The Book Biz is A-Changin’

by James Scott Bell

(Apologies to Bob Dylan)

Can you believe we’re into November already? Why does time feel like a toboggan on Kiwi Flats at Mammoth Mountain? Things are also moving faster than ever in the world of publishing, both self and traditional. And now we’ve got AI out there, churning out subpar fiction that crowds the electronic shelves. (I’m currently reading the letters of Raymond Chandler. Get this. In 1947 he wrote to an editor, “I wrote you once in a mood of rough sarcasm that the technique of fiction had become so highly standardized that one of these days a machine would write novels.” Ha!)

Wherever you are in this game, be ye DIY or working with agents and publishers, you have to think of it as a business. Indeed, as a business that may not look the same six months from now. In that regard, here are a few items that recently caught my eye:

Kindle Direct Publishing Beta Testing AI–Narrated Audiobooks

The biggest barrier keeping self-publishing authors from doing audio versions of their books is cost. To hire a narrator to produce an 80k novel can easily run you north of $3000. An alternative is Amazon’s ACX program, which offers the option of splitting the royalties between author and narrator, and thus no upfront cost to the author (but only half the take).

Now comes another option. According to Publishers Weekly:

KDP has announced that it has begun a beta test on technology allowing KDP authors to produce audiobook versions of their e-books using virtual voice narration. The ability to create an audiobook using synthetic speech technology is likely to result in a boom in the number of audiobooks produced by KDP authors. According to an Amazon spokesperson, currently only 4% of titles self-published through KDP have an audiobook available.

Under the new initiative, authors can choose one of their eligible e-books already on the KDP platform, then sample voices, preview the work, and customize the audiobook. After publication, audiobooks will be live within 72 hours, and will distributed wherever Audible titles are sold. Prices can be set between $3.99 and $14.99 and authors will receive a 40% royalty. All audiobooks created by virtual voice, the post says, will be clearly labeled and, as with any audiobook, customers can listen to samples.

I suppose this was inevitable. The question is, what will the quality be? Will books be better or botter? Can a bot read a novel with the same emotional caliber as a human? Will there be market resistance from a large swath of audiobook fans?

In somewhat related news:

Debbie Burke’s Nightmare Becomes Real

The head coach of the Michigan football team, Jim Harbaugh, is being accused of cheating, specifically sending one of his assistants out to steal the signs of opposing teams. He has denied the allegations and the NCAA is currently investigating.

But now a video has surfaced on X (formerly Twitter) of Harbaugh in a press conference admitting he knew, and that “I’m just doing what I can to drag this sorry program out of the mud.”

It’s Harbaugh’s “voice” matched up with his lips from another presser. It’s obviously a fake, because the real Harbaugh would never say anything like the above. Most commenters get the “joke,” but no doubt many will think he really said it. It’s just eerie what can be done with AI, and from now on our thrillers will have to take it into account.

Authors Guild Survey of Writing Income

The Authors Guild recently conducted its most comprehensive author income survey to date. According to the Guild: “A total of 5,699 published author participated, and the survey sample was meticulously divided, with representation from both traditionally published and self-published authors, making it the most representative author income survey to date as well.”

Only key takeaways are available as of this writing (posted on the site linked above). Here’s the one about income

The median author income for full-time authors from their books was $10,000 in 2022, and their total median earnings from their book and other author-related income combined was $20,000. Book income includes advances, royalties, and fees from licensing and subsidiary rights. Other author-related income includes work such as editing, blogging, teaching, speaking, book coaching, copy writing and journalism.


This means half of all full-time authors continue to earn below minimum wage in many states from all their writing related work, and well below the federal minimum wage of just $7.25/hour from their books. It also tells us that most authors are earning half of their writing-related income from sources other than their books.

Now, I’m not sure what definition of “full-time author” is being used here. It can’t mean authors who make their living solely by writing fiction because, kids, who can live on ten grand a year? They are also including “other author-related income” such as editing, teaching, etc. But if you’re editing and teaching to make money, how is that being a full-time writer? Or maybe I’m missing something. It wouldn’t be the first time.

There’s a marketing segment to the survey. It should come as no surprise that the most effective marketing tools reported by the respondents were: Kindle Unlimited, ebook discount programs (e.g., BookBub), and an email list. One curious nugget about KU: “Kindle Unlimited was particularly effective for self-published authors, who earned 67 percent more book income from the platform than traditionally published authors make on book-earnings alone.”

Amazon Sues Scammers Targeting Authors

Amazon announced last month that it has filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California against 20 individuals “scamming authors by falsely claiming an affiliation with Amazon Publishing and Kindle Direct Publishing. According to the suit, the scammers run fake Amazon knockoff websites designed to lure would-be authors into paying a fee to publish, and then deliver either substandard or no service at all.”

Dealing with scammers is like playing 100-hole whack-a-mole. At least you pound one every now and then. Glad to see Amazon stepping up.

Goodreads Taking Steps Against “Review Bombing”

In June, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) pulled her novel, The Snow Bird, which was slated to be published in 2024. The reason: “Review bombing.” That is a spate of 1-star negative comments meant to depress sales. It’s not based on the writing, but for political or cultural reasons. Goodreads allows any user to rate and review a book before it has been published, whether or not they’ve read an advanced copy.

The Snow Birds is set in Soviet Russia. Based only on the description, over 500 negative reviews from Ukrainian and pro-Ukrainian users expressed concern that the book would “romanticize” Russia. So Gilbert pulled the book, stating, “I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced – and who are all continuing to experience – grievous and extreme harm.” She will now focus on other literary projects.

Goodreads issued a statement to its users saying, in part,

Earlier this year, we launched the ability to temporarily limit submission of ratings and reviews on a book during times of unusual activity that violate our guidelines, including instances of “review bombing.” If you see content or behavior that does not meet our reviews or community guidelines, we encourage you to report it.

Isn’t the simple answer to require a reviewer to be a “verified purchaser” or at least be identified as having read the ARC before posting a review? Or does that make too much sense?

Meanwhile, At the Big 5

Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet (subscription required), spent two hours talking with Peter Hildick-Smith, who helped the Guild conduct their survey. She concludes:

Finally, the survey results look sobering for anyone with a Big Five house: Earnings have declined for those authors over the last five years at the rate of inflation. The biggest selling authors are seeing their sales soften, which indicates to Hildick-Smith that the big traditional publishers need to think of some new approaches for marketing and promotion. For the top 10 percent of traditionally published authors, he said, “There are a lot of folks out there nipping at your heels, and you’re having to share the winnings a lot more.”

So Be a Cork on the Roiling Sea of Change

Way back in 2012 I wrote about the “discoverability problem” in the “roiling sea” of digital publishing. Our job is to be a cork, always bobbing right back to the surface, no matter what waves come our way:

The good news is there is one tried and true method that is consistent throughout all marketing platforms: good old word of mouth.

Which comes from quality + consistency x time. The best books and stories you can write, and then more, and more, never stopping, ever.

What say you? How are all the changes affecting your work or plans? Are you keeping the main thing (writing) the main thing?

33 thoughts on “The Book Biz is A-Changin’

  1. “Goodreads allows any user to rate and review a book before it has been published, whether or not they’ve read an advanced copy.”

    I can tell this is a blurb from the year 2023 because it sounds incomprehensible that Goodreads would think this is in any way logical. Par for the year at large. Under what circumstances could anyone possibly be justified in leaving a review for something they’ve never read?

    • That’s the 64k question, isn’t it? (How’s that for an old reference?)

      Not only this, but anyone can leave just a star rating without any review or even a name. What earthly good is that?

      • I think Goodreads threw in the towel as there is no way to verify if you purchased a book from a used book store or borrow it from your local library, or downloaded an audiobook from say a service like Chirp. An Amazon verified purchase only account for the Amazon platform.

    • RE: “Under what circumstances could anyone possibly be justified in leaving a review for something they’ve never read?”

      If only–life was fair.

      I am reminded of an incident when I was in the military service well over a half century ago. A rather slender young female enlistee was constantly complaining about how everything wasn’t fair. Her complaining was very disruptive to the workplace.

      This was right in the middle of either the second or third feminist wave. I forget which. All I remember was bra burning was just becoming a thing. Thus her constant complaining would be a delicate matter for a 2nd Lt. like me to address.

      One of my female sergeants came into my office and asked in her West Virginia drawn, “Would you like fur me to handle yit?”

      With my agreement, she went out to the seated complainer and said, “Well listen honey. Life ain’t fair. That’s why they make different sized bras.”

      If you can imagine a young Dolly Parton leaning forward from the waist and gravity assisting her ample assets, you will get the picture.

      I had to hold my breath, run out the door and down the hall before allowing my self to laugh so hard I had to lean on the wall.

      Problem solved. Seems like all the useful stuff like this had to be learned OTJ. It just wasn’t taught in boot camp or tech schools.

  2. Thanks for the mention Jim. I wish deep fakes were only a nightmare but they aren’t. That’s why I wrote Deep Fake Double Down to demonstrate how “evidence” can be faked and used to implicate innocent people.

    In addition to KDP, Apple recently rolled out an AI audiobook option. Several choices for the narration voice sound pretty damn good. The technology can only improve and will put human narrators out of a job. Another sad sign of the dehumanization of society.

    I’ll keep writing for the sake of readers who still value human communication and connection. The villa in Italy will have to wait.

  3. I agree with Debbie…the villa will definitely have to wait. I like the cork in the river analogy.

    But it makes me sad that so many talented narrators will lose work because of AI. Can you imagine the flood of audio books? In traditional publishing an author doesn’t normally get an an audio version until they reach a certain amount of sales which tells the publisher they have a decent chance of recouping their money.

  4. I’m fortunate to have a husband who’s my loudest cheerleader. That doesn’t mean I don’t wish I made more money as a full-time author, but I’m working toward “big picture” goals. Traditional publishing disheartened me over time. Publisher delays, proofreader mishaps, ARC issues, etc., and all beyond my control. Once I went indie, the muse whispered, Now, you have the ability to make that dream a reality, Sue. Super exciting!

    Even so, when I sit behind the keyboard every morning, I have only one thing in mind — write the best novel I can.

    As for AI narration, I don’t think it can compare to a human narrator who feels the emotional context and mood of the scene. Can these things be faked? Probably. But would a computer know where to insert a natural pause for effect, understand story rhythm and pace as it relates to narration, and accent a word for a greater emotional impact? Doubtful. Just the “AI narrated” label would turn me off as a consumer.

  5. Next week, when the dust settles on the latest AI publishing flap, we can all look back in time to this epistle and laugh at our naivety when we were much younger fools.

    Joanna Penn says the AI playing field changes sometimes daily, and she’s had a close watch on it since its inception.

    It’s become clear to me that Amazon book policy has been dictated by an artificial robot for the last 6 or 7 years–without human intervention. Now the dang thing is getting competition, and it doesn’t like it because it doesn’t know what to do about it.

    On a webinar last week by a guy who runs Amazon ads for others for a living, I watched him for a full hour massage and manipulate the socks off those numbers. If that’s too much for a writer, s/he can hire him to do it for about $200-300/month. My takeaway was that the marketing required to maintain a living from books takes way more time, effort, and money than most writers of any stripe are willing to spend. Hence the appalling “median” income reported.

    • Good thought fodder, Dan. I presume that $300/mo. does not include the ad buys themselves…so we’re talking real money…for the guy hired to do the ads.

      I’m not convinced on the necessary connection between ads and making a living. (or some good scratch) as a writer. I think it’s a natter if more and better books, rather than more and better ads.

  6. The only constants in publishing are that change is sure to happen and (in the best Stoic sense) the only thing we writers can truly control is what goes on between our ears and in our writing, the rest is out of our control.

    I’m fortunate in that I don’t need to write to keep a roof over my head, so I can readily focus on the writing, and on building a mystery reader group (newsletter) for myself. I publish wide, which allows libraries to have the ebooks of my library mystery series in their digital collections, but also because I find putting my publishing eggs in many baskets out lowers stress and also allows for more opportunities for discovery. As always, YMMV 🙂

    I won’t use AI to narrate my books, both because I want to support human narrators and because, from what I’ve learned, AI narration has been trained in part on human narration, without compensation. Also, for me at least, the human factor in narration is irreplaceable.

    Thanks for another post on publishing—your updates are always insightful.

    • An interesting wrinkle here. I have done my own narration for several of my writing books. I like doing that, but the big issue is time. If I go with AI, then, I’m not taking a job away from someone other than myself. The income realized by this is not only from sales but from the time savings.

      That’s nonfiction, which I think is more amenable to bot voice.

      Now, I’ve also toyed with doing my own audio for novels, but that’ a HUGE time investment. Now what?

      • ‘As read by author’ may be the only authentic version left (unless the narrator is a human whose name is famous).

        I’m planning to do the same – have to finish the writing first because the brain can only handle one thing at a time.

  7. I’m following the old saying and keeping my day job. But I still love to write and publish. Any royalties are cigar money for me. The way I see it, most hobbies cost money whereas this one earns some.

    I feel sorry for people who pump thousands into this and lose it.

    • I’ve never advocated writers up and quit their day jobs…unless and until they can rightly anticipate 2-3 years of adequate income. I knew several writers back in the “old days” who sold a first novel and then “quit to write full time.” I don’t think any of them are still around.

  8. In a perfect world, AI narrators would only be allowed to voice AI books which would only be sold to robots. If only…

    Fortunately, I don’t need to support myself and my family on income from writing. Although I’d love to make some good money in this business, that’s not my goal, and I don’t think the changes will affect me. I’m happy to be bobbing around, looking for ways to entertain and challenge readers.

    • There’s a story about a young writer asking an older, established writer for advice. He said, “Marry a rich widow.” (I can’t remember who it was, but there you are).

  9. I don’t think there’s any aspect of the entertainment business that isn’t in the midst of techtonic change (see what I did there?). Just as the DVD killed the VHS and Netflix killed Blockbuster, streaming services are killing cable television, and a host of tech-related shifts are changing the nature of publishing. The Big Five, in particular, are imploding under the weight of a rigid, non-responsive business model. Some of the biggest names in big-name editors have been let go and replaced by younger and cheaper models. It might not be a death spiral, but it portends something other than good health.

    But traditional publishing is anything but dead. Blackstone and Source Books are two recently unknown publishers who are effectively picking up the big names dropped by the Big Five. My own publisher, Kensington, continues to thrive. I look at the publishing horizon and I’m encouraged to see signs of a new day that looks a lot like the old days when Bantam, Doubleday and Dell were all separate entities, each offering different opportunities for authors.

    As for median author earnings, this writer gig has always been a profession of poverty except for very few exceptions. Wasn’t it Erle Stanley Gardner who routinely wrote a million words a year to keep the lights on?

    The entertainment industry is replete with predicted catastrophes that never happened. Television was going to kill the movie industry after movies were going to kill live theater. Audio books were going to kill print books, and with the launch of the Kindle, traditional publishing was going to disappear. We creatives are a catastrophizing lot, despite being proven overreactive time after time.

    My advice to up-and-coming authors deals with two major components. The first and most obvious is to write a really good book. Tell a good story well, and populate it with characters readers will bond with. Assuming that the final edited product is really good, it’s time to turn to business, and business is always driven by goals. And you know what? I just stumbled on the topic for may next KZ post in a week and a half.

  10. Learning to adapt, Jim. Some earlier changes have been good — including emailing in my manuscript to my publisher. It used to cost $45 to FedEx one. I also like e-editing with track changes. So much easier than trying to decipher handwriting.
    Hoping for the best while staying wary.

  11. Ah, that writing ‘a really good book’ were something that could be independently verified, a seal attached, and that book then be allowed onto the market…

    The proof is supposed to be good sales numbers (would a lot of people buy a junk book? Don’t answer that!) – but you can’t get sales at all without discoverability already working.

    Many people write for years and never grab the golden ring.

    Many people write for years and never get any better.

    Many ‘not very good books’ sell a lot of copies.

    It’s a fascinating business/hobby/avocation.

  12. If I had my druthers about audiobooks, this is how I would do it. I would offer the AI-read version for super cheap, like two bucks. Kind of the equivalent of an ebook. Then I would have a human-read version for a few bucks more, thereby giving readers a choice: the cheap AI or the better-sounding human. But I can’t afford the human, haha! However, since I tend to write fantasy books, I have reservations about how an AI would mangle some of my made-up words. Text to speech readers already can’t handle words like Mercurion.

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