Netflix for Book Discovery and Other Problems

Oddly, it only brings these trials up after a nice, cozy lede about how book sales are up, up, up! “Last year, readers bought nearly 827 million print books, an increase of roughly 10 percent over 2020, and a record since NPD BookScan began tracking two decades ago.” The article fails to note that, despite the disruption of a lockdown, the beginning of a pandemic, and countless supply-chain issues, book sales only dropped .2% (that’s point two, not two) in 2020. That’s on top of the fact that 2022’s first quarter sales have beat 2019 Q1 and 2020 Q1 sales.

Book sales are doing just fine. They’ve been doing just fine for a while. 

But, according to this article, book discovery is a huge problem. And it is! It’s a huge problem… for publishers. The article quotes Peter Hildick-Smith, president of a group that analyzes the book industry. He says, “there’s an endless appetite among the tech people and publishing industry people to find the Holy Grail of book discovery, but I don’t think anyone has found a tool or an algorithm or an A.I. platform that does the job for you.” 

I don’t know if Hildick-Smith meant that last clause to be a bit shady, but it can certainly be read that way.

The other urgent problem that the book world is having? That individual titles aren’t selling enough copies. “Of the 3.2 million titles that BookScan tracked in 2021, fewer than one percent of them sold more than 5,000 copies.” The article only cites figures from 2021, with no historical figure to show whether or not this is bad or unusual. Anne Trubek, publisher of independent midwestern press Belt Publishing, dug into this statistic in her recent newsletter, if you’re interested.

The New York Times article goes on to list a half dozen book discovery services. Some are hoping to free their users from Amazon. Some want to connect readers to authors. Others aggregate popular social media posts in order to help readers find the buzziest books. (Aggregating tweets? In the year of our Lord 2022?) One, bless its heart, is pitching itself as “Netflix for books,” as though that wasn’t tried a hundred times between 2012 and 2018. I was in those pitch meetings.

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