Telling ‘Tails’ In Gothenburg: Who Has Time For Publishing’s Long One?

iStockphoto / Zwilling330
iStockphoto / Zwilling330

‘Sales Are Down For Most Authors’

Sales are down for most authors. You don’t see blog posts about it or tweets, but it’s a reality. And the reason is simple: there’s more content out there than ever before.

That’s the self-publishing  author-turned-publisher Bob Mayer in a blog post at Digital Book World (DBW), The Content Flood And Authors Whining. The “authors whining,” Mayer tells us, are the writers of the Authors United group of traditionally published protesters of Amazon’s negotiating tactics. Authors United’s most vehement detractors are other writers. Criticism of them has exposed a bitter rift in the author corps. You can learn more about this in the author Hugh Howey’s recent Snowflakes United and Books Were Once Like Razor Blades.

Mayer, in the process of taking the Authors United group to task, touches on something his own Cool Gus Publishing seems to be weathering with enviable finesse. He writes: “Our sales are up 22 percent this year.”

Damned good. We can do no less than congratulate him.

Bob Mayer
Bob Mayer

But when Mayer writes that authors “have more competition than ever,” don’t think that competition is the problem only of traditionally published authors, united or otherwise.

In truth, Mayer’s books have more competition than ever, too, which makes his Cool Gus performance all the more impressive.

Everyone’s books have more competition than ever. Your mother’s memoir is going to need a push. A big one. Your father’s lawnmower maintenance handbook will need hand-cranking.

Early on, Mayer quotes the “tsunami” of books phrasing that Amazon’s Jon Fine uses in presentations. Mayer is right, in fact, when he writes that the peculiar thing about this metaphorical tsunami is that it doesn’t recede: “This is a flood that is going to get deeper and deeper.”

Those fathoms are increasing both for writers he perceives to be the just and the unjust, the self-publishing and the traditionally published. Remember that Bowker’s Laura Dawson reports the agency can “see” 28 million active titles — and that doesn’t count thousands upon thousands of books not identified by ISBNs.

Howey, in his “razor blades” piece, tells us why it’s so hard to touch bottom — it’s a happy reason, in fact, for a mounting problem:

Every book you write will be in print for the rest of time. They won’t grow old. They won’t grow dull…Every undiscovered book was launched today. They will launch every day. New readers will come of age; old readers will rediscover a lost love of reading; the next generation of readers are being born right now…Write knowing that your works will never expire, and that no one can deny you the right to publication.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

This is, in fact, one of the glories of the digital dynamic. Where even a “big book” of the kind written by some of the Authors United group once had a matter of mere weeks to find traction in the marketplace before losing its spot on a bookshop’s front table, diodes are an author’s best friend: your book now can live in shimmering cyber-beauty everlasting , the ebook-eternal, text without end, amen and amen.

And is there hope there? Well, of course there is. As Howey is saying to his colleagues:

Books are now forever; they remain fresh; they’ll never go out of print. It’ll be decades before most people adequately appreciate this. Get ahead of them by writing today.

He is right.


It may also be decades before anybody can get around to reading your book. If anyone ever does. Granted, it will be there waiting, as new as the moment you pushed the “publish button.” But so will everybody else’s books.

Howey is not wrong, you see. But what he and all authors face — whether they wave to each other as comrades or shake their fists at each other as far-from-United opponents — is that soon they may not be able to see each other at all. That crashing, crushing wave of content enabled by the digital dynamic is rolling in, higher, higher, higher.

How big is your to-read list now?

I’m Scheduled To Read Your Book in June 2026 — Can’t Wait!

More than plain money, the available reading time is the single most relevant resource that affects book consumption.

Marcello Vena
Marcello Vena

This is Marcello Vena, the Milan-based publishing executive, previously digital director for the RCS Mediagroup (Rizzoli, Bompiani, Fabbri Editori) and now the founding CEO of the consultancy All Brain.

The wealthiest person in the world cannot consume all available books, even if he or she owns them all. Simply for a question of time, not money. Book reading is not like music consumption. Listening to music does not strictly require you to stop doing many things. You can drive, do housecleaning, dance, work, even read or write a book. But when you read a book, you invest your time and forgo other activities.

This is what Vena is saying Wednesday (September 24) in Gothenburg. He’s addressing the third and final conference in The Next Chapter series ingeniously curated by Publit’s Jonas Lennermo. And if Vena sticks to the commentary he has given me in advance, he’ll be letting nobody out of the Swedish Exhibition and Congress Centre without a blistering understanding of what he wants them to know: Low prices won’t do it; availability won’t do it; great cover  art and unforgettable titles and unbeatable storytelling and superbly professional production and even Whispersync convenience won’t do it.

It cannot be overstressed that while the supply of digital books is unlimited…the demand is not, because it is constrained by time. Even giving away all the world’s books will not make the demand unlimited. Price matters less than the number of interested readers and their available time for reading.

Ready to delay gratification? For decades?

The price can be adjusted for any given market. The reading time cannot. On average, it takes the same time to read a book, no matter what the price is.

Vena calls his commentary, and a preliminary white paper he offers on the topic, The Lost Tail. Someone less a gentleman than he might have termed this “losing your ass” to the competition.

Importantly, he takes care to note that he actually agrees with the “Long Tail” theory. He’s not yet ready to declare that we’ve entirely lost it.

But this plethora of content, le déluge, mon ami, is giving him serious misgivings:

A Long Tail on the supply-side of the creative market doesn’t necessarily imply an equivalent Long Tail on the demand-side.

Supply And….More Supply

In his 2004 book, The Long Tail: Why The Future Of Business Is Selling Less Of More, Chris Anderson, then the editor of Wired, saw “technology turning mass markets into millions of niches.”

One of the most succinct statements of the concept comes from the book’s promotional copy:

After a century of obsessing over the few products at the head of the demand curve, the new economics of distribution allow us to turn our focus to the many more products in the tail, which collectively can create a new market as big as the one we already know.

Anderson wrote of a “98 percent rule” that indicated that in the relatively inexpensive production and distribution environment of digital, “consumers…look at almost everything.”

And this should translate into great news for self-publishers and traditional publishers alike, right? The more major titles hit the market, the more surrounding titles can ride in on their Long Coattails, if you will, great flotillas of “smaller” titles — meaning not the major hits — bobbing along in the currents of digital commerce, snatched up by readers made thirsty for more. Eureka.

A decade later, Vena cites another book, Anita Elberse’s Blockbusters:  Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment (Henry Holt, 2013). What he reads of her work shows him a music market in which Nielsen’s Soundscan tracked 1.1 percent of all sold tracks making 86 percent of the revenue in 2011, “leaving next to nothing to the Long Tail,” as he writes.

Blockbusters by Anita ElberseAnd his own research in ebooks — still preliminary and dependent on a formula using the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index — worries him. What he says he sees, particularly in an analysis of four years of sales in Italy, is publishers being, as many have been surmising, more dependent than ever on blockbusters, with dwindling production of Long Tail titles, smaller titles, the critically endangered midlist, for example.

Also alarming is Vena’s observation on what he thinks he sees in the retail-outlet consolidation being orchestrated with sometimes breathtaking skill by Amazon and a few other major powers:

As the market share of the global e-retailers grows, the sales impact of small and independent retailers diminishes dramatically. A highly concentrated e-retail market appears to be less capable of fostering and growing a Long Tail of digital books…the overall ebook market has been growing very significantly, but the bestsellers have been taking a growing lion’s share.

There may be challenges to Vena’s assertions, of course, and more time and testing is needed. The self-publishing sector, in particular, is hard to gauge for its impact on the revenues of the traditional sector because accurate numbers are so hard to come by: the dearth of data in publishing’s digital disruption is crippling to analysis.

But if nothing else, what Vena is reporting in Gothenburg places new emphasis on Bob Mayer’s assertion from what he and his associate Jen Talty know at Cool Gus Publishing: “The real business world of selling books is a brutal place.”

Nothing here is meant to suggest that authors newly empowered by digital capabilities shouldn’t work to produce their books and get them into the marketplace. By all means, the basic fact of this capability is profoundly exciting for the creative thinkers and industries of the world.

Tom Chalmers
Tom Chalmers

But as the publisher and founding MD of IPR License, Tom Chalmers, wrote in a DBW blog post of his own last week, Quality Not Quantity For Self-Published Writers, a big list of titles — contrary to frequently heard assertions — may not be an author’s surest key to success. And certainly, rushing to build that list might not be the best idea, after all.

No one remembers who has published the most books or has written in the most genres. But when a reader finds a fantastic book it stays with them for a lifetime.

Finding Fine’s tsunami of books is long over. You’re soaking in it, Madge. It’s here, and has been for years of deepening activity in the self-publishing sector.

We don’t know how big that sector is because many of its works are produced without ISBNs. Do not believe anyone who tells you how many ebooks are out there. No one knows.

And we also don’t know how many readers are out there. We do know that they have other things to do with their time than read.

When Bob Mayer writes of authors’ sales being down and the inventory being up, surely it throws extra interest onto what Vena is questioning at The Next Chapter today about the efficacy of the Long Tail — which some of us might have thought would save the digital day, everyone riding the tides of a widening, receptive, reading-reading-reading market for all comers.

Lennermo in Sweden calls this third installment of his fine conference series “Spread The Word.” What we have to ask now is how far we can spread it before no one has time…to read it.

And as we press farther down the beach of this bookish terra incognita, unprecedented in history, a world in which anybody can write and publish, just how many people can we expect to be reading? How much time will they have for us? And how many books will be vying for that time?

What if we’ve already maxed out the audience’s reading time? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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