After I completed my first fiction novel, I had dreams of a beautiful black book, its ivory pages sewn into the binding, the title embossed in gold leaf, a single red ribbon denoting the place where a reader might pause in their reading, adrift in another world.
Perhaps, if I was lucky enough, more than a few reades would love it. Perhaps, in my wildest dreams, Reese Witherspoon would even recommend it to her book club. Perhaps it would go on to become a New York Times bestseller and Hello Sunshine would adapt it into a series for HBO. Perhaps I could spend my life as an author, writing books from the far corners of the world.
Yes, perhaps. The unicorns of the publishing industry — Dan Brown, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Paulo Coelho — allow us to dream that maybe, just maybe, our books will make it too. If we just write well enough and persist long enough, by some miracle our books will make it onto Oprah’s nightstand and our dreams of being an author will be realized.
Alas, that’s all it is. A dream.
No one will read your book
“One of the biggest ironies about this business is that there are lots of people who want to become authors, but that doesn’t necessarily equate with the number of people who are voracious readers,” says Rachel Deahl, news director at Publishers Weekly. “There is a disconnect. Not enough people read enough books.”
Deahl, who has covered book deals for more than a decade, tells me the problem is a supply and demand one. “If you ask people how many books they read in the past year, they’ll say four. Or two,” she says. “There are lots and lots of people eager to become writers. But we need more readers. We need more people who are readers than we have writers.”
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend only 16 minutes per day reading. Compare that to the average Netflix watcher who spends close to three hours per day consuming video content. At that pace, a watcher might get through 681 movies in a year while a reader gets through only 16 books — and that’s presuming those 15 minutes are spent reading books.
In reality, books compete for our reading time alongside newspapers, magazines, and other online publications. Even this year, when leisure time increased as a result of the pandemic, novels saw only a subtle increase in sales over last year — by 2.8 percent. News consumption, however, saw an increase of 215 percent with most of that time taking place on Facebook (23 minutes per day), Google (14 minutes per day), and MSN (five minutes per day).
If the market for our attention is intensely crowded, the sliver of that market devoted to reading books is very, very small. And if the demand for books is small, the supply of books is great. To make it onto a reader’s nightstand, an author will have to compete with the roughly 3 million books currently in print to get there — and a seemingly endless supply of ebooks.
And how a reader chooses those carefully selected few is a rather convoluted (and heavily commercialized) system. It has more to do with what Amazon recommends, what’s trending on The New York Times Best Seller list, and what a friend is obsessed with on Audible — and those algorithms are heavily dictated by what is already selling.
“People tend to buy the books that are already really popular,” Deahl says. “They look at the bestseller list to see what they want to buy and that reinforces this tiny amount of books at the top. It’s a very top-heavy system. The tricky thing in publishing is success begets success. But it’s really hard to create that spark.”
Your book will not make The New York Times Best Seller list
The “Big Five” publishing houses — soon to be the “Big Four” as Penguin Random House announced the acquisition of Simon and Schuster this winter — are so-called because they own about 75 percent of the book publishing market. They are the big conglomerates of the publishing world and they account for every book that has topped The New York Times Best Seller list — at least in the past five years.
Because of this, it is commonly assumed by authors that their best odds of publishing success will come from securing a contract with a Big Five house — and they might be right. But winning a Big Five contract is no guarantee of success — far from it. Publishing houses make money by adhering to one simple strategy: Spend $5,000-$10,000 on thousands of author advances, and hope that one of them will go on to become a huge bestseller and earn the company enough money to pay for all the rest.
It’s basically tech investing: Throw all your money at a bunch of startups then hope for the unicorn.
“There’s a saying in publishing: 80 percent of authors fail, and the 20 percent that succeed pay for all the failures,” Deahl says. “It’s about building up big bestsellers. They are the people who pay for all the people who don’t make it.”
And the unicorn in the publishing industry is exceedingly rare. According to an EPJ Data Science study that used big data to analyze every New York Times bestselling book from 2008–2016, there are 100,000 new, hardcover print books published each year — of which, less than 500 make it on to The New York Times Best Seller list (that’s 0.5 percent).
And most of the books that make the list are written by already famous authors. Read through the list on any given week and you will see a handful of well-known favorites. As I write this article, John Grisham, James Patterson, Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Danielle Steele, and Nora Roberts are all topping the list — the same cast of characters who have been there since I was in high school. As the investigation concludes: “The success of a book is deeply linked to the previous success and the name recognition of its author.”
Surely there are some debut authors who make the list. Yes, that is true — according to EPJ, 14 percent of bestselling fiction authors wrote only one book during the time studied — but the rest had two or more. In fact, the 2,468 fiction books that made the list were written by only 854 authors. (It’s worth mentioning that 51 of those books were written by James Patterson, 31 were by Clive Cussler, and 25 were by Danielle Steel.)
Not only that, but most fiction novels (26 percent) appear on the list for only a week. They surface briefly because they surpass the selling threshold required to make the list (generally 1,000–10,000 copies per week, depending on what’s on the list, according to the EPJ study), then they peter out just as quickly. Most books peak in the first 10 weeks after their debut, then exit the market.
There are exceptions, but they are rare. During the period of time studied, only 10 bestsellers remained on the list for more than a year, and those were helped greatly by their adaption into an award-winning film (The Help, for instance, which was on the list for 131 weeks) or a hotly followed series (the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series).
That being said, the list is not the end all be all. It tracks sales, not reads, and sales numbers can be inflated by industry practices such as requiring that a bookstore buy a certain number of copies in order to secure the author for a reading, or mass purchasing a certain book to wind up on the list. This is the reason behind the list’s infamous “dagger” — a line item that appears next to books on the list whose sales numbers might be artificially inflated.
Not to mention, “The New York Times Best Seller list is a scam and is also just super racist,” says L.L. McKinney, author of the YA novel A Blade So Black and founder of the hashtag #publishingpaidme. “It’s not a surprise. There’s not a lot of us on there. And when I say us, I mean Black authors, Black women authors in particular.”
McKinney’s hashtag started trending during the summer of 2020 when authors began to break the silence around author advances, highlighting some of the disparities between what one book sells for vs. another. Comparable author advances reported ranged from $25,000 (science fiction writer N. K. Jemisin) to $3.4 million (science fiction writer John Scalzi). “It revealed just how stagg