More FAQs you didn’t ask

FAQs you didn't ask: Books on shelves

Truth to tell, not many people pose questions on this site. But I know you’ve got questions on your mind. So, here are more FAQs you didn’t ask.

“Why do practically all your  reviews carry 4- or 5-star ratings?”

I was afraid you’d ask that. But here’s the deal. I read books very selectively, picking out only those I think I’ll find rewarding. For example, in today’s New York Times Book Review, there is a total of 110 titles listed in the paper’s several categories. Of those, I’ve read 14 (and reviewed most of them in this blog). I have three or four other listed titles on tap to read soon. If I don’t enjoy reading a book, I tend to figure that out once I’ve read a few chapters. I put it down and forget it as quickly as possible. So you can bet that I judge a book worthwhile if I’ve reviewed it at all, and outstanding if I give it five stars. (OK, so they’re not stars. They’re @-signs. But isn’t that symbol more appropriate in this age of the Internet?)

“OK, so what don’t you read?”

Hold your breath. Here goes. I don’t read books on cooking, diet, health, fitness, or sports — anything that reminds me of my deplorable physical condition. I don’t read self-help books of any description, convinced as I am that I’m beyond help. I won’t touch literary memoirs, criticism, collections of essays, or biographies of obscure literary figures. In fact, I won’t read biographies about anybody except people who are historically significant, unless I happen to know them. I avoid romance novels, chick-lit, or just about anything by women with three names. And I won’t even think about reading any book written (or more likely “authored”) by one of those Right-Wing imbeciles who is polluting the airwaves and distorting political debate in this country. Don’t get me started.

“But I thought you read just about everything!”

Guess again. In fact, guess how many books were published last year. Give up? The best number I can find is 550,000, about 290,000 of them in the United States. And even those huge numbers don’t include the fast-growing output of short-run and on-demand books, often self-published, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands. (Check it out here: http://bit.ly/bqTRMM.)

What does @@@ mean?

True enough — nobody asked. Somehow, though, I feel obliged to explain the meaning of the ratings I feature on the book reviews in this blog.

First of all, I don’t recall awarding anything lower than @@@, or 3 out of 5, more than once or twice. Not that I haven’t encountered books that would deserve it — it’s just that I don’t finish reading those books. I only review books I’ve read from start to finish.

Here, then, is what I mean by the ratings:

@ = Fuhgedaboudit! This book should never have been published.

@@ = Not the worst book in the the world, but I couldn’t get through it.

@@@ = Reasonably well written, enjoyable in some ways, but not a candidate for a National Book Award.

@@@@ = I really liked this book. It may have fallen short of greatness, but it’s a great read. Definitely worth checking out.

@@@@@ = This book is either extraordinarily well conceived and well executed, or it makes an important contribution to our understanding of ourselves or the world we live in, or both. A must read.

Now you can’t say you didn’t know.

How many copies of books do authors sell?

My friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking sales and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. Here’s what he reported just a few years ago:

Average book sales are shockingly small — and falling fast. Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales, and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan, which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com), only 225 million books were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined. (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014).

The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling fewer than 250 copies per year and fewer than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

So, you wanna write a book and get rich, do you?

BTW, my book with Paul Polak, The Business Solution to Poverty, sold a total of 7,000 copies in its first 11 months. I was disappointed, but I guess being an outlier in the nonfiction market should give me a little solace.

For answers to other FAQs you may or may not have had on your mind, go to “Do you really read all those books?” and other FAQs.

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Mal Warwick