Here is the last TKZ post of the year. We will be taking our annual two-week break, and gather again on January 2, 2023. It seems apt, then, to take a look in the rearview and also through the windshield. Where have we been, and where are we headed?
What a year. Sometimes it felt like the cruise of the Lusitania; at other times, like an old wooden roller coaster about to be condemned. There were all sorts of moments:
- Russia invaded Ukraine. Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson broke up. Hordes of Twitter users seemed unable to determine which was worse.
- Speaking of Twitter, some car guy bought it.
- Will Smith slapped Chris Rock.
- Johnny Depp used the term “a grumpy” in open court.
Some notable deaths were: Queen Elizabeth, Angela Lansbury, Bill Russell, Sidney Poitier, and the last great spitballer, Gaylord Perry.
Other deaths included decorum, nuance, and rationality.
And over in the publishing world—
Print Book Sales Were Down
According to Publishers Weekly:
Unit sales of print books fell 4.8% through the first nine months of 2022, from the comparable period in 2021. Unit sales dropped from 570 million copies sold in the January through September period in 2021 to 542.6 million in 2022 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. The sales decline slowed during the third quarter, falling from a drop of 6.6% in the first half of 2021. The decline also follows a year in which unit sales for the full year rose 8.9% over 2020.
Ebooks and Audio
Ebook sales are notoriously difficult to quantify, because Indie and Amazon stats are largely hidden. With trad pub, ebook revenues were down 6.7% as compared to the first eight months of 2021. Audiobooks sales, however, were up 5.5%.
Indie sales generally may not have been spared the downward trend. Why? While sales were up during lockdown mania, when people couldn’t go out to bookstores, it seems 2022 saw a reversal of this trend. Coupled with challenging economic times, sales of just about everything were down. It feels a bit like 2008-2009. One blog lists several factors affecting book sales, e.g.,
- Looming recession
- Collective fatigue
- Demand saturation, tapering-off growth
- Declining old-guard ad platform effectiveness
The blog suggests that “if consumers are spending less, it might not be the time to ditch Kindle Unlimited if you’re established there and it’s been good to you, as people will cancel their subscriptions last.”
Dedicated Ebook Readers Are Dying
While that transition does not affect ebook reading per se, it does make formatting a most important consideration. Your books have to be readable on the smaller phone footprint. I use Vellum, which takes care of that problem. What are you using?
Bestsellers Are Getting Shorter
Interesting data from the analysts at Wordsrated:
- Bestsellers are getting shorter – the average length of the NYT bestseller decreased by 51.5 pages from 2011 to 2021, from 437.5 to 386 (11.8%).
- Long books (over 400 pages) are disappearing – the share of long bestsellers went from 54% in 2011 to 38% in 2021, a 30% drop.
- Long books stayed 4.4 weeks longer on the bestsellers list than short books (under 400 pages) until 2016. Since 2016, short books have been on the list 1.9 weeks longer than long books.
(Mr. Rogers Voice): “Can you say ‘shrinking attention spans’? I know you can.”
That’s good news for indie writers of pulp-style fiction. Instead of two books at 90k each, they can do three books at 60k—and charge the same price for each one.
The Big Antitrust Case
You all heard about the DOJ going to court to stop the proposed merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. But did you understand it? Without going into massive detail, antitrust law (according to the DOJ itself) “prohibits business practices that unreasonably deprive consumers of the benefits of competition, resulting in higher prices for products and services.”
But the way this case was presented was to protect that slice of authors who command advances of $250,000 or more. Is that you? I didn’t think so.
The trial was marked by the testimony of CEOs and agents and one Mr. Stephen King, who said:
I came because I think consolidation is bad for competition. That’s my understanding of the book business, and I’ve been around it for fifty years. When I started in this business, there were literally hundreds of imprints, and some of them were run by people with extremely idiosyncratic tastes, one might say. Those businesses were either subsumed one by one or they ran out of business. I think it becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find enough money to live on.
(For a summary of the key events of the trial, see the coverage by Publishers Weekly.)
The DOJ won. PRH has decided not to appeal. In reading Judge Florence Tan’s decision, a few things jumped out at me:
- Only 35 out of every 100 books published turns a profit.
- “Breakout” titles — those books that “outstrip” expectations — are what make up most of a pub company’s profit.
- The trad model is to acquire a large number of books, knowing that most titles will not be profitable, and hoping for that big home run, like Gone Girl.
- PRH CEO Markus Dohle testified that publishers are like “angel investors” that “invest every year in thousands of ideas and dreams, and only a few make it to the top.” When a book is a breakout, it allows the company to take risks in acquiring new books and “betting” on new titles.
- And this, from pg. 19: “Self-publishing is not a significant factor in the publishing industry. Self-published books are rarely published in print and are typically limited to online distributions. The authors of self-published books cannot pay themselves an advance. [JSB: But they get a 70% royalty and get paid every month!] Moreover, individual authors generally do not have relationships with media or distributors necessary to ensure that their books are visible to a potential audience.” [JSB: How often does a fiction author get on The Today Show?]
So what does all this mean for writers who don’t command huge advances? The ever-insightful Jane Friedman, in her Hot Sheet newsletter (subscription required) says:
All along, I’ve said in this newsletter (and elsewhere) that I don’t think this case has much or any bearing on the average author’s earnings. While I can’t speak to the legal merits of the government’s case, I’ve never been convinced that blocking this merger would save anything of value that wasn’t already lost decades ago, when industry consolidation began. Nor is anyone arguing, as far as I’ve seen, that preserving the advances of authors who receive $250k+ will have positive trickle-down effects for the entire literary ecosystem.
On Predicting the Future
“People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.” – Ray Bradbury
“The only way you can predict the future is to build it.” – Alan Kay
“I never think of the future, it comes soon enough.” – Albert Einstein
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
So How Do You Earn More Dough Next Year?
1. Within The Forbidden City
In traditional publishing, it used to be said you needed four to five books getting an increasing foothold among readers to move toward significant writing income. See The Career Novelist by agent Donald Maass.
In these latter days, however, an author has one or maybe two chances. As the DOJ case revealed, the big pubs want home runs, and want them out of the gate. They generally won’t put any significant marketing money into most books unless and until those books show some momentum on their own.
So write a home run and you’re golden.
If not, and you are shown the gate by the Forbidden City elders, there are many smaller publishers out there who will allow you singles and doubles, and a shot at building a readership.
Want to know what it takes to bring in some good lettuce as an indie writer? I found the information in this survey instructive (h/t Joanna Penn for the link). It confirms my own experience. It’s worth your time to have a look.
Still and all, one truth remains: the best marketing, in either world, is word of mouth, which comes from the books themselves. Meaning—
Stick to The Fundamentals
From time immemorial, writers of fiction have known that the fundamentals for success are basic: be good and be productive.
To be good means always growing in your craft. Assess your work vis-à-vis the seven critical success factors of fiction—plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning. Figure out what needs improving (and remove any chips on your shoulder) and then set about to study those areas and practice what you learn.
As for production, you don’t have to write a novel every month. Just be consistent. A page a day is a book a year. Determine how many words you can comfortably write in a week. Up that by 10% and make it your weekly goal. If you miss a day, make it up on other days. If you miss a week, fuggetaboutit. Start fresh on Monday.
Develop ideas even as you’re working on your WIP. Be like a movie studio, with one “green lit” project, a few “in development” and a few that are one-line pitches.
Have the mindset of the pulp writers of yore, who didn’t have time to whine or moan during the Depression. They had to eat, so the wrote. And looked at the enterprise as a business. One of those writers was W. T. Ballard, who wrote for Black Mask. In an interview later in life he said:
My views on writing as a business? That it is not much different from any other. You have to keep swinging, rolling with the punches, keep alert and attuned to the changes that take place suddenly or gradually, but always constantly.
Words for writers to live by.
Now from all of us at TKZ: Thank you, loyal readers, for another great year. We have some of the best, most informed, and most interesting commenters in the entire blogosphere. Let’s continue the conversation in 2023. May abundant blessings be yours this holiday season. See you soon!