A Bookstore Growing by 4000 Titles a Day

There was a time, let's call it the Happy Days era, when the publishing business was all about selling new books to libraries and schools. Since then, it's gotten a lot more competitive, and while schools and colleges still make up a huge market, selling to libraries has become a less attractive business model for most publishers. The last thirty years or so have seen the publishing industry increasingly dependent on the whims of the great unwashed, with our transient fancies and questionable tastes.

Many of the same books that are still purchased by libraries are also sold through supermarkets and mass merchandisers. To the victor belongs the spoiled lettuce. The "real" book markets for publishers who aren't manufacturing bestselling novels or political fluff posing as dialogue are the booksellers. All three of them. While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon do dominate the bookselling scene in this country in a way that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. Every year I update my write-up of the big three from their annual reports (all three are public companies), and every year, Amazon is the fastest grower. But that's all dollars and cents stuff; what I want to talk about here is virtual shelf space.

I've been running a little experiment this week, perhaps one of the slowest weeks of the summer, watching the sales rank of an orphan title decay on Amazon. By an orphan title, I mean a book that sold one copy last year (I know, I bought it), and hasn't sold a copy since. The current rank of that book is 3,594,630, but it's the decay rate that's of interest. Ninety-six hours ago, the rank was 3,577,657, so it's been falling at just under 4,250 points per day. Since a year has gone by since the book was last purchased, all of the books that sell on a regular basis, even those selling two copies a year, have long since passed it. The only things pushing it down at this point are titles that haven't sold for over a year or titles that have never sold on Amazon before.

I decided to wave my hands at the math and say, adjusting for the fact we're in the low season and that a book that sold one copy more than a year ago isn't much more likely to sell a copy than one that never sold at all, every day Amazon is selling 4,000 more titles for the first time. That's about 1.4 million titles a year. Of that total, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 are probably new titles. The rest, over a million of them, are books that have gone out-of-print and which are only listed in the Amazon catalog thanks to imported laundry lists of ISBN's and Third Party Sellers.

I wish Amazon would break out the percentage of Third Party items it sells that are sold in North America, and if I get two wishes, the percentage of those items that are books would be nice as well. Based on their current numbers, I could make the argument, if everything tilted the right way, that about one out of three book purchases on the Amazon site are being sold by Third Party vendors. If the proportion of Marketplace sales is much higher in the U.S. than abroad, that number could easily approach one out of every two books they sell. It makes me wonder if the future of publishing is in self publishing used books

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