We have a broken system in need of repair. Now, you ask what system am I referring to. I refer to the way that books are published and reach readers.

Our Current Publishing System

Our current broken publishing system is broken works only to the advantage of a few people. Only a small proportion of fiction writers are monetarily compensated in a way that substantially rewards their creativity and efforts. The major publishing houses, while realizing profits every year for the last several years, typically do not recover the cost of most author advances and the outlay of expenses to get a book published. As a result they focus more and more of their resources on known authors every year.

One of the three major retailers of books has been struggling and showing a net loss for over a year. The independent bookstores struggle to make ends meet as well. Lastly, book lovers are short changed by a system that is focusing on a narrow slice of creative possibility and they are drawn to other forms of leisure entertainment that capture their interest. The entire industry needs revamping because it is in a creative funk and a state of demise.


According to Jerrold Jenkins and posted on
81% of the population feels they have a book inside them.
And 27% would write fiction.

6 million people wrote a manuscript of some kind, either fiction or non-fiction, and 6 million manuscripts are making the rounds.

Tara Harper on her website at says that 3 out of every ten thousand writers gets published.

Advances are Peanuts

There are a very large number of people all over the world who are currently creating written works. However, according to Ridley Pearson from only roughly 5000 novels and 200 first novels by new authors are purchased each year by publishers. Also, new authors are not paid very much for their work. They typically receive an advance between $1500 and $7000. Further the royalties specified by contract usually stipulate that for every book under 5000 copies sold the author gets a royalty of 10 to 12%.

This may sound like it could be lucrative. However, the Authors Guild states “A successful fiction book sells 5000 copies” on their website at According to Jerrold Jenkins 70% of the books published do not earn out their advance. So for the effort of writing a novel a writer might only receive $1500 to $7000.

Lost Novels and Leaky Roofs

This information makes me wonder how many outstanding novelists we have lost because they decided to become accountants to be able to afford a home. Or how many teachers who were writing for years in their spare time finally gave up because their novel was lost in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Or how many published authors have leaky roofs and sweat it out every time the power bill comes due.

Publishing Houses are Doing OK

Now, the publishing houses are doing better and all showed profits last year in the millions of dollars. In the June 4, 2007 edition of New York News and Features Arianne Cohen writes that for Random house the best way to make money is to underpay writers. She quotes the CEO of Random House, Peter Olson, as saying “The most profitable books are highly successful authors early in their career with a contract that doesn’t reflect their success.”

Not By Supporting Newer Authors

However despite they have made profits, the publishers are doing so by not supporting the efforts of their newer authors. The publishers are doing well by giving successful authors better compensation and publicity, focusing more and more of their resources towards publicizing their top authors rather than the midlist authors, and relying on revenues from their lists of what are called ‘backlist’ books.

Dan Poynter on writes: “Last spring (1999) an uneasy Authors Guild, which had spent more than a year looking into these trends, released its report on midlist publishing. It laboriously toted up the figures for the top fiction and nonfiction titles on the Publishers Weekly annual bestseller list, then showed how those 30 megabooks suck up a growing proportion of sales. In 1986, the bestsellers accounted for about 7 percent of all adult hardcover trade book sales; a decade later they accounted for 13 percent. In 1999, applying the same methodology, the proportion reached nearly 15 percent.” The end result of this is that fewer and fewer book titles are being sold and circulated.

A newer author’s novel needs to catch on on its own. And books often are given only four weeks to move in a bookstore before being sent back to the publishers. Otherwise, the author might not ever get the full efforts of their publisher to publicize their book. They may labor in obscurity no matter how marvelous the book is.

70% of the Books Published Don’t Make a Profit

Currently according to Jerrold Jenkins 70% of the books published don’t make a profit.

In Ms. Cohen’s article she writes that “Fifteen to twenty best sellers at a time” and a huge volume of steadily selling older titles support Random House. She goes on to say that 80% of Random House’s profits come from its back-list books.

In the January 12, 1998 issue of U.S. News and World Report the breakout of costs for a hardback book is as follows:

  • 22% Royalties, rights, and permissions
  • 8% editorial
  • 12% Administration and other associated costs
  • 16% Production
  • 17% paper, printing, and binding
  • 4% warehousing
  • and 21% sales and marketing.

Focusing on books by known authors is a way for the publishers to minimize their risks. According to Tara Harper on her website, it costs her publisher DelRey/Random House $150,000 to publish a mass market paperback book. It takes quite a few sold copies to recover this cost and publishing any title involves risk. However, when the publishers narrow down the number of titles that they are publishing and backing, they are reducing their own chances to create profitable successful titles. Their list of backlist books is going to grow at a much slower rate or go into decline.


The picture in the bookstores is not entirely rosy either. Borders has been struggling a bit in the last year. Last May the CEO of Borders announced that the company was potentially for sale and Barnes and Noble began looking into the possibility of acquiring Borders. In November 2008 as reported in the Detroit Free Press, despite a third quarter loss of $0.64 per share and a revenue decline of 9.4%, George Jones, the CEO of Borders, announced the company was no longer for sale. The company is still possibly looking to sell off its Paperchase Products unit. Barnes and Noble also reported a drop in same store sales for the third quarter. Only Amazon reported an increase in sales of 15% of books, cd’s, and other media.

Now to increase the health of the company, Borders reduced costs and got rid of some of its debt. It also reduced its inventory by 19.5% over the course of the last year as reported by the Detroit Free Press. Some of this inventory shedding was good and necessary. However, it did reduce the number of books on the shelves.

The Squeeze

Where this whole scenario becomes tragic is the squeeze between the profit optimization of the big publishers  and the struggling retail outlets. The publishers dominate and publish less books (and more of those are by known authors). The retailers struggle and use the square footage of their stores to the best advantage to make money as the selection of titles becomes very narrow. Cool, interesting books get lost and the selection on the shelves dwindles. Titles that might have been on the shelves ten years ago– no longer make it to the chain store shelves.

What this potentially means is a vicious downward cycle where unknown authors’ works may not be noticed, published, and on the shelves. Or if the works are published they may not be fully publicized because they are being squeezed out of the public’s vision by the few bestselling authors who are hogging the spotlight. And if the midlist and unknown authors are on the shelves but they don’t sell well, then they are less likely to be published again. And the entire system is less likely to take the financial risk of publishing the works of unknown authors. It ends up being kind of a form of censorship– generated by the desire for greater profits. And it means less creative works for distribution.

The Culling of Books

Further, over time many works simply end up disappearing because they didn’t sell and there is no chance for them to be reprinted. So all the written works get culled over time not based on merit or any other quality, but simply by how well they sold.

In my experience, people love books. Hardcopy in their hands that they can peruse. It has a magic. Books are gateways and potential and so many things. People will buy books that they can look through and get a sample of.

That’s where bookstores come in. People want to be able to be lost in the experience of the store and they want to be able to look over a wide selection in their area of interest. It discourages people from buying when they get to the store and there isn’t a diverse selection. So, in my humble opinion the publishing houses and the chain bookstores who are optimizing profits by not supporting authors and limiting selection are not only adversely affecting what written art is available– they are also causing their own demise. And potentially the demise of the written word.

While libraries are in my mind one of humanities greatest accomplishments, bookstores are equally fabulous because they are where the new printed material emerges. It typically takes libraries some time to get enough copies of new books onto their shelves for distribution. But at the bookstore a person can go in and find the latest and newest.

Fewer People Reading

However, the average age of people who read is going up and the number of hours that is spent reading is going down. According to a Consumer Research Study on Book Publishing by the Book Industry Study Group that was done in 2001, “customers 55 and older account for more than one third of all books bought.”

According to Erin Allen in the article “Americans Read, Understand Less” on the Library of Congress website at “In 2004, the NEA published ‘Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.’ That study showed that Americans in almost every demographic group were reading fiction, poetry and drama—and books in general—at significantly lower rates than 10 or 20 years earlier, with declines steepest among young adults. This newest 2007 study attests to the diminished role of voluntary reading in American life.” The article goes on to say that half of all young adults aged 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure. Michael Levine on his website writes that “70% of Americans haven’t visited a bookstore in five years.”

Competition for Leisure Time

According to Business Trend Analysts, Inc. as reported in Publishers Weekly, October 27, 1997, “While the US Population is growing and education levels are rising, book sales are not—due to heavy media competition for leisure time.” People are doing other things with their time.

Revolution of Thought and Word

In conclusion, the written art form needs to gain vibrancy to pull people back to it. A revival of the grand dialogue of thought through the written word is badly needed. An infusion of fresh ideas, raw talent, and creative verve could drive a renaissance of the written form. In the past the written word was the platform for creative and inspirational discussion that caused the Enlightenment and subsequent revolutions in thought.

I think in the time period we live in and with the technology we have available to us, the internet offers a forum for an expansion of creative thought and a stage to highlight the works of new authors. And to do so at little cost.

While I am advocating for electronic media, I don’t wish for hard copy to go away. I want both! Let’s maximize the variety and amount of written art available! Let them support one another and fuel ideas and dialogue. I read and listen to stories and novels from the internet, but my many bookshelves are crammed with books in the dead tree format.

Hard Cover and Electronic is OK

Being able to flip back and forth in a book and compare the way an author phrased something in one passage with their language usage in another passage makes hard copy books invaluable. Or being able to check a fact from a previous chapter. Or being able to look at the table of contents and determine if the book fits a need. For me all of these actions, in addition to simply liking the feel of a book, mean I don’t want hard copy to be totally replaced by electronic copy. I hope electronic copy by having written art circulating freely, generates more creativity and greater expression. Further, people will see what all is available beyond the limited selection in the department store or being promoted by the publishers and bookstores and risk reading something more obscure.


While I do believe changes in our current publishing and bookstore distribution system are necessary, I hope everyone will be able to benefit. Further, I think we are still working out how the relatively new frontier of the internet will support commerce and give monetary value to the efforts of the people putting their time and skills into presenting content on the internet.

Hopefully, a new system arises that will present readers with a greater amount of interesting ideas to entertain, provoke, and inspire them. The bookstores will have more sales because there will be greater interest in the written word. Lastly, readers will be more aware of authors who are writing innovative works. The publishing houses will see more of their lesser known authors gain success and they will profit as well. And writers will no longer labor uncompensated and in obscurity.


What do you think will happen with the more widespread use of electronic media? Do you think books will disappear and everyone will have their own Kindle? What place do you see books having? Do you think bookstores and libraries will survive into the future? What role do you see the internet playing in either encouraging new writers/artists or discouraging them? What do you see the role of books being?