Monday, July 20, 2009

Is It True?! Are 40% of Books Printed Pulped?!

A little while ago, we were talking about low publishing salaries, and the causal low publishing profit margins. Carol asked the question--is it true that 40% of books printed are destroyed? That we publishers overprint and don't sell and then destroy bunches of books?

Before I get into answering this question, I want to warn you that the whole system is so stupid you're going to want to hit your head against a wall. So try not to sit near any walls.

Um. Yes. The answer is yes.

WHY?! you wail. Well. Hum. Like I said, I hope you're not sitting near any walls.

But we in the book business operate on the principle that we want to see as MANY copies of a given book in a book store as possible. Basically, the higher the print run, the better. A book with a low first print run is (not justifiably) seen as being a lost cause from the beginning.* Hence a great deal of pressure to try to get as much co-op (that is, paid placement in prominent places in bookstores) as possible.

One reason book publishers PAY for the privilege of having higher numbers of their books is that more books can be PURCHASED by customers if more books are AVAILABLE. If only 2000 copies are spread all over the country, a book will never sell 500 copies its first week. Hence not wanting to pre-empt potential. Also, people tend to buy things they see in stacks. (Although let me tell you from my sad personal experience, just because a book of mine gets good co-op and placement in the chains does NOT mean anyone goes on to buy it. That second part of the equation is a little mystical.)

Another reason is the effin' bestseller list policies--talk about mystical. Both my buddy Janet and my own wise and beloved sales manager have tried to explain to me how exactly bestseller lists are derived, and they've failed to de-cloud my understanding. But definitely a big component of becoming a bestseller has to do with a book's laydown--that means its sell in to book stores, not its sell through to customers. So in theory, you can make a bestseller list without having sold through that many copies at all in terms of actual purchases. (Of course, once you're on the bestseller list, you get automatic prominent placement in all stores, everywhere, and a de facto recommendation to casual browsers, so being a bestseller often begets being more of a bestseller.) So on the off-chance a particular book might make the bestseller list, companies are desperate to get out as many copies as possible.

All this said, the truth is that the market is only SO absorbing. While 40% of certain books are pulped, much, much more than 40% of certain other books are pulped. (Trust me--alas, I've seen it.) That said, when you estimate the market correctly, or underestimate it and have to go back for one or multiple reprints, the percentage is smaller, perhaps 0%.

Lastly, and most stupidly, it has to do with cash flow and billing. Publishing companies like to put out huge quantities of a book because they get paid by the vendors right away. The vendors send them cash for all the books they buy. Alas, remember, book publishing is a returnable industry--which means those vendors can (and will) in 4 months or so return all their unsold merchandise--which might be up to 100% of what they originally bought. And the publishing company will owe them the dollar value of every book they have to take back.

But hey! They solve that cash flow problem by paying back their debt with money they make from overselling NEXT month's title. The hope is somewhere along the way, a book will actually sell THROUGH to customers, thus helping us overcome our own stupid cash flow cycle.

What else can I say? I couldn't even make this crap up.

*I'm a big believer in success from small print runs--I have to be, since I work at a miniature indie. So I don't say this despairingly; but it's a pervasive attitude authors should be aware of, so they can work to combat it if it turns out their print run is modest. Do we need a separate post on this? I'll take votes.

44 comments:

Bailish said...

I have to admit when I choose a book, the number of copies available can influence my decision greatly. If I see several copies, then I think it's a popular book and I'm more likely to check it out. Single copies--usually passed by. If I had a particular book in mind, I'm more likely to buy it online now, skipping the 'bookstore experience' completely.

As a new writer, am I contributing to a growing problem or a new opportunity?

---

Check out my new blog!
http://bailish.blogspot.com/

~Aimee Maher said...

I'm guilty of perusing the tables before I hit the stacks. But the more I learn and the more I hang around these blogs the more I know, and get a better feel for what should be catching my interest. Not the lit world's version of a commercial.

Brian F. said...

A couple years ago on my old blog, I tried to do a post like this where I explained the often unbelievable realities of publishing (like how more titles lose money than make money) and some buttmunch (anonymous, natch), "You clearly have no idea how publishing works because there's no way that ANY business could operate on a model where they lose more than they gain."

And yet, in many many ways, it does. 2% of the titles making 80% of the money may seem absurd (this is an exaggeration of course but not far from some P&Ls I've seen) but it's stunning when you really look at the excesses of the biz and how a nearly 100 year old model has changed little. If nothing else comes of e-books, it needs to be a serious bitchslap that wakes people up.

No, I will NOT get down. Highhorse, away!

Amalia T. said...

I have to say, after my brief stint working for a bookstore, and having the sad, sad, sad duty of ripping the covers off paperbacks to send back to publishers and then utterly destroying the rest of the books in the compactor, I would be a LOT less offended by these huge print runs if there was just some recycling system in place. That's what really kills me-- if publishers want to blow tons of money on returns, that's their business, but all that paper! All those trees!

It breaks my heart.

Herne said...

Publishers need to go a lot less crazy on the hardcover novel and focus more on the mass market paperback and/or trade paperback. You can print about 4 mass market or about 2 trade for the same amount of resources in a hardcover. And try using visual displays and signage to sell more novels instead of useless stacks of books you're going to pulp later. Imagine what people might think if they see a half-empty display rather than a huge stack of books. "That display is half-empty, those books must be selling well!"

cinter said...

It's as if every facet of this business conspires to make it as inefficient as possible.

Melanie Avila said...

Now I have the sads.

wv: lityp
literary type :)

B. Nagel said...

So you work at a miniature indie in the city and your significant other is a fan of the LA Angels? You won't be anonymous for long. Muahahah

Googling Indie press, NY, angels. That should bring it right up. Only 1.7 million hits to comb through.

Word Ver: prowlit. (Inspired the comment)

Am said...

This is perhaps a silly and/or stupid question, but why can't the publishers donate some of the excess or sell them at lower value? I know there are charities in place for prisons and some third-world countries that need books.

Or they books that absolutely no one wants?

Anonymous said...

My sentiments precisely, Am.

Or what about offering them back to the author at a cut-price?

Rick Daley said...

I'd like more please. I have three more walls that don't have holes in them and a very hard head.

Janet said...

I really, really hope that this is about to change. Between eBooks and POD in bookstores, maybe it finally will.

David said...

And thus your book ends up as toilet paper.

(After I put that page up on my Web site, I discovered that it was linked to as authoritative regarding publishing and toilet paper. Taught me a lot about the reliability of the Web as an information source.)

Eric said...

Man, I just wrote a post touching on this without having read yours. Quel ESP.

I can do a post on Pimp My Novel next week about bestseller lists if people are interested, but be forewarned: knowing what goes into bestseller lists is kind of like knowing what goes into hot dogs. You're almost better off not knowing.

Laurel said...

They do this in textbook publishing, too. Every fiscal year end it looks like you're rockin' and then first quarter book returns you talked everyone in to holding kick in so you start the year in the hole.

Makes no sense. Seems like everyone would just want clean numbers instead of pushing extra inventory and dealing with cleanup later.

wvs: prosess. I'm sure there is something clever in there but I don't want to work that hard.

CKHB said...

I'm not hitting my head against a wall because I'm busy sticking my fingers in my ears and going la-la-la-LAAAA-la, not LISTENING...

MattDel said...

Hooray ... more information that makes us as-yet-unpublished writers go "what the heck?"

On the other hand, it makes an odd sort of sense when you consider the old adage to "Be prepared" (Boy Scout motto). Still, I concur with everyone who said there needs to be a recycling system or some donation structure in place to take care of the books that get returned/pulped.

@Eric -- yes please do a post on bestseller lists, even if it's similar to knowing what goes into a hot dog. (Mmmm ... hot dogs.)

word ver: stessin -- a higher level of stressing out.

JES said...

Man, I love this place. Even when it's communicating this sort of who's-minding-the-asylum information.

About your footnote, and the potential for success from small print runs. Is there actual evidence for this? How small is too small? Yeah, I know: "It depends." Still, how do you decide to bet on one number vs. another for a given title?

(It's been a long time since I looked at my own contracts, none of which were for anything recent, but I seem to remember my shock at a boilerplate clause in the section on royalties. There was all the optimistic stuff -- the sliding scale, upwards, based on number of copies sold. And then came the dismal section explaining what would happen to all the unsold copies, and what if anything I could expect to see in remuneration from them. There was a phrase which mentioned pallets of unsold books. And there'd been no corresponding specific image -- "truckloads," say -- for all the copies which would sell. Egad, I thought, what hell have I just booked passage to?)

stacy said...

I'm totally with Herme. Personally I can't afford hardbacks. I never buy them, unless they're in the bargain bin. Plus, they're so bulky I can't take them anywhere. I can only afford trade paperbacks and mass market paperbacks. Maybe my feelings will change when I start making money, but I don't know.

writtenwyrdd said...

You're right. The system is stupid.

Laurel said...

Just a quick note in defense of pulping books:

Excess inventory can hurt you in one other way. If a bunch of legitimately printed books that the bookstore can't sell are still floating around out there they find their way into the pirated market. So yeah, it sucks, and yeah, it doesn't make much sense.

On the other hand if the bookseller didn't return them then brand spanking shiny new copies of your book end up on eBay for way less money than B & N sells them for and you have no way to track the sale or get credit.

Anonymous said...

Sounds kinda like a robbing Peter to Pay Paul Pyramid scheme...no wonder publishers are in trouble.

Eric said...

Also, Am & Anon @ 9:03--

Both these things (selling otherwise unsellable books at massive discounts, either to other parties or back to the author) occur; it's called remaindering.

frohock said...

I would love to see a separate post on the small presses and indies.

Thank you.
Teresa

moonrat said...

ack, so many great comments!! i'm having a crazy day at work--i'll try to answer this afternoon!!! thanks, everybody.

Charles Gramlich said...

A familiarity with the process of natural selection suggests that this kind of waste is not likely to be sustainable.

Yep, sounds insane.

Anonymous said...

This cracked me up because what you just described is a Ponzi scheme.

J

Anonymous said...

And then besides the pulped books, there are the super-cheap books you find in the bins. My favorite book from last year cost me one cent! But through that book I discovered a new (to me) author and went on to buy two more of her books at regular price. The longer a book circulates -- anywhere, anyhow -- the more chances the author gets.

(Yet it still makes me wince when I see an awesome book in the remainder bins.)

moonrat said...

Bailish--good to know co-op affects at least ONE person. We pay a ton of money for that space.

S.D. said...

My jaw is on the floor (there was no getting away from it).

Silicon Valley Diva said...

OH wow. So sad. And what a waste.

Precie said...

Ugh, that's depressing. Good to know, but totally disheartening.

wv: comeman
no comment.

The First Carol said...

I used to choose my books by whatever was available in library on CD. Really. For three years I read nothing, listened like an addict. Panic struck if there was not a CD book next to the bed. Then I wrote a MS. Now I cry, “I wanna go back…” I was a good fan of books, I could be again. But, I have to learn about publishing, I have to learn about adverbing, I have to learn about editing, POV, query letters. Crap. Best thing that’s come of this is…is…meeting moonrat.

nana k. said...

if i were queen of the publishing industry, i'd mandate low print runs across the board. sometimes i feel ill when i see print runs over 7,000. it's such a wasteful practice and i fail to see how it's cost-effective unless all parties are positive the book will sell so many copies. e-books are so prevalent now and (while i'll admit ignorance about the POD process) it only takes about a week--often less, to receive a POD title once you order it. so why waste all the paper, only to pulp it all in the end? not to mention, those huge runs on the first edition really devalue that edition. the book isn't special anymore because there's 50,000 others out there.

but i say all that as a serious bibliophile, and no where near to becoming queen of publishing.

jimnduncan said...

Wow. Bestseller lists are based in part on what bookstores buy, not what is actually sold? That's a bit mind-boggling.

moonrat said...

phew! finally responding to comments--in case anyone is still checking here.

Am--I see some other people have addressed this, re: bargain books (remainders), piracy, undervaluation--but also, to answer your question, yes, there are a lot of books that no one wants. A lot of books that are overprinted have limited marketplaces that were (deliberately or accidentally) overestimated--for example, say you do a book on kidney disease. Literally the only market are people who have, are developing, or know someone with kidney disease--AND who want to buy a book on it. Limited segment of the population. But no amount of book store presense is going to make someone who has no personal interest in kidney disease buy this book--in which case, you've overshot. (This is just one example--another is, say, a book on a specific breed of dogs. Or a sequel to an aleady published book. All have finite, estimable markets, but are often overprinted in hopes of catching someone's attention.)

moonrat said...

Janet--re: change: it's going to have to. And luckily, there are some wonderful forward-thinking people at some specific imprints (Harper Studio and Twelve are two of my favorites). There are people trying to bust this gross model--but most of the industry is dragging its heels, trying to make money the way it used to be able to.

moonrat said...

David--it does not surprise me; you are an authority in many things.

Eric--thanks for the post--it was great. You have a scientific spin I lack. And PLEASE yes do a bestseller post next week--I'm dying to read it myself. Illuminate me!!!!

JES--special, for you--umm, and hopefully a lot of otehr people--I'm going to do a "Making Your Small Print Run Book Awesome!" post next week. If I get my little act together.

moonrat said...

Laurel--thanks for chiming in.

frohock/Teresa--hmm, I'll see if I can drum one up. Since I'm an indie editor myself, a lot of my perspective is scewed by the fact that (I think, at least) I'm closer to inventory processing concerns than my counterparts at larger houses (for better and for worse). Anything specific I can elaborate on?

The Madcap Aristocrat said...

thats funny cause usually when I see a lot of copies of a book I always assume that its horrible cause no one is purchasing the copies, while if there's only one left I assume thsi might be my last chance of picking it up and seeing what it is.

Jane Steen said...

The more I read about the publishing industry, the sadder I get.

I base much of my reading on recommendations from other readers. Like Bailish, I am more likely to buy online when I really want to own a book; I check a lot of books out at the library & will often buy a book later if it made a real impact on me. I browse bookstores but buy very little from them.

moonrat said...

it's ok, everybody. things are going to change (she says faithfully). maybe i'll do a post on how i think things are going to change. i'll start collecting notes.

Elizabeth Patch said...

Thanks for this well-written post in real English, as opposed to legalese! The more I know about the publishing industry, the happier I am that I chose POD for my 1st foray; in fact my POD guy sent me here! I shall pass this along to all of my friends & family who still think I'm not legit because they aren't pulping my books in the back lot somewhere...

Borderline Books said...

Hi, I came across this blog while I'm preparing a flyer for my visit to Frankfurt Bookfair (for the umpteenth time). There I will pace the halls trying to persuade publishers to donate books to us instead of pulping them. Many book from UK publishers go to Book Aid International, but this is mainly books for schools.
We give books free of charge to refugees, people in or just out of prison, homeless people, women and children in shelters from domestic violence... the bookless of this world.
You can do it too (anyone reading this)!