Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

You may have read a recent article in PW called “Self-Published Titles Topped 764,000 in 2009 as Traditional Output Dipped,” about the amazing growth in “non-traditional” (a.k.a. print-on-demand-produced) books.

Or you may just have read about it, given how many tweets and blog mentions it received. If the latter, you may have wondered what such a gigantic surge in self-publishing portends for the commercial publishing industry (where output did indeed dip, though only by about half a percent)–or, if you’re one of those folks who believes that “traditional” publishing is or should be dead, you may have felt a surge of righteous vindication.

However, while that staggering 764,000 figure (actually, 764,448, more than twice the output of traditional books–the info comes from the latest US publishing statistics released by Bowker) is real, PW’s title is misleading. In fact, those numbers include not just self-publishers, but “self-publishers and micro-niche publishers,” a much larger category that encompasses the print-on-demand sector as a whole. Self-publishers aren’t even the biggest portion of this category; in fact, they’re very much in the minority. Says PW,

The category consists largely of reprints…According to Bowker, the largest producer of nontraditional books last year was BiblioBazaar which produced 272,930 titles, followed by Books LLC and Kessinger Publishing LLC which produced 224,460 and 190,175 titles, respectively.

BiblioBazaar (whose motto is “Old Books, New Life”) “support[s] projects for the digital preservation of classic material and make[s] these works available for sale in printed form as a new book.” Ditto for Kessenger Publishing (whose reprinting program has actually been the target of allegations of copyright infringement.)

So better than 687,500 of 2009’s 764,448 non-traditional titles were reprints of previously-published works, most in the public domain. That leaves around 77,000 titles for the self-publishing and micropress sector. According to PW,

The Amazon subsidiary CreateSpace produced 21,819 books in 2009, while released 10,386. Xlibris and AuthorHouse, two imprints of AuthorSolutions, produced 10,161 and 9,445, title respectively.

Bowker’s press release rounds out its top ten POD book producers with few more numbers: General Books LLC, 11,887; International Business Publications USA, 8,271; PublishAmerica, 5,698 (I hate to admit that PA is tops in anything, but there it is).

There’s something a bit curious about these numbers. Reported title output for Bowker’s top ten actually adds up to more than 764,448. And what about the many other publishing service companies (including three more Author Solutions brands, Trafford, iUniverse, and WordClay), and all the POD-produced small press and micropress titles? Where are they in these figures?

2009’s improbable growth in POD titles makes it clear that digital publishing is continuing to change the landscape for readers and retailers (although see this article for a discussion of how reprint companies like BookBazaar and Kessenger, which benefit from the public domain, may not be doing it any favors), and to a lesser extent (since publishing services have been around for more than a decade now) for writers. They also suggest that here’s still some life in the mostly-discredited long tail theory, at least for retailers that don’t have to worry about physical inventory.

But I have to wonder–who is buying all these books? Or, put another way–how many of these books are being bought at all? In the long-tail digital universe, where books are nothing more than bits and bytes, it really doesn’t matter if you offer thousands of books that never sell a single copy, as long as you offer tens of thousands that sell just a few. Which is why I think it would be very interesting to compare sales figures for the POD sector (info that does not seem to be available) to title growth over the past couple of years. It might place that huge increase in titles in a somewhat different perspective.