Vilfredo Pareto was a Paris-born Italian, from a prominent exiled Genoese family, famous in his own day as a social economist. He is often referred to as the first modern economics professor, and he more or less developed microeconomics as a discipline. But what he’s best known for is the principle of factor sparsity — what we usually refer to as “the 80/20 rule.” Pareto noticed that 80% of the peas in his garden came from about 20% of the pea pods. He determined that 80% of the wealth in Italy was held by roughly 20% of the population. And, when looking at the Italian tax structure, he noticed that 80% of the government’s income came from just 20% of the taxpayers.
Sometimes referred to as “the law of the vital few,” the Pareto Principle is found in many of the organizations you belong to. For example, 80% of the work done at your church is performed by about 20% of the members. 80% of the money raised by the non-profit you belong to is donated by 20% of the givers. And, if you work in publishing, 80% of the income your publisher makes comes from 20% of the books. (Which, if you think about it, means there is significant factor sparsity in book publishing, since 80% of the titles released this year will produce very little income for publisher and author.) Pareto noted that most every element tied to finances is ruled by a vital few (which he referred to as “the elite,” thus popularizing the term), and that it’s the success of those vital few that allows the rest of the category to persist.
Here’s why you need to understand that as an author: Your publisher is going to release a LOT of books this year. A mere 20% of them are going to generate 80% of the publisher’s income, so of course your publisher is going to invest a lot more marketing dollars into those few titles. But you don’t want to decry that. The very fact they’re doing it makes them successful, and allows them to have the ability to do all those other titles… including yours. So don’t be discouraged when the next James Patterson book gets a million dollar marketing campaign, and you find it hard to get the publicist to send out review copies of your book. Just thank your lucky stars they’ve got a James Patterson novel, and that you live in an era when marketing avenues are wide open to all (not just the elite), so you can give your own book the royal treatment. You can do blog tours, go onto social media, generate reviews and buzz, write articles, do interviews, support it with media, buy ads — the list of potential marketing opportunities is endless to the contemporary author.
When I worked for a publisher, we released books in spans. There were maybe 15 books in a span, and we pretty much expected ten of those books to lose money. We expected two of the books in that span to break even, and perhaps two more to make a bit. But we always had one big book in a span — one breakout author or title that we knew would generate enough money to cover the costs of all those other titles, and therefore keep us in business. And on occasion one of those other titles would also bust out, a new star would be made, and that was going to allow us to generate even more books in the future. That’s the economics of publishing in the real world. So don’t fight it — rejoice that there are authors doing great in this business, since they’re helping you keep busy at your art, and then determine to be one of the 20% who work hardest at marketing, in order to make your books part of the “vital few.”