kelly-gallagherPublishers drop authors whose books don’t sell. Nothing new there. But now Kelly Gallagher, VP of Content Acquisition for Ingram Content Group, has shared some of the math he’s using. Here’s the basic formula:

(number of units sold ÷ number of titles published) x .001 = Efficiency Index

Publishing Perspectives, reporting on Gallagher’s talk at Digital Book World, passed on the example of two biographers a publisher might consider signing up. A has written eight books, selling 14,000 copies. B has written three and sold 7,000. So which writer would you see as most promising?

Going by the formula, it’s B by a longshot. B would weigh in at 2.33 on the index compared to a mere 1.75 for A, even though A has more of a track record.

What’s this mean for you as a writer? If you’re cranking out non-bestsellers for a small but appreciative audience, you might be better off making a career as a self-published writer as opposed to a traditionally published one. Your productivity could actually work against you. The formula would label you a loser.

Does this prove you’re actually one? Someday could those low-selling titles become classics, judged by standards other than commercial ones? Long shot. But you never know.  If nothing else, remember all the stars of yore who never found an audience until they had published a number of books. The Kelly index would have doomed them.

Also what if your cover designers haven’t been the best? Or your editors were crummy? Or your past publishers have simply been lousy at marketing books? Simply put, writers can be victims of others’ mistakes.

Furthermore, how about African-Americans and Hispanics and members of other minorities whose books may be brilliant but not earn as much as do the works of glamorous young white preppies? The latter group’s titles may be more popular among the well-off customers of big mainstream book chains.

That said, Gallagher has made clear he is not saying his index should be the only way to evaluate authors. For example, when he was at Beacon Hill Press, he subsidized low-sellers like poetry books by using the formula to pick money-makers in other areas.

So what do you think, gang? In terms of quality, is the formula good or bad for literature? And what has the mathematical approach meant over the years? The U.S. hasn’t won a Nobel Prize in literature since 1993 (Toni Morrison). Could overuse of formulas be among the reasons?

Far from trying to villainize Kelly, I’d say he has actually done a public service by giving publishers’ one more tool to work with. The real issue isn’t the formula per se. It is how wisely it’s used and the extent to which it’s used when publishers decide which books to buy.

I can very much see the publishers’ side. It’s a brutal marketplace out there. This is one reason I’m so passionate about the creation of a National Digital Library Endowment. The Endowment would make it less risky to bet on new writers and nurture them without expecting instant results. Libraries have become more book-seller-ish over the years, but they still tend to care more about quality and less about literary writers’ immediate popularity than do other markets.


  1. This efficiency index concept borders on the idiotic. There’s an old saying in the music biz: “It takes years to become an overnight success.” Many artists work long and sell little until some big break brings them to prominence. Your conclusion is right. Going indie is the way to counter this same old gatekeeper mentality.

  2. @David: Alas, I suspect most publishers with similar formulas are not using them wisely. Maybe just for fun someone can come up with a formula to explain why the US has had no Nobel prize winners in literature since Toni Morrison. The irony is that even by commercial standards, publishers are badly underperforming, based on the pathetic amounts spent per household on books and other reading materials. Yes, there are exceptions among publishers. But even they could be doing so much better.

  3. I don’t think publishers would use the same efficiency index with a prestige author like Toni Morrison as they would for an author of a genre series. Apples and oranges.

    @David. Which American authors do you think deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature? We’re a highly consumerist country that really likes popular authors such Stephen King and Nora Roberts who are NEVER ever going to win the Nobel.

    My top three picks for American authors who should be in the running:

    Thomas Pynchon
    Philip Roth
    William T. Vollmann