A Few Publishing Facts by Lyle Mortimer/Cedar Fort

There are a lot of things about the publishing industry of which most authors are not aware. By learning about what goes on behind the scenes with your publisher, and in the industry as a whole, you will be better equipped to understand the environment in which you are trying to sell your book.

Here are a few facts.

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 263 million books were sold in 2011 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 2, 2012). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 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).

A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore

For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to approximately 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are 250,000-plus business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

It is 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 is 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.

There’s little agreement among publishers about what advertising does, other than make the author and the author’s agent feel better, and demonstrate that the house is capable of spending money on ads.

If you’re lucky enough to publish with a house that has a publicity and marketing staff so much the better. You’re one of the lucky ones. Advertising and marketing are some of the gambles that make trade publishing so risky.

Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities

Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. 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.

Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by 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 authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books. 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.

No other industry has so many new product introductions

Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. Yet the average new book generates only $10,000 to $20,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense. This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.

You may have noticed that the numbers of bookstores have decreased significantly over the past decade. Most notably was the demise of Borders, which had a large market share. You have probably also seen that the ranks of publishers are thinning.

As you understand the risks and responsibilities of publishers you will be much better able to interface with them, your expectations will be significantly refined, and your project is much more likely to succeed.


Lyle Mortimer and Lee Nelson started Cedar Fort in 1986. Lyle has been an active participant in the company for over 25 years. Cedar Fort’s vision is to publish uplifting and edifying books. You can connect with Cedar Fort at the website, www.cedarfort.com.

8 thoughts on “A Few Publishing Facts by Lyle Mortimer/Cedar Fort”

  1. Now that you’ve thrown a big, wet blanket over our hopes and dreams, how about another post on how to best succeed within the realities that you’ve listed above? 🙂

    1. ML, while everything he says is true, it’s important to remember the industry is in flux. There are new writers breaking into the market every day—so someone is figuring it out. Don’t give up!

  2. Just because someone says something is hard doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I appreciate knowing the realities, but never let that stop you from trying. All my life, I have stopped myself from doing things because someone said it was hard – what a waste of many great years – and now I’m realizing that most of the things people say are hard are only hard to them, but not me. Sadly, not very many people can stand to see others do things that they can’t do themselves. The realities of a fluctuating publishing market are documented, but so what. It’s never been easier for someone that writes garbage to get it printed and of course garbage isn’t going to become a best seller, but if you write something good then it doesn’t matter what else is out there or how crappy the market is. If you want to write, write the best you can and get feedback from educated people who will tell you the truth and not just spare your feelings and never stop after one bad critique. Bad critiques aren’t easy to hear, but more often than not, will lead you to a better finished product.

  3. I thought Lyle’s article was spot on (ooh, so British-like sounding). I’m in the LDS “movie-making” world and the same issue prevails in that industry. Ironically, I’m in the last stages of “producing” a book, but I knew the factors Lyle speaks of in this article going into the project. No book has much chance of survival without a logical and sustained marketing strategy for the “book.” Our team has been focused on that goal for over a year and we’re getting closer to launch. It will be interesting to see if it works. I know that the effort to build an audience requires serious effort and some money and you can’t rely on the approach of “If I write it, they will come.” It’s more if I create unique and interesting ways for the market to discover this then maybe they will. If I’m right, then you’ll have a formula for other authors.

  4. While the specifics of the study cited relate to nonfiction, I think much of this is true of fiction as well.

    There are a lot of different ways people can respond. In my opinion, here are some of the important questions to ask:
    – Why am I writing this book? What is the reward that will make it “worth it” to me? If the reward is actually reaching people who will appreciate the book and benefit from it, that’s a much lower bar than making a living off writing.)
    – What do I have to offer that will set this apart from what else is out there? (Which requires knowing what else is out there, among other things.)
    – How can I make my book as good as it will be? (Good critiques, etc., as mentioned above, are an important part of this.)
    – What resources can I bring to marketing as well as writing this book?

    Some people will continue to succeed using some variation of the old models. Most of us–even those of us who write worthwhile books–won’t.

    Which isn’t a reason not to try. However, I do think it’s a reason to trim our own expectations.

    I also think we need to be more creative and consider how the paradigms have changed. Back when I first started writing, fanfiction was considered a waste of time at best for a would-be professional writer. Now, I envy the following of tens of thousands of readers that some fanfiction authors have acquired. If they choose to write their own original stories, that’s a ready-made potential fanbase. Of course, they’ve also paid the price by putting in years’ worth of writing stories that will never make them any money at all. Much of it is a tradeoff — and we need to know what tradeoffs are worth it to us.

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