Books In Boxes Or Digital Libraries

I bought a four-pack of 16 ounce drinking glasses in February because I returned to an apartment with nothing but mugs. This morning, the first of September, I noticed that three glasses remain in the cardboard four-pack. I use the other one every day. While some self publishers are arguing over whether the glass is half empty or half full, I'm wondering what to do with three extra glasses when I move. If I weren't a publisher I probably wouldn't see 48 ounces of unused capacity as excess inventory. At least if I leave them here when I move out next month, I shouldn't have to worry about anybody packaging them up and returning them to me.

Some publishers seem to find comfort in surrounded themselves with boxes of their own books. I suppose that might be nice if you have a lot of money to dispose of and don't like a lot of empty space in your life, but unless you're using the boxes as office furniture, it's hard to see how they're doing your business any good. The option is not to print books until you have customers, and the most efficient way to do that is with print-on-demand. The economics of print-on-demand dictate that it be used for titles with modest expectations. It would make no sense to use print-on-demand for a title with an initial print run of 10,000 books, but it only costs a few dollars a year to keep a title in a digital library ready for printing. To sell 10,000 books over three to five years with short discount print-on-demand does make more sense than to sell 10,000 books over the same time period with offset printing, trade discounts and warehousing. In this instance, more sense also means more money.

Estimating the demand for a potential title is obviously a first step for any publisher, but new publishers tend to do a horrible job of it. The most common mistake is starting with a demographic and working backwards. I've heard too many publishers trying to justify a large initial print run with logic that starts with the population of the U.S. It goes like this: "There are around 300 million people in the U.S. and at least 10% have thought of moving to California, and at least 10% of them would be willing to buy a book about it. That's 3 million people, and in the worst case, if we only sell to 1% of them it's still 30,000 books!"

Am I supposed to say, "Gee, I checked your math and you're right"? It's fun to throw around big numbers to get an acquisitions editor's attention if you're an author, but it's the wrong way to go about managing a publishing business. The way to estimate demand for a book is to look at competing books and try to figure out how well they are selling. If there aren't any directly competing books, find something similar, and if you can't find anything similar, talk to some friends and family for a sanity check.

Amazon is a great place to find competing titles due to their Power Search functionality and category bestseller lists. Once you make up a list of competing titles, you'll want to keep a record of their daily sales ranks for a month to see how consistently they sell and to get an estimate of the absolute sales. However, Amazon isn't the whole book market, and it's not even representative for some genres. You can get the last two years worth of sales data from Ingram, the largest book distributor in the U.S., but those numbers are highly dependent on whether the publisher in question uses Ingram at all, or if they only use Ingram for servicing smaller accounts.

You can make the most of this fragmentary information if you back it up with a lot of field research. Visit the chain stores to see if they stock the competing titles, especially Barnes & Noble and Borders, and take note if they model (stock) more than one copy. If they have a whole pile of them, it's more likely a co-op advertising deal (the publisher paying for stocking) than modeling. If your proposed title is in a genre that is carried at specialty chain stores, check their stocking as well. I wouldn't spend too much time trying to assess stocking at independent bookstores because they will either reflect the chain stocking or they'll be all over the place.

Finally, find a local library with access to a good regional or national cataloging service to see how well a title is stocked in libraries. You can also get some great information online from With all of these methods, keep in mind that the market focus of the competing publishers will have a lot to do with where the book does well, and their focus might be quite different from yours. However, you may find that none of the competing titles are doing particularly well. It doesn't mean they are all badly written or marketed. It means the glass is half empty and if you go with offset printing you'll probably get stuck with many unsold boxes of books.

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