Saturday, 25 April 2015

Dunbar’s number

Say, around 150.

Earlier this month The Bookseller published a summary of a survey in which 812 writers ‘with experience of being traditionally published’ were asked how they felt about their publishers. There’s nothing startling or conclusive here, and anyway it’s just a bunch of numbers, which can be interpreted how you will. Someone from the Publishers Association is quoted as saying that it’s ‘particularly gratifying … to see such strong positive responses to the value of, and role provided, by publishers’. Someone from the Society of Authors is quoted as saying that publishers are ‘falling down’ on care for their authors. Someone who is both an author and an ex-publisher says there’s a ‘culture of passive-aggression in publishers’ dealings with authors, like authors are exotic, crazy creatures who can’t possibly be listened to’.

‘Small presses’ are currently in fashion. I think I simply mean that they get talked about, and people have opinions about them and the opinions tend to be favourable. They may even get written about in the colour supplements, alongside organic food, boutique hotels and a range of products that describe themselves as ‘hand-crafted’, though the word ‘small’ is rarely quantified.

There’s a Wiki article on the Dunbar number, with references and further reading: ‘a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable relationships’. Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist and writer (some years ago I copy-edited two of his books). Wiki again: ‘By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group.’

Up to around 150, you can get by on hunch and trust. The more you go over this number, the more restrictive the rules, the more enforced the norms.

A while back, when people asked me about sales of CBe books, I used to say that the whole thing could keep going on sales of around 150 copies per title. I’m not sure this was actually true; it just felt true. These days, I don’t use that number: though there are titles that do sell no more than that, there are others that sell a fair whack more, which has led to a change in expectations, both those of others and often my own.

Expectations are tricky. (Once, after agreeing to publish a certain author, I backtracked when I realised she expected me to deliver sales in the thousands and there’d be trouble if I didn’t.) I’d like to sell more books, while knowing that I can’t handle more than four or five titles a year, and logistically I simply couldn’t cope with publishing a mega-bestseller. While working within an economy that generally measures success in numbers of sales, I distrust ‘growth’ as an end in itself. Some years ago I applied for a post as my own worst/best enemy, and I got the job.


billoo said...

Interesting post, Charles. The 150 thing made me think of Freud and 62.

But hang on, 150 *stable* relationships?! I doubt if most people have more than a handful.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Charles

With and Amazon Kindle going from strength to strength, I genuinely believe that poetry publishers' days are numbered. Jane Holland, who has been published by both Bloodaxe and Salt, chose to self-publish her excellent Selected Poems with Amazon Kindle and has no regrets. I honestly think that this is the general direction in which things are heading.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish