Cook the Books

· Joanthan Poritsky

Julie Bosman for the [New York Times]( /survey-shows-publishing-expanded-since-2008.html):

BookStats, a comprehensive survey conducted by two major trade groups that was released early Tuesday, revealed that in 2010 publishers generated net revenue of $27.9 billion, a 5.6 percent increase over 2008. Publishers sold 2.57 billion books in all formats in 2010, a 4.1 percent increase since 2008.

They didn’t have data for 2009?

Ms. Raccah emphasized that the newest survey incorporates data from a much larger group of publishers, in addition to distributors, wholesalers and retailers like Barnes & Noble. In its definition of what is a book, the report counted professional and scholarly journals and databases, multimedia teaching materials and mobile apps.

All of the numbers here are somewhat dubious. The survey took all of the apples and oranges (and pears and lemons and, hell, some avocados) and lumped them together to show a net win. For one, I’m not sure what growth over two years tells you.1

The numbers that are of personal interest to me, and perhaps to most outside of the publishing industry, are these:

In 2008 e-books were 0.6 percent of the total trade market; in 2010, they were 6.4 percent. Publishers have seen especially robust e-book sales in genre fiction like romance, mystery and thrillers, as well as literary fiction. In 2010, 114 million e-books were sold, the report said. > > The survey does not include sales data from 2011, a year of substantial e-book growth.


…sales of adult hardcover and paperback books from 2008 through 2010 were relatively flat, growing about 1 percent over three years. Sales of mass- market paperbacks declined 16 percent since 2008.

In short, paper-bound books are dying fast, but e-books are being rapidly adopted to pick up the slack. I’ve been reading nearly everything electronically for at least two years2 and I don’t miss paper nearly as much as I thought I would. There are some aspects of paper that e-books can’t replicate, just ask [Jonathan Safran Foer]( books/book/tree-of-codes), but that doesn’t mean that e-books can’t replace most books.

Publishing’s dirty secret is that the kinds of books that people think of as great writing, the groundbreaking fiction and non-fiction that fill the shelves of your local book store, represent only the tiniest portion of a $28 billion pie. Professional and academic publishing deals keep the industry afloat. Think of all the money squandered on books at colleges. That’s what keeps books in print for now.

I don’t particularly see why consumers might be scared of moving forward into the e-book age. The cost of entry is low enough, and even when the prices are comparable to that of a physical book, the convenience that e-readers offer is still great. I don’t see why paper books can’t live a long and happy life alongside vinyl records, which are still produced by the artists who care for the format and sought out by listeners who prefer it.

The publishing industry is finally realizing what the music industry did long ago, that the convenience and quality that digital offers is something consumers not only want, but need. The time to treat digital as an afterthought has passed.

  1. A $27.9 billion industry and this PDF is the best they could do? ↩︎

  2. I can’t remember when the first one was. ↩︎