In the September 2 issue of The Economist, in their “Culture” section, there is a long article about the publishing industry in both the UK and the USA. The gist of the piece is that while publishing likes to promote its devotion to “literary fiction” whatever that means, the books that pay the publisher’s bills and make a profit are overwhelmingly romance novels and thrillers. Moreover, authors of such books are prolific. James Paterson is credited with writing 340 books albeit some with other writers. Danielle Steel has written over 200.
But—the point of the article—the publishing world doesn’t like to talk about this.
These days it costs, apparently, between fifteen to nineteen thousand dollars to produce a book, and to earn that investment back a book must sell at least five thousand copies. In Britain only 0.4% of titles sold that number. (No reference to USA numbers in that regard but it’s probably not so different).
Simultaneously the world of publishing is going through a major change in regard to the way books are being promoted. When I first started publishing in 1970, the publisher did almost all of the marketing.
[That said, years ago I published a book and the publisher belatedly let me know they had forgotten to send out any books for review or marketing.}
Back then, the only marketing writers did were in-person book tours, conferences, bookstores, libraries, and schools.
Almost all of that is gone. Social media has become the chief marketing tool, and much of that comes from the writers themselves. The covid pandemic did much to induce that, but it was beginning to happen prior to that. A publisher let me know that even the number of book reviews in publications has radically declined.
Not long ago a publisher bragged to me that one of his recent bestsellers became so without any publishing marketing at all—all social media.
To me, the most interesting part of the Economist article are comments by such people as Markus Dohie (the head of Penguin/Random) and Jonathan Karp (head of Simon & Schuster) that “Taking credit for a bestseller is like taking credit for the weather (Karp). And “Bestsellers are random.” (Dohie).
I am reminded of what the British writer Somerset Maugham was once quoted as saying, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
The message to writers is clear. The best you can do is write your best. And then see what happens. But do keep in mind what writer G.K. Chesterton said: “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”