Publishers Weekly asks if publishing hasn’t become too top-heavy, by which they mean too dependent on an ever smaller number of huge selling books. (Link via The Passive Voice.)

One might hope that Publishers Weekly would be aware that publishing doesn’t just mean publishing by huge trade houses. To claim as they do (or as they allow their contributor Rachel Deahl to claim) that “Book publishing has long been a hits-driven business” is clearly to ignore the vast majority of book publishing. To appear to be describing John Wiley, Pearson, Springer, New Directions, New York Review Books, Harvard University Press, The American Chemical Society, etc., etc. as hits-driven businesses is patent nonsense, and not what we should look for in “the organ of the book trade”.* (Not of course that any one of these companies wouldn’t be ecstatic to have a bestseller. They just aren’t in business to generate them.)

from Publishers Weekly. The labelling of this picture is somewhat confusing. The numbers shown refer to sales ranking, not sales numbers. Thus the first line shows the top 100 sellers whose sales have increased by 23% in 2018 as compared with 2017.

If the article were only to admit it was talking about trade publishing, there’d be no problem. So, the big trade houses are being forced into larger and larger bets on a small number of potential bestselling books. What a surprise: that’s the rationale of trade publishing. One might think that upping sales by 23% was a matter for celebration not concern, even if, as one comment admits, the sales bump is largely due to there being a need for a lot of political books in this divided age. That trade houses are short of resources which they might spare on mid-list titles shouldn’t amaze. All their funds, and not unimportantly at this time, all their capacity at the printers, is being diverted onto these big bestsellers. Big trade houses have been moaning for years about their loss of mid-list. I suspect this is just so much sentimental hypocrisy: your career prospects as an editor at a trade house are unlikely to be enhanced by your constantly proposing books which may sell 5,000 copies.

Nevertheless I fear that the trade houses have actually got plenty of mid-list — it’s just unintentional mid-list — books they assumed would sell in mass quantities but tanked. Of course this is bad mid-list — you printed 50,000 and sold 7,500 — not good mid-list, a book you budgeted for 10,000 sales and of which you only printed 7,500. Lots of companies which members of the commentariat are incapable of perceiving through their Big-Five-tinted glasses, are doing books like this every day. These books may not yield big money, but they do make money, and though they cannot support a vast establishment housed in a swish mid-town skyscraper, they can support a decent business.

It’s not the mid-list that’s in trouble, it’s trade publishing.


* Geographical license. This is in fact how The Bookseller, the UK equivalent of Publishers Weekly describes itself.