18 November 08 | Chad W. Post

This is the second part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors last week. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. And we’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of this for the next week or so.

Although it’s a bit more complicated than this, the survival strategy of commercial publishers is the “a few big books float the boat” model. This is the idea that most books published by a house will lose money, or at best breakeven, but that every year a few titles will explode, far outselling their costs and generating enough revenue to keep the house afloat. You often hear publishers say things like, “we publish those kind of books so that we can do more literary stuff.” That’s a friendly way of saying that they need some obvious money making books to sell well, otherwise the publishing house would be screwed.

Anecdotally, it often seems that these “break-thru” books are completely accidental. Like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or most any book that Oprah ends up selecting for her book club. “Unexpected successes” pop up every single year. Nevertheless, from the top CEOs on down everyone feels the pressure of acquiring, or marketing, or selling, this year’s “big book” and reaping the profits that come along with these sales.

As a result, huge amounts of money are bandied about on concepts and names. Many of which don’t work out so well. A few recent examples are listed at the end of the New York article, including the $8 million advance to Charles Frazier for Thirteen Moons, a book that sold approx. 368.000 copies, leaving $5.5 million of the advance unrecouped. My personal favorite is Dewey: A Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, which is described in typical movie-pitch comparison style as “_Marley & Me_ meets The Bridges of Madison County in this heartwarming true story.” Advance? One and a quarter million dollars.

Having spent so much on books like these, publishers are then obligated to spend a vast amount of money marketing and publicizing these big acquisitions. Granted, a good deal of the advance money is made up by selling translations rights to countries all over the world (a one-way street as I’m sure you already know), but these titles are also expected to sell really well.

It’s worth taking a moment here to look at the math and explain a bit about how book sales work in America. I believe this is pretty similar to other countries, but not entirely. In the States the big publishers have their own sales force and warehouses, both of which cost a pretty penny, but are necessary to ensure that a publisher gets the largest market penetration possible. (More on this when we talk about independent publishers.) Each of the different outlets publishers sell to—wholesalers, independent bookstores, chains, Amazon, Costco and Sam’s Club, libraries, etc.—receive a different discount, usually in the range of 45-50%.

Sticking with Thirteen Moons, the retail price on the hardcover edition is $26.95, so, for each sale, Random House can expect approx. $13.75 in revenue. Leaving all subrights sales aside, and using New York’s sales figure of 368,000, Random House made approx. $5 million in sales of this book. A huge figure for a lot of presses, but a number that’s less than the initial advance, and definitely less than the total costs that went into publishing and promoting the book. I’ll assure you that this wasn’t the book that allowed Random House to do all their “literary” breakeven titles this year.

Nevertheless, this book sold exceptionally well compared to many others. I was recently talking with a former editor at one of the big six publishers, who said that titles he acquired usually sold in the 5-7,000 range, far less than the 15-20,000 copies his bosses expected his books to sell, sales levels that would’ve allowed the book to breakeven. He also said that he always thought his sales were incredibly low (publishers always, always lie about print runs and sales, so the numbers you see in print are inflated) until someone from another big house shared privileged sales info leading both editors to realize that most literary titles just don’t sell very well.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

Read More >

I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

Read More >

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >

I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

Read More >

Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

Read More >

The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >