It’s July, so I thought it might be time for an update on what’s happening in the publishing world–because the well-informed writer is better positioned to succeed. If you only want to hear the good news…skip to the bottom.
Barnes & Noble is Retreating
Ok, this part probably isn’t a surprise, but it must be said. We only have one remaining national bookstore chain, and it does not appear to be in sound financial shape. Their sales are down 6.4% from the previous year, their stock price has dropped 4%, they are closing stores and eliminating employee positions. They keep saying they’re “pivoting” back to books, but that’s not what I see in the stores. Part of their problem is the movement away from brick and mortar toward online shopping, but mostly it reflects the new American reality: Amazon is the number one retailer in America.
No analysts are predicting B&N will be around long, and some have stated they would not be surprised if the corporation folded before the end of the year. What happens then? Maybe independent bookstores will rise from the dead, but it seems more likely that people will continue doing what they’re doing now–shopping online. The only new bookstore chain that shows financial strength is Amazon’s new brick-and-mortar chain–there are 16 of them now. They use a different business model that people seem to be responding to positively. Lots of books, low prices, easy shopping–you don’t even have to stop at the checkout counter.
Amazon is Retreating…in Some Indie-Friendly Categories
Kindle Scout, the Amazon crowdsourcing program enjoyed by many (including me) has stopped taking submissions, instead steering people to KDP (self-publishing). The reason given was the desire to focus on Amazon Publishing (Amazon’s traditional pub unit) and its many imprints. They also shuttered Kindle Worlds, the fan fiction program, even after it launched more than 100 shared worlds over five years. They closed Amazon Studios–an open call for scripts–and CreateSpace no longer offers editorial services, though it is still happy to print your book for you.
Why? These programs required Amazon to be involved with reviewing submissions and generally led to relatively low-priced genre fiction ebooks. By contrast, Amazon Publishing, which is showing strong sales, acquires in the traditional way (you need an agent to submit) and their books sell at a higher price. So I could be wrong, but my experience with corporations suggests that they are closing programs that make less money and beefing up programs that make more. Amazon Publishing’s many imprints sell well, and there’s an obvious advantage to being connected with the largest retailer in America–but to get there, you’ll need an agent.
Digital Subscription Services Are Not Retreating
There are two subscription services sharing the market: Kindle Unlimited (which despite the name, is extremely limited), which primarily covers Amazon Publishing and self-pubbed titles, and Scribd, which peddles the Big Five’s titles. Scribd had many startup problems and suffers from a spotty list, but it rebounded this year with an $8.99 monthly subscription package and now has about 700,000 subscribers. KU costs a buck more but offers far more titles.
One of Scribd’s problems is that it is mostly backlist–you can rarely obtain the latest and greatest from NYC, which would seem to be one of the main reasons for subscribing to a Big Five program. Scribd’s list also has virtually unknown titles from the Big Five’s digital-only and even vanity lines. There are a few titles only subscribers can obtain–but I think we can safely assume that doesn’t include the latest from Anne Tyler or James Patterson.
I don’t know whether these programs will survive or even if I want them to. KU famously compensates self-pubbed authors on a bizarre per-page-read system that pays far less than a normal sale. (Traditionally published authors are paid in a more traditional way.) Many authors have taken their books out of the program, thinking that it gives readers a way to read their work without fairly compensating them. Others think it’s a great way to find new readers. Others liken it to the subscription libraries popular in the nineteenth century. I don’t know. But I don’t think I’d mind if the next Amazon closing is KU.
Traditional Publishing Claims it is Advancing
According to AAP stats, traditional publishing sales advanced 2-3% over the past year. They also say overall sales are about 80% print, 20% ebooks. That may be so, but remember that Big Five ebook prices are much higher, sometimes more expensive than the paperback, which suggests the publishers are deliberately trying to suppress ebook sales. Also recall that these numbers include many regional and smaller presses that don’t publish ebooks. All sources agree, however, that the growth is driven by nonfiction, backlist, and childrens books. Frontlist fiction went down by 5%.
I’d take all those articles about “Print is back!” with a grain of salt. Print never left, but there are a whole lot of people reading ebooks on their tablets and phones, and those high prices may alienate those readers. Although I have no statistics to back it up, I think people are still reading lots of fiction–but they’re buying it online. Some sources say genre fiction sales are now about 70-75% ebook.
You Will Have to Market Your Book
Another clear trend: traditional publishing contracts that require authors to actively engage in marketing. I just reviewed one for a friend. It requires an author webpage and frequent engagement in social media. Agents report that editors at Big Five houses are now requesting a list of “comps”–that is, comparable titles that have succeeded–with the manuscript submission. In other words, the marketing discussion that at one time might’ve come later now occurs at the beginning of the submission process. Donald Maass, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency (who is appearing at our writers conference) said, “I know publishers are thinking ahead to the marketing of fiction, so it’s natural for ideas of comp titles, next work, and so on to pass up the line.” He says his agency works with its clients to prepare this information. He will talk about this more at the conference.