Monday, 4 January 2010

Pulped Fiction

This article from the Mail Online which suggests that books aren't selling and that most end up at the pulping-station is chock-full of fallacies. The article leaps from one incorrect statement to another; it builds conclusions on assumptions which are inherently unsafe; and it cobbles together quotes and snippets of information from various unrelated sources to present an argument which just doesn't hold water. It's a cringe-making example of bad reporting and has been discussed on several writers' message boards: here it is at Absolute Write.

Despite the article's many flaws I don't accept the argument "it's in the Mail, what do you expect?" I've written for the Daily Mail and know how hard-working and professional my editors were. I think that this is yet another case of someone not really knowing how publishing works, and consequently being unable to recognise the mistakes that they've made. And if their editor didn't understand book-publishing either, then those mistakes just wouldn't be noticed. It's a shame, as the central premise regarding returns and book-pulping is an important issue for publishing right now, and needs to be addressed. I'll save that for another time, and will be writing about the article's many errors in the next week or so; but meanwhile, join me in a round of Spot-The-Problem. I found a stonking twenty-eight troublesome phrases in that single article: what score did you get?


Derek said...

The article does conflate a number of unrelated issues.

I wouldn't be surprised if the returns issue just went away by itself. Online retailers only need a few copies on hand. As more and more people shop online, the need for impressive-looking stacks of books in hundreds of stores diminishes.

Imogen said...

I don't know enough about the industry to spot factual errors, but that is a depressingly hysterical article and shows all the signs of blurring issues together, jumping to conclusions, etc, that usually mean inadequate or incomplete or incorrect evidence; so it doesn't surprise me that you say it is full of errors too!
I think the most depressing thing in it, though, was the statement that books are the most "popular" unwanted present. This has just happened to me for the very first time - getting given a book I don't want, that is - but the book is a Swedish existentialist Sci Fi comedy (in translation), and it just REALLY ISN'T my cup of tea. If anyone fancies it, I'm happy to pass it on (it's probably a classic of the genre)...

Jill Edmondson said...

I just read your blog post and the article you have linked.

What a poorly written, poorly researched article.

Sadly, many people will believe it without questioning the sources or the accuracy.

My first book has just been released and has sold much more than 18 copies!

It is astonishing that the editors allowed the drivel in this "SKy is Falling" article to be published.

I cannot help but wonder what the hidden agenda was (there surely must have been on). Was it to prop up the already healthy e-book industry? Was it to support tree-huggers who don't want to waste paper for books that don't sell?

Unbelieveable... Jill

Jane Smith said...

Derek, most books are still sold from physical bookshops and not online: the most reliable predictino that I've read suggested that it would take four or five more years before the two sales venues had an equal share of the market, so we've got some time to go before online sales have a real effect on stocks and therefore returns.

And Jill: I don't think there's a hidden agenda there at all, just a need to fill all those column-inches with something that might attract attention. In this case, it's worked--but not in the right way!

steeleweed said...

Jill, "Sadly, many people will believe it without questioning the sources or the accuracy."

That's pretty much the case with all 'expert opinions'. People believe what agrees with their mindtset, not what fact tell them and few question the reporters. How many times have you seen an ad that says "As seen on TV". as if that automatically conferred legitimacy on the facts.

Derek said...

Online retailers may have a greater market share in the U.S. than they do in the UK. PW reported a Bowker survey for 2008 that said:

"The Internet accounted for 23% of units sold in 2008, just beating out the major bookstore chains, which had a 22% market share."

barbarienne said...

Wow, that's just...

Basic math makes it easy to see the average number of returns isn't outlandish. 77 million divided by an extremely conservative 50K new titles is an average of 1540 returns for every title.

That's nothing. A typical paperback print run of 30K with an outstanding sell-through of 80% will mean 6000 pulped copies.

Even if every single statement in that article were accurate, the whole notion that this is some sort of sign that publishing is in trouble is IGNORANT TRIPE. Publishers all hate the returns system, but it's been working for decades. 77 million pulped books may not be ecologically good, but it means nothing to the publishing industry.

Ellen B said...

Again, I'm not well-informed enough to spot errors, but 28 in an article that length is just scary!

Jane, when you do get a chance to debunk the errors, please start with that 18-book average. Frankly, I don't care if that's false or not - I just need you to tell me that it is so I can get up in the morning! :)

Willow Hewitt said...

The entire premise of this article is flawed. The number of returns does not equal the number of books being pulped in any way. Even if you return through Batch, you very clearly get Red Box and Green Box returns, only the Red Box stuff is going to get pulped, the rest of it has to have all of your shops stickers taken off and be packaged very carefully in order to be resold elsewhere.

Also, speaking from the position of a buyer in a bookshop, I simply dont have the budget to purchase unsellable stacks of books, I only order what I'm relatively certain I'm going to sell. If the blame is with anyone, it's with the publisher's reps, they assure you that 200 students are going to come in and purchase a book for their course and a few months later you wind up sending back 197 of those.

Jane Smith said...

Derek, let's look a little more closely at the quote you provided: "The Internet accounted for 23% of units sold in 2008, just beating out the major bookstore chains, which had a 22% market share."

Online sales accounted for 23% of US book sales in 2008, while major bookstore chains accounted for 22%. That makes 45% of sales. As we've already accounted for all online sales, that meanst that the remaining 55% of sales must have been made at physical stores which were not major chains--so, independent bookstores, supermarkets, grocery stores and so on.

If you want to look at it another way, online sales made up 23% of book sales in 2008--which means that sales from physical stores probably accounted for the other 77%.

Or, less than one book in four was sold online, and all the others were sold from real, browse-the-book-before-you-buy locations.

(I've not read the article, so I might be wrong: but this is a perfect example of how people sometimes jump to conclusions when presented with statistics, and assume that they prove something that they might actually not.)

Jane Smith said...

Ellen, don't worry: that 18-book average is plain nonsense. If you take a look at the link below you'll find a post in which I discuss how sales are recorded, which gives a very different picture. And it might just help you sleep at night!

wealhtheow said...

I got up to 41 errors, misleading statements, misleading or meaningless deployments of decontextualized sales or return figures, unsupported assertions, howlers, and/or out-of-context statements by anonymous sources about whom we are told nothing whatever.

Is it a bad sign that I've just written 1100+ words of commentary on a 493-word article ...?

DanielB said...

I don't have enough specialist knowledge to spot all the errors, but as a mere author even I can see that it's ridiculous scaremongering!

"Averages" are unhelpful anyway without being told if it's an arithmetic mean or a median or a mode, and without a distribution. I remember reading somewhere that "the average person in Britain has 1.9 legs"! Which is mathematically true, but totally unhelpful for telling you anything!