More on the Current State of Publishing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Clare’s recent, thought-provoking post brought up several musings about the current state of the traditional publishing industry vis-a-vis the indie world, especially in light of the pandemic. In one of her comments Clare asked: “I do wonder though whether there will be flow on effects even for indie writers – are people seeing sales increase or decrease? Are they finding visibility any harder or easier? I wonder about the state of the industry as a whole and how it’s impacting writers.”

This post is an attempt at an answer.

Let’s first take a nostalgic stroll back to the early days of the indie explosion. I’m talking roughly 2009 – 2013. The discussions back then were full of sound and fury, signifying something. What that something was remained to be seen. It was not uncommon for early firebrands of self-publishing to predict, and often cheer for, the death of traditional publishing. Indeed, a few declared the proper term should be “legacy publishing,” which has baked into it the assumption of obsolescence and demise.

But as Twain once observed about his own obituary, reports of trad pub’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Back in 2013, here at TKZ, I likened traditional publishing to the boxer Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta who, though often bloodied, refused to be knocked out. I wrote: “So will this Raging Bull of industry still be around in twenty years? I think so. I’d like it to be. I’m a hybrid, and traditional publishing’s been good to me. But it will have to fight smarter, not just harder.”

Here in 2021, traditional publishing is still around and still punching, though it keeps having to huddle with its corner men between rounds to adjust strategy.

It’s hard to get a handle on how that bout is going. A recent story in the NY Times about sales in 2020 quoted one publisher as saying, “It was harder to get people’s attention around books that didn’t…have a big name attached to them.” There was also concern about the shuttering of bookstores which led to many new books “languishing” as “panicked retailers focused on brand-name authors and readers gravitated toward the most popular titles.”

Then came this little tidbit: [A]bout 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.

Yikes! Now, that has to refer to print copies, because any major publisher that can’t sell more than 5k digital copies either isn’t trying or is so incompetent it deserves to go under.

On the other hand, I see in the industry newsletter The Hot Sheet (subscription required): “Through the week ending June 19, NPD BookScan shows year-to-date print sales up 19.6 percent over 2020. Adult fiction has enjoyed a 31 percent gain over 2020; YA fiction has grown by 68 percent, driven by backlist titles shared and promoted on TikTok.”

Thus, it appears the only thing I can say with certainty about tradpub is that there is no certainty. From the Times story: “One of the most significant things that’s going to change is the re-evaluation of all that we do and how we do it,” said Don Weisberg, the chief executive of Macmillan.

Of course, the same can be said of the indie world, because it’s always been that way! Indie writers who do this as a career have, from the jump, been ready and able to immediately shift and transition with every new circumstance (and at a pace the behemoth trad industry simply cannot duplicate).

Indie publishing has moved from the Wild West to the Gilded Age. According to Prof. Edward T. O’Donnell, “The Gilded Age, as the name suggests, was in many ways a golden time. This exciting period saw spectacular advances in industrial output and technological innovation that transformed the United States from a predominantly agricultural nation—ranking well behind England, Germany, and France in 1865— to the world’s most formidable industrial power by 1900.”

The indie authors making bank are those who have embraced change and innovation, and combined them with optimistic energy and consistent output. Many have indeed seen “spectacular advances” (in the career sense).

So what about advances in the publishing biz sense? How are they currently ranging inside the Forbidden City? I’ve not been able to track down any definitive answer. What I pick up is anecdotal and suggests that while there are still large-advance deals being made, it is not nearly so many as back in the pre-Kindle salad days. With the Big 5, first-time authors who don’t score a jackpot deal seem to be looking at a range of $5000 – $20,000 per book.

With small and mid-size publishers, the no-advance contract seems to be quite common.

To answer Clare’s question (“…even for indie writers – are people seeing sales increase or decrease?”) mileage always varies widely. Personally, my indie sales went up 8% in 2020 as compared to 2019. So far this year, it’s up over the same period in 2020. I attribute this to several things:

1. Production.

2. Taking advantage of KU promotions.

3. BookBub (3 features in 2020; 2 so far in 2021).

4. The ongoing growth and nurture of my email list.

a. A reader magnet that adds 70-100 subscribers a month;

b. Regular (about once a month) communication with my list.

5. The massive shift to online buying during the pandemic.

6. Business-like approach. In truth, every writer, traditional or indie, needs to approach their career as a business (my business plan is laid out in my book How to Make a Living as a Writer).

So, Should an Author Go Traditional or Indie?

In Clare’s post, commenter Ben Lucas asked, “I was also wondering if it would be risky to go with a publisher as a fist time author vs. risk and go indie? Maybe traditional publishing will be shunned some day?”

Ah, risk! That’s the writing life, my friend. Any choice you make involves risk. Your consideration must be, therefore, what risks you are willing to take balanced against your long-term career goals.

If your goal is to be as popular as a Child, Koontz, King, or Steel, then a Big 5 contract is the avenue (with at least a glance toward Amazon Publishing. See, e.g., Robert Dugoni). Naturally there is huge competition for relatively few slots. I liken this to a Wheel of Fortune. You try to get a book on the Wheel, but there’s no guarantee you’ll hit the jackpot.

Similarly, you can spend years trying to get on the Wheel and never make it. Or, you finally get your chance and the Wheel comes up goose egg, and you lose your place at the table. Hopefully, someone told you up front that fifty percent of tradpub books  fail to break even.

There used to be a vibrant midlist in traditional publishing, where a writer who was not top-tier could still find a home for the long haul. But according to virtually every expert, the midlist is pretty much gone. According to Publishers Weekly:

As one Big Five editor who specializes in commercial and literary fiction said of his category, “There used to be a lot more books that could sell 40,000–50,000 copies. Now more sell fewer than 10,000 copies.” It seems, he said, that “it’s either feast or famine.”

Those suffering from the famine are, to an extent, a group once known as the midlist. Ironically, if you ask most editors or literary agents to define the term, you’re unlikely to get a specific answer. Few can say, for example, how many books one needs to sell to be considered midlist. The only thing sources agreed on is the fact that the term is negative.

And yet there are still careers out there that are building steadily from the mid to the upper tiers. See, e.g., Sarah Pekkanen.

If traditional is your goal, let me offer this advice: be sure you or your agent negotiate a reversion of rights clause tied to a royalty minimum, not some definition of “in print.” For example, if your royalty is below $500 in any given royalty period, you are entitled to reversion of rights. You need this or your publisher will be able, quite easily, to retain the publishing rights to all your hard work. With digital sales and Print-on-Demand, a book never truly goes “out of print.”

Going indie is a risk, too, because you have to be good and you have to be productive. Even so, you may not gain the market foothold you hoped. Still, if you find joy in creative control, can think like a business, and can control your expectations, you have a shot at making readers and dough. (For more on the paths to publication, see my post here.)

And always remember this: people want stories. That never changes. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of getting pulled into a fictive dream. If you can provide that, time after time, you have a shot to make it in this game, whatever path you choose.

Comments are welcome.

39 thoughts on “More on the Current State of Publishing

  1. Very interesting, Jim. Thanks for sharing the thought-provoking information.

    I find it interesting that so much of the YA sales growth is driven by backlist. I totally understand that, given that many YA readers are new readers who find an author they like who may have been writing and publishing well before they were born. I wonder to what extent backlist purchases influence adult fiction, particularly adult genre fiction.

    Hope you’re having a great weekend and that any and all earthquakes continue to be very, very small ones.

    • Joe, from the Times story:

      As more readers shopped online, older titles accounted for two-thirds of all book sales in 2020, accelerating a shift that had previously been more gradual. A decade earlier, backlist titles comprised around half of all sales. “Our backlist was up tremendously — people found what they wanted somehow,” said Brian Murray, the president and chief executive of HarperCollins.

      Re: Earthquakes here in SoCal…anything below a 6 we call a foot massage.

      • Haha! First earthquake I ever experienced was when I was asleep in my college dorm room, in La Mirada CA. For a PNW born and bred girl, it was quite frightening to wake up to my bed shimmying and shaking across the floor. Not sure how strong it was, but at the time, I thought my short life was over.

        🙂

  2. Thank you. I’ve been thinking about this ever since Claire’s post.

    I used to work as an editorial assistant/proofreader for a (then) big publisher. I was pretty thoroughly indoctrinated while there that self-publishing meant you couldn’t cut it in “our world” and was meant for Aunt Nessie’s Best Prune Recipes and other such endeavors.

    My ego still wants to be with them. My independent American entrepreneur and control-freak tendencies say I want to write what I love and hopefully enough other people will love it too that I can buy a beach house back home (if there’s any beach left).

    I appreciate all of you from various paths who share your wisdom, especially you, Mr. Bell.

    • Cynthia, I’ve spoken to many unpublished writers who seek the “validation” of being offered a contract. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that desire, so long as it is mixed with clear-headedness about one’s goals and the realities of the biz. But if it is seen as some pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, well, as the Dread Pirate Roberts says, “Get used to disappointment.”

  3. Thanks for following up on Clare’s post.
    Yikes! Now, that has to refer to print copies, because any major publisher that can’t sell more than 5k digital copies either isn’t trying or is so incompetent it deserves to go under.
    From the lips of a Big (How many is it now?) executive, when a book is released, the digital version is priced high so it won’t compete with the hard cover. The don’t want those digital sales. (They get neither from me; I use the library) He also compared the ‘backing’ the publisher gives to one of their big names to a new author, and basically, they don’t invest more than they think they’ll recoup in sales. So, where Big Name’s books are sent to a multitude of reviewers, New Author’s books are included in the publisher’s email list.
    A friend of mine walked away from a significant 6 figure advance because the publisher refused to include a decent reversion of rights clause. She’s doing very well as an indie author, but it took guts to take that step.

  4. Great post, Jim. Thanks for your ideas on indie vs. trad publishing. And thanks for sharing your approach and strategy. I’m finally hitting a stage in my life where I will have time to give the business approach the time it needs. I know there are strong opinions on both sides of the argument for Kindle Select vs. “going wide,” but I would love to see that discussion here (again, if we have already done it). I just found an article (from 7/4/21) on that discussion on Reedsy Blog (blog.reedsy.com).

    Thanks! And have a great day!

  5. I appreciate your generosity, Jim, in sharing your time to provide these periodic state-of-the-industry addresses. It’s informative, sobering, and empowering — and condensed to the time frame of a seventh inning stretch. A heartfelt thanks 🙂

  6. This is one of those rare posts you need to read twice to really absorb all the wisdom. Thanks, Jim. It’s a sobering look at the industry as a whole but an important discussion. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a standalone Indie title, and your post might be the nudge I need to finally do it. I’m also looking forward to RORs for my two novellas in August. For narrative nonfiction/true crime, a publisher can provide wider exposure. So, I doubt I’ll ever go Indie with true crime.

    • You’re probably right about True Crime, Sue, which is a well-defined niche in the traditional world and has a strong readership. Going indie with novellas is a good idea, as the trad market has never been strong in that regard. They can begin to build a digital readership for you, paving the way for an indie novel.

      Possibilities…they abound.

    • I think novellas are wrongfully neglected, that many readers like a short read–something for a weekend away or to keep on the nightstand. As an example, look at The Uncommon Reader. Good luck with both your novellas!

  7. Very insightful post, Jim. Like Sue noted above, it’s a clear-eyed overview of where the publishing industry is.

    I’m fully Indie with my novels (short stories are a different matter, I’m hybrid there). Russell Blake recently wrote about being “ten years in” as an indie author, and noted how much change there’s been in the self-publishing landscape since the early “gold rush” years of 2009-11. Which goes to show that in indie publishing, like traditional, things are always changing. There are now multiple paths in indie publishing, KU and Wide, audio, print, and now, once again, various options for serials, and Indies can (with the exception of KU) walk all of them at once if they so choose.

    I really like your point about risk, and which ones you are willing to take, along with managing your expectations. I love the opportunity to be able to craft (hopefully) compelling stories and novels and share them with readers, and that’s really the heart of my mission statement as an author.

    Thanks again for a very thoughtful post. Have a wonderful Sunday!

    • Hi Dale…

      I love the opportunity…

      That’s the indie writer’s mindset. And it’s still a wonder to me, knowing how things were pre-2007, what opportunities a writer has these days.

      It’s also a meritocracy. You have to please readers, and they do the sifting (not some third party intermediary). That’s as it should be.

  8. I’ve been Indie from the start. What has changed for me is vibrant Indie communities. The Self-Publishing Formula and 20Books to 50K offer a firehose of information that wasn’t there when I started in 2012. Now working on my 18th book and I look at my work product as entertainment with no other higher motive .

    • Wow, Alec, 18! That’s fantastic. And there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with entertainment, especially these days. Someone who can provide that book after book will make some lettuce.

  9. Jim, thanks for a great analysis of this industry that feels about as stable as Jello.

    Sales up 8% for past two years and a monthly increase of 70-100 subscribers are really healthy numbers.

    In 2021, my sales are up thanks to doing more marketing. I’m also starting #7 in my series. But lots of room for improvement.

    Indie pubbing has picked up many midlist authors that traditional publishing cast off. We write the bread-and-butter books that don’t make a spectacular splash but grow steadily year after year. We’re marathoners, not sprinters. I’m grateful for that opportunity.

    • Right on, Debbie. Again, that word “opportunity” comes up. Indie is an option now that was pretty much impossible before (vanity press doesn’t count except as a monetary sinkhole). I started saying this back in 2012 or so: it’s the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Still holds true.

  10. Thank you Mr. Bell. You answered a lot of questions I had. I must admit I’m honored to be mentioned in your post today. Don’t know if I was thought provoking or a pain in the ass that day – but I’ll take it 😊

    As this subject goes on in TKZ I keep thinking about the eggs in the basket scenario. My worry has been going traditional when I see a lot of potential being an indie author. If all my eggs were in the traditional pub baskets what would they do with them? I understand that they try to help while I will still have to crack them, mix them and cook the omelet.

    I’m not warm and fuzzy about how traditional pubs can support my dreams. From everything I read, traditional publishing seems like a depressing journey with a razor blade in your pocket.

    I’m more sold on being an indie writer. I’ll be launching a book this fall and have been working hard for over a year to get everything right. What hasn’t been mentioned yet is that I have enjoyed the sense of accomplishment trying to be the best indie man I can. This has been one of the best fulfillments in life apart from my family life. I’m using all my skills and talents to do something that has provided me a profound sense of value.

  11. If anyone thinks algorithms and ebook readers are fickle, then take a look at Trad agents and editors. It seems like everything is YA nowadays. Be sure your novel reflects the “correct” politics, too.

    Bottom line is creative control is awesome. Reminds me of your nun stories. Are they high concept and ready to hit #1 in the Amazon store? No, but they’re great great reads for a vibrant group of readers including myself. The barrier to entry is so low with indie that we can easily serve any niche that excites us creatively. To me, that’s worth a million bucks.

  12. Thank you, Jim, for continuing to keep us informed on the state of the industry.

    I read your book “How to Make a Living as a Writer” and it helped me decide to turn down a second contract with my small trad publisher and go indie. One of the reasons was the reversion clause that seemed unfair to me, but I couldn’t get them to change it.

    I’m so glad I made that decision. Going indie has presented a wealth of challenges and opportunities, both of which I love. The learning curve is steep, but I’m building literary muscle with every step, and I enjoy the control I have over my own writing destiny.

    • Kay, you did well to walk away. Small publisher contracts can be a minefield for new authors. An unwillingness to bend on key clauses is a key indicator that this is not the place to land your plane.

  13. Thanks for this excellent report and analysis of the state of publishing today, Jim. This was a bit of a shocker: “About 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.” Wow! Don’t quit your day job, writers!

    This is encouraging, though: “The indie authors making bank are those who have embraced change and innovation, and combined them with optimistic energy and consistent output.”

    And I’m so glad you finished on a high note! There will indeed always be readers looking for an absorbing yarn to whisk them away from their humdrum life and daily problems, so there will always be a market for well-written, compelling stories with unforgettable characters. Keep on writing, everyone!

  14. Jim, good reminder of the past and prediction about where we’re going (if we survive at all). I’m one of the mid-list authors who has been affected. To be successful requires full-time attention by the writer. You set a good example of what it now takes to succeed.

  15. Thanks for the follow up post Jim – excellent update and definite food for thought! I think it’s great that they’re are now more options and paths for writers to take ❤️❤️ Sorry about chiming in so late – one of my twins’ Eagle Scout project is tomorrow so lots to do and of course I had to watch England play (heartbreak!!!)

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