Saturday, June 02, 2007

Got Blockbuster, Will Publish

The buzz at BEA this year is all about flatness. Book sales are flat, the publishers are saying. It's a fully developed industry, no more growth, just...flatness.

Religious books were growing, with sales up over 3%, but that segment looks to be maturing as well. There won't be such lovely big numbers next time around. After all, once you've got your hymnal in hand, you won't rush out the following year for a new one. The song pretty much remains the same. And there are only so many self-help books that will leave the shelves, as one is largely the same as the next and eventually the reading public figures it out and stops buying.

Paperbacks are looking good, but that should not be a surprise. Hard bound books cost a lot more than a trade paperback, and when you're paying over $3.00 for a gallon of gas, you have to cut back somewhere. The hard covers are fine for the libraries of the world, where a book gets a great deal of hard use and a paperback would fall to bits after a few times around. Publishers are looking to make money, however, and it it's merely a matter of selling two paperbacks instead of one hard cover, if the profit is the same, the higher sales figures don't matter.

It's the blockbuster, the million copy seller, that really gets the publishers salivating. For the past several years, the Harry Potter series has fueled the rise in sales. Millions of copies were sold, but the best part of the HP success was the increase in traffic. More people came out to pick up Harry for the wee ones and found something for themselves. Other books sold because readers were lured into the store. But Harry Potter is done after this year, so what will the publishers do now?

They need a new Dan Brown, but they can't lay down some novel about Catholic conspiracies because it's been done to death. They want something similar, in that they want a book that will sell like hotcakes. Problem is, the publishers don't really know what that is. No one expected Mr. Brown's book to take off like it did. Now the publishing houses would like to find another one that will sell just as well, but they still don't know what will hit it big.

It doesn't have to be the writing. There's literary fiction titles out there that were published with a bit of hoopla, only to sell about 6000 copies. It doesn't have to be the setting. Not everyone wants to read about trendy bars in New York City and the angst associated with gaining admittance. All that is needed is a good story, well told, that appeals to the vast majority of readers who live in between the coasts. Could the problem be that the entire publishing industry has confined itself to one small part of the world, and has no idea what the rest of the country looks like, smells like, sounds like, or cares about?

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