The Economics of Book Reviews
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The Economics of Book Reviews

Book reviews are still one of the more effective ways to garner attention for individual titles. But it is no secret that the rise of the digital publishing world over the past ten years has brought about hard times for the printed book review. Not only have many print venues for book reviews disappeared, it has become increasingly difficult to find financial models for those that remain to persist.

Costs associated with printed book reviews include editing, layout, proofing, printing, mailing, and fees for reviewers. Eliminating printing and mailing reduces the associated costs for these processes, but leaves the editorial, layout, proofing, and reviewer fees. While digital book reviews may be less expensive to distribute, they are theoretically not any less expensive to produce.

The economics of books reviews is further complicated by the rapid increase of books published annually each year.

In 2002, around 250,000 books were published in the US. Ten years later, that number increased by nearly tenfold to over 2.35 million books. Moreover, during the same ten-year period, fiction publication doubled. In 2002, approximately 25,000 fiction titles were published in the US, whereas ten years later the number would rise to 50,000. It is important to note that this number represents titles released in print format with ISBN numbers. The number would be much greater if one also included non-print fiction and fiction without an ISBN number.

As the number of books published in the US rises, so too does the competition for book reviews. Nevertheless, the marketing dollars and review opportunities for the vast majority of the new titles published each year is minimal. Only a small fraction of the millions of books published annually will receive promotion beyond a book catalogue or online sales listing. There will be no readings at bookstores and displays at trade conferences across the county, and no advertisements in magazines and journals. A smaller fraction still will be reviewed in respected venues that reach a wide-audience of potential readers.

The situation for fiction is no different than that for any other publication. Only a fraction of the 50,000 works of fiction noted above are the products of publishers that have the financial resources to market and promote them. Given their special place in the publishing marketplace, these lucky works of fiction require a special name. We'll call them corporate fiction.

Not because they are books about corporations or corporate life (that is, the other kind of corporate fiction), but rather because they are the products of companies with immense financial resources that can generate greater interest in and sales of these titles.

Corporate fiction is fiction from a publisher which affords significant resources to marketing and promotion. It is fiction that also comes with a pre-publication advance.

The world of corporate fiction is a special place. The chosen few who enter it are afforded financial considerations and market share for their fiction vastly different from the majority of US writers: a difference made possible through the massive financial gap between US publishers.

Of the estimated 85,000 publishers in the US, only about 500 have sales revenues above 50 million dollars. Worldwide, only 50 publishers have sales revenues above 200 million dollars a year, and only 24 exceed 1 billion dollars per year in sales revenue. The most exclusive and powerful group of publishers in the world are the five companies who last year had sales revenue of 4 billion dollars or more.

Sales revenue on the other side of the financial spectrum though is more representative of contemporary publishing in the United States. It has been estimated that in the US alone, there are about 59,000 publishers with annual sales revenues of less than one million dollars, and about 47,000 publishers with publishing revenues of less than $50,000.

It is at this point where the economics of book reviews coupled with the relative financial powers of publishers begets one simple truth: corporate book reviews are the handmaidens of corporate fiction.

Corporate book reviews are in venues that court advertising dollars from corporate publishers by favorably reviewing...