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.

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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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Is Our Writing Culture In Mortal Danger? Part III

benjamin-franklin-62846_640I’m going to try to wrap up my thoughts on the mischievous missive delivered by Mr. Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed. The first part of my response is here. The second part is here.

There are three issues outstanding:

Issue 3 – Is the Party Over?

Issue 4 – What Counts as Writing Success?

Issue 5 – Can Fiction Writing Be Taught?

Last week I upheld the view that this is the best time on Earth to be a writer. Lest you think I only mean because writers can now self-publish and make real dough, here’s some news that rippled outward from the traditional side of things: Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi inked a $3.4 million deal with Tor Books. That’s for thirteen books over a ten-year period. I’d say that counts as good times. Mr. Scalzi explains his thought process here.

Ah, but is the party over? Or about to be? Has there been a “tonal shift” in what Porter calls the “palaver” from the indie writer sector of the publishing world?

I do sense a shift, but not a negative one. It is, rather, the natural maturation of a revolution. During the Early Konrathian period of indie publishing, the talk was all about waking people up and stirring them to action (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”). There was an exuberance. There were fight songs around the campfire. Free beer.

It was Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry time. Yes, there was plenty of vitriol, too, which is always part of an uprising. What the American colonists said about the tea tax was not intended for polite society. Nor were the words of indies when reacting to representatives of the Authors Guild.

Now, it seems, the tone has changed from revolution to constitution. From muskets to quills. Giddiness has been replaced by plans and purpose and increasing success.

But just what is success? This is Issue #4.

One type is, certainly, traditional, bestselling, A-list status. Another type is having the freedom to publish what you want, when you want, and making steadily growing income. When you read surveys of traditional authors and how frustrated they can be with their publishers, this type of success might even be all the more attractive.

For some writers the “validation” of traditional success is the most important thing. Others find more satisfaction going directly to readers…and to the bank.

We are all free to define success for ourselves, and should. What does it mean specifically to you? Talk about it in the comments.

Finally, Issue #5. The title of Porter’s post was The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught?

The question implies that a negative answer might be possible. Or, worse, that there is a possibility the whole enterprise of teaching fiction is little more than a racket. That’s what brought me and a couple of my teaching colleagues—Donald Maass and David Corbett—into the comments with some admonishments.

Porter, I’m happy to say, qualified this impression, kindly mentioning my name and my two fellows (and others) as exceptions. But he added this in a comment:

It’s been interesting to see some of these folks I’ve mentioned struggle with this piece. On the surface, of course, that looks natural in that no one wants to be painted with too broad a brush. But you note that I mentioned none of them, nor would I — they’re not the kind of problematic how-to players I’m talking about. And yet, to some degree, they seem unsettled by even the discussion of the problem.

This makes me think (I’m speculating here, they have not told me this) that the problem of “the toadstools” — who are NOT these writer/teachers — is much on their minds.

I can’t answer for my colleagues, but I’m happy to clear up any confusion on my part. No, “the toadstools” were not on my mind at all. What set me off was even entertaining the notion that writing can’t be taught. In point of fact, virtually all writers have been taught how to write in some form or fashion. It’s just that not many talk about it. As good old Ernest Hemingway once said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Writing is taught in many ways.

It is taught by editors who know what they’re doing.

It is taught by teachers who know what they’re doing.

It is taught by books by people who know what they’re doing and how to teach others to do the same.

It is taught by critique partners and beta readers.

It can be self-taught by reading novels and analyzing what other authors do. That’s fine. What I do when I teach, however, is save writers years of trial and error by showing them right away what successful authors do, and how they can do it themselves.

The proof of all this, I add as a former trial lawyer, is in the testimony of credible witnesses. The successful writers who themselves give credit to writing instruction.  

Let me offer just one example. This from critically acclaimed author Sarah Pekkanen, who gave an interview to NPR about getting published:

I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer [Stephen King]; one, by a top New York agent [Donald Maass]; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us [some joker named Bell]. 

The full interview is here. That was six years ago. It’s nice to see how Sarah’s career has prospered since. I’d say she’s offered credible testimony that writing fiction can indeed be taught.

Whew! That’s three full posts all sparked by the incendiary flying fingers of one Porter Anderson, provocateur and good sport. If you bump into him at a conference, don’t dislodge his keyboard…buy him a Campari instead.

Now I’m done. Next week we return to our regularly scheduled program!

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The Paid Reviews Scandal and What it Means for the Future

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell 

There was a dust storm of no small size this past week with the revelation that million-selling-self-published phenom John Locke had paid a service, the now defunct GettingBookReviews.com, to generate a slew of reviews for his books. “I will start with 50 for $1,000,” Locke wrote to the service in an email, “and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more. I’m ready to roll.”


News of this transaction did not generate positive reviews in the blogosphere. Porter Anderson covers much of the reaction here.


Needless to say, writers who have been doing it the old fashioned way—writing the best books they can, building readership based on quality over time—were not pleased. One of the notables, Lee Goldberg, posted an Amazon review for Locke’s tome about how he sold a million ebooks. Lee’s review is now at the top of the book’s page. Here is the review in toto:
There is a key piece of advice crucial to his success that he left out of this book: pay readers to leave fake reviews. In an interview with Locke in today’s New York Times, he admitted that he paid for 300 reviewers to heap praise on his books, a sleazy promotional technique that seems to have worked for him. Locke admits to buying reviews because “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful, but it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.” I have some advice for Locke on a more honest and ethical approach he might want to try: Actually write good books. That’s how to build an audience. You do not gain readers, or recognition, by swindling readers into buying your books with fake praise. It’s unethical and shows a startling lack of respect for your reader.
But what should be done about it? What can be done about it? Lee Goldberg would like to see Amazon take down all of Mr. Locke’s positive reviews. I doubt that will happen, as Amazon is based upon systemization and not individuation. In other words, it is not good ROI (return on investment) for Amazon to police reviews.
If they delete Locke’s positive reviews, wouldn’t they have to go after all the other paid-for reviews? It would be too arduous to do so.
Thus, Amazon will likely leave this to the free market of ideas. Lee Goldberg has already contributed to that market. He posted his review, asked readers via Twitter and other social media to “like” that review, and it has rocketed to the top. If it were a malicious, unfair comment Lee made, John Locke could complain and probably have it removed. But as it is based on fact (Lee had the good sense to reference the NY Times) that probably will not happen. (Note: I have quoted from Locke’s book in other places, citing what I find of value. Those parts still hold. It’s just unfortunate they may now get overshadowed by this mess.)  
We all know the public review process is open to abuse. But it does not seem that there’s much that can be done directly. Maybe over time, more and more readers will catch on and that will make reviews a less essential way to assess a book’s worth. It’s too bad, because real reviews will suffer taint, too.
If that is so, what’s the alternative? How is a reader to make a choice amid these shenanigans?
I think the simplest way, the best way, the only true way is this: Educate and encourage readers to read opening chapters. Stress the downloading of samples, or the “Look Inside!” feature on Amazon. Or post your first chapters on your website.
Anything to get the reader to see the actual writer in action. Doing his writer thing.
Then the reader can make an informed choice. Case in point: I’m not much of a dystopian fiction fan, but after making the acquaintance of Hugh Howey in this forum, I downloaded the sample of Wool. I found the writing so strong and the premise so compelling that I bought the whole thing.
Isn’t that the way it should work?
What do you think the fallout will be from this scandal of paid reviews? What, if anything, can be done about it?

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