book industry

As the Civil War raged, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who described herself “as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff,” found herself invited to a White House reception. “Why, Mrs. Stowe, right glad to meet you,” said President Abraham Lincoln, as he rose from his chair. “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war. Sit down, please.” Ten years earlier, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an indicting account of slave culture, had become the first blockbuster in U.S. book publishing. Within three weeks, 20,000 copies were sold. Within a year and a half, the number reached 200,000.

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin established a new potential for books, the industry went into a quest for more blockbusters. When Dan Brown published the The Da Vinci Code in 2003, it led the spate of bestsellers at that time with 80 million in sales. Even that significantly trailed behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, of which approximately 150 million copies were sold between1954 and 2012.

It doesn’t take a blockbuster to be considered successful in the book business, though. In a recent National Public Radio segment, literary agent Jane Dystel said, “A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies.” She added, “Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the publisher’s attention for the author for a second book.”

In 2015, Harper Lee’s much-anticipated The Watchman pushed book sales up. Two current developments are helping bolster the book industry. Book sales have skyrocketed with the advent of the adult coloring book. A recent Amazon.com ranking indicated that adult coloring books account for 5 out of 10 top best-selling adult books sold.

In addition, audiobook sales are booming and have overtaken e-books—sales of which declined 11% from January through August of 2015.

Although sales of books dipped slightly in 2013, they climbed to 559 million in 2014 and by 2015, 571 million paper books were sold in the United States.

Religious books, like the Bible, Koran, and Bhagavad Gita, are probably the most- printed books, but reliable records don’t go back far enough for solid data. The Bible Society put the number of Bibles at almost 2.5 billion since 1815. Some estimates range higher. A 1992 study claimed nearer 6 billion.

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Shape of the Book Industry Books fall generally into two categories. Trade books dominate with novels, biographies, and a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. The second major category, textbooks, includes textbooks and also reference books like dictionaries, encyclopedias, and professional manuals. Some publishers produce both trade books and textbooks, but most focus on one or the other.

Other sectors of the book industry include campus-based university presses, which emphasize scholarly work; religious presses, generally denominational; regional presses, whose focus is mostly parochial history, geography, and travel destinations. Cookbooks have been such a popular category that the industry trade journal Publishers Weekly had, until recently, a regular feature called “Cooking the Books.”

Impact of Books The book industry in the United States alone produced over 304,000 new titles in 2013. Barnes & Noble maintains that it stocks over 1 million titles for immediate delivery. Few books, however, have the enduring impact of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The success of escapist blockbusters from Danielle Steel and Stephen King is important to the industry’s financial well-being. In the first week of February 2016, Steel’s Blue topped the New York Times Bestseller Fiction List. Nevertheless, only a few have created controversy, shaken the foundations of how we see the world and ourselves, and rocked the social order.

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