David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

evolution and book publishing

It's not often that reading about book publishing gives you insight into human evolution, but that might actually have happened for me. I do mostly practical stuff, so I don't focus on evolution in the way some colleagues do, but the classic theory I was taught as an undergrad was that evolution had essentially stopped, because humans can now adapt our environment to suit us, rather than the other way round. This made intuitive sense to me. But there's a more recent camp that argues otherwise, and there's some evidence to suggest they have a point.

Natural selection, however, isn't the only reason why a gene might become more prevalent. It's also possible that the driving force is sexual selection. Among the most prominent supporters of this idea is Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, author of The Mating Mind. He believes that the rate of human evolution is accelerating, and that selection for sexually desirable traits is the driving force. "Our high rates of migration, outbreeding, and cross-ethnic mating are recombining our genes at unprecedented rates," he says.

What is more, the vast human population means that our gene boat is acquiring new mutations faster than ever. Miller also points out that people are far more likely to meet and have children with someone who is like them. "Assortative mating - for intelligence, personality traits, mental health, physical health, attractiveness - is getting ever more efficient through higher education, urbanisation, singles' ads, internet dating and speed dating," says Miller. Taken together, that is likely to mean that advantageous new mutations have a greater opportunity than ever to become fixed in the population.

Some folks think that a side effect of modern medicine keeping folks like -- well, me, asthmatic that I am -- alive, is that selection for good health is stopping; others suggest that because so many more people survive to reproduce, we're getting more chances at getting useful -- less obviously useful, like Shane Battier -- genes passed along. That evolution is actually going faster. That's not my specialty, and it seemed weird and counter-intuitive to me.

And then I started reading news articles about book publishing.

There are basically two views of how to proceed in the troubled world of book publishing, two answers to "where do we go from here?" These are the Anderson view and the Elberse view.

Chris Anderson is famous for "The Long Tail," which he first proposed in a 2004 WIRED article and has since turned into a book and a blog. The basic idea is that misses sell smaller numbers than hits, often much smaller, they still sell -- *and there are lots more misses than hits.* So in the aggregate, there's a lot of money to be made selling them, and going for the niches. Here's a taste of his argument:

Everyone's taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we're drawn to them. Unfortunately, in recent decades such alternatives have been pushed to the fringes by pumped-up marketing vehicles built to order by industries that desperately need them.

Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody. Not enough shelf space for all the CDs, DVDs, and games produced. Not enough screens to show all the available movies. Not enough channels to broadcast all the TV programs, not enough radio waves to play all the music created, and not enough hours in the day to squeeze everything out through either of those sets of slots.

This is the world of scarcity. Now, with online distribution and retail, we are entering a world of abundance. And the differences are profound.

...What's really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you've got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are (see "Anatomy of the Long Tail"). In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity. Venture capitalist and former music industry consultant Kevin Laws puts it this way: "The biggest money is in the smallest sales."

This is sometimes quite true. I knew Michael Walsh, owner of the small press Old Earth Books, years ago, and he was able to pick up the reprint rights to the LENSMAN books for a song -- who'd wanna buy 'em? Well, not vast numbers of people, but if you're a small press catering to a devoted market and you're publishing facsimiles of a classic edition that nobody's been able to get for years, it is basically a license to print money. I have distinct memories of Mike Walsh walking around WSFA meetings beaming and cackling. There's a counter-view, though, from Harvard business professor Anita Elberse, and it's pretty sobering. Especially if you care about books, and book publishing:

In a typical year, Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books) goes to market with 275 to 300 book titles spread across two catalogs—its fall and winter lists. For each list the company identifies the handful of books it believes have the greatest sales potential and gives them the full benefit of its marketing capabilities. Of those, it spotlights just two “make” books, one fiction and one nonfiction, for which the company’s publisher is willing, in her words, to “pull out all the stops.” In the fall of 2007 those books were David Baldacci’s Stone Cold and Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (and So Can You!). The effects of this strategy show up in sales figures and profits. Whereas the 61 hardcover titles Grand Central put on its 2006 front list, on average, incurred costs of $650,000 and earned gross profits of just under $100,000, a wide range of numbers contributed to those averages. Grand Central’s most heavily marketed title incurred costs of $7 million and achieved net sales of just under $12 million, for a gross profit of nearly $5 million—50 times the average.

An article in NEW YORK MAGAZINE provides more sobering detail:

Elberse led off with a tidbit from a study of Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing. Of 61 books on its 2006 list, each title averaged a profit of almost $100,000. But without the top seller, which earned $5 million, that average drops to $18,000. “A blockbuster strategy still makes the most sense,” she concludes.

...So publishing ends up looking like a mini-Hollywood, but even more dependent on sleeper hits and semi-reliable franchises. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code buoyed Random House tremendously in the past five years, but with Brown’s sequel delayed, sales were down 5.6 percent last year. When Simon & Schuster announced that sales were off almost 10 percent in the first half of ’08, it cited the 2007 success of The Secret as the reason for the relative shortfall. Other companies did better—but on the strength of surprise hits. Sales grew 11 percent both at Penguin and at Hachette’s U.S. division, largely on the backs of two authors—Oprah-touted self-helper Eckhart Tolle at Penguin and Stephenie Meyer at Little, Brown.

Morgan Entrekin remembers meeting Larry Kirshbaum, then-CEO of Time Warner Books, right after two of Kirshbaum’s books had been anointed by Oprah in 1999. “It’s like winning the lottery twice,” says Entrekin, “but Larry didn’t seem that happy. He said, ‘Now my bosses are going to expect me to do better next year.’ ’’ Kirshbaum eventually left to become an agent.

This made me realize: book publishing may be depressing as hell, but it actually gave me a better handle on that evolutionary theory I'd found counterintuitive. More people = more chance for monstrously successful genetic outliers. So for the most part, we're the long tail. But every so often, there's a best seller.

...the best seller strategy isn't working out so well for books, though, is it?

(Here's a side question: if the mean hardcover cost for Grand Central's 2006 front list was $650,000(!!!), and their mean gross was less than $100,000, *why the hell is Grand Central producing all those hardcovers, and why the hell are they spending so much to do it?*)
Tags: books

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