On “Fewer, Better Books”

David NussbaumBy David Nussbaum, CEO, F+W Media, Inc.

The Kindle.  The iPad.  The BLIO. eBooks. The agency model. Social media.  SEO.  Direct-to-Consumer sales.  Consumer data. The recession.

Not since the advent of the mass-market paperback has there been such fundamental change in our industry, and we can either seize the opportunity these changes bring and embrace the myriad formats and delivery vehicles available today – or be overwhelmed by the new paradigm of publishing and worry about the future.

But there is one very clear strategy that will help the bottom line, improve sell-through, improve shelf display, and continue to encourage the art and craft of producing quality books, no matter what new technology is introduced next.

Produce fewer, but better books.

Yes, that sounds very basic but it is a basic tenet that has been ignored by too many publishers for too long.

How do we do it? Eliminate the mid-list.

No longer can publishers  afford to publish mediocrity; we all need to produce books that meet readers’ demand and exceed their expectations. We need to focus daily on creating remarkable, authoritative, entertaining, agile content and make it available through the reader’s medium of choice.

What are the benefits to producing fewer, better books?

  • Improved sell-through: Better books sell better; retailers AND readers will be pleased with the return on their investment.
  • Fewer returns: Inventory management becomes a process, not a noose, when sell-through is high.
  • Enhanced pricing: Readers will pay more for better books; retailers will make more money as a result.
  • Focused, cost-effective marketing: Social marketing and networking work best when they are focused on fewer titles and specific communities.
  • Improved morale: By producing fewer, better books and selling more of them, publishers avoid falling victim to low morale as the entire organization will have greater pride, increased revenues, and increased profits.

Clearly this strategy won’t happen overnight; however, it might just be the right one to start today. The future is bright and we as publishers must strive to improve our performance.

What are your thoughts?

David Nussbaum is the CEO and Chairman of F+W Media, parent company of Digital Book World.

35 thoughts on “On “Fewer, Better Books”

  1. Mike Cane

    >>>No longer can publishers afford to publish mediocrity; we all need to produce books that meet readers’ demand and exceed their expectations.

    Ah, and you, of course, can tell which books are not “mediocre,” can you? Like, say, Ayn Rand’s “We the Living,” which sold crap — but then made its publisher rich after the success of “the Fountainhead.”

    Get frikkin real.

    1. david nussbaum

      Thank you Mike for your comment (although you could be just a bit more polite)

      Too often publishers publish books because they have revenue targets to meet on a near term basis, but don’t spend enough time on focusing on sell through, inventory costs of returns, time used on a product that has limited potential and the like.

      Regardless, just one person’s opinion.

      1. Mike Cane

        >>>Thank you Mike for your comment (although you could be just a bit more polite)

        No, I can’t be polite when such utter stupidity is paraded as strategy. I know damned good writers stuck in the midlist — and also abandoned by publishers — and it’s the fault of the publishers for not pushing them, for putting money into vapid crap and raking in money that’s then wasted on buying and publishing more vapid crap.

        Publishing is not dying. It’s suiciding.

        1. Mr anon

          Somebody has a chip on his shoulder, eh Mike?

          Interesting article David and yes I agree it’s a good idea in principle yet difficult in practice.

  2. Alex

    Much of this is sensible. However…

    Who determines what is “mediocre”? Publishers and agents? Or is it the book-buying public? Is it purely a sales model that determines what is a “better book”?

    Agreed, there’s a lot of junk out there. But the real problem, it seems to me, is that “big publishing” is like Hollywood: timid and too conservative. I.e., they stumble upon something that sells and then squeeze every drop out of it with sequels, “re-imaginings” and/or parodies.

    Sure, Nicholas Sparks sells books, but is that all you’re going to offer?

  3. Scott

    You lost me at “Eliminate the mid-list. No longer can publishers afford to publish mediocrity.” I categorically reject the idea that quality is determined by sales. I also reject the idea that some bitter writers espouse that best sellers are poorly written.

    You make your case well, but it’s fundamentally flawed because it’s based on the premise that best sellers are the best books, and anything that isn’t a big seller is a mediocre book.

    Eliminating the midlist would be like limiting Olympics competition to the top three athletes in each event. It’s the “mid-list” performers who are the next champions. Take them out of the competition and there’s no future.

    I read a lot of books each year, and maybe only one or two big sellers.My favorites each year are almost never the best sellers.

    The “mid-list equals mediocrity” basis of your argument is shallow and short-sighted.

    1. david nussbaum

      Scott — I agree with your post. F+W does not publish classic best sellers (NYT) but rather speciality books. Thus, I’d never propose eliminating quality books that meet the needs/desires of their targeted audiences.

      Rather than eliminate the mid-list, I am proposing eliminating the middling book. If a sales target is set, and is appropriate (might just be 15,000) and the appropriate promotion is built around that book, and if it hits its goals, then that is a successful book. Its not a 1,000,000 NYT best seller, but its still a success.

      So to be clearer, let’s work hard to eliminate middling product — but keep the mid-list performers that are future medal winners.

  4. A.J. Hartley

    Talk about a slippery slope. Are there too many books out there? Sure. Are they all bad? No. Some of them are poor, some of them are awful, but some of the awful ones sell very well and some of the good ones go largely unnoticed. I realize that publishing is a business but if all you’re going to publish are the bestsellers you eliminate the point of the business, let alone the diversity of reader interest. Whether or not that is sound business practice or not, I couldn’t say, though I suspect that all such a strategy will do is generate more fringe publication which will increasingly stifle the main stream. What I can say is that publishing is supposed to be about more than moving product, and you can’t simply measure art by units sold. If that’s what you want, then sell something else. Oven mitts perhaps.

  5. Stephen Bateman

    Why fewer, better books?

    – The market for books is fast changing
    – Content in lifestyle categories is no longer scarce
    – Publishing needs scarcity (unique brand or specialist niche)l to survive

    How then to make fewer, better books?

    – Focus on market: remember “need to know” drives greater demand than “want to know” (in lifestyle categories)
    – Question viability, pricing, extent, competitive positioning
    – Test your concept thoroughly in community and with all gate keepers
    – Soundboard concepts as part of R&D
    – Do you have an original angle, design or narrative?
    – If not, you likely don’t have a brand
    – So can you develop and market at a lower price than the competition and gain market penetration that way?

    In brief: rigour and risk management are critical to this business model but publishing successfully is still about juggling creativity with numbers – art and science

  6. Jan Whitaker

    There are many mediocre books that sell like crazy. Books have become degraded commodities treated and discussed just like ice cream flavors or curtain rods. “Bottom line.” “Sell through.” Depressing. If only we could do away with pesky authors who insist on following interests and ideas that don’t hit the jackpot.

  7. Paul Bens

    I agree with the sentiment of your post, albeit the use of “mid-list” does, intially, give one pause. To me, mid-list does not mean “crap books” and seeing your comment above, I you are actually advocating dropping crap books.

    I seldom buy from big main-stream publishing houses anymore. Too often they are only interested in getting behind stuff like Dan Brown’s novels which, while populist and entertaining (to some), are incredibly badly written.

    The best material I find comes from small presses. Thought-provoking, inventive, cutting edge. Sure, big houses occassionally pick up these types of book, but they seldom make it even up to the “mid-list.” They are relegated to “prestige” titles (i.e., great books that get no promotion $$$). At small houses, quality and inventiveness is far more probable than big houses. Unfortunately, small houses can’t afford promotion either, but I generally know that when I shop at a small press, my chance of finding quality stuff are in the 90% range rather than the 30% mark at bigger houses.

    Like Hollywood, I think the book industry tends to throw all its promotion money at “blockbusters” regardless of quality. In addition to not releasing crap books, the industry might want to look at spreading around the promotion money from those blockbusters to more of those “mid-list” books that have the potential to do well if they had only a little push behind them.

    As for the e-volution, I’m a big fan of ebooks. But, there’s a reason download hasn’t exploded big in the movie industry like it should have and I think the book industry could learn from HWood’s mistakes. It’s all about price-point. I am not willing to pay $15.99 for a download of a movie when I can go to Target and get a DVD copy for $10. Same with a book. I’m not going to pay $15.99 for an e-book, when I can get a physical copy for the same or less. The overhead and production costs in e-books is significantly lower than for physical books. If the industry grabs hold of that concept and lowers the price of e-books, I think the e-book trade will explode. Much like when DVDs dropped sharply in price, the DVD market exploded into a cash cow.

    Now I know that people don’t like Ama*on and their price point of Kindle books (amongst other things to not like them for), but I have to say, on price-point, they’ve got it right. The book industry should embrace the concept of lower price for virtual copy.

    Anyhow, just rambling thoughts.

    1. Justine

      See, this is a big part of the problem… when you make elitist comments and wield elitist attitudes like this, you alienate a huge portion of the public who are not avid readers.

      I don’t care if Dan Brown’s books are written at an 8th grade reading level. His plot and narrative intrigued the whole nation and got everyone excited about reading (and discussing) books again,

      OK, maybe not the whole country, but a marked increase in the not-for-Harry-Potter population got excited. About a book. For an instant in time.

      This is ALL that GOOD ART is SUPPOSED to do. I do think there are a lot of jealous authors out there. I’ve read a few of their blog posts that have ripped Mr. Brown a new one. Tsk, tsk. Shame on them.

      And I have no idea why the publishing model is sooo unbelievably broken. I’d wager there are many fundamentals amiss within this industry. For example, how much are they paying for paper? Do those running the presses make ridiculous salaries? Do middle managers and executives?

      Seriously, it”s time to look at everything from the ground up!

  8. Dennis McCunney


    “Eliminate the midlist” Right. Just where do you think the stuff you recommend publishing comes from?

    Some years ago, an old friend was an editor at a publishing house which was part of a media conglomerate, put together back when people saw synergies in having all forms of content under one roof. He recounted getting a visit from an executive on the movie side who pointed at the mid-list titles and said “Why did you publish those? Why not just publish the best sellers?” The appropriate response would be “Why did *you* greenlight notable bombs X, Y, and Z? Why not just release the $100 million grossers? (Having one’s resume up to date would be a good idea after *making* that response.)

    If anyone could predict with any certainty what books (or films) would do well before they were actually released, this suggestion might have merit. As it is, no one knows with any real certainty what will succeed, and releases of any content in any media are always a crap shoot. You can make a reasonable bet that another in an already best selling (or top grossing) series will do well, and that titles by best selling authors with a following are likely to sell well, even if not part of a series (though series titles will do better, which is why publishers love them.). Ultimately, content producers bet they will have enough successful properties to offset the losses from the ones that tank. Sometimes they don’t, and go belly up.

    As for “publish fewer books”, that’s fraught, and the industry is being dragged kicking and screaming in that direction. Years ago, I talked to an editor who remembered cases of saying “What’s the least *bad* manuscript in the slush pile? I have four titles to publish each month in my line, but only have three confirmed for the next release. I need a fourth!” “Publish only three” wasn’t acceptable because of retail constraints. The issue was that bookstores had only so many square feet of shelf space to stock titles, and the fear was that publishing fewer titles in any cycle would lose the shelf space the missing books would have occupied, and it would not get regained.

    Everyone in publishing knew too many books were chasing too few readers, but no one wanted to be the first to trim their lines for fear of losing display space and market share. So the industry has gone through rounds of wrenching consolidation as poor financials *force* everyone to cut back.

    I might actually look at *strengthening* the mid list. Look at a historical list of best sellers. Which sprang out of nowhere as lucky successes by new authors who happened to come up with something the market wanted, and which were the product of midlist authors who slowly built an audience and finally broke through to the next level? Also, the midlist has historically provided the steady cash flow that smooths the peaks and valleys between the success of the bestsellers, and the failures of the books *thought* to be bestsellers which got large press runs and expensive promotion, then died in the market.

    Successful midlist titles make money. Not as much as best sellers, perhaps, but they’re profitable. And the midlist os the talent pool from which future best sellers are likely to spring.

  9. Jack W Perry

    Getting rid of midlist is NOT the solution. Unrealistic expectations for first novels is the problem. Cormac McCarthy’s first three novels sold less than 5,000 each. Today he is one of the most respected writers and hits the top of the charts. To eliminate midlist would make publishing worse. The problem is the millions spent signing up celebrity books that seldom earn out, have high returns and eat up valuable marketing dollars that should go to real books.

  10. Dan McCarthy

    The antidote isn’t necessarily fewer books. It’s more books that everyone cares about: the author, the agent, the editor, the house, the retailer and the reader. The answer to this is More: More imprints. When distribution consolidated, both on the retail and the distributor levels, small imprints/ small houses were consolidated by bigger houses. Once, editors and publishers were entrepreneurs with high stakes, haing to answer the question of how to publish 15 to 30 books that could hold their own. Personal passion, survival and ingenuity helped grow books that stood on their own. Today’s world is different.

  11. oebooks

    Advancing Technologyies will force this change. Those vested in the craft, not the dollars more likely will not see a need to be overly concerned.

  12. Dennis McCunney

    @Paul The problem with ebook pricing is a fair bit of unreality among consumers about how cheap ebooks *can* be. Yes, they don’t have printing, binding, warehousing and distribution costs. But they *do* have costs to acquire, edit, copyedit, proofread, markup, and typeset, plus cover design and cover art and interior art if any, and an allocated share of the general overhead of the publisher for things like office space, electricity and phone service, and salaries of the folks not directly involved in the particular book. The cost of all the parts leading up to being able to issue the book as ebook or printed volume will be substantial, and the retail price will be based in part on the publisher’s best guess of the market for it. Specialized titles, like textbooks and computer manuals are by nature more expensive than things like general fiction, and an electronic version *can’t* be as cheap as say, a novel.

    The question is just what portion of a books total cost is the manufacturing and distribution part. One editor I know estimates it’s 10%, but I think that’s unrealistically low. On the other hand, 20% would not surprise me.

    My own feeling is that the price point general fiction ebook titles must hit is that of the corresponding mass market paperback. Unless you add value, by including stuff not in the paper book (and things like ePub are containers that can contain other things like i9mage, audio, and video), the customer will look at the higher ebook price, say “Why?”, and pass unless they really need the electronic edition over the paper copy.

  13. Ransom Stephens

    There are two Achilles heels (so at leas the beast resembles a primate):
    1. Yes, if you could just determine in advance the merit or quality of an object that is intrinsically subjective you’d be the ultimate publisher – all you’d publish would be best sellers, whether from known authors or not!
    2. A useful definition of merit/quality doesn’t exist. If we measure merit/quality by sales, we won’t know the value of something until well after it has been released. If we reject the identification of sales and quality, we land in the same boat: the only measure of merit is how a book survives over time – if it leaves a mark.
    It’s clear that the, by and large, random process that publishing houses have taken to choose titles is no better than 25% accurate in #1 and far less than that at #2. I say “random process” because, once a text crosses the minimal craft threshold, its quality is absolutely subjective. My favorite color is blue. You offer me yellow? Sorry, that doesn’t fit in my list.
    My book, The God Patent, took a more objective, democratic path to publication: I put it out on Scribd.com as an e-novel. It spent 3+ months on the “most read” list, and a small publisher came to me and asked for the rights to publish it.
    Letting the market decide merit addresses #1 and should contribute to #2. So, why not let a book earn its wings electronically on a small field and then, after it’s proven itself, put it out in print and onto the big stage?

  14. Theresa M. Moore

    I have been striving for literally (and figuratively) YEARS to write the best quality books which are vaunted on the best-seller lists, but have been snubbed and ignored for about that long. So I self-publish, and I am responsible for what comes out, not someone whose taste in literature has been bent by $$$ and not the quest for quality. There have been too many gossip fluff books coming out lately, which means that the publishers are pandering to the lowest common denominator for material. Just once I would LOVE to see a poetry book make the top of the list. But it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. Yes, sales drive the lists, and I am not going to hold my breath waiting for some big house to pick me up. My books and ebooks are out there NOW and I didn’t need them to do it for me.

  15. Nicole Chardenet

    Mediocrity would be an upgrade in quality right now for traditional publishing. Since you don’t even have to write a book anymore to get a book contract maybe a focus on mediocre books would improve the sales of an industry focused on (hoped-for) quick-hit crap books based on popular web sites or increasingly boring celebrities.

    Here’s an idea: Why don’t you folks actually attempt to make a success of each and every author you take on? Rather than throwing all your money at the Dan Browns, who was a borderline failure as an author before you decided to give him a big promo budget for The Da Vinci Code.

    Eliminate the mid-list. Brilliant idea! You can save even more money by cutting food out of your diet too.

    Best of luck!

  16. Christopher Rand

    As a graduate student in Publishing, I outright disagree. And frankly, you frighten me.

    What you are proposing, essentially, is discouraging publishers from acquiring books they don’t believe will be bestsellers. (In other words, almost every book.)

    Why not move a little further down the production line and just tell whom we consider to be mediocre authors to stop writing? Perhaps we should encourage “mediocre” students to discontinue their Creative Writing studies as well?

    For that matter, who should go first? Which publisher is going to be the first to banish its own beoloved mid-list, throwing the first virgin on the fire? Perhaps we should enact a law forcing all publishers to do so–that would be fairest, would it not?

    You can’t make more money by artificially limiting the amount of available media. To do so would be worse than censorship; we would be creating an artificial marketplace that discouraged creativity, rather than encouraging it. That’s worse than censorship.

    The problem is not in the book. It’s in the publishing model. Forsaking books–artificially limiting what is essentially a resource (you know, the way military dictatorships create scarcity by withholding food from their people) will only further plunge the industry into the ‘make-hits-or-bust’ mentality it is currently in.

    EMPOWER the mid-list by finding better ways for authors to connect to their readers. There is a reader for every book, whether or not it is a bestseller. Allocate resources in-house accordingly based on market knowledge. These are workable goals that allow for a future in publishing.

    Like communism, your idea looks better on paper than it would in practice. Artificial barriers will not save publishing. Better communication, and what will be the future of book marketing, will.

    1. david nussbaum

      I guess my blog hit a nerve?

      Rest easy though, I am not a communist, an oven mitt, or seeking to reduce the number of quality books.

      As stated in an earlier response, my goal was to suggest we publish fewer “middling” books, books that are created simply because there seems to be a niche that needs to be filled, or books that are used simply to promote some product/service/etc or books that get published in an effort to simply bring in revenue to a publishing house.

      When you walk the aisles at B&N or Borders, and you see the overwhelming number of books, don’t you think about the “average” reader and the ability to be intimidated by so many choices, without a great way to guide them or help them discover? My fear is that these buyers, who at one time came in, browsed, drank coffee, and selected three books other than the one they came in for, now come in, buy one book (or go online and pluck the book off the web site) and then they are out of the store. Its about the experience of buying books, my friends, not just the act of writing, publishing, selling books.

      If we could focus our time, strategy, attention, marketing, staff, reviewers, promotional people on only good books, don’t you think MORE books would sell? In that universe, authors will earn more money, agents would earn more money, readers would be more satisfied, publishers would earn more money, and the ecosystem of book readers and writers, and book providers would gain health, not lose health.

      I think my mistake was in calling out the “mid-list.” I certainly think the mid-list should survive as long as there is an audience for those books.

      My next blog will be on e-readers and how they will affect the book universe. And then I will duck!

      1. Christopher Rand

        I suppose I was a bit brash in my previous response–a bit reactionary–but we shouldn’t forget that the very choice you are concerned readers will be “intimidated” by is in fact a thing of value to readers, not only in books but in all media, all consumer goods.

        So, I apologize for my harsh comparisons. I at least see your point–it would be nice if we could count on every published book to be both popular and a commercial success–but ‘popular’ and ‘commercial success’ needn’t only describe books that succeed in large markets, or the mass market.

        If we think of the reading public as one large market–a group of people that at its best will only buy a certain number of books (I say books, mind you, as in actual physical or digital copies of any number of titles, be they ten different titles or ten-million different titles), then yes, limiting the amount of of available titles would in theory drive up the number of sold copies of the remaining handful of titles; the titles deemed worthy to publish. That’s all that is available, so therefore that is what the reading public will buy.

        But even then, the potential revenue is the same–you’re simply selling ‘more of less’ (a greater number of copies of fewer titles) instead of less of more (a smaller number of copies sold per title, but with a wide range of ‘bestseller,’ mid-list, and back-list titles). By encouraging editors to artificially acquire fewer books–ONLY the cream of the crop–all you have succeeded in doing is taking away the variety of titles available to the reader. And readers come in all kinds of flavors.

        If I want to buy a book on, say, economics in social media, I would rather choose from 10 titles than from 2, from 100 titles than from 20. One of those titles is for me; many of those other titles are for other people. And fiction… how can we arguably limit the amount of published fiction based on the argument that readers will be intimidated by choice?

        “I think the mid-list should survive as long as there is an audience for those books.” I couldn’t agree more, and I hold it to be true that there is always an audience–albeit perhaps a small one–for every book that is at least publishable. Our efforts should be directed toward finding and connecting with those audiences, rather than snuffing out their books.

        The challenge in overcoming the “average” reader’s intimidation factor associated with variety is not effectively met by limiting choice, but by connecting readers in any-sized market to the publishers and authors whose books matter to them; by redefining marketing so that the publisher/author are in a conversation with those readers; by understanding the reader better, and in doing so helping them find their books; and by standardizing new and effective distribution systems that allow us to ship a wide variety of titles, rather than a great quantity of one or a handful of titles, to readers in those identifiable markets, no matter their size.

        With that last note on refining distribution systems, I look forward to your post on e-readers. I am brutally paraphrasing (and failing to attribute) this quote, but books, and information in general, ‘want to be free’; I think e-readers will serve as powerful tools for producer-to-consumer and reader-to-reader distribution.

        Let me end, also, by apologizing for laying siege on your blog. It’s your space and I got carried away.


        1. david nussbaum

          No need to apologize Chris, I love your passion and those of every single person posting. Its that passion, focus, excitement and yes, love, that makes me so addicted to the publishing business!

  17. Nicole Chardenet

    Hit a nerve? Where did you get that idea, David? 😉

    The publishing industry seems hell-bent on self-destruction at the moment with increasingly stupid ideas like forcing Amazon to sell e-books for close to the same price as dead-tree books, AND expecting a return on e-books as well! (Helllooo??? Can someone please explain the Internets tubes thingy to these people?)

    Instead of trying to think of ways to fine-tune magically picking out the future bestsellers, which is sort of how you came across, and which is what makes many of us take traditional publishing less seriously and as less relevant now, maybe y’all should be thinking about how you can make MORE money publishing MORE books, because a lot of us are quite sure you’re blowing off a lot of promising new authors in pursuit of the Next Big Thing.

    Here’s an idea. Maybe bookstores should buy several Espresso machines, plus one dead-tree copy of each book they want to sell. A customer comes in, flips through the books, and bar-code scans the ones they want, the order for which is sent to the Espresso machine which prints out the book they want right there (or sends it to their iPhone, or Kindle, or whatever). No need to stock dead-tree books that might have to be returned to the publisher (which is a stupid policy anyway as it doesn’t encourage the bookseller to try to sell those books very hard), which makes the industry much greener and more sustainable as a consequence.

    Oh, and maybe publishers could show some actual interest in the new authors they *do* acquire, work to promote them as much as their “stars”, and maybe they will actually have folks ready to fill their shoes when the “stars” retire or pass on. And if they expect the author to foot some of the marketing bill, then give them bigger advances, or quicker royalties, or whatever. As y’all are fond of saying, “Money flows TO the author, not AWAY from the author.”

    Okay, you’re usually talking about vanity/subsidy/self-publishing outfits when you say that, but since publishers are looking for self-published *successes* to hand book contracts too, maybe it’s wise not to bite the hand that’s begun feeding you – as a “proving ground” for new authors who are good writers or good promoters or both.

    (Which strikes me as a fairly reasonable business premise, actually. BUT…if authors do the heavy lifting for the first book, then they should take the lion’s share of the profits, and the publisher can get their usual cut with their *second* book).

    IOW, David, try thinking *outside* the box rather than trying to narrow it.

    1. david nussbaum

      Love your ideas Nicole, and btw, F+W does treat its new authors like its established authors in that when we acquire a book, we fully expect it to be successful, work closely with the author on blogging, facebook pages, twitter, speaking engagements, press and the full gamut.

  18. Dennis McCunney

    “When you walk the aisles at B&N or Borders, and you see the overwhelming number of books, don’t you think about the “average” reader and the ability to be intimidated by so many choices, without a great way to guide them or help them discover? My fear is that these buyers, who at one time came in, browsed, drank coffee, and selected three books other than the one they came in for, now come in, buy one book (or go online and pluck the book off the web site) and then they are out of the store. Its about the experience of buying books, my friends, not just the act of writing, publishing, selling books.”

    I live within walking distance of a Borders with a cafe, a Barnes and Noble Superstore, and a variety of other book resources, including The Strand, a bookstore specializing in used, remaindered, and recycled reviewer books, which advertises itself as having “18 miles of books” and is *not* joking.

    I don’t feel overwhelmed in the least. I go in having an idea of what I want. The biggest question (and it only applies to stores I have not been in before) is “Where is the section, where the sort of thing I’m interested in is shelved?” Once I’ve found out where that store puts particular categories of books, I can manage fine, thanks.

    I’m not even overwhelmed by multiple choices within a category. Chances are, I have specific titles in mind, but if I don’t, that’s what browsing is about. It’s a standard part of any shopping, for any product. You pick out some things that look like what you want, then narrow down based on various criteria. If I’m in a bookstore and don’t have a defined idea of exactly what title(s) I want, that browsing and narrowing down is part of the *fun*

    Am I out of the ordinary, and not representative of the average consumer? I don’t think so.

    “If we could focus our time, strategy, attention, marketing, staff, reviewers, promotional people on only good books, don’t you think MORE books would sell? In that universe, authors will earn more money, agents would earn more money, readers would be more satisfied, publishers would earn more money, and the ecosystem of book readers and writers, and book providers would gain health, not lose health.”

    I’ll go out on a limb here, and define “good” books in this context as titles that will be popular and *sell*.

    If *you* have a sure fire way of determining just which books those are, you are in the wrong line of work. You can make your fortune advising publishers on which titles to publish.

    But you *don’t* know that. *Nobody* does. Publishing is a crap shoot where you put it out there with crossed fingers and hope it finds an audience. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it becomes a best seller. Usually it tanks and you eat the cost. You bet the company that you’ll have enough successes to cover the cost of the failures, and make some money and keep you in business. Sometimes you’re wrong about that, too, and go belly up.

    You can make a good case that there are still too many books chasing too few readers. The problem is determining which of what gets released is part of the “too many”.

    And as for selling *more* books, that’s questionable. Remember, you are competing for the consumer’s discretionary *time*. You can do something like listen to music while doing other things, as a background activity. Reading by nature is a foreground activity, and when you do it, it’s the focus of your attention. Ask yourself what the customer could be doing with the time required *instead* of reading a book. They could be watching TV, going to a movie, going out to dinner, going to a sporting event, going to a party, having sex…all of which they might consider a better use of their time and/or money.

    The challenge for the industry isn’t publishing “good” books. It’s understanding the market. Who are the customers? What do they *want* to read? How do you reach them to let them know you have stuff available that fits their interests?

    I think an awful lot of books that died on the shelves did so because the people who might have been interested in them never knew they existed.

    The challenges facing Publishing are all “Marketing 101”: Who is the customer? What does she need? What needs does she have that aren’t being filled? What opportunities exist for us in filling those needs?

    If Publishing can discover those things, publishing “good” books will take care of itself. Publishers, after all, publish books they *think* the consumer wants. The better the understanding they have of what the consur wants, the more likely they’ll be to publish books that sell.

  19. carlaking

    Philosophically, if we eliminate the edges of the pool–which is positively roiling with the crap, the mediocre, the pretty good, and the fabulously shining stars–then how do we compare, even recognize possible mid-list medal winners?

    Practically, when you define middling books as books that are created [I’m assuming at a large publishers behest], “simply because there seems to be a niche that needs to be filled, or books that are used simply to promote some product/service/etc or books that get published in an effort to simply bring in revenue to a publishing house,” you are arguing against two things; one is very useful and the other is very powerful:

    a) Niche books can be very useful to a niche audience. Long live niche!

    b) Capitalists will always want to promote something to make money. Personally, I’d like to eliminate all restaurants with middling food, and all the fast food crap, too. But capitalism always wins.

    I don’t know if there is even one aspect of life that gets us delivered the creamy center without having to nibble through the dry edges. But when we reach that creamy center, it’s all the sweeter for the work to get to it, no?

    Well, thanks for trying to help us get there faster.

    1. david nussbaum

      Thanks Carla, and I totally agree — niche/vertical books are absolutely critical and if done well serve their passion communities in an important way. In fact, I think the future for niche categories and niche books will be quite robust for both p-books (I really dislike that moniker) and e-books.

      Love your website, btw!

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