In case you don’t know it, the literary world is like a ship trying to sail through the fog. The fog is so thick, it’s hard to know where we are, much less where we are going.
The fog that we face is due to a lack of information. In the publishing world, a lot of corporations release data on book sales. We hear from the publishers, from companies like Nielsen’s Book Scan, from stores and from book distributors.
But not all sellers disclose data. Amazon doesn’t report how many copies of e-books they sell or how much they pay to authors. We have to rely on surveys of authors in order to make our guesses.
Some reports from small publishers suggest that e-book sales are going down, but others show that Indie authors are abandoning publishers altogether and keeping all their profits to themselves. We don’t know how much the Indies are making.
After reading hundreds of articles over the years and analyzing the data, here is my belief about where we are in the world of genre fiction (not nonfiction or literary fiction): while traditional book sales have been holding and even growing in nonfiction markets, the number of sales in genre fiction have been trending down for the past decade. It would take a lot of work to explain why this is true, but I’ll leave it at that.
Meanwhile, we’re getting sunny industry reports each year from publishers who seem to be desperately crying, “Remain calm, folks! The ship is not sinking! The ship is NOT sinking!!!!”
They tout evidence. Overall, book sales are increasing, and in some genres they seem to be growing. For example, last year sales of adult coloring books were a godsend! But not in science fiction. Not romance. Not young adult. Not middle grade. Not horror. The publishers’ assurances sound to me like a case of “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Meanwhile, I know Indie authors who make good six-figure incomes selling e-books.
Indeed, a survey of authors last year suggests that 55% of all money paid to authors right now is coming from Indie book sales (which include print-on-demand, e-books, and audiobooks). So, that’s where I think we are. The Indies seem to account for the bulk of genre fiction sales.
We’re in the fog. We know that there is an iceberg ahead, and we’re heading straight for it.
The iceberg of course is Covid19. For the past two months, bookstores around the globe have been closed! The largest printers in America have closed because they can’t get paper from China. Even if they could print, he book distributors are closed, and the stores are closed.
Forget about the upcoming bookfairs and licensing fairs, where huge orders are brokered.
Mom-and-pop stores that in many cases work on a tight margin may never reopen. Barnes & Noble, Americas largest bookstore chain, has been flirting with bankruptcy for two years. What do you think will happen to them?
The bookstores that have been closed are going to have to ship back huge numbers of books (which the publishers will then destroy, at a terrible loss). It will take months for the bookstores to recoup—if they can. And those who reopen are facing new challenges. Foot traffic in stores around the globe will be down due to new social-distancing policies and the re-emergence of outbreaks in various hotspots.
What happens when the publishers can’t pay authors?
Kris Rusch does a great job of summarizing the problem and suggesting some steps for traditiouanl authors to protect themselves. https://kriswrites.com/2020/04/22/business-musings-the-trainwreck/
The crummy part is that if you had a new book come out in the past three months, for reasons beyond your control, your career may be shot. If Nielsen’s Book Scan reports that you made only 1000 sales when you should have made 100,000, the stores’ algorithms will cancel orders for your next book. So many careers will be permanently damaged.
Aside from these problems, we may see a PERMANENT shift in reading habits away from paper novels to e-books.
With an e-book, you don’t have to go to crowded stores and take risk. With an e-book you don’t have to worry about titles being out of stock. You can enlarge your print, as needed. Your e-book smells so nice, and the books are cheaper.
But those e-book sales won’t go to traditional publishers. Why? Because they charge too much for their e-books. They inflate their prices in an effort to avoid “cannibalizing” sales of their hardcovers. Readers won’t pay $17 for an e-book when they can get one of similar quality for $5.
Here is more of what I suspect the future holds:
- As bookstores go out of business due to Covid-related closures and slower traffic, the major publishers will see an overall decrease in sales. Imagine if 20% of your outlets close, how that will affect your bottom line. This decrease will run from March through the end of this calendar year, and most likely into the middle of next year.
- Expect October to be terrible. Sales typically tank in October in America on election years.
- Among the publishers, expect bankruptcies, acquisitions, and mergers.
- Publishers will offer lower advances, citing the pandemic, will offer poorer-quality books, less promotion, and will make demands for deeper rights grabs on author manuscripts. Many authors will resort to indie publishing instead.
- As paper book sales drop, e-books will pick up the slack. Indie authors in genre fiction may rise from 55% of sales last year to 75% of all sales this year.
- Audiobook sales should rebound as listeners get back on the commute schedule and back to the gym, though with higher unemployment over the next few months, it might not return to normal levels soon.
No one can be sure what the future holds, but as this ship sails forward through the fog, just remember where you are in relation to the lifeboats.
Most of all, remember: Any time that there is a shakeup like this, it presents new opportunities along with new challenges. Is traditional publishing in trouble? Yes. Will there be changes and restructuring, yes. Is Indie publishing looking more viable? Yes.
Because of this, with my Apex authors, I’ll be putting more focus on Indie publishing for the foreseeable future.This coming week, I’ll be interviewing Jeff Wheeler, Wall Street Journal bestselling author and founder of Deep Magic: the E-zine of Clean Fantasy and Science Fiction. He started as an Indie before he began publishing with 47 North.
I’ll also be interviewing Brian Meeks, who is not only a delightful author but a guru at advertising Indie books, and I’ll be interviewing bestselling fantasy author Aleron Kong, who also started as an Indie but went on to become an international bestseller after creating his own genre.
For those interested in joining Apex, email the word Apex to Apexwriter@xmission.com.
Also, I have my Super Writers Bundle up for $139. Get all of the audited versions of my online workshops, plus my books on writing and my writing seminars all in one package!
Contest: Here’s a challenge for you. Write a 100-word pitch for a novel and win $500. You can enter here: https://www.queryletter.com/contest Who knows, maybe it will inspire you to write a great book, and you can make millions of dollars!