The Business of Books

The influence of commercialism in the book industry

Personally, I do not like Harry Potter. I find it has an unconvincing plot and a few of its leading characters are weak. Some may agree with me, others may strongly oppose such a statement, and that is perfectly acceptable. However, both parties should acknowledge that it is the highest grossing fiction in the world and one of the highest grossing books ever created. One of the greatest reasons the series was so widely read, was due to the hype built up around this ‘bestseller series’. So, one can ask the question: How has the rising ‘commercialisation’ of books affected the book industry and its audiences?

Featured image by Ehber Burger

Firstly, a statement. Know that book prices are not just determined by costs of production and royalty fees. Taking on books is an immense financial risk, and for every bestseller, a publisher makes money on, it allows the company to invest money on its smaller authors. Bestsellers, as UCT lecturer Dr Ron Irwin says, “makes a John Coetzee possible.” In addition, the value of the ‘text itself’ is what a reader is actually paying for.

The book sales have never been stable, but recent years have seen a depressing decline in worldwide book sales. This decline is quite upsetting, as it not only means fewer people are reading books but also implies the new generations of our increasing population are not taking up the book as enthusiastically as the passing generations have.

Photo: klimkin

Whilst there are many factors, an obvious factor would attribute such a change to the rise of online film and series viewing, which has proven itself to be cheaper to consume in both money and time. However, I’d like to suggest that the rising prices of books have also contributed to the decline of book sales.

The publication of traditional print books is dominated by the large publishing companies, like Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. And this is not necessarily terrible. I instinctively have a great respect for a book simply because Penguin published it. but the print industry is infected with commercialisation too. Books have become costly, with a single novel easily costing R300 in a store. From there, it is quite easy to understand the popularity of second-hand books sales.  But, of that R300, usually only  10% royalty goes to the author. This ten percent, along with the advance, is the lifeblood for authors out there. Living off of books is an “extraordinary difficult thing to do”, according to Dr Hedley Twidle, another lecturer at UCT.

The rest of the money goes to the retailer and publisher. One must also remember that inflation does influence books, as they rely on multiple sectors like wood, ink, printing, advertising, etc., that can easily have cost increases. the publisher is justified in wanting to make good money off a book, as taking on book sales is a gamble and there are many risks. But books, due to rising commercialization, have become so costly that it is cheaper to feed a family than buy a book.

In South Africa, book sales are appalling when viewed in proportion to our population size. With a population of over 55 million, 2015 saw a small 10.5 million books sold. That figure includes textbooks, cookbooks, autobiographies, novels, etc. Of the rough 10.5 million books sold in South Africa in 2015, only 2.5 million were fiction. Even more tragically, only 525 000 of those fiction books were from South African authors. An average South African author will sell around a thousand copies of a book.  This points out a saddening quality of South Africans – we simply do not support our own authors who struggle to break into the 1st world dominated industry.

The best-selling South African fiction is Afrikaans novels, despite it being the third largest language with a home language percentage of 13.5%.

Another recent change in the business introduces a little hope and sorrow for an industry facing its decline: the rise of eBooks. We all know the argument of I like the feel of a real book, but eBooks are cheaper to purchase and produce, are more eco-friendly to the environment and they are a hell-of-a-lot easier for authors to publish than traditional paperback books.

ebook 2
Photo: Maximilian Schönherr

In the eBook world, Indie (Independent Publishers) published books are slowly popularising, as reflected by its growing market share in world book sales. With the rise of indie, the domination of the large publishing companies is slowly being eaten away at. Such a change will make it easier for individual authors to break into the book industry. However, the eBook industry is haunted by a nightmarish conglomerate: Amazon.

The company is not only the sole owner of Kindle but also owns 65% of the eBook market. In addition, the company also makes money off of the many other books it sells. The Alliance of Independent Authors suggested that; “Amazon could potentially favour its own products to the detriment of others.” As this reflects, Amazon has been suspected of toying with its bestseller list to increase the sales of an Amazon published book and, whilst this is not true, the accusation certainly reflects the way authors feel about the company. Amazon has been proven, however, to have pushed eBook prices down in order to ensure its dominance in the eBook market. Whilst Amazon could afford this, as it would lead to more sales on Kindle, the authors of these eBooks can not.

Whilst you can list many accusations or cases, the core of the matter is that Amazon is a conglomerate looking to make money off of products, and books make up 7% of their $75 billion income. Their primary concern is not the payment of authors or the distribution of a good book, rather it is the mass selling of a bestseller.

Thus, one can see how the book industry has been influenced by large companies and their need for profits. So, let us look at the other side of the coin, the reader.

book Sale
Photo: Phil Roeder

You have two types of readers. A bookworm who constantly buys, borrows and is never not in the process of reading something. They read from A to Z, list authors you’ll never recognise and know what good reads to recommend. These readers are quite specific in their likes and crave those books that are seamless. Dr Twidle, a writer and reader of narrative non-fiction says that “I’m glad it exists, but it’s not stuff I generally read.” Professor Imraan Coovadia admitted in an interview that there was “almost no bestseller I enjoyed reading.” The other readers read books in “response to the market”, as Seth Godin puts it. The second crowd is the source of wealth for bestselling authors. These readers are not necessarily interested in the best books but are more interested in what everyone else is reading.  Thus, the crowds flock to purchase the latest book on the Bestseller Lists.

The rising prices of books also influence the readers. Many readers do feel that books are becoming expensive. This is a problem for the industry. With less money to spend on books, readers are less likely to try new books, authors and genres and less consumption of books. Less consumption, means publishers are forced to raise prices even more in order to try to survive. In addition, high book prices will motivate readers to turn to book piracy, where nobody in the legal book industry makes money. It is a perpetual cycle that has can cripple the book world.

So I think it is quite clear: the book world, both its creators and consumers, is facing a problem. And the rising commercialization through rising prices and bestseller lists isn’t going to just go away. This isn’t a problem we can hide from behind the pages of a fictional world. We’re facing a stagnation in the amount of money spent on books whilst more books are being published. What is needed, is growth in a number of people who read. There does not really seem to be any other ways to fix the issue. So if reading is something that you treasure, encourage others to do so. It will benefit you both.


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