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Book Publishing’s Weak Bet On “Fire And Fury”? Blame Data

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is exploding. Threats of legal action from the Trump White House–the book’s subject–seem only to have poured fuel on the flames. To date, it’s racked up more than a million orders, more than six times the demand that Henry Holt, Fire and Fury’ s U.S. publisher, had anticipated, with 29,000 hardcover copies reportedly selling out within two days of the book hitting shelves. Last week’s “bomb cyclone” snow storm delayed restocking shipments in the Northeast. While Macmillan, Henry Holt’s parent company, scrambles to rush out more copies, pirated versions are circulating online . On its face, an account based on unprecedented access to a figure as divisive as Trump sounds like a runaway hit. But the fact that the book publisher bet much more conservatively on it says a lot about the data problems that still bedevil the book-publishing industry in 2018. Related: Michael Wolff’s Cattiness Undercuts The Impact Of Fire And Fury Tomorrow’s Hits And Yesterday’s Habits As Constance Grady points out at  Vox , the book industry’s business model is partly to blame. Like other media sectors (Hollywood, for one), book publishers rely increasingly and overwhelmingly on best-sellers to stay in the black. In addition, an outdated quirk that allows booksellers to return unsold stock to publishers for a full refund incentivizes publishers to keep print runs low. That Fire and Fury’ s initial printing was set at 150,000 copies, according to Macmillan CEO John Sargent, was, as Grady notes, a comparative “show of confidence” considering that political nonfiction titles rarely sell more than 100,000 copies–but it hardly signaled an expected blockbuster. It also matters that Wolff’s sales record is patchy. His previous books have rarely sold more than a few tens of thousands of copies, according to Nielsen BookScan (which, in fairness, sometimes captures well under half of a given title’s actual sales). The book industry’s primary tool for predicting future sales is still to look at an author’s past sales numbers or at the sales numbers of a comparable book. Old-fashioned as it may sound, this remains standard-practice across the industry, making book publishers utterly unprepared for “black swan” events like the sensation that’s erupted over Fire and Fury. Related:  The  Fire And Fury  Cover Is Hilariously Bad–Here’s A Better One What Happens When There’s Not Enough Data A decade after Amazon launched the Kindle, book publishers still earn the majority of their consumer revenue from analog products: hardcovers or paperbacks printed in ink on paper and sold in physical stores. This makes it hard for them to know much about their actual readers; they rely–more than content producers in other industries do–on their own gut instincts to predict what will sell and what won’t. A key reason is because reading data gleanable from e-books (how many readers complete a book, how quickly they do so, or where they abandon it) is almost exclusively held by the major retail platforms owned by powerful tech companies, including Amazon (Kindle), Apple (iBooks), and Google (Play Books), which categorically do not share it–not even in anonymized or aggregated form–with book publishers. Sales data for e-books is held proprietarily between their publishers and retailers, making digital harder to track than print titles; Nielsen, which collects print sales data from retailers, tries to make up for the difficulty by gathering digital sales data from both retailers and publishers, but its statistical sampling is selective and leaves out most self-published titles.

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Book Publishing’s Weak Bet On “Fire And Fury”? Blame Data

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