Do People Still Buy Books?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s a post on Substack that’s been making the viral rounds, titled “No One Buys Books.” It’s the author’s summary of lessons gleaned from the DOJ v. Penguin Random House trial, two years afterward. Elle Griffin sums it up this way (this all refers to traditional publishing):

I think I can sum up what I’ve learned like this: The Big Five publishing houses spend most of their money on book advances for big celebrities like Britney Spears and franchise authors like James Patterson and this is the bulk of their business. They also sell a lot of Bibles, repeat best sellers like Lord of the Rings, and children’s books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. These two market categories (celebrity books and repeat bestsellers from the backlist) make up the entirety of the publishing industry and even fund their vanity project: publishing all the rest of the books we think about when we think about book publishing (which make no money at all and typically sell less than 1,000 copies).

And:

The publishing houses may live to see another day, but I don’t think their model is long for this world. Unless you are a celebrity or franchise author, the publishing model won’t provide a whole lot more than a tiny advance and a dozen readers.

Jane Friedman, in her Hot Sheet newsletter (subscription required), emphasizes that this is the way things have pretty much been for quite some time. Her words followed by my comments:

  1. Most books don’t sell in significant numbers. This has not changed recently; it has always been the case. But if you share book sales numbers with the general public, they are generally shocked because they simply don’t know the typical sales of an average book.

JSB: According to Bookstat.com, in the traditional industry in 2020, 268 titles sold more than 100,000 copies, and 96 percent of books sold less than 1,000 copies.

  1. The majority of authors, at least early in their careers, can’t survive on book advances or book sales alone.This has been the case throughout history. It’s challenging to make a living from your art, and it has always been so.

JSB: No argument there.

  1. Big publishers pay high advances to celebrities, politicians, etc. Big publishers want authors with visibility in the market. I can’t imagine this is news to anyone.
  1. Publishers do not adequately support the titles they publish with marketing and promotion. This has been a complaint of authors since I started working in the industry. I do think the problem has become worse over time, and the issues at play are complicated, to say the least. More titles are published than ever before (up to 2 million per year if you count self-publishing), media outlets and media coverage for books has dwindled, book discovery has changed in the digital era, etc.

JSB: Back in the 90s, when I started out, there were some huge advances paid to new authors, with subsequent marketing roll outs, in the hopes of establishing the next “big name.” What happened to most of these authors was that the debut novel failed to catch on, the second book in the contract was published with the least amount of attention, and the author was tagged with the “damaged goods” label—meaning no more Big Pub contracts. I can think of at least half a dozen authors this happened to. One of them wrote a PI novel that garnered a great blurb from no less than Sue Grafton. The publisher paid a ton up front. There was a big marketing push. But the book tanked, the second contracted book was released and forgotten, and the author has never written another book. (If you want to read the account of an author who went through this, survived, fought back, and thrived, I suggest you read this post from one Mr. Gilstrap).

As for discovery in the current climate, it’s certainly possible to get TikTokked to the top, or some other digital analogue, but only if the book is real quality vis-à-vis its genre. Some authors get bollixed up writing a book, maybe their first, self-pubbing it, then spending scads on ads. “Why am I not getting any clicks? Or sales?” Because first efforts are usually not top notch. Save your money and write more and better books. If you write good books, you can build a readership, because one thing hasn’t changed. The best marketing is and always has been word-of-mouth.

  1. Authors and smaller publishers have been gaining in market share since at least 2010. This is a good thing, and it’s partly due to Amazon, ebooks, and print-on-demand technology. But big publishers aren’t going anywhere, and they’re starting to partner in new ways with authors—self-publishing authors especially—and they remain powerful in the market.

If you self publish, you’re a small publisher. Act like one. Learn to think like a business. (I have a sample business plan in my book How to Make a Living As a Writer.)

So, yes, people still buy books. And if you write with consistent quality, they may even buy yours.

Do you still buy books? What portion of what you buy is in hardback, paperback, ebook, or audible? Do you still go to physical bookstores to browse, or are you mostly online now?

Sleep in Your Guestroom and Other Random Thoughts for Authors

Sleep in Your Guestroom and Other Random Thoughts for Authors
Terry Odell

Jane Friedman addressed this topic in her Electric Speed Newsletter a short time ago, and I thought it was an area of the business side of writing that many of us might neglect. I’m one of them

Her article started off with the subject, “Sleep in Your Spare Bedroom.” We may think that if we put clean sheets on the bed and clean towels in the bathroom, maybe add some toiletries we’ve brought home from hotels, that it’s ready for guests. But are you sure? One of her guests pointed out that the shower didn’t drain, something she hadn’t thought to check when she readied the room. Embarrassing, and not the best impression.

How does this relate to authors? Our online presence is our guest room, and we might have a lot of them. When’s the last time you looked at your website as a guest? Or your social media pages. You have to log out in order to see what the public sees, although Facebook has a ‘view as a guest’ option. Or, you can recruit a friend to test everything—but it’s better if you see exactly what your “guests” are seeing.

I’m in the process of updating my website. It was functional, looked pretty good, but was outdated. Not only that, but the ‘under the hood’ aspects hadn’t been cleaned out in many, many years, which created some conflicts.

Does your bio need updating? Are all your books on your site, with properly working buy links? Are there broken links to anything? Do your social media buttons go where they’re supposed to? Have you added social media platforms? Eliminated any? Are you optimizing your SEO? (Do you know what SEO is, or why you should care?)

What about your contact form? Does it work? Send yourself a message. Does your newsletter signup follow the right steps? Do new signups get your reader magnet? When’s the last time you changed it?

Whether you do your own site maintenance and updating or hire out, it’s important to keep things current.

Have you looked at your author pages on all the sales channel sites? Or your individual book pages? (More on that later.)

And speaking of book pages…

If you’re an indie author, you can track sales and estimated royalties any time you want to. (Hint: Don’t “want to” very often or you’ll get sucked into the maelstrom.) You can adjust pricing as well.

BUT … did you know Amazon reserves the right to charge whatever it darn pleases for your books? I noticed this about a month ago.

I’d decided that my books were worth a dollar more than I’d been charging, at least the newer ones, so I adjusted the prices accordingly. Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple (via Draft2Digital) accepted them, no problems, and my royalties inched up a tad.

But something smelled fishy at Amazon when I looked at my royalty reports on my KDP dashboard.

The Zon had listed my new pricing, BUT they’d put their little slash through that price and were still selling a lot of my newly priced books at the old price. And, what was worse? One of my books was listed at less than half of my set price.

Now, if you’re aware of this and want to make some lemonade, you can let your readers know that for an unknown period of time, they can grab your book at a deep discount. But you have to notice it first.

I’d like to also point out that Amazon pays royalties at their list price, so the authors take the hit when they lower prices.

The easiest way to check your prices is to go to your public Amazon author page where they list all your books with prices. Saves checking 35 pages. Here’s mine.

(Note: Amazon likes to make readers think they’re getting a bargain, so they’ll often list the print price with that strikethough and show the ebook price, so you have to know the price for each of your formats.)

Another tip I’ve discovered. I had issues with my book descriptions refusing to include paragraph breaks. Editing them in Author Central is much easlier than dealing with Amazon, where they’re likely to add some new hoops to jump through. If that’s all you’re updating, definitely do it via Author Central.

What about you, TKZers? Any tips for authors—either as an author or a reader? Likes? Dislikes?


How can he solve crimes if he’s not allowed to investigate?

Gordon Hepler, Mapleton’s Chief of Police, has his hands full. A murder, followed by several assaults. Are they related to the expansion of the community center? Or could it be the upcoming election? Gordon and mayor wannabe Nelson Manning have never seen eye to eye. Gordon’s frustrations build as the crimes cover numerous jurisdictions, effectively tying his hands.
Available for preorder now.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Thoughts on Publishing in 2022

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So here we are on a toboggan hurtling down the snowy mountain called 2022. Seems like a good time to take a look at the current state of book publishing, the better to avoid the rocks, tree stumps, and cliffs scattered all over the slope.

What do we see?

The Forbidden City

Looming large, as always, is traditional publishing by the Big 5. Prophecies of their demise, which were legion in the early days of the indie boom, have not come to pass. Not even a global pandemic could take the trad biz out. Yes, there have been mergers and acquisitions, the paring down of staffs, and other moves that market-wide disruption demands. But as explained by Jane Friedman in The Hot Sheet (subscription required; quoted with permission):

In 2020, traditional publishing celebrated its best sales in a decade, and 2021 will come in at even higher levels, with 8 percent growth projected by NPD BookScan. HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray claimed the book “pie” has grown by about 15 percent, and thus the company has been aggressive in their acquisitions and release schedule. HarperCollins profits were up 42 percent by mid-year, while Penguin Random House saw its best profits in 19 years, up by a whopping 55 percent during the first half.

Undeniably it has been an extraordinary and historic period of sales in the industry, with no particular books responsible; publishers are seeing strong performance across their entire lists. (Keep in mind that, for traditional publishers, the print-to-digital sales mix remains about 75-25.) The latest report from the Association of American Publishers shows that consumer (trade) publisher revenues are up 14.1 percent through October 2021 versus last year.

Publishers Lunch, which has tracked dealmaking trends for more than 20 years, saw a surge in dealmaking in 2021. Volume for the first half of the year was about 20 percent higher than in 2020—remarkably in line with the increase in US print unit sales, which were up 18.4 percent during the first half of the year, according to BookScan. Major deals and six-figure deals remain strong.

Who would have predicted this? Perhaps your humble scribe, who opined back in 2013 that traditional publishing was like a boxer who just won’t go down.

Now let us consider this from the writer’s perspective. For while the industry is still humming, the tune may be less than melodious for fledgling fiction authors. Yes, deals are still being made, but with fewer “slots” for new writers the competition is fierce. Unless one is a celebrity (who is paired with a ghost or co-author), or has written what a pub board considers a “can’t miss” debut (they’re only right about this maybe 50% of the time) advances are not hefty. In many cases they aren’t even, strictly speaking, advances. As agent Kristin Nelson explains:

In the early 2000s, every contract I negotiated specified advance payments in halves: half on signing and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. An agent earns the commission at the same time a client is paid. Publishers are now citing “corporate mandates” that payments must be structured in four or five installments—and some of those payments aren’t coming in until after publication…which makes it no longer an “advance” … Not only does this structure impact an author’s financial well-being, it impacts an agent’s ability to earn a living. Imagine negotiating a contract today and knowing that a portion of your commission won’t be paid for two years.

As far as acquisitions, there is a “blockbuster mentality” in big publishing. Nice if your book is one of them and hits. If it doesn’t, your prospects for another contract with the same publisher, or another of the Bigs, dim considerably.

Over the course of the last thirty years I’ve seen a strikingly similar scenario happen over and over again. It goes like this:

  1. Big advance from a big publisher. A two-book contract! Huzzah! Everyone is celebrating, popping champagne, hosting the author at conference pub parties.
  2. Book #1 fails to live up to sales projections. Author starts getting night sweats. There is no further marketing push from the publisher.
  3. Book #1 is deemed a “failure.”
  4. Book #2, per the contract, comes out, but without robust support from the publisher or large orders from the bookstores. If the book is hardback, publisher may decide not to do a paperback print run. Instead, it “remainders” the hardcovers in the warehouse by selling them cheaply to wholesalers (and for which the author gets no royalty).
  5. Author is not offered another contract from the big publisher, nor from any of the other Bigs.

(A first-hand account of such a scenario can be found here.)

I must add that I do know some writers who have managed to keep long-term relations with a big publisher without being in the “mega” category. Such writers used to be called “midlist.” But that designation is rapidly disappearing. It’s more “feast or famine” now, and if you aren’t feasting in the Forbidden City, you will likely be shown the drawbridge.

Cast into the dark forest again, what is an author to do? Fortunately, there are two roads diverging in that wood—independent/small publishing and indie publishing.

Independent and Small Publishing

Many independent and small publishing concerns are doing a fine business, and more have been added over the last several years. (I note, however, that business failures happen regularly in this sector and can really mess up the author getting monies owed.) They fall into roughly two categories: those with a traditional model and those that are hybrid.

One of the biggest independents is Kensington, home of our own John Gilstrap. It operates traditionally and pays advances. Elaine Viets is with Severn House. Reavis writes for Poisoned Pen Press.

When you get down into smaller sizes, it’s most likely there is no advance, and contract terms vary wildly. Which means doing your due diligence—you can start by reading this article. You’ll likely be your own agent, so learn all you can about publishing contracts and get help before you sign anything. The Authors Guild has a contract review benefit. You can also fork over dough to a lawyer to review the contract, but make sure said lawyer knows the ins and outs of book publishing contracts and specializes in Intellectual Property Law. The general practitioner in the strip mall at the corner is not the one to consult.

I won’t say much about “vanity” publishing, which usually requires big fees along with faux guarantees like “Your book will be published everywhere on the internet! And it will be available to all bookstores, too!” (Yeah… available… thank you so much). Some even say they will make you a “bestselling author” which means playing algorithm footsie on Amazon so your ebook, selling thirty copies, makes it to the top of some obscure category. And if you want their ultra-terrific marketing package, all you have to do is pony up more dough…four figures, sometimes five.

Yeesh.

I will say, however, there is an exception to the fee-up-front model that may be right for an author of a particular sort. I counseled just such a one. He was referred to me by a family member. He is a recently retired lawyer who had written a novel and wanted advice on how to get it published.

We went back and forth with emails. I laid out the two paths—traditional and indie—and explained the formidable barriers to the former. But that’s what he wanted to go for. So I told him what to do to get his novel shipshape (beta readers, freelance editor) and showed him how to put together a proposal and begin the search for an agent.

After about eight months he wrote back saying he was ready to go indie. I told him what that entailed, the various tasks he’d have to perform. I also said he needed to think of it as a business. But he was not interested in running a business, he just wanted to get his novel published and made available.

So for such a person (i.e., one not interested in writing as a career, vocation, or serious hobby), there are companies that will take care of things like cover design, formatting and all the rest, for a reasonable fee. One of these is BookBaby. After due diligence, that’s what he chose.

Indie Publishing

As we all know, an ever-growing number of authors—several of whom you’ll find right here at TKZ—are successfully publishing on their own. Some have gone indie from the jump, while a multitude of former trad writers have transitioned over, attracted by benefits that include full creative control, generous royalty rates, and seeing their book published as soon as it’s finished instead of a year or 18 months down the line.

But to do this successfully you have to think like a business (a simple business plan is presented in my book How to Make a Living as a Writer), consistently produce quality work, and be patient. One decision you’ll need to make early is whether to “go wide” or “go exclusive.” The nice thing is your choice is not irrevocable. Being indie means you can try new things, experiment, and make better decisions as you grow.

So where are we, O writer? Recognizing that there are exceptions to every publishing generality, let me offer a few words of advice.

  • If you are an author who desires acclaim from established venues of literary acceptance and a chance to break out into the rarified air of mega A-List writers, traditional is your shot. Just know that the odds are steep—98% of books published traditionally sell fewer than 5,000 printed copies. It’s a gamble and it may take you years to get a chance at the table. Yet people still play 22 in roulette, and you are certainly free to try. Once your chips are gone, however, you will probably find it impossible to get staked again for another turn inside the Forbidden City.
  • A good, independent publisher is an alternative—so long as your monetary goals are modest. The key word is good. Do your research.
  • Big or small, fight for a fair reversion clause in your contract. By fair I mean tied to a minimum number of dollars (not “copies available”) in a royalty period. Shoot for a high three figures.
  • Also get a fair non-compete clause.
  • If you decide to go indie because you think it is a fast road to riches, think again. It will take several years to get a good income flow, and even then it may not be a raging river of green. Still, you own all rights to your hard work and you can’t be fired. If you love to write (and you should if you want to make a go of this) then even a modest side income is frosting on the cake.
  • Whatever your choice, make it your goal to get better every time you sit at the keyboard. Study the craft, write, get feedback, write, study, try things, get more feedback, write.
  • Find your productive sweet spot. Figure out how many words you can produce comfortably in a week. Whatever that number is, up it by 10% and make that your goal, breaking it down into daily production, six days a week. Take one day off each week for rest and recharging.
  • Have a regular creativity time. Be like a movie studio and have several projects “in development.”

That’s how I see the publishing biz in 2022. Let’s open up a conversation on all this. How do you see things? What decisions are you contemplating? What lessons have you learned over the past few years?

How to Build a Long-Term Writing Career

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m going to assume arguendo (every now and then I trot out my legalese, especially if it’s Latin, because it makes me sound so authoritative) that you want to be in the writing game for the long haul. Further assumption: you would like your fiction to create a river—or at least a stream—of income. You nod your head in agreement with blogmate Laura Benedict when she describes success as, “I’m still here. Readers still read my stories—often paying for them—and I still write them.”

There used to be only one way to go about this: get a contract from a publishing house and sell enough books so you get another contract.

Now, of course, there is the viable alternative called indie publishing.

Jane Friedman recently interviewed two literary agents on the topic of establishing a career as a traditionally-published author. Two takeaways:

1. Many writers crave a large advance for a first novel.

2. That may not be a good thing to crave:

Maybe that big-advance book doesn’t get as many pre-sales as the publisher wanted, or gets mediocre reviews, or underperforms in its first quarter. A publisher at that point might re-strategize, or they might cut their losses, and the author ends up never earning out that big advance. That can hurt in the long-term. When it comes time to sell the next book, a publisher may use those figures against them by offering a lower advance or passing entirely. Publishers want to see that an author will make them money.

Thus, a modest advance is not a bad thing:

Depending on the publisher’s budget, the house might want to keep the advance lower to give the author an opportunity to earn out and also apply some of those funds to marketing. The biggest advantage to a smaller advance is that it’s easier to earn out. If your first book/contract earns out, that gives you a much better chance at a second contract.

But what if you fall well short of earning out? The publishing world is littered with the bleached bones of careers that didn’t make enough green for the house and were cast outside the gates of the Forbidden City.

Now, of course, dem bones can get up and walk around (now hear the word of the Lord) via indie publishing. If these authors can get the rights back to their published books, so much the better. [Though publishers have wised up to the asset value of backlists. So get wise yourself, trad authors: huddle with your agent and negotiate a realistic reversion clause tied to a minimum of royalty income.]

My advice for authors seeking a long-term traditional career is as follows:

  • Don’t expect a big advance.
  • Don’t expect the publisher to give you a big marketing push.
  • Get to know the basics of a book contract, but also know that your leverage in negotiating a first-book deal is about the same as Shirley Temple on a seesaw with Oliver Hardy. But even a Shirley should stamp her feet in seeking fair reversion and non-compete clauses.
  • The key to your career is not your first novel. It’s your second. You’ve labored long, and in love, on that first manuscript. You’d better be ready with a second book that’s just as good. And get it in by the deadline! Publishers have to schedule releases long in advance. If you’re late with a book you’ll gum up he works.
  • Ditto books 3 and 4. If you’re making good money by book 5, you can call yourself “established.”
  • If your subsequent books don’t earn enough (or, as sometimes happens, your editor leaves and you are left an “orphan” inside the house) you could get dropped by the publisher. That sucks. It also sucks that dismal sales numbers follow you around as you knock on other doors inside the Forbidden City. If this is the case, you may need to consider indie resuscitation, thus:

My advice for authors seeking a long-term independent career:

Finally, for all writers looking to make this gig a career: be patient and resilient. Success rarely happens right out of the gate. It takes years to get established. Setbacks are more frequent than bestsellers. But the only true defeat happens when you stop writing.

So don’t stop.

Other advice is welcome in the comments.

No More Platform Anxiety, Please

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A recent post by agent Janet Kobobel Grant offers some welcome relief on the dicey subject of “platform.” I’ve been slapping that particular bongo for years. How are new fiction writers supposed to create a following before they have any books out? I even pulled up a comment I made on TZK ten years ago (before I was a contributor!), to wit:

By far and away the best “platform” for us is OTHER people yakking it up about our books. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool. You don’t get that by blogging, tweeting or shouting. You get it ONLY by writing books people talk about. That has to be job one.

The flip side is the best promoter in the world cannot overcome a book that fizzles with the reading public. It can get you a strong introduction, but from there the book takes over. If it does fizzle, the answer is not more promotion; the answer is a stronger book.

Yet many a publisher has pushed platform building, even for unpublished writers, leading to increased levels of scribal stress and sales of Pepto-Bismol.

A platform, as the book industry sees it, is whatever you do to engage and interact with a significant portion of the public. That includes social media, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and even good old public speaking.

All of those things take effort and cut into a writer’s creativity and productivity time. So does it make sense to spend that capital trying to create a platform at the expense of writing good books?

There is no shortcut to platform success, either. Sure, you can farm 50,000 Twitter followers, but how many of them are truly interested in you? Or you in them (shown by actual engagement)? That’s the key to social media. Thus, I was glad to read Janet’s comments:

The second group of editors I met with started off our conversation by saying they have come to realize it’s unrealistic to expect a newer novelist to have a large platform. Upon what foundation can a fiction writer build that platform? Especially as a debut novelist, you can only engage potential book-buyers so much in your writing and research endeavors before your attempted connections take on a bland sameness.

However, Janet continues, these fiction editors do want to see that a writer is “willing” to engage in platform building. Which means at least one social media footprint. The big takeaway is something I’ve advised for years:

These editors believe that choosing to focus on one aspect of social media is the best route to go. Rather than dabbling in several mediums but not really figuring out what works for you, dig into one medium and gather all your friends or followers in that one spot.

So which social media outpost is best for you? Read and reflect on Sue Coletta’s excellent post on the topic. Be sure to follow the links and also read the comments. You’ll make wiser social media choices if you do.

Janet Grant concludes:

I hope you’re taking a deep breath as you consider that some of the pressure to collect names and online connections has let up just a bit. None of these editors would say platform isn’t important. But each of them would say she—and the whole publishing team—is taking a more nuanced look at the planks of each writer’s platform.

By the way, if you want to plow right through the nuance, write a book that blows them all away. Then you can talk about platform all you want.

As I was prepping this post, an article entitled “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion by industry expert Jane Friedman appeared on the PW site. Jane writes, in part:

In a great scene from Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character says, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” If I could customize that for today’s authors, I’d say, “The more you know who you are as an author and what readership you seek, the less confused you’ll be about marketing.” And the less you’ll be influenced by the crowd.

It’s easy to feel anxious about your progress when you see your peers engaging in new forms of publishing or marketing and you feel pressured to join. But the more you’re focused on your own long-term outcomes and how to wisely use your time and resources, the better prepared you’ll be to consider or experiment with new tactics, adopting or discarding them as you see fit.

So how is your platform anxiety these days? Does it ever detract from your writing? What are you doing about it?