How Many Books?

The reference everyone uses to answer questions like, “How many books are in print?” is Books in Print, a (subscription) database managed by Bowker. A look at the recent growth in the number of books available to be read is staggering.

In 1998 there were roughly 900,000 active titles listed in Books in Print. Today the number is 32,000,000. Yes, that is 32 million! (Update: to be clear, these numbers apply only to books in print in the USA. The number for the rest of the world is unknown, but likely very large too.) The growth is not slowing, it is accelerating. It is possible we will reach 50 million by 2020, but I do not expect them to be in print.

A year or two ago, a large brick-and-mortar book retail store might have carried 150,000 different books in the store. That number has been reduced by more than one-half now as all the big chains are cutting shelf space for printed books to allow for the sale of (mostly) non-book items.

As physical retail space shrinks, book retailing is becoming an Internet business. Ebooks are an important part of this, but print books are also selling strongly via online retailers. As a rough estimate, I would say our sales via vendors like Amazon have doubled over the past two years. This is unsurprising: if a retail store doesn’t carry a book someone wants, they are likely to search for it on book selling sites on the Internet.

Print or Digital?

With the above numbers comes the question, “is print dead?” Right now the answer is no, but that is changing rather quickly.

A few years ago, “big box” retail chains could be relied upon to place large initial orders for new books. And if a new edition of a strong selling book was released, the odds were good that it, too, would receive a healthy order from the chains. For most new titles, the initial order this year is roughly 80 percent smaller than it used to be, and the retailer keeps it on the shelf for a much shorter period of time. Initial orders for almost all new editions are so small as to be meaningless.

This change in ordering patterns by large chains creates a domino effect.

  • Publishers place smaller print orders.
  • Smaller print orders squeeze printers whose costly machinery is designed to print books in large numbers
  • The suppliers of paper to the printers work with pricing models that reward large orders and penalize small ones.
  • Unit prices charged by the printer edge upwards.
  • Shipping costs rise because small shipments are less cost-efficient than large ones.

Those dominos all place upwards pressure on the prices of printed books. The choices publishers face are tough. Keep your price low and small profit margins become vanishingly tiny; raise your prices and you risk even smaller sales at retail.

My Forecast

What I believe will happen is this:

  • Publishers will start using on-demand printing which allows for as few as one copy at a time to be printed. First printing of new titles will equal estimated initial uptake by retailers plus a “cushion” to accommodate some reorders; later printing will match actual orders received.
  • Printed book prices will move upwards a bit because on-demand printing means higher unit costs (there will be a small offset gained by having low or no inventory carrying costs, but it will not be enough to offset the rise in printing costs).
  • The shift to ebooks will accelerate, because the price gap between print and digital will widen.

I think we are quite close to the tipping point when digital sales surpass print sales in terms of units sold. Perhaps 12 to 24 months. It could be a further year or two before dollar sales also cross the threshold.

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