The Writing Life

Of Making Many Books There Is No End

This past week Bowker, the company that issues ISBN numbers for published books, released their annual statistics. They broke out the numbers for self-published books and revealed a stunning statistic. (If you want the history and explanation of the ISBN, read my scintillating post on the topic here. Each country issues their own ISBNs; Bowker is the one for the U.S.)

The total number of ISBNs issued in 2017 increased by 28% over 2016 for a total of 1,009,188. Over one million books were issued ISBN numbers!

Realize that many books have two ISBN numbers. One for the paperback and one for the e-book. Some do only one or the other. They did look at that statistic and revealed over 750,000 of the numbers issued were for the print version.

This is not inclusive of all books published, only new ISBNs issued to self-published authors who typically buy one number at a time. Major publishers will buy massive blocks of ISBNs at once and use them as needed (10,000 or more at one time). Thus Bowker can distinguish between the individual, the small press, and the large publisher.

In addition, if you publish with Amazon’s KDP program, you don’t have to have an ISBN. Therefore, many will forego that when publishing their own books. Hundreds of thousands of books are published without an ISBN these days. One only needs the ISBN if they wish to enter the trade marketplace (bookstores) or library space.

That’s a Lot of Books

Gasp! One million self-published books. In one year. One million!? The average public library in the U.S. carries 300,000 titles. Another report indicated holdings of 25 books per 1,000 people in the average library.

In other words, the one million newly published books in 2017 would overwhelm most public libraries.

Drop in the number of traditionally published books (popular trade, university press, textbook, etc.) and the total rises dramatically. (In 2010 Bowker reported 3 million books published in that year.)

The Challenge of Discovery

We’ve written a lot about the value of self-publishing in the right situation, for the right reasons, and done the right way. I truly believe it is a great thing that the option is within financial reach for nearly everyone. Remember I founded a company in 1996 to help people self-publish. (I sold the company, ACW Press, in early 2006.) Therefore I know, firsthand, the value of that option to the author.

The upside is everyone can get published. The downside is that everyone can get published! It creates a massive problem for authors to have their books discovered.

The traditional publishers work hard to figure out this puzzle called “discoverability.” Recently, our client David Rawlings’s first novel was sold to a major publisher. He was able to visit the headquarters of the publisher last month. He came away saying to the effect, “I had no idea that over thirty people were involved in some part of the editing, production, marketing, PR, and sales of my book!” I said, “Imagine if you were self-publishing. You would have to do the work of over 30 people to achieve the same result.”

The Call for Curation

Even those who are successful at self-publishing (and there are many) recognize the work that it takes. They have been able to figure out how to get people to recommend their work to others, the word-of-mouth marketing that curates a book to a network of potential readers.

This is what the traditional publisher strives to do. Select the best of the bunch, and then put the muscle of their organization behind them and hope the market agrees.

We agents must also be in the curation business. I wrote a long post on curation many years ago. Find it here.

What Does This Mean for You?

Write the very best book you can.
Build an audience who will support your work (i.e. platform).
Decide whether to self-publish (but only do it the right way) or go the traditional route (get an agent).
Figure out how to launch a book (see this 21 day course for ideas – sign up for the next time it is held).




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