months. I was disappointed, but I guess being an outlier in the nonfiction market should give me a little solace.

3 years ago

Are book sales rising?

1My friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking sales and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. Here’s what he reported most recently:

Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published. Adult nonfiction print book unit sales peaked in 2007 and have declined each year since then, according to BookScan (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014, and previous reports). Similarly, bookstore sales peaked in 2007 and have fallen each year since then, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 12, 2014, and previous reports).

3 years ago

How many books are published each year?

1My friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking this and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. Here’s what he reported most recently:

According to the latest Bowker Report (October 9, 2013), over 391,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2012, which is an amazing increase of 422 percent since 2007. The number of non-self-published books issued annually has also climbed over the same period to approximately 300,000 in 2012. The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 400,000 since 2007, to approximately 700,000 annually. And since 2007, some 10 million previously published books have been reissued by companies that reprint public domain works. Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely over-saturated.  

4 years ago

Which reviews do you read?

It’s a puzzle.

When I review a book I’m convinced is both important and unusually well written. what happens? Few people read the review.

Then I post a review of something fun but trivial, and — voila! — lots of readers take it in. Or not. It’s entirely unpredictable.

Here, in descending order of the number of reads, are the ten most popular reviews I’ve posted in the two-and-a-half years since I began this blog:

  1. 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins
  2. The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell. 
  3. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson
  4. Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, and Quiet Lovers of Justice, by Si Kahn
  5. The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham
  6. The Litigators, by John Grisham
  7. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
  8. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley
  9. Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, by David Bornstein and Susan Davis
  10. Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, by Maria Armoudian

Admittedly, only two works of fiction appear on this list of ten books, despite the fact that I read and review about equal numbers of nonfiction and fiction.

As you’re probably aware, from time to time I also construct lists of books by topic or for some other reason. Here are the most-read of those posts, in descending order again:

  1. Social Enterprise: A Resource List
  2. Third World development: A reading list
  3. The 30 best books of 2010-2011
  4. The best books I’ve read so far this year (2012)
  5. Books that helped me understand the world
  6. My 20 all-time favorite science fiction novels
  7. Eight recent books that illuminate the state of affairs in America today

As one of my all-time favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, frequently wrote, So it goes.

5 years ago

What does @@@ mean?

True enough — nobody asked. Somehow, though, I feel obliged to explain the meaning of the ratings I feature on the book reviews in this blog.

First of all, I don’t recall ever awarding anything lower than @@@, or 3 out of 5. Not that I haven’t encountered books that would deserve it — it’s just that I don’t finish reading those books. I only review books I’ve read from start to finish.

Here, then, is what I mean by the ratings:

@ = Fuhgedaboudit! This book should never have been published.

@@ = Not the worst book in the the world, but I couldn’t get through it.

@@@ = Reasonably well written, enjoyable in some ways, but not a candidate for a National Book Award.

@@@@ = I really liked this book. It may have fallen short of greatness, but it’s a great read. Definitely worth checking out.

@@@@@ = This book is either extraordinarily well conceived and well executed, or it makes an important contribution to our understanding of ourselves or the world we live in, or both. A must read.

Now you can’t say you didn’t know.