My crystal ball is telling me that not a lot in the publishing industry is going to change from 2017 to 2018. I think publishing was mesmerized by Washington politics in 2017 and were slow to make any forward progress of any sort. Not a lot of new ideas. No new imprints that take advantage of the power of digital publishing and promotion. No exploration of sales innovations that come along with a cheap digital distribution system. Nada.
Unfortunately, I feel that a lot of traditional publishers believe that the ebook revolution has been settled (?), print books rule, and they can slow down on innovation and concentrate on making the new initiatives that they put in place since 2010 work.
That makes me shake my head.
I cut my teeth in the Silicon Valley and I’ve got to admit: I love change. But I love the change going on in publishing the most because for once authors and creators are becoming empowered and that’s good for everyone. Sadly, any change I see on the horizon for publishing in 2018 is incremental and not necessarily positive.
Let’s dive in to specifics.
RETAIL HELL: DISTRIBUTION IS GETTING MORE DIFFICULT
A few weeks ago, Book World announced that it was closing its 45 brick and mortar stores. Barnes and Noble’s stock slid 13.8% to a 52-week low because their 9-week holiday sales (in an otherwise brisk holiday market) were down 6.4% and the company decreased its sales projections for 2018. It’s also closing big stores and going smaller. Juxtapose this against Amazon’s exponential rise in sales for the same holiday period and you can see where this trend is heading in 2018. If I made a bold prediction that B&N would slide into bankruptcy in 2018, many industry pundits would agree with me. The only spark of hope for getting your physical books placed in bookstores will occur at the indie bookstore level where wise handselling, community space, and personal interactions draw in loyal customers. As retail brick and mortar stores across all industries face major challenges from online shopping, I can only see this trend deepening in 2018. Chain bookstores will continue to contract and indie bookstores will hold their ground or grow a tiny amount in the coming year.
LISTEN UP: AUDIOBOOKS ARE HUGELY POPULAR
Just as eBooks in 2008-2013 kept traditional publishing afloat, accounting for most of the profitability of publishers small and large, audiobook profitability has hit the stratosphere. This is great for authors who have always wanted their publisher to create audiobooks of their work. But here’s what’s happening behind the scenes. There are two types of rights that an author can license to a publisher: primary and secondary (usually called subsidiary). It started out that print rights were primary and everything else was negotiable by an author or agent. Then in 2010, ebooks slid over to primary rights, meaning a deal was non-negotiable if the publisher could not license at least ebook and print rights. In the latter half of 2017, publishers began classifying audiobook rights as primary rights. It was a subtle transformation. It was not heralded. It began one Big Five publisher at a time. But by the end of 2017, all Big Five publishers demanded audiobook rights be part of the deal. Many medium and small publishers jumped on that bandwagon too.
Now, Audible, the largest distributor of audiobooks and an audiobook producer itself, is a division of Amazon. Audible was not about to take this shift lying down. They started offering mega deals to their biggest authors (genre fiction authors made out like bandits) to pre-emptively license audio rights to Audible. I personally sold a $100,000 and $230,000 deal for two of my client Brian D. Anderson’s fantasy trilogies last year. My usual audiobook deals were south of $25,000. So, you can see the appeal. Brian is a hybrid author and indie-publishes most of his fantasy novels. But this way, he knew he could take the time to craft amazing stories because the true purpose of an advance, to give the author enough money so he or she could concentrate on writing, not working another job to eat and keep a roof over his or her head, was being met by Audible’s advance.
I expect this gold rush of audiobook fame and fortune to continue to grow mightily in 2018 as more and more readers/listeners enjoy listening to audiobooks during commute time, workout time, relaxation time, etc. And I expect the tug of war between traditional publishers (many of whom have in-house recording studios now) and audiobook producers to escalate dramatically.
MASS MARKET MORASS: TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING STAGNATES
As I mentioned in my lead-in, I am perplexed and disappointed at the stagnation I experience daily in traditional publishing. The average response time to my manuscript submissions among editors last year was NINE MONTHS! The decades prior to last year, the average response time was 2 months, so I’m hoping this was a temporary reaction to the horror of what is playing out in our political jungle, but I can’t count on it. If this is becoming the new norm, publishers asking for more rights, paying smaller advances, taking forever to make a decision on buying a manuscript, and delivering less marketing and promotion then expecting authors/agents to pick up the slack, I’m not sure how I’m going to keep convincing my hybrid authors to stay the course with traditional publishers when they are making more money self-publishing. Traditional publishing needs to keep pushing innovation instead of stifling it. They need to support debut authors further than their first series if it is not a blockbuster. They need to explore the ebook format for variations in length, audience, age group, extensions, and other media. Why can’t we have a version of the ebook that is the same as the print book, but also a kid’s version, an easy reader version, an author’s cut (similar to a director’s cut on a DVD), a version filled with bonus extras. The possibilities are endless. But right now, we’re stuck on ebook v.1: ebook=print book.
PROBLEMS IN PARADISE: INDIE PUBLISHING IS GETTING TOUGHER
Is this the year that Amazon changes the 70/30 ratio of author royalties to Amazon royalties? Earlier in January a bunch of pundits reported that a new choice of 50% royalties popped up on some Kindle author dashboards. Many are speculating that soon Amazon will be only offering their 70% royalty rate if a book is exclusive to Amazon via KDP Select. If you want to reach non-Kindle readers, you’d only get a 50% royalty rate. If this is true, I’ve been waiting for this shoe to drop for years. And indie authors should not be surprised. Amazon is a business, not a friend. Jeff Bezos just became the richest man in the world. He didn’t do that by being nice. So, indie publishing is getting tougher.
Another huge boulder in the indie publishing path is the way some unscrupulous authors are gaming the system in promoting and selling their books. Activities such as review purchasing, bonus-stuffing, title-keyword-stuffing, click here inducements and click farming are steering unsuspecting buyers to poorly-written books (sometimes just collections of words) because of a perceived bargain. Kindle Unlimited (Amazon’s book subscription service) pays by the page read, not the book bought, so by stuffing other books into the back of a book to make it more desirable or having the author click a link to the back of the book for an incentive, thus counting all the skipped pages as if they were read, these predators get a bigger piece of the Kindle Unlimited pie each month and authors who are playing by the intended rules get less.
As with any maturing market, indie publishing is going through growing pains. And indie authors need to be aware of this.
A NEW HOPE: INDIE PUBLISHING CONTINUES TO INNOVATE
But there is good in indie publishing as well, especially in innovative marketing techniques that readers are responding to. This includes Kindle Countdown deals, BookBub CPM ads, perma-free books, Book Funnel, Facebook carousel ads, iBook “First Free in a Series” promos, Kobo promos, Book Barbarian deals, cross promotions among authors, and more to come, I’m sure. Where traditional publishers are content with how the revolution has stalled (in their eyes), indie publishers and authors continue to create new ways to thrive.
So, more of the same from traditional publishing, some hurdles to overcome for indie publishers, audiobooks soaring, and bookstores contracting in 2018. What do you see in your crystal balls for the coming year?