What Authors Need To Know About the Publishing Industry Today

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

And by today, I mean the date of this post. Because the only constant now is change!claude-vernet-81514_1280

If you’re in the writing game to make serious bank, or at least a good side income (and only “blockheads” never write for some kind of income, according to Dr. Johnson), then you need to keep up to date on industry developments.

Now is a good time to look, as reports about the first quarter of 2016 are coming in.

Traditional Publishing Sales Are Down

According PW, sales of adult print books fell 10.3% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the first period of 2015, and ebook sales in the same category fell 19%. Regarding the latter, industry observer Mike Shatzkin says a big part of the problem is the pricing of ebooks by publishers:

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales.

casino-royale-181How much of this “pain” can the big publishers endure? Economics in a disruptive environment is merciless. Remember that scene in Casino Royale? (All the men do.) But also recall that Bond got out of it.

 

Barnes & Noble Barely Hanging On

The biggest bookstore chain has been closing stores and circling wagons. They’ve been emphasizing vibe (coffee house, browsing chairs) but not expanding shelf-space for books. Thus, says another article in PW:

Sales at Barnes & Noble fell 6.6% in the quarter ended July 30, compared to the same period last year. Revenue fell 6.1% in the company’s retail sector, and Nook revenue fell 24.5%. As a result of the lower-than-expected sales, B&N reported a net loss from continuing operations of $14.4 million in the period, its first quarter of 2017, compared to $7.8 million in the first period of fiscal 2016.

We all love bookstores. We hate to see physical shelf space shrink, and brick-and-mortar stores shuttered. A nice development is a rise in the local independent bookstore. Good! There are many cultural benefits to this uptick. However, the scale is small relative to a large chain, and breakout books by new authors cannot be driven on these tiny islands alone.

Meanwhile, Amazon Opens Another Physical Bookstore in San Diego

This to go along with their first such store in Seattle. And there are plans to open stores in Chicago and Portland.

According to industry observer Jane Friedman, here’s what you need to know about Amazon’s bookstores:

  1. They have a relatively small square footage when compared to Barnes & Noble. The most recently opened store is 3,500 square feet, and the average Barnes & Noble is ten times that size, sometimes more.
  1. All the books are face out, so the emphasis is on curation.
  1. No prices are listed; customers have to check book prices on their phones.

On this last point, a marketing professor quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune says the intent is to “drive consumers deeper into the Amazon system.” The books “act as conversation starters with staffers, who can then teach customers about the benefits of [Amazon] Prime membership.”

Amazon has proven over and over again to be ahead of the curve, as they say, even though the curve these days is as formidable as that tossed by Mr. Clayton Kershaw. Amazon keeps staying in the batter’s box making contact.

What Should Writers Do?  

This is a blog for writers, so the key question for me is always what do I and my fellow scribes need to be about in these turbulent times?

My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.

Next, turn your ear to wisdom, and your heart toward understanding (Proverbs 2:2). You need to decide what path to pursue as a writer, and how to do so with eyes open and good business practices. Thus: 

Perspective #1 – Indie Writers

In a comment on the PW site, the estimable Hugh Howey said, in part:

The reality is that acquisitions and mergers have hidden the steady loss of market share by the Big 5, market share gladly gobbled up by self-published authors. Coloring books, plays, and rejected rough drafts have also helped the last two years, but it’s hard to rely on these things going forward. And publishers have to stop believing surveys that say people prefer print books. Yeah, the people who don’t read much do.

If the Big 5 are going to continue to guide their businesses by personal editorial tastes, celebrity tomes, and the whims of those who read (but probably don’t finish) 2 – 3 books a year, they’re in trouble. The real market for publishers should be the voracious readers who consume several books a week.

***

For authors, this time of flux is critical. As bookshelves dwindle, and B&N appears on the verge of going the way of Border’s, now would be a terrible time to take a work of art that lasts forever and sign it over to any publisher for term of copyright. The new standard has to be 5 to 7 years of license, or self-publish, until things shake out.

One ongoing debate is about whether an indie author should go exclusive with Amazon in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities (such as limited free pricing), and the page payouts of Kindle Unlimited. I think this is a great option for new writers who need to get eyeballs on their pages so they can begin building a readership. See the substantial discussion and links in the section on Kindle Unlimited in Jane Friedman’s post, mentioned above.

Perspective #2 – Traditionally Publishing Writers 

For those writers in the midst of––or are hoping to land––a contract with a Big 5 or other traditional publisher, it’s long past the time when you can leave all contract negotiations to someone else. You must be informed. You need to know what to accept, what to reject, and where to compromise.  Which also means knowing what your leverage is. If you are being represented by an agent, this is a conversation to have with them. (Oh, are you looking for an agent? Well, maybe one is looking for you. Keep track of the new agent alerts and other info at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.)

Big tip: Don’t do any of this with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite and businesslike. But as the great Harvey Mackay counsels in Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, you need to know when to “smile and say no until your tongue bleeds.”

Mackay also says, “Make your decisions with your heart and what you’ll end up with is heart disease.” Don’t be so dreamy-eyed about being invited into the Forbidden City that you fail to make rational, long-term decisions.

A place to start is with attorney David Vandagriff’s book, The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract. Not only are important clauses explained, but Vandagriff (who is also known as the Passive Guy blogger) offers you strategies on how to make them better.

As I have stated several times, authors with a modicum of business sense (which is why I wrote How to Make a Living as a Writerare the only corks on this roiling sea of change.

Be a cork. But be a smart cork. Subscribe to the Publishing Trends blog, which posts links to the “Top 5 Publishing Articles/Blog Posts of the Week.” Also consider a paid subscription to “The Hot Sheet” the twice-monthly industry dispatch written by the aforementioned Jane Friedman and journalist Porter Anderson.

Because information is now the coin of the realm. Get the info, digest it, use it. But don’t ever let it freak you out. Remember:

keep-calm-write-on

What about you? Where do you see the publishing industry going? How are you, as a writer, dealing with constant change?

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31 thoughts on “What Authors Need To Know About the Publishing Industry Today

  1. Thank you for a detailed & informative post. You’ve given lots to think about & digest (plus some homework to check out–thanks for all the links). Many in the biz have been saying for years that traditional publishing was slow to change. They still are. They’ve overpriced e-books for a loooooong time now, yet still never seem to get the idea to try altering that strategy.

    For me, the world of books is simply too big for ANY physical book store. I suppose it is a good alternative for the herd mentality readers–those who want to go in & snatch the latest NYT Best Seller off the shelf. Take “health & fitness” for example. Sure, bookstores usually allot a fair amount of shelf space to this category, but even so, there is high specialization of topic within this category & they simply can’t physically cover it reasonably. If you’re looking for anything remotely off the beaten path, you won’t find it in a physical bookstore. I cannot remember the last time I found a book I wanted in a bookstore (not counting the occasional used book store purchase)–like probably 20 years since I found something I was looking for in a B&N or Borders or Waldenbooks (when they existed).

    Even the Amazon store doesn’t sound appealing. I’m a big fan of Amazon but I would not have the patience to browse books that aren’t priced (and what’s the point of a store if you’re there and you have to check the price on your phone? DUH!). I’m curious to see how long that trend lasts. I predict not long. But Amazon is a lot smarter than me so what do I know?

    I still frequently see comments that people prefer print books. Maybe it is so. For myself, I purchase 95% of my books in e-book format (largely due to age/vision issues) but also because I will never be able to afford the shelf space for my book fettish. 😎 As a pre-published writer, I don’t even tend to think in terms of print format. I simply don’t have the time for print books. Since physical bookstores don’t have what I want, that means ordering and waiting for a book to ship to me. Whereas I get immediate gratification with an e-book download.

    The other big difference for me is I don’t view the loss of physical bookstores as a major loss. Sure, I’m sorry that workers are displaced–who wouldn’t be? But e-books make the process of acquiring books so much more quick and efficient, I prefer it over bookstores any day. And now I can carry 500-600 books around with me wherever I go. I couldn’t do that 20 years ago and I wouldn’t want to trade it. 😎

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  2. Dear JSB, would you excuse me for being tragically off-topic?
    Would you?

    It’s just that after going through two of your books on writing, an ominous doubt has been eating away at me and I absolutely must get an inclining of the answer:

    Are concepts such as character arc/progression rendered pointless in a circadian murder mystery novel? In other words, could a murder mystery that takes place over such a short period of time still feel satisfying even though the protagonist had not undergone any substantial change?

    Your advice would be most appreciated.
    Do excuse me for barging in like this.

    Regards,
    NR

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    • NR, I don’t accept your premise that a protagonist cannot undergo substantial change in a single day. Indeed, it can be strikingly dramatic. This day is the pressure point of all pressure points. You’ll give us thoughts and the past woven in with the action. You’ll turn up the heat inside the character. I don’t see any reason it can’t be done.

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      • Thanks for your answer.
        It wasn’t much of a premise, but more like a what-if question. Do you see a murder mystery being a satisfying read even if at the end the protagonist remains unchanged? Or is the transformation of the protagonists always sine qua non?

        Thanks a bunch!

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        • At the VERY LEAST the protagonist should be made STRONGER (e.g., mentally) by overcoming the challenge of the mystery. That’s also a transformation. (e.g. Marge Gunderson in Fargo)

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  3. One of the things I love best in this world it to open the doors to my favorite used bookstore and breath in the used book goodness. At this particulate palace of gone by literature the owner seems to know more about the industry and books in general then all of the B&N staff combined.
    As an reader I much prefer the physical book and I believe I always will but I do also dive into the E-book pool as well (just finished two of JSB craft books) I get how carrying a hundreds of books around is appealing and as I said I am part of that manly due to my limited cash flow but most times it’s like having a long distance relationship verses having that same person right there with you, to me a physical presents will always beat electronic words.

    Trends due tend to change however and being a beginner writer with at least a year before I am ready to send anything out, I have plenty of time to watch how the waves of the industry with change and adjust my plan to that.

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    • Ryan, authors and publishers don’t receive a penny for a used book, and the used book does nothing for a author’s future when the publisher is deciding whether to offer another contract.

      If you want to be an author or help authors, don’t buy used, and, if you really must buy used because of finances, write reviews of the books and give the good ones word of mouth with friends who can afford a new book.

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      • ‘[I]f you want to be an author or help authors, don’t buy used, …

        Maybe, but it can’t be stopped and other than the aforementioned BN, I have no other choice. The BN and deceased Borders sucked the life out of my favorite local independent bookstores and the vast selection in the used book store 3 miles from me is very appealing. The book was bought new, once, and I’ll buy used copies printed 5,10, 50 years ago.

        Your point is interesting and reminds me of 10-15 years ago, when the band, ‘Metallica’ was up in arms over the sales of used CD’s of their music. I never understood why a heavy metal rock band was against the purchase of used CD’s. It goes against the premise of rock n roll, Heavy Metal, screw the man mentality

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        • I get that authors do not get paid for used book sales but as a reader I can afford sometimes four to five used books compared to one new book. I still buy new just not as often and I would say at least half of those new books are from authors I found at the used book store. In a round about way they still make money and get referrals from me.

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  4. I came into writing late in the game, both industry and age-wise. Back then, epublishing was in its infancy. Ellora’s Cave, I believe, pioneered the trend with its erotica (more tastefully called ‘romantica’). Then, women could purchase books to read on their computers or PDAs (no cell phones or dedicated e-readers yet) without having to face anyone at the checkout counter of a bookstore. This was still long before Amazon, and readers had to go to the e-publisher’s website to download the books.

    Back then, it was all about e-publishers popping up and falling away. Now, it seems there are countless ‘small press publishers’, although whether authors make any decent money using them is a question I can’t answer. I know a recent closure of Five Star’s mystery line left many authors stranded and searching for a new place to publish their titles.

    I got my ‘break’ with Ellora’s Cave’s mainstream line, which fizzled, but at least I was more prepared for the changes when Amazon and Smashwords showed up. Now, I have one title still under contract with a more traditional publisher, and when rights revert to me next May, I’ll be totally indie.

    Caveat: I’m retired, don’t “need” my writing income for basic necessities, so I’m happy just chugging along writing books.

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  5. I’ve been both traditionally published and indie published, and now I’m leaning totally toward the latter for want of control. I do believe in offering my books in all formats so the reader has a choice. Thus I offer print as well as ebook editions, and now I’m getting into audiobooks as well. This is an entirely new market. Discoverability is an issue same as in the digital world. It requires a constant effort. No matter which way you are published, this aspect doesn’t change.

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  6. I learned about contracts the hard way. Thanks for this post, Jim. So many links to review…a wealth of information. Subscribing to Publishing Trends blog now.

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  7. Jim, I’ll confess that I opened this blog post expecting to see a commercial for self-publishing (at which you’ve been quite successful). Instead, there’s really a fair and balanced (to steal a phrase) set of recommendations and suggestions for writers still trying to find their way along this road to writing. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

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  8. Jim, thanks for your answer last week on craft books and examples of literary novels. After reading your list, I went back and read again VOICE, The Secret Power of Great Writing. It’s amazing how much I learn from reading a book the second or third time.

    On today’s discussion, at the risk of looking foolish, I have a question: What comments do you have on looking for an agent, even if your plan is indie publishing? At a recent ACFW conference, I was surprised how many agents indicated a willingness to represent (and help) hybrid authors. Especially for a new writer, benefits? risks? caveats?

    Thanks!

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    • Well, that’s a really big subject, Steve. Briefly, if your indie books are quality, look good (design, etc.) and generate great reviews, you’ll be of interest to an agent (esp. a newer agent in your genre). Your indie books are “calling cards.”

      These days agents (and publishers) also want to see some social media presences, so unless you’re nuts specialize in one and build up real community (not just “buy my books”).

      Hope that helps.

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  9. I’ve been writing for over 40 years. Not all of those years did I do any great writing, and most of them I tried to get published by the Trads. I think I would have sold my soul to the devil at one point.

    Hah. Not any more!

    I’m now with a small publisher from Denmark, and he is a very hard worker at getting our books seen. Constantly changing things, and working on finding ways to get our ebooks seen.

    As to the bookstores. Both large bookstores closed in our town, nearby. Nearly two years after B&N closed, an independent (which has several bookstores in other states), has opened up. It was very nice going in there for the first time and buy a book! And, I can now get my own books in there on consignment. They’ve got it figured out, how to get us local unknowns/non-trads into their bookstore w/o fear of failure.

    Thanks for the update!

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    • Using “evil” is a bit of deck-stacking. It’s business…and for virtually all its existence the publishing industry, being essentially an oligarchy, had all the power.

      Now authors have a real alternative choice, and if they understand what’s going on can make a rational decision.

      But I return again to leverage. That’s a big part in all of this. A new author who gets an offer and starts calling clauses “evil” is not going to get very far in negotiations. You have to know what you can live with and what you cant, what risks you are willing to take to work with a company, and so on. No one size fits all. But having information and being objective helps you know what sizes to try on.

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  10. Another great post, JSB. I just subscribed to Publishing Trends (thanks for the link).

    To your point about ebook prices, I have to say, I won’t pay a lot, regardless of the hype. In fact, one highly-branded author (who I won’t name) has lost my business in the middle of three different series because her new releases are around $15.00. For an e-book! I can buy a paperback cheaper, but I’m out of bookshelf space. So I don’t buy her work at all now. I realize I’m just one person, but I know I’m not the only one who feels the author and the publisher are trying to take advantage of me. So by the Big Five trying to rake in a high profit on that author’s e-book sales, they not only risk hurting her e-book numbers, they risk hurting her sales across the board.

    I’m not in that highly-branded category, but I do have two series with a traditional publisher who has recently raised my e-book prices by a dollar. And sales have decreased. I think readers just have a set range they’re willing to spend, and it’s hard if not impossible to convince them to go higher.

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  11. Hi Jim,
    I became very disillusioned with the publishing world three years ago after the publication of my last novel that’s out there for the world to read.(It took me twenty years to get published). I’ve written sporadically since that time and am finally finding my voice again along with my joy of writing. I purposely decided not to publish anything which may have been a mistake on my part, don’t really know.

    Like many other writers I work a full time job that pays the bills. I’ve been experimenting with different types of writing from Steampunk to Romantic Comedy and back to my love for the historical mystery.

    For awhile I thought I wasn’t really a writer anymore but I’ve come to realize whether I publish or not the need to write is part of my DNA. I’m exploring Creative Non-Fiction at this moment and scheduling time for my own personal writing retreat.

    I appreciate all your years of helping those of us struggling with this writing life and your encouragement to keep writing. I enjoy the blog posts of everyone here at TKZ. Looking into my future I imagine it will be indie publishing although I won’t say that I won’t consider traditional publishing again.

    My crystal ball guess is that there will be many changes yet to come in the world of publishing and if I’ve learned anything over the past few years it’s that we need to be true to ourselves, write what we want to or need to and make the best decisions we can. I keep a quote from Andy Stanley in mind a lot and that is: “What is the wise thing for me to do, in light of my past experience, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams?”

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    • You are not alone in your experiences, Jill. But I love that you know you’re a writer in your DNA. And that joy is coming back. That will keep you going … and all for the good.

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  12. This is such a great subject to think about! I am a reader and a writer and experience things from both sides, devouring about 4-8 books in a month and attempting to write a book a year. Most of the readers that I know in my own circles and on book tube enjoy paperbacks, hardbacks and audiobooks. Some love ereaders. But not too many and I am definitely among those who do not love the ereading experience. That is the last thing I will buy. Knowing that, I feel like some of the new trends (which will effect the drop in overall sales) will be readers flocking to libraries, borrowing books and buying only the ones they love.

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  13. ‘a contract with a Big 5 or other traditional publisher, it’s long past the time when you can leave all contract negotiations to someone else. You must be informed.’

    Mario Puzo claimed to have been ripped off by the publisher of, “The Godfather.” If they did it to him, they’ll do it to us. An internet friend, now unfortunately deceased, had his self published book picked up by an agent and sold, or the remaining series sold, to a traditional publisher. He got ripped off by his agreed upon percent being that of the net, not the gross. And guess what? As I’ve heard in the film industry, there never is a ‘net.’

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  14. By the way, if someone is avoiding getting the book Mr. Bell suggested, “The Nine Worst Provisions in your Publishing Contract” because of funds, it is currently free on Amazon. I don’t know if this is its usual price or a limited-time offer, but it’s there. I’ve already downloaded it and read it. It has some good advice – much of which I’ve heard from agents on blogs and at conferences, but all very good advice – and I recommend it.

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  15. Hugh Howey is exactly right (no surprise there). The three other members of my household have bought three books between them this year – two movie tie-in paperbacks, and one play (no prizes for guessing which play). Between the three of them, only the play has been read.

    I am not about to confess on an open forum how many books I’ve bought this year (my husband might find out). Let’s just say that ebook purchases outnumber paper purchases by at least ten to one.

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  16. Jim, this is a great wake-up call, and terrific information. I’m extremely curious about how Amazon will fare with its new bookstores. They sound like a different animal.

    I cringe when I see the prices of traditionally-published ebooks. It’s understandable that publishers don’t want to cannibalize their print sales, but as far as I’m concerned, smart pricing gets books into more readers’ hands. And those readers will buy backlist, etc. Sometimes I just want to shout, “Wake up!”

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