The Long Tail made it into Harper’s Index (apparently the June issue - I saw it here):

  • “Minimum number of different books sold in the U.S. last year, as tracked by Nielsen BookScan: 1,446,000.
  • “Number of these that sold fewer than 99 copies: 1,123,000.
  • “Number that sold more than 100,000: 48

Yes, those are startling enough to make the list, but not really surprising. The trick for most writers is to be somewhere on the curve where there’s still a bit of tilt, among the roughly 323,000 books that are in between big seller and my relatives bought it.

I wonder how many of those “fewer than 99 copies” are backlist titles that were higher on the list last year or the year before? I’m guessing it’s backlist sales that are most affected by the ready availability of used books online. These days, you can buy used copies the day a book officially goes on sale. I’m presuming - though it’s not totally clear from Nielsen’s Web site - that only new books are being counted, since publishers are the primary market for the data.

Imagine what the numbers would be if they included library check-outs, bookswaps, used sales, and other forms of pass alongs.

Not long ago Jim Huang mused about the future of publishing in a much-discussed blog post, and one commenter said second-hand sales were killing the market; she wished her books would self-destruct after three reads so they wouldn't keep circulating and cutting into sales. As a librarian, I cringed. How would libraries be able to afford books if only three people could borrow them before they disappeared? How would a new writer ever develop a readership if people couldn't pass along a book to a friend to try? Who would have a chance to discover your books existed before - poof!?

We may find out. This is a real possibility with electronic "solutions" - that you won't actually own a book, you'll only get to read a copy that can't be shared or passed along. (Google is talking about selling content through its book search; Amazon keeps rekindling their Kindle reader, which will have share-unfriendly DRM.) If you've ever wondered why your stupid library doesn't have audiobooks that work on your iPod, it's not the library's fault - Apple and Audible aren't compatible with libraries loaning books. So libraries end up buying them through another company (with its own DRM) and purchasing devices to play them for patrons who only have iPods. How clunky is that?

But libraries aren't the enemy. They buy books in volume and they create readers, so acting as if they're a piracy scheme is not going to help the business in the long run. Used books also build interest in reading. It's shaking things up, no question about it, but we can't destroy that village in order to save it, we have to find new ways to make publishing work.

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Comment by Clea Simon on October 2, 2007 at 4:02am
At some point, Bookscan will probably register "hits" on books, like webcounters do. Until then, well, just keep writing, keep your head down, and don't scare.

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