No one buys books

Thursday, May 2nd, 2024

Trial by Publisher’s LunchNo one buys books, Elle Griffin concludes:

In 2022, Penguin Random House wanted to buy Simon & Schuster. The two publishing houses made up 37 percent and 11 percent of the market share, according to the filing, and combined they would have condensed the Big Five publishing houses into the Big Four. But the government intervened and brought an antitrust case against Penguin to determine whether that would create a monopoly.

The judge ultimately ruled that the merger would create a monopoly and blocked the $2.2 billion purchase. But during the trial, the head of every major publishing house and literary agency got up on the stand to speak about the publishing industry and give numbers, giving us an eye-opening account of the industry from the inside. All of the transcripts from the trial were compiled into a book called The Trial. It took me a year to read, but I’ve finally summarized my findings and pulled out all the compelling highlights.

I think I can sum up what I’ve learned like this: The Big Five publishing houses spend most of their money on book advances for big celebrities like Britney Spears and franchise authors like James Patterson and this is the bulk of their business. They also sell a lot of Bibles, repeat best sellers like Lord of the Rings, and children’s books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. These two market categories (celebrity books and repeat bestsellers from the backlist) make up the entirety of the publishing industry and even fund their vanity project: publishing all the rest of the books we think about when we think about book publishing (which make no money at all and typically sell less than 1,000 copies).


The DOJ’s lawyer collected data on 58,000 titles published in a year and discovered that 90 percent of them sold fewer than 2,000 copies and 50 percent sold less than a dozen copies.


They spent a lot of the trial talking about books that made an advance of more than $250,000—they called these “anticipated top-sellers.” According to Nicholas Hill, a partner at Bates White Economic Consulting, 2 percent of all titles earn an advance over $250,000.


Hill says titles that earn advances over $250,000 account for 70 percent of advance spending by publishing houses. At Penguin Random House, it’s even more. The bulk of their advance spending goes to deals worth $1 million or more, and there are about 200 of those deals a year. Of the roughly $370 million they say PRH accounts for, $200 million of that goes to advance deals worth $1 million or more.


Books by the Obamas sold so many copies they had to be removed from the charts as statistical anomalies.


Franchise authors are the other big category. Walsch says James Patterson and John Grisham get advances in the “many millions.” Putnam makes most of its money from repeat authors like John Sandford, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Lisa Scottoline, and others.


Markus Dohle, CEO, Penguin Random House, says the top 4 percent of titles drive 60 percent of the profitability.


After the Judge denied the merger, Penguin went through a massive round of layoffs and Simon & Schuster was sold to a private equity company instead.


  1. Phileas Frogg says:

    And yet they continue to furiously, and quietly, ban or hide titles that they consider dangerous as rapidly as ever.

    Just ask Aleksandr Dugin, Harold Saltzman, or Jean Raspail.


  2. David Foster says:

    Does this include books sold for Kindle and other e-readers? Sounds like it doesn’t.

    Also, I wonder how much more effectively books could be marketed by people outside the publishing establishment.

  3. Jim says:

    No one buys books because no one reads books.

    There are books of great importance that practically no one has had access to for dozens or hundreds of years now available for free on the Internet Archive, and they have been “viewed” only a handful of times, let alone read.

    It would be comical were it not so tragic.

  4. Jim says:

    Pre-World Wars America was so much more literate than now that it may as well have been another planet.

    Nor has the displacement of Americans by the descendants of Ellis Islanders helped much.

  5. Phileas_Frogg says:


    Your comment is obviously true, and yet the religion of those Ellis Islanders has managed to intellectually persevere, and indeed dominate, in intellectually rigorous fields, and in particular at the most intellectually rarified branch of the government (SCOTUS is 6 Catholics, 2 Protestants, 1 Jew). It is an odd paradox. I suspect we’re seeing a selection process take place where the less intelligent, curious, and literate Catholics are ending up non-Catholic, while the more intelligent, curious and literate remain.

    Conversely, whereas the less intelligent, curious and literate Protestants are ending up Evangelical (which has effectively eaten the Mainline Churches), and the more intelligent, curious and literate are going non-religious and then dead ending without the guide rails of tradition to guide their thinking.

    Some selection pressure is obviously taking place.

    Though upon consideration (and a bit of quick research), it appears that among the Catholics there are:
    1 Black
    1 Italian
    1 Hispanic
    3 Irish (Barret is 1/2 French and Roberts is 1/2 Central Euro)

    I wonder how much of that is carry-over from Catholic political cliques that are no longer consciously Catholic, but still operate for these families and ethnicities in national politics. Most of the Ellis Islander Americans have family connections to power in their history…

    The whole thing is interesting to me.

  6. Albion says:

    As someone who has published a couple of books (independently) on-line I can testify no one reads them much. In a way not a problem as it was more of a hobby, and there is a certain pleasure in getting words down in roughly the right order. But in terms of return for effort, it is barely a penny an hour in all likelihood.

    As they say, don’t give up the day job.

    Equally I can go to a library or bookshop, and while there tens of thousands of books available, I know I don’t want to read 99.99 per cent of them, no matter how much the publishers might promote them. Certainly a book by Britney Spears is of no interest to me, and I would avoid the Obamas’ output entirely.

    As I have a bible, I have no need of another one, and I gave away my kids’ copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar once they got too old for it.

    I recall years ago a novelist getting very angry that his debut novel — no doubt crafted with love — had only sold about a 100 copies. His rage seems odd in the light of the industry’s own figures: it sounds like he was one of the more successful ones in the business.

  7. Felix says:

    Jim, what are the important, unread books you have in mind?

  8. Felix says:

    And, no mention of romance novels. Aren’t they supposed to be 50% or better of books sold? Sure, there are big name romance writers. A lot of them, if the grocery store is indicative. But. No mention?

  9. Freddo says:

    If you want to reach the mass market you need an equally sized megaphone (or a lot of luck). A push by Oprah will do it, Joe Rogan probably to a lesser extend.
    Amazons algorithm and star rating have been wokified to the point of uselessness; goodreads fast approaching the same point.

    Aspiring writers get the advice to build their own internet presence, but that of course is a lot of work by itself. I like the concept of a book bomb where a group of like-minded authors do a push of a new novel.

  10. Jim says:

    Felix: “Jim, what are the important, unread books you have in mind?”

    You may have heard of the Stamp Acts, one of the key precipitating overreaches of the British Parliament into the American Colonies. What you may not have heard of is that that body “gave jurisdiction over Stamp Act offenses to the admiralty courts, which followed civil-law rather than common-law procedures.” Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 47 (2004). Thus, offenses against the revenue laws (including but not limited to the earlier Sugar Act) were tried by courts “routinely [taking] testimony by deposition or private judicial examination.” Id. at 48. As John Adams himself once argued, “Interrogatories are unknown at common Law, and Englishmen and common Lawyers have an aversion to them if not an Abhorrence of them.” John Adams, Draft of His Argument in Sewell v. Hancock (Oct. 1768–Mar. 1769), in 2 Legal Papers of John Adams 194, 207 (L. Kinvin Wroth & Hiller B. Zobel eds., 1965)).

    Wherever there are interrogatories, there be the ghastly silhouette of the British courts of admiralty.


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