Market Update on Business Book Publishing – March 20, 2020

Last edit: March 24, 2020

Information about book publishing is often hard to come by for authors.

To combat that, I wanted to share a few things we at Bard Press are seeing right now.

Quick note: If you’d like more updates with trends and case studies from business book publishing, you can subscribe by clicking through to the newsletter sign-up form.

And be sure to check out my next post from April 6th on the continuing shift in the business book market.

1. Sales are down

We saw a 7.5% sales drop in the business and self-help categories, looking at the top 10,000 titles as tracked by NPDecisionKey. I heard the overall book market is down 10% this week.

The Top 50 was hit harder. Almost every title in the Top 50 for business books sold less this week. The total sales for that group was down 20%

The top of the list got hit the hardest. Two week ago, the #1 title was selling 10K copies a week. This week, the #1 title is selling under 6K copies.

2. Books are still launching

In the overall market, there are books launching with success: Untamed by Glennon Doyle, Get Out of Your Own Way by Dave Hollis, and a strong second week from Carrie Underwood’s Find Your Path.

Publishers, like movie studios, have also been pushing launches later into the year. Many books were scheduled to publish early in the year to avoid the fall presidential elections in the U.S.

Interesting side note: Movie studios are launching movies into early digital release, as movie theaters close around the country. NBC Universal released The Invisible Man along with two other movies and Pixar released Unbound. They are offering the movies at $19.99 rentals.

3. There are some big shifts in categories

We have noticed the Amazon Rank of some of our titles has been increasing (i.e. #5000 vs #1000). We always remember that Amazon Rank is a relative measurement compared to other products on the website.

Well, if you have been looking at the Top 100 Books on Amazon you can get a sense of shift in categories. With schools being closed and families staying home, children’s books dominate the list right now.

Update (March 23rd) : NPDecisionKey reports sales grew 38% for titles in juvenile non-fiction education, reference, and language print books. Leading topics include “math, language arts, puzzles, sticker books, word games, geometry, study aids, and coloring books.”

4. Retail is being hit hard

The outlets selling books are being impacted in different ways.

Amazon announced this week they are prioritizing household goods and medical supplies for the next three weeks, in an effort to help customers get the products they need. They told their suppliers to expect smaller orders and that it likely didn’t not represent actual demand on their website.

Physical stores are being severely impacted with closings taking place all over the country in reaction to government declarations. Stores from The Strand in New York City to Powell’s in my hometown of Portland have shut their doors but are still taking online orders. Barnes & Noble has been closing stores as needed and running others on reduced hours.

Airport bookstores, an important segment for business books, is down. We are seeing sales of our titles down 50%, which roughly matches the decrease in airlines bookings that has been reported in the news.

The combined effect across retail outlets is going to have a negative impact on book sales in the short term.

Open questions…

Some things I am wondering about:

  • Will we see a shift in the kinds of business books being read? Remote by 37Signals (a book about the company’s remote working efforts) and Shift by the folks at Keller Williams (a title about how real estate agents adjust to economic downturns) are both sold out on Amazon.
  • Have digital ebooks and audiobooks sold more copies this month because of availability and quarantining?
  • How much more will sales drop in business books? In the depths of the 2008 crisis, sales were off 50% from normal levels.

I’ll keep posting updates. You can sign up for my newsletter on trends and case studies from the world of book publishing by click on this link.

#Author Booknotes: Hit Makers

The Book

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction
By Derek Thompson
Penguin Press, 2017


A staff writer for The Atlantic, Thompson pulls together a slew of fascinating stories and anecdotes to try and explain what makes things popular. The trick with a book like this is there is no singular way that phenomenon reaches critical mass. So, in that way, the overview approach to the material works well, as it does in magazine articles. The downside is that the variety dilutes the utility of a strong throughline or highly actionable advice. If you read it like you are going to move through lots of material and that will find nuggets to inform your worldview, you’ll be satisfied when you’re done.

My Notes

  • We like what we are familiar with.
    • Exposure (or repeated exposure) is one way we get more familiar
    • The impressionist painters we know today all came from a single collection.
    • James Cutting, at Cornelll, found you could change preference just by showing students obscure paintings with a higher frequency.
    • Music publishers in Tin Pan Alley agressively pushed new music to musicians playing in clubs in New York City and gather feedback about what to further promote.
    • Music prediction services like HitPredictor or SoundOut can explain part of the success of some songs, but exposure and airplay also play a huge factor.
  • The familiar needs to be balanced with the new
    • Industrial designer Raymond Loewy called this “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” – MAYA
    • “People like a challenge if they think they can solve it. [Claudia Muth] calls this moment where disfluency yields fluency the aesthetic aha.”
    • Example four chord music, cable news focus on headline topics with endless viewpoints, Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature needed new and known songs
  • The balance can be found in patterns
    • The longest time to create surprise with the fewest number of musical notes is BBBBC-BBBC-BBC-BC-D
    • Rhetorical devices like epistrophe (repetition of words at the end of the sentence), anaphora (repetition at the beginning of the sentence), tricolon (repetition in short triplicate, and my favorite antimetabole (AB;BA – do onto others as they would do onto you)
  • This leads us to another pattern – STORY
    • Joseph Campbell’s ingredients: inspiration, relatability, and suspense
    • “…[T]ake twenty-five things that in any successful genre and you reverse one of them. Reverse too many and you get genre confusion. Invert all the elements, you get parody. But one strategic tweak? Now you’ve got something that is perfectly new.”
  • Popularity is always being shaped by choice, economics and marketing
    • Industrialization is followed by the rise of fashion
    • “Distribution is a strategy to make a good product popular, but it’s not a reliable way to make a bad product seem good.”
    • Researchers Balaz Kovacs and Amanda Sharkey found that winning awards actually produces lower ratings from readers
      • Possible cause – higher expectations for those titles
  • Randomness
    • Duncan Watts studies information cascades
      • Everything starts at zero
      • And 1 in 1000 is still 1 in 1000 and very hard to predict
    • Al Greco calls the entertainment business “a complex. Adaptive, semi-chaotic industry with Bose-Einstein distribution dynamics and Pareto law characteristics with dual-sided uncertainty.”
    • Virality is a myth; broadcasters that share with millions make the difference in hits
      • “Items spread wider and faster when everyone can see what everybody else is doing.”
    • Sometimes it is not really about the product, but that someone “buys” popularity of the product.
    • Even people who produce lots of product can’t predict what will be a hit (i.e. Vincent Forrest on Etsy)
  • “Ideas most reliably spread with the piggyback off an existing network of closely connected and interested people.”
  • “The paradox of scale is that the biggest hits are often designed for a small, well-defined group of people.”
  • “Artists and teams produced their most resonant work after they had already passed a certain threshold of fame and popularity. Perhaps genius thrives in a space shielded ever so slightly from the need to win a popularity contest.
  • Random facts
    • One percent of music artists earn eighty percent of all recorded music revenue.
    • Music companies use Shazam to see where songs are being searched and find small places to launch into bigger markets
    • NBC uses 40-40-20 test for new programs
      • 40% of people say they are aware of the show
      • 40% of that (16% of total) say they want to watch it.
      • And 20% (3.2% of total!) of that say they are passionate about the new show
  • FX’s Nicole Clemens: “I am looking for a 90 hour movie. It is a Trojan horse for a deeper question: Who is the character becoming? What is he or she going to do next?”
  • Kat Kamen, first head of merchandising at Disney: “The art of film is film, but the business of movies is everywhere.”

Michael Schrage – Author of Innovator’s Hypothesis (Better Books Podcast – Episode Three)

Better Books Podcast Tile EP3

In this episode, I talk with Michael Schrage about designing customers and running experiments in the world of book publishing.

Michael Schrage is a visiting fellow at MIT and the author of several books including Who do you want your customers to become? and The Innovator’s Hypothesis.

In the first half of the interview, we talk about an better way to think about customers and why cheap experiments are than good ideas. In the latter half, we apply these ideas to readers, authors and the world of book publishing.


Books By Michael Schrage:

Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?

The Innovator’s Hypothesis: How Cheap Experiments Are Worth More than Good Ideas

Noticing What You Read

A few months ago, I noticed the songs I listen to give a view into how I am seeing the world. For a long time, I loved a good song about self-doubt. Lately the mix has been around positivity and growth. It’s interesting seeing myself drawn unconsciously to music ahead of the work I need to do in my life.

That insight about my listening habits lead me to look around at other parts of my life and what clues might be hiding in plain sight.

With my reading lately, I didn’t notice how much I was reading female authors. There was no plan for this curation, but it is again interesting to see.

Among recent reads are:

  • Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin – A recent NYT article pointed me to the book and its update this year.  The book does a fine job of talking about managing your money and managing the emotions that arise. Both matter.
  • Powerful by Patty McCord – As the former Head of People at Netflix, Patty had a front row seat for the growth and amazing change at the entertainment giant. I believe this is the first book from an executive at Netflix and you get a view into the company.
  • Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale – You may not want to read a book about death, but you should. Sallie is a great writer.
  • Business of Being A Writer by Jane Friedman – So much has changed about being a writer and how to pursue it as a profession. Jane’s book is dense with wonderful advice.
  • Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski – This is the best book I have ever read about sex. It’s not scintillating or racy. It covers the biology, the physiology, and the psychology in a positive, clear way.
  •  Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat – A wonderfully different approach to cooking and the book is beautiful.
  • Pencil Me In by Christina Wodtke – I have never met a sketch note / visual thinking book I didn’t like.  This book is a wonderful compilation of original and complied material from other experts.

Have you noticed anything in what you have been reading lately?

Branding The Books of An Author

Visuals play an important part of the presentation of books.

One of the interesting problems is how you handle an author with multiple books.

There are advantages to readers being able to recognize titles from a given authority, but that can also introduce a symmetry which makes the books seems like copies of one another.

I noticed recently that Tor chose to rebrand all the books by Cory Doctorow. I honestly can’t decide if I like the decision or not. I remember the books by their original covers and I like these too.


Here is the catalog of books from Pat Lencioni.


The covers are smaller here but you can see how across the room you can identify his books.

My designer Joy pointed me to Marilynne Robinson’s books and how they have pulled them together. The balance of difference and sameness feels best to me in this series. The typography creates consistency but its placement and the images makes them feel like different books.

robinson series

So, this is just three examples. Cover consistency is an interesting question because there is no magic answer, but it is interesting to see how different publishers approach it.

Dan Ward – Author of F.I.R.E (Better Books Podcast – Episode Two)

Better Books Podcast Tile EP2

In this episode, I talked with Dan Ward about large scale innovation and book publishing.

Dan served in the Air Force for 20 years delivering large, complex projects.

In a nod to the title of his first book, he believes that fast, inexpensive, restrained and elegant methods are the ones that work best for innovation.

Dan also talks about his approach to using minimum viable publishing and building an audience over time.


Dan Ward’s books:

FIRE: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation

The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide to Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse


How Much Time Does It Take To Read a Book?

More and more, I am convinced that books need time stamps.

You can’t look at a book to see you it fits into your life. And that matters more as we measure our lives in smaller and smaller slices of time.

I found this image on Alexis Ohanian’s book Without Their Permission:


I liked that the image marks how much time it would take to read and when it might fit into the reader’s life. Youtube videos, Audible audiobook tracks, and Netflix movies each tell us total time for that piece of content.

With digital content, we also know how far we are with the elapsed time marker. As we approach a point in time when we need to move to something else, we can easily decide if we should pause or continue.

Books are bad at both of these concepts because books vary so much. It is easy for publishers to shrink or expand the number of words on a page through line spacing or font size. The size of the page can vary too with big implications across hundreds of pages. The language the author uses can affect the speed of reading. Let’s not even talk about how pictures and photos have no real standardization. The bottom line is the physical appearance of a book is not a good way to judge how long it will take to read.

Medium estimates the time it will take to read their articles. This function also available as a plug-in for blogs and others forms of online publishing. Maybe our devices should tell us how much time is left in a chapter based on the data it has collected, based on our reading rate and the reading rate of others for our current book, other books in the genre and all books collectively. This would be a welcome replacement to our old method of paging ahead to find the chapter’s end.

I have been wondering if we should display the time length of the audiobook alongside the page count of print books or maybe even next to the price of the title. This information is more easily gotten as audiobooks are becoming more common. This could be another useful marker for a reader to determine if they want to buy that particular book.

Smart book publishers might even help readers get over the attention anxiety by providing time estimates for each chapter:

“You can read this book in ten easy installments of 17 minutes each!”

Books definitely fit into our lives. Let’s just do a better job of showing customers how.

Peter Armstrong from Leanpub (Better Books Podcast – Episode 1)

Better Books Podcast Tile EP1

For episode one, I am interviewing Peter Armstrong, co-founder of Leanpub.

I met Peter about eight years ago. We have been both on the same path believing that books are startups.

While I have been publishing books, his path has been creating a platform for publishing and selling books.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to learn more about how they are changing book publishing.

Making Books

I had lunch yesterday with a writer in Portland who works with authors.

Davia is great. She thinks big. She tries to draw out the best from the author and what will most help the readers. It was easy to talk shop for two and a half hours over chicken kebabs. The conversation centered around three projects and each existed across the range of feasibility.

The first project was ill defined. There was no one sentence description. Neither of us could get a sense of what would fix the problem. We spent the most time talking about this one and made the least progress.

The second project was promising but it also existed in this fuzzy realm. This author could write any of several books but none of ideas reflected who they were. We later exchanged emails on a concept they all had in common. It felt like the right book, but it was the one that was going to take craft and care to write.

The third was already done. The topic was timely. Demand would only grow over time. The author had credibility. The only question was how fast could it be written.

Books are a strange amalgam of author, idea and zeitgeist. Three months from now all of these books could be in different places, better or worse. It makes the work infinitely interesting and equally frustrating at times.


Go Author, Go

On the front page of the Sunday New York Times this week is an article titled “In E-book Era, Rule for Writers Is Type Faster!” The piece focuses on the additional work already busy authors are doing now as readers demand more new material. Some are writing more books. Some are writing novellas between books. Some are hiring writers so they can write more books.

There are some interesting thoughts between the lines:

  • Publishers want to be able to capitalize on faddish interest in an author with more stuff readers can buy. Does art go well with speed? Is there other ways to gain permission to talk to readers in between books?
  • Talent is scarce and once commercial success is seen publishers want to scale the art. What are the limits to that kind of effort?
  • Abundance of an author’s works correlates to more sales and through these additional avenues discoverability improves. Does lower prices have the same abundance effect? How about removing DRM?

Are They Ready?

Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, said last week in the New York Times, “With a host, you have to be at the point where the applause won’t stop until he or she hits their mark.”

Authors need to understand acquisition editors are thinking the same thing as Lorne.

Publishers want authors that are recognizable to the audience they are going after.

Platform is about popularity.

And Seth is right about not needing to wait to be picked anymore, but there are still gatekeepers that can help you and they have their different yardsticks to measure you up with.

Do yourself a favor and start building a tribe today. I promise there are a handful of people who right now want to know what you are working on. I also know that they will tell others if you share with the tribe the things they need to hear.


Somebody Has Written That Already

The first roadblock to innovation is “Somebody has already done that.”

I used that phrase as a prospective publisher rejected a book proposal I had written and suggested an alternative approach. I told them the simpler concept had already been done many times.

His response was “That’s true, but if you get it right, you own the category.”

Will Weiser’s suggestion and nudge was the impetus that created The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. And he was right. There was a market.

This question of copying an idea that already exists comes up a lot in book publishing as we make choices about what to write and what to publish. A blog post over at Whittle Idea suggests a another question to consider when faced with these situations:

Drew Houston, founder of Drop-box, pitched the idea of file sharing across computers to a bunch of investors. The leading objection was “there are many file sharing services out there”.

Drew Houston turned to an investor who dismissed the idea & asked “Do you use any file sharing service?”. The answer was “No”. In the following discussion, he established that prospective users were not yet taken.

That is how you find if the idea is already taken – by checking if the prospective users are already taken.

If prospective users are still available, the idea is still available. If the need is real, all you need is to reach and resonate with those users, in a way [others] could not.

If someone would have asked me if I bought any of the other books on the market, I would have said no. There were more readers out there. In our case, we have outsold any other book in our segment by a ratio of 3:1.

There is a risk of misusing this question if you only ask yourself but if you are talking to potential customers it is a great qualifier to see if a market is still in play.

Idea Arena Podcast – The Lean Startup with Eric Ries – Part II

In this second part of a two episode interview, I talk with Eric Ries, serial entrepreneur and author of The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

The focus of the second part of this interview is Eric’s views of book publishing and what changes he would recommend in applying the lean startup methodologies to the industry. This segment will be of particular interest to publishers looking to apply agile methodologies to their businesses.

Part II of the interview is 49 minutes.

P.S. You might also enjoy Eric’s keynote from O’Reilly’s 2012 Tools of Change Conference

Built to Rebuild

In 1959, a wealthy English industrialist named Henry Kremer established a £350,000 prize for the first person that could develop a human powered airplane that could fly a figure eight course around two markers spaced a half a mile apart. Several attempts had been made in the early part of the century but no one could develop an airplane that could travel any significant distance. Over the eight years, several more groups would make attempts without success.

At this point, the Kremer Prize was only open to the British, but in 1967 Kremer raised the prize to £500,000 and opened the competition to all nationalities. Ten more years passed before someone would pass Kremer’s challenge and complete the course with a plane powered by a human.

You probably know the winner more by his creations than his name. On August 23, 1977, The Gossamer Condor was the first human powered aircraft to complete the course. The larger Gossamer Albatross followed two years later with a successful flight across the English Channel and won a second Kremer Prize. This inventor’s work later shifted to solar powered aircraft with the creation of the Gossamer Penguin, the Solar Challenger, and NASA’s Helios Prototype.

Behind these marvels is a man named Paul MacCready and given it took over twenty years for someone to create the machine to accomplish the Kremer’s original challenge, it would seem proper to ask what was remarkable about MacCready.

First, MacCready was motivated. In this case, he needed the money. He was the guarantor on a loan on a family member’s failed business and was in need of $100,000 to repay the bank, but what was truly unique about MacCready was his approach to the work.

The teams who had attempted to create human powered aircraft all used the same approach. They would plan, conject, and theorize for a year and then build a machine that contained all of their assumptions. During shortly into the first test flight, those assumptions would come crashing down to the ground and the process would repeat.

As Aza Raskin and Alan Kay tell the story, MacCready’s radical approach was to build a prototype that could be quickly modified and rebuilt. His plane could be fixed in hours and the new assumptions could tested again the same day. With this approach, MacCready solved the twenty year old challenge and the age old dilemma of human powered flight in six months.

So, what happens when we can build things that can easily rebuild?

In my essay The Paperless Book, I lament the paradigm that governs our view of the book, the way it paralyzes the ability for the concept of a book to evolve.

Books aren’t built to be rebuilt. Authors labor in their sheds and their untested assumptions cause so many books to come crashing down from the sky. There is a better way.

I just finished a new chapter for Every Book Is a Startup called Minimum Viable Publishing. It will be added to the project in a few weeks and it will be my first attempt to get at the benefits of being able to test your assumptions and rebuild books as you create them.

The Three Parts of Publishing

Last week, Baldur Bjarnason at the FutureBook blog shared his impressions of their 2011 conference. He write about the directions that various publishing companies are moving in the market.

The future might look something like this: A product innovation and commercialisation company develops a property into various products. They partner with a infrastructure management company like Ingram to provide the backbone that keeps everything together and moves everything from the right spot to the next right spot. Sometimes they partner with another former publishing company, that now emphasises publishing services instead of products, to fill in the gaps in their own capabilities. And they partner with a customer relationship company like Amazon and Kobo (for ebooks), or Apple and Google (for apps), for the ever so important end point of selling something to a consumer. The issue of one customer relationship company effectively owning all customers in a single sector is mitigated by the fact that the product company isn’t tied to doing a single kind of product.

Bjarnason properly credits John Hagel and John Seely Brown for the strategic construct. The long version can be found in their book The Only Sustainable Advantage. The shorter version can be found in a 1999 HBR article that Hagel wrote with Marc Singer titled Unbundling The Corporation. In the latter source, Hagel and Singer actually lament Amazon’s strategic choice to be both a customer relationship company and an infrastructure company. It would be interesting to hear their rebuttal to Amazon’s recent and growing movement in the third space of product innovation as a book publisher.

The question I have pondered in this three part structure is if product innovation and customer relationship are better paired together. Look at the incredible success of Apple’s move into retail and the role that has played in their growth. The Lean Startup methodology suggests that you can’t make what the customer wants unless you are close to the customer.

Or look at Louis CK’s choice this week to offer a new show directly to his fans for five dollars (and smartly asks during the checkout if you would like subscribe to get email updates). It’s Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans riff is about finding people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” In so many cases, you want to create great art and own the customer relationship.

P.S. Chris Dixon wrote last week about how the separation of design and manufacturing creates an environment for “garage ready” startups. So, the separation of innovation and infrastructure makes space for new companies to grow. It also creates the need for someone to build the interface and the tools so these two disciplines can talk to each other.