Wow. 2016 sucked. In so many ways. I was never happier to kick a year to the curb than 2016. From David Bowie in January to Carrie Fisher in December, it seemed that each week brought a fresh tragedy to our lives. And all the while the nastiest election ever roared in the background. At times I just wanted to hide my head in a good book. Thank goodness I’m in the publishing industry!
But it’s a new year now and things have to be better. Right?
However, before I move on to my 2017 predictions, let’s see how I did with my 2016 predictions last year.
I said that ebook sales are not stagnating, and that is definitely true. What you hear are erroneous statistics from an industry that has not kept up with the growth of non-ISBN self-published ebooks, and did not allow for the short-lived fad of adult coloring books, which can only exist in print in their numbers. I’ll talk more about this in regards to 2017 because this meme is not going away.
I said that physical bookstores will continue to decline and I believe I was wrong on this one. I see a renaissance in indie bookstores as they expand and localize their offerings.
I predicted that Kindle Unlimited will become a larger part of self-published authors’ revenue and this seemed to play out, albeit in a minor way.
I thought that ebook lending in libraries would increase and according to an informal survey of librarians I know, this is a big growth area for libraries.
I said that more midlist authors would self-publish and alas this is true. Most have been pushed out of the traditional publishing model, unless they are writing work for hire projects (more on that in 2017 predictions). But they are still creating wonderful books for their fan base and earning more money by self-publishing.
I felt that the Hollywood Blockbuster model would continue in traditional publishing and it did. I predicted that Apple’s iBookstore might make a run for market share against Amazon and it didn’t. I imagined that geographic boundaries for translated ebooks would disappear and that has not happened. Yet. I also felt that “lost” novels would resurface, and some did. I predicted that a breakout novel would be created specifically for the mobile environment and there was a modest success story called The Creature’s Cookbook, on mobile publisher Tapas Media’s app that quickly became their best selling franchise (it’s from one of my clients, so I feel obligated to mention that). So I’ll give myself a win on that one.
The last three predictions, that adult coloring books would expand, that traditional ebook royalties would escalate, and that indie authors would take market share from traditional authors, all proved true to some degree. Adult coloring books rose higher in the beginning of 2016, then tanked towards the end of the year. Ebook royalties saw some escalation tied to sales figures (like a rise to 30% after 10,000 ebooks were sold and such). And indie authors continued to rise marginally over traditional author sales, but it had slowed way down from the heyday in 2009-2014.
So seven predictions panned out, three did not, and three were kind of maybes. In my book, that’s pretty good.
Now on to my thoughts for the coming year!
- DIVERSITY WILL BE HUGE. The trend towards publishing books by ethnically diverse, LGBTQ+, physically challenged, and “other” voices will accelerate in 2017. Especially with the social media backlash against our new president’s conservative viewpoints, you will see the publishing industry double down on their selection of books by and about people of color, the LGBTQ community, and others whose voices and stories we have not heard much from the straight white publishing world. Sure, there will still be plenty of books by straight white authors. But the books causing most of the conversation in publishing will be by “other voices.”
- AUDIOBOOKS WILL RISE DRAMATICALLY. Oh, my goodness. Audiobook growth is out of this world. We’re talking nearly 30% increase in digital downloadable audiobooks (mp3s) in 2016, which is really where most of the growth is occurring as physical CD media sales plummet. A lot of this is attributable to the rise of smart phones and the ease of listening to audiobooks as you commute, exercise, or just have some downtime. Add to that the fact that Audible has seen its monthly subscription membership grow at a rate of 40% each year for the past three years and you can easily see that audiobook sales are skyrocketing. I don’t see any decrease in this growth for 2017. In fact, I see it accelerating as pricing becomes even more desirable.
- PRINT VERSUS EBOOKS? THEY WILL BOTH GROW! I was really hoping that we’d be moving beyond the “us versus them” mentality of this print versus ebooks debate by now, but I think it will continue into 2017 with a slight decline in vehemence. By this I mean more and more pundits will be saying that both print and ebook versions of a book are growing. The vitriol is silly at this point. An author can make money by selling either or both versions of a book. And as I mentioned earlier in this post, the companies like Bowker and Nielsen do not do a good job accurately measuring the digital portion of our industry. Look to Author Earnings and Data Guy for a more full-fleshed analysis of digital book growth in both traditional and self-publishing. My agency specializes in hybrid authors, authors who have some works traditionally published and some self-published or with small e-book first presses, so we tend to see more of the new ways authors are telling their stories. And this is why I can tell you that self-publishers are getting more knowledgeable about the business aspects of publishing and the traditional publishers are getting cagier about digital opportunities. Both are growing as where, when and how you “read” become mobile, interactive, expansive, and desirable over other forms of entertainment and education.
NOTE: Adult coloring books as a fad have petered out, finally. Last Christmas (2015) all of the top ten bestselling titles were adult coloring books. This year at Christmas (2016) only two bestsellers were adult coloring books, and those were at the number 8 and 10 positions. Adult coloring books were a big part of the print resurgence everyone in publishing was talking about in late 2015, early 2016.
- INDIE BOOKSTORES WILL THRIVE AS THEY EVOLVE. Well, perhaps thrive is the wrong verb. In 2017 small bookstores will continue to live on the bleeding edge of profitability, but we’ll see a lot of innovation at the retail level with localization, personalization, subscription models, author events, group events, community building, product line expansion and just plain fun at the bookstore. In San Francisco, where Fuse Literary is headquartered, a law was just passed where non-food retail businesses can provide alcoholic beverages to their customers. Bingo! Browsing through bookstores can now become an even more enjoyable experience. Casinos have long understood that the more you enjoy your experience, the more money you spend. So how about buying a Moleskin journal to go with that new thriller or romance novel. Heck, buy all three. As hand-selling recommendations from your trusted bookseller become more and more important to readers, and the shopping experience transforms into bliss, watch for a renaissance in local bookstores across the nation.
- ADULT FICTION WILL MOVE TO BECOME A MAINLY DIGITAL MARKET. Okay, this is a bold prediction, but think about it. How many hardcover first editions did you plunk down $35 or $40 for in 2016? I’ll go first. As a reader. One. And I regret that I did not buy the ebook version for $15.99 instead. Most adult fiction I read is genre fiction and it is like candy. I love the storytelling, the writing, the action and the characters. Oh, my. But I love the stories just as much as ebooks as hardcovers. And my pocketbook loves the financial savings of an ebook over a hardcover all day long. Plus, I can take my Kindle with me anywhere in my purse and read whatever whenever I like, where the portability of a hardcover is not so great. So I’m going to predict that in 2017 we’ll see the rapid decline of adult fiction hardcovers except among the perennial bestsellers. This decline will be replaced many times over by the expansion of adult fiction ebooks. In both quantity of books and in relation to print sales. And adult fiction will become mainly a digital market.
- IP FROM PUBLISHERS WILL INCREASE. IP, or intellectual property in this context, are the titles that are conceived and published by traditional publishers based on ideas by their staff. The only difference is that they are written as “work for hire” projects by contracted authors who may or may not see their names on the cover. I have seen a marked increase in these types of opportunities for authors over the past year and I expect that to increase in 2017. Authors usually get a modest advance, and sometimes, but not always, they also get a modest royalty rate (1-3%). IP are usually series titles that are conceived by editors and publishers based on what book buyers are telling them are selling well. If John Green-type contemporary realistic books are trending down in the YA category, and supernatural witch-based modern fantasy is trending up sharply, HarperCollins may come up with a “bible” of plot, character sketches, setting, etc. and ask a few select authors to provide a chapter, effectively competing to see which one will be allowed to write the story (or in some cases the series) in a compressed timeframe. This is like the old Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books that were written by a parade of authors under the pseudonyms Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon respectively. IP gives a debut author a leg up into traditional publishing. And for a mid-list author it may give you a way back in if the book or series is successful.
- MEDIUM-SIZED PUBLISHERS WILL DISAPPEAR. This trend is alarming in its pace, but predictable given the changes in publishing. Mid-sized publishers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a profit, meaning only large conglomerates and small publishers with a razor-sharp focus will eventually remain viable. So be careful when offered a contract from a medium-sized publisher. You might want to make sure that the bankruptcy clause reversion of rights process is spelled out specifically and the length of the contract is for a certain number of years instead of the term of copyright (70 years after the author’s death). Medium-sized publishers are increasingly having a tough go because they lack the cost-efficiency of the large conglomerate as well as the market focus and penetration of the tiny publisher. I predict this trend is going to accelerate massively in 2017.
- AMAZON WILL CONTINUE TO DOMINATE AND GROW THEIR MARKET SHARE IN PUBLISHING. I guess this one is not too much of a prediction. It’s become a fact. No other publisher or distributor is stepping up to challenge Amazon and they are running away with the market. But unlike other historical dominant players in a particular industry, Amazon treats itself like a tech start up in some respects and keeps innovating at a phenomenal pace, so I do not believe they will topple from their own weight. It has been estimated that Amazon already sells 70% of the ebooks and 50% of the print books in the U.S. I expect those numbers to rise. Also, with Amazon’s new brick and mortar stores, I expect their own imprints to do a better job of selling print books.
- CHINESE INFLUENCE. This is just starting to pick up steam. It began with movies and television shows over the past few years. When you see those opening movie credits, the producers (aka the financiers) are more frequently Chinese corporations and partnerships. I just learned over the holidays that a Chinese company owns the AMC movie theater chain. My prediction is that as Chinese companies and entrepreneurs see huge profitability in the American entertainment industry, it is only a matter of time until Chinese publishing begins to take a more active role in American book publishing. Four out of the Big Five publishers are multi-national conglomerates with headquarters in other countries (Bertelsmann in Germany and Pearson in the UK own Penguin Random House, NewsCorp in Australia owns HarperCollins, Hachette Livre in France owns Hachette USA, and Holtzbrink in Germany owns Macmillan. Only Simon & Schuster, owned by CBS, is a US-owned company.) Watch for Chinese involvement either directly, as in creating a Big Six publisher, or more likely indirectly, by financing imprints within Big Five publishers. This could be a major opportunity if you have content that Chinese audiences crave (and that the government approves of.)
- EXPORT SALES ARE BECOMING MORE IMPORTANT TO US PUBLISHERS. This may be a bit more esoteric for some of you, but it is very important to agents. When a publisher asks for World Rights to your book, it used to mean that their rights department would attempt to interest foreign publishers in translating your book into their native languages. For English speaking countries such as the UK and Australia, it meant making deals with publishers in those countries as well. But more often now US publishers are using the Export subsidiary right to publish the US version in English-speaking foreign countries. A digital file is transmitted to a printer in London or Sydney, or even a foreign country that sells English-language books, and they print/distribute the book from there. Export sales are usually at half the royalty you’d be getting from a foreign publisher so be aware of this trend.
And that’s it for 2017. Publishing is healthy. The chaos of the revolution is slowing down, but still expanding in many directions at once, so keep an eye out for opportunities you could benefit from (especially storytelling in multiple media, which I am especially interested in). Happy New Year.
Laurie McLean, Partner
Laurie McLean spent 20 years as the CEO of a PR agency and 8 years as an agent before co-founding Fuse Literary in March 2013 with her partner Gordon Warnock. Fuse now has 8 agents in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Vancouver and Sacramento. Laurie specializes in adult genre fiction plus middle-grade and young adult children’s books, but is currently closed to new submissions. Find out more at FuseLiterary.com, subscribe to the newsletter, read the blog, and follow the agency on Twitter @FuseLiterary and Laurie @AgentSavant.