Publishing - an overview

We have done very little on the topic of ACW publishing as a business in this blog, so I've created this post as an industry overview or backgrounder for the discussions to follow. I'll link back to it in future posts.

This industry divides along the lines of trade (mass market) publishers, scholarly (university) presses, and specialty houses (including smaller trade presses). The bigger press runs (the higher numbers of copies printed) are in trade publishing; scholarly and specialty will have lower runs but will keep books in circulation longer.

The publisher's catalog consists of all books in print, whether or not they appear in that marketing publication we the public call "a catalog." Items in the catalog are classified as frontlist, midlist, or backlist. The definitions for these terms vary from house to house and from wholesaler to retailer. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses offers some, which I have shortened below.

Frontlist: Books published in the current season receiving marketing emphasis.

Midlist: Books published in the current season receiving secondary sales efforts. " Independent publishers, which usually publish fewer books per season, generally do not make a distinction between front- and midlist."

Backlist: "Books published previous to the current season that are still in print. Traditionally, the strength of a publisher’s backlist is the indicator of both editorial and commercial success."

The publisher is the manufacturer and generally distributes "product" through wholesalers. One of the peculiarities of American publishing is that there are only two major wholesalers: Baker & Taylor and Ingram. These channels are supplemented by independent wholesalers, mail order, Web sales, direct store placement, etc.

Commercial success is measured in book sales and book sales are the most closely guarded secret in this business. The only way to estimate book sales that I know of involves taking one nugget of verified information and multiplying it by a factor that translates into something like a real picture.

Specifically, estimators take Ingram's publicly disclosed book sales for any known title and multiply it by a factor to arrive at total sales through all channels. The best-loved factor I have seen is six. I have heard of people using higher factors but have never seen a higher number defended in public as producing realistic outcomes.

Of course this estimating process applies to trade titles; specialty and scholarly titles, having fewer (and different) distribution channels will not conform to this model.

Aside from the publisher's own comments. I know of no public sales information apart from Ingram's.

Example: If Ingram says a title sold 650 copies in 2003, I may refer to my own sales estimate of 3,900 (650 x 6) for that title. I will try to identify the Ingram core of the estimate parenthetically - (650, Ingram) - so you know where the number is coming from. You'll see me round up a little bit too, in the author's favor.

If you know of a better way to estimate trade sales, please contact me c/o cw-book-news.com. If you have a non-trade estimation system, I'd love to hear about that too.

I'll close by saying pointing to a great article on backlists from the retail viewpoint. Note especially the in-store stocking ratios for frontlist and backlist.

Postscript (12/10/04): A friend who's been published in the trade presses continuously since the early 1970s has written to say "A quick review indicates that a factor of 6 to 8 would be about right. I'd have to check my royalty statements to get an exact fix..." He's talking about the factor used to multiply Ingram's sales figures to get the total (non-Ingram + Ingram) sales count. In our series on book sales, I've been multiplying the Ingram sales figure by six; know that this may be a little low and multiply by seven or even eight if you prefer.

(This post may be expanded to support future publishing business topics.)