Bookselling economics

This weekend's Financial Times had an interesting feature (Readers of the World Unite) about the campaign by US writer Dale Peck against big booksellers – both physical and online. He has launched a publisher, Mischief & Mayhem, which aims to ensure literary authors can reach an audience. The big booksellers, he charges, ensure that most publishers will only accept obviously commercial manuscripts. There are tales of authors being asked to make characters better looking, or to avoid feel-bad issues such as the death of a child.

What's interesting about this is the question of whether – or rather to what extent – winner-take-all dynamics are inevitable in publishing. The demand side and supply side conditions are certainly there for those dynamics. On the demand side, reading a book is an 'experience good' and readers will use other readers' recommendations as a signal of a good read that will not waste their time. This can outweigh even the most brilliant writing that not many people know about. Hence writing fiction, too, has its superstars now just as the movies always have. On the supply side, the economies of scale in marketing a literary star and the use of 'other people who bought this liked….' style recommendations interact with the demand side forces. What's more, because this is a dynamic phenomenon, it can intensify over time.

The FT article quotes sociology prof John Thompson in support of the argument:

“The literary marketplace looks more and more like a winner-takes-more
market, concentrating on a small number of titles that sell
exceptionally well, indeed, better than ever, whereas the number of
titles  that sell in modest but acceptable quantities is declining.”

On the other hand – there has to be one – online technologies and on-demand publishing do make it possible for non-superstar authors to reach an audience if only they can get people to notice them. The internet enables the long tail as well as the superstar economics. The number of titles being published in both the US and UK has been trending upwards, even if weight of sales is tilting towards the top-sellers.

There are figures which could help settle the question empirically, although they are not freely available but sold as a commercial service. So I don't know the answer. Either way, in my book a new publisher is always welcome.