10 Things You Need to Know About Publishing in the 2020s

by Len Wilson

I frequently get questions about the publishing industry and how it works. The above video, from our live show Something Completely Different with Len Wilson, as well as the recap below, capture 10 things I've realized about publishing today.

The publishing industry can be confusing for new and veteran authors both. As an author of twelve books, an industry veteran, and now Publisher of Invite Press, I find myself sharing insights about it all the time. This video and article is the first time I've captured some of the core concepts I get in a more organized way. When I sat down to write them down, it was apparent I had a lot to say about this. So here are the top 10 things you've always wanted to know about how publishing works, and how at Invite we want to do it better.

Ten Things You Need to Know About Publishing

When we launched Invite Resources on COVID-19's first day of shelter in place in 2020, we asked ourselves, "How would you run a publishing company in the kingdom of heaven?" Invite Press, and the model we have created, is the result of this brainstorm. We are in constant pursuit of this goal. For each of the concepts below, I describe a publishing reality, and what we're trying to do about it.

1. The average non-fiction book sells 500 copies lifetime.

Book selling is quite stratified. A few books sell millions of copies. The vast majority, and I am talking about 95%+, hardly sell at all. In fact, according to Publishers Weekly, the average non-fiction title sells 500 copies, lifetime!

At Invite we think it’s possible to beat this average. So far, we've managed to raise that rate higher at Invite. But to pull this off, we know we have to do things differently. As the axiom goes, if you do the same things you get the same results. Our goal is to assume nothing, and look at every step in the process for ways to innovate.

2. Less than 1% of all books carry the industry.

Authors may assume "royalty residuals" means a steady side income stream for years, or even decades. But retiring on royalty residuals is just not how it works. Less than one percent of books generate enough revenue to make this dream a reality. While hopefuly every book has potential, as an author, you may make less than $1000 lifetime on royalties. And these median figures have gone down in the last decade.

3. The Big 5 all operate with “bestseller” business models.

The "Big 5" is an industry term for the five largest publishing houses, all based in New York. They are: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster. (In the above video I called them the Big 6, which is an old habit - Penguin and Random House merged in 2013.)

They all operate on what I call a "bestseller model." They each publish thousands of titles a year. HarperCollins is now the owner of the two biggest Christian imprints, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. These imprints alone put out dozens of books a week. Here's the thing though - their strategy is to flood the market, and see what rises to the top. It's a "churn and burn" approach. Of the hundreds of Christian titles that come out through Harper alone, less than 1% break out of the median sales range. 10,000 units sold is a massive success in this market, and 50,000 units is a runaway bestseller. These titles, not to mention million-unit stories such as Purpose Driven Life or the Prayer of Jabez, financially sustain the rest of the book releases each year.

Smaller publishers, including Christian publishers, can't compete, because they can't scale. They may put out 25-50 a year, and none break out. This is why most have gone out of business, limp along with outside funding, or have been acquired by one of the Big 5.

In such an environment, every book by necessity gets very little attention. An author with platform, perhaps someone who is a pastor of a very large local church and speaks at dozens of events every year, is only a small cog in the wheel of such a machine. (I know some who have discovered this the hard way.)

At Invite, we want to create a culture in which the author is more than a cog in the machine. Instead of the bestseller model, we are building a different kind of model, one that redefnes success according to Kingdom terms not proft terms.

4. Most books die within 3 months of launch.

Because of the lifetime sales numbers above, most books die quickly. In fact, publishers know very quickly if a book will fly or crash. They even know by launch day what is likely to happen. Median industry titles sell around half of their lifetime copies by their first week.

In the old days, the result is that a book would go "out of print." Printing meant making a commitment of hundreds of copies. When those sold, most of the time it wasn't worth a publisher's investment to purchase another print run or produce a second edition. Now, through the benefit of "print on demand", books can stay alive for much longer.

Every once in a while, a book succeeds by word of mouth--those fit in the "1%" category. Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is an example. It took years for it to gain popularity, most of which came from word of mouth buzz built through colleges. The first printing of Harry Potter was only 1000 copies, and this is a normal/good launch!

At Invite, we are adjusting to this reality by focusing on strategies to maximize buyer habits.

5. Publishing contracts are effectively one-time projects.

Because of these market realities, publishers tend to be very transactional. I first learned this as an author. For years, I assumed that the author would be considered valuable Intellectual Property, but that’s not how most are treated. I know of an author who sold over 30,000 copies on his first book, and his next one was rejected with no explanation. Publishing, for the big players, is a numbers game.

The irony is that most new authors need time to grow their craft, their voice, and their platform. The result is a Catch-22 in which you need to publish to build platform, but publishers want you to have platform before you get published. Publishers won’t commit to long term relationships, but long term relationships are usually what you need to launch someone.

I hated this and for years have thought about how to do it better. At Invite, we are committed to more than a transactional approach. As an acquisitions editor, I look foremost for people with something to say.

We publish people, not products.

6. Authors and publishers often become adversaries.

The state of the industry is self-defeating. The irony is that transactional models actually harm a publisher's success rate. Publishers tend to passively wait for readymade manuscripts. Authors tend to passively wait for publishers to make them stars. Neither is the right approach! We need each other. Authors need to participate, and publishers need to cultivate.

Most authors build audience over several books. So instead of transactional relationships which may even turn adversarial, at Invite, we believe in and talk about partnerships, and look for good relationship fits. If I find a potential author who is very traditional in their understanding of how the process works, I’m less likely to acquire them. 

7 - Marketing happens after a book takes off.

Unless you’re a Stephen King, you don’t get help upfront. In the bestseller model, publishers wait for books to move before committing marketing resources. Authors complain about lack of marketing, and their view is legitimate. Publishers do very little, because it doesn't make economic sense to invest heavy resources in every title. We tried early on to market books direct to consumers and it didn’t work. We spent over $20,000 each on three different titles, and took a bath on each. We've learned from it.

Successful titles reach very niche audiences, expand to secondary and tertiary audiences, and eventually find their way to the general public. In other words, books are brokered; they are relational and travel by word of mouth. This means that while some marketing may be appropriate, it is usually best served to an author's core audience. What makes books soar is primarily the quality of the work itself. This is why at Invite, our primary focus is to make great books.

In spite of the market realities, however, we have discovered a few strategies that work in the 2020s. As of this writing (June 1, 2022), three of our last four titles have launched at #1 on Amazon. So there are still things you can do to increase exposure.

8. Publishers don’t make money on most books.

Because of the sales reality, most publishers don't make money on most books. Your book, in fact, is likely costing the publisher money.

Here's a boilerplate breakdown of a book publishing project in 2022: 50-55% goes to retail (mostly to Amazon), 30% to make a book, 10% author royalty, 5% publishing net revenue. So on a $20 book, $11 may go to Amazon, $6 to making the book, $2 to the author, and $1 to the publisher. (And authors complain to the publisher! I know I did.)

Every publisher carries operational overhead plus project costs. Fixed costs to publish may be over $12k per book. With average sales at 500, most books are losses. 

At Invite, we have approached things differently on several fronts. Our goal is to beat the average and to maximize revenue at every possible place in that pie.

9. Amazon accounts for over 80% of all book sales.

Speaking of Amazon, they acount for the vast majority of all book sales online. Almost all books are purchased online, and 85% of buyers are women!

Yet there are over 1700 independent bookstores in the US. There has been a come back. Sales are up 9% year-over-year, with growth in every format, and significant growth in ebooks and audiobook sales, though these are still a minority of all purchases.

More on readers: The proportion of American adults who report that they read print books has remained static at 65%, as did the proportion of those reading books in any format at 75%. The typical, or median, American adult read five books during 2021, a number that has remained roughly consistent since Pew began tracking reading habits in 2011. 

10. Reader consumption patterns are changing--again.

Here's a funny stat. Book buyers, at least according to the survey my former employer ran ten years ago, buy 11 books per year and only read 2 of them. If anything this is now likely worse. The desire for reading hasn't gone anywhere, as book buying is up since the pandemic started, but our attention span is on a steady decline.

At Invite, we want to sell books of course, but our larger goal is for ideas to have influence. We want to invite people to actually read and share ideas that matter. The ideas matter more to us than the sales figures. We are a ministry.

Last, storytelling continues to be important. There has been a shift from trade/"how to" books to more story driven projects, where we go on a journey with the author.

At Invite, we strive for readers, not buyers. We don't just want to publish “Church nerd books." We want to create beautiful books with messages that matter to everyday Christians.

If you want to learn more about publishing a book in the 2020s, and would like to learn about the work we are doing with Invite Press, contact us! We look forward to chatting.


Learn more about Invite Resources and our mission to share the promise of the New Creation here.