There are too Many Books

This is the fifty-first edition of SHuSH, the official newsletter of the Sutherland House publishing company. The inaugural edition was released May 30, 2019, so today is the start of our second year of newslettering. We’re going to indulge ourselves and explain what we’re up to.

Most people who have asked me about the newsletter assume it was a way for me to re-engage in journalism, which is where I spent most of my career. That’s not the case. I worked for more than thirty years in journalism and loved every minute of it but I’ve never had a desire to return. I don’t miss the work, only the people. And by people, I mean rooms full of wiseasses licensed to pronounce on the most interesting things in the world that day. Now that I’m on a social messaging platform with a bunch of journalists, that itch is scratched.

(What is the group name for journalists, anyway? I can’t be a bunch. A herd? A flock? A congress? Maybe a chatter of journalists. A cackle? A nursery? It needs to be something vivid like a harass of hornets, or an implausibility of gnus, or a bloat of hippos, or a confusion of guineafowl, or a deceit of lapwings. Maybe an intrusion of journalists. This is the kind of question that blows deadlines in newsrooms.)

The newsletter was launched as a long-term project to address one of the biggest problems we face in book publishing, what we in the industry call ‘discoverability.’

There was a time, not long ago, when there were several good independent book stores in every city of at least a half-million people. Also in that city was a newspaper with a books section and a books editor, and local radio and television programs that would feature authors and their works, as well as important national outlets on both sides of the border—not least of these CBC and NPR. I first saw Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe on late-night talk shows, where authors got equal time with movie stars, comics, and plate spinners (Alex Haley with Johnny Carson below).

A publisher launching a decent book into this world could be reasonably assured of placement in the bookstores and notice from the media. People who read books were always coming across new titles simply by opening their newspapers, tuning into radio or tv, or dropping by a bookstore.

It was never that simple, of course, but that’s beside the point, which is that much of this old world has disappeared. A city is lucky to have a single good independent bookstore, and a single thin newspaper, absent its book section, its book editor, and any real interest in the arts, literary or otherwise. Local radio and local television have been gutted, as well.

A few national outlets still offer decent book coverage: Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and the Atlantic top the list. In Canada, the Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star still make an effort. The CBC and NPR still commit some resources to books, but both are under more pressure to be “relevant,” which leads inevitably to more politics, Trump, and coronavirus, and less arts.

That’s half the problem. Here’s the other, bigger half. As the number of outlets selling or giving serious attention to books has shrunk, the number of books published each year has exploded. There were 15,012 new books published in the US in 1960 (then, as now, most of them crap). That sounds like a lot of books—certainly more than anyone could keep up with—but in 1986 there were 48,917 published in the US. And for the last decade, there have been more than 300,000 new books published every year.

And when we say ‘published’, we mean books released by publishing houses. In the last decade, we’ve also seen the rise of self-publishing, which produces another 700,000 US books a year (most of them ebooks). To top it off, there are roughly 13 million previously published books now readily available through Amazon, Bookfinder, and other channels. Those services didn’t exist in the old world. Back then, previously published books, unless borrowed from the library, were beyond the reach of all but the most determined readers.

That leaves us, compared to 1960, with twenty times the number of books (not counting self-published and backlist titles) pushed out each year with far fewer bookstores and media outlets to accommodate them. Legacy media and most of the independent bookstores only have time for the .001% of authors and titles that make a huge splash or are somehow deemed important.

Yes, there are new tools and new media that have arisen to replace or supplement the old. The Amazon search engine recommends books, but along a narrow, predictable line, and not well. As you can see from an Amazon search of Tara Westover’s Educated (above), it tends to simply promote other bestsellers, further crowding out less obvious titles. There are many new online enthusiast communities of romance readers and World War buffs and so on. These are welcome and good, although they mostly lack mass reach and tend to preach to the choir.

The sad truth is that most books are not discovered by readers. Most books never find an audience. A new title has far less than a 1% chance of making it into even the largest bookstores. The average US nonfiction book sells less than 250 copies per year. That’s an average book. (I found that figure depressing as hell. Then I learned that the average academic book sells 60 copies and, well, both figures are depressing as hell but the academic one is hilarious.)

All of this makes marketing new books a nightmare. It doesn’t matter that demand is stable, that people are still reading and buying books. The supply is torrential, insanely beyond the capacities of shrinking conventional marketing channels.

This newsletter will solve all that!

Or, at least, we hope, not make matters worse.

The intention of the newsletter is to keep in touch with people. With limited access to media and bookstores, it is now incumbent on authors and publishers to build their own channels to audiences, to build their own communities.

Authors who have social media followings, who do a lot of public speaking, who have their own media connections, will be more successful than those who don’t.

Publishers who supplement their access to conventional marketing channels with good websites and a strong social media presence and well-attended events will do better than those who don’t.

You can’t just do social media, or conventional media, and ignore the rest. Everybody has to do everything, cover all the bases. It’s a lot of work, and the rewards are often small, but it is necessary.

The content we generate for our newsletter helps to fill our social media channels and our website, and build our community. The content also occasionally alerts followers to books we’re publishing, and theoretically results in the odd sale.

Because Sutherland House is new—our first book, Joe Berridge’s Perfect City, was launched a year ago last week—the newsletter has also served to alert a lot of people in the literary world (writers, agents, booksellers) to our existence. That’s useful.

We set a goal of a thousand newsletter subscribers by the end of our first year. We fell a bit short but our weekly readership is usually in the 2,000 range and peaks at just under 5,000. Now that we’ve proven we can produce it every week (we took Christmas off), we’ll start to put more resources behind it and see if we can get the weekly readership up over 10,000 in the next couple of years.

That might not sound like a lofty goal but Quill & Quire, Canada’s publishing trade journal, has about 5,000 subscribers, and The Literary Review of Canada only slightly more.

As the newsletters subscription list grows, so will its capacities: there will be more news and commentary and book recommendations. Eventually, we hope, it will serve as a first line of contact for all of our communications, and for some of your reading needs.

There is one other reason why a general non-fiction newsletter made sense to me. Once a week, the newsletter forces me to lift my head from the everyday chores of running the company to see what’s going on in the broader world, to read more books, to notice what other publishers are doing, to think about the issues our industry faces. From my perspective, that’s probably the newsletter’s greatest benefit.

Why a newsletter and not some other medium? Twitter is great for generating outrage but not for semi-intelligent discussion of anything. Facebook is better but it owns all your content, which I don’t like, and people tend to scroll quickly through content (same with Linkedin). Newsletters go to people who want them and presumably are willing to invest a few minutes in reading them. We thought about a podcast or a YouTube channel but I like writing more than talking, and our business is about the written word, so that was an easy choice.

How can you help? Glad you asked. Tell someone you know about our existence and encourage them to subscribe and push us up over the 1,000 subscriber target. Thanks!