Selling books in a brave new world…

A few minutes after my last post someone was kind enough to stand up and be counted. So that made it clear that it is worth writing some more.

In science journals, an article is publishable if it is interesting, relevant and well-written. In the book market, things are not the same. Books are published even if they are not well written (though many are), as long as the subject sells. In traditional terms that means shelf space at the bookstore. reports USD 13.2 billion in annual online book sales in the US, and other sites place the entire US publishing market at USD 16-25 billion per year. Amazon data include music and DVDs, and are about 30% of online sales.

Judging by how often I buy books and DVDs (music is falling by the wayside for traditional purchasing) and how little people read when compared to watching movies, I would bring the online (printed) book sales number down to about 1/3 of the total market for the US. Worldwide, that proportion would go down, maybe to 10-20%. In science, this is called a SWAG: Scientific Wild Ass Guess. Of course “S” can also mean Stupid.

But the online market is growing fast – although I love bookshops, and you can’t get that bookshop smell on the net. So if publishers want to make money on that 80% long tail, there will be a shift in what the criteria need to be. After all, if that 2/3 market of non-web sales is worth USD 15 billion in the US alone, and if that is 80% of the sales (for 20% of the products), then there are another 80% of (low sales) books out there. Hmm… that’s another 4 billion buck market sitting out there – but only accessible as bookselling moves to the net, with its terabytes of free shelving. Companies like Alibris and Abebooks are already cherry-picking that hard-to-find-impossible-to-stock market, as are Amazon book sellers.

In fact, I found some of the most esoteric books published in Portuguese about Vasco da Gama’s time in just that way. And paid good money for them.  Several were in old bookstores in downtown Lisbon, one in particular in Largo Trindade Coelho, full of memorabilia from Africa and the East. All that area down from the Bairro Alto is full of old bookshops, and wonderful to explore. And in that exploratory vein I’m going to leave a link to the next chapter in my book: – The Boy from Seville.pdf

The idea is to firm up the character of The Spy Pero da Covilha, and outline how King John II sent him to Morocco to improve his espionage and Arabic skills, in preparation for his journey to India – to provide Gama with intelligence on everything from the Indian Ocean Monsoon, to the Zamorin of Calicut and the legendary mines of King Solomon, in present-day Zimbabwe.


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