The State of Publishing–2017

THE STATE OF PUBLISHING–2017

Publishing has probably never been more confusing, in part because people hold onto long-standing prejudices and stereotypes rather than looking at the facts. Well, that’s not the Red Sneaker way. I want you to have the most satisfying and successful writing career possible, and that means keeping one eye on your work and the other eye on the world. Some long-held beliefs are simply no longer true. When you prepare to make critical career decisions, what to write, where to send it, you need facts. Accurate information can help answer a lot of your questions. For instance:

Should I seek a big New York publisher, or a small press, or self-publish?

First let me say, as I have said before, that you must do what will make you happy, what will make you feel successful. That said, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent Author Earnings report, the Big Five New York publishers’ market share is declining and will likely continue to do so in the years to come. By contrast, independent presses, self-publishers, and Amazon imprints (more on those later) comprise over 50% of all book sales. Old stereotypes such as “the best books get picked up by New York” or “bookstore books are superior” are simply no longer true. Given the small market share they have, bookstore sales have become the tail wagging the dog. Most people buying online don’t care who published a book and don’t care whether it’s in bookstores. They just want a good read.

Here’s what Jane Friedman wrote in her blog: “I think it will be a lackluster and perhaps soul-searching year for traditional publishers. The “print is back” fanfare will diminish, with Barnes & Noble continuing to remain flat or decline, and Amazon further gaining market share across formats….Without smarter ebook pricing, traditional publishers will continue to see flat or declining sales in that format.”

There are advantages to having the backing of a New York publisher–and disadvantages too, particularly in the royalty department. What is clear is that it is not the only way to go. Figure out what will be best for you and your work.

Do I need an eBook edition? Do I need a print edition?

I like print books too, particularly hardcovers. I’m old-fashioned and I just get more out of that reading experience. But since our goal is to be successful, not just to please ourselves, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent DBW White Paper, in 2016, over 70% of all adult fiction sold in the eBook format. That is expected to grow, not diminish, in the years to come. eBook reader sales also continue to grow, and more readers means more digital sales. So no, if you’re writing adult fiction and you’re hoping to reach readers, you can’t skip the ebook. You might be okay without a print edition (though it’s not hard to set that up at CreateSpace, whether you think it will be massively profitable or not).

If you’re writing for children or writing nonfiction, your situation may be somewhat different–but I still wouldn’t skip the eBook.

Is Amazon a major publisher?

A strong argument could be made that Amazon is THE major publisher in the US. It now has thirteen different imprints, covering virtually every imaginable genre, and the Kindle Scout program opens the door to anyone who can mount a successful campaign. In 2016, 7 out of every 10 books on the Kindle bestseller list were published by Amazon. Overall, Amazon’s market share grew last year by 4%. No other publisher even comes close.

This just makes common sense. Like every other publisher in America, Amazon favors the product in which it has a vested interest, both in its promotions and its positioning. If you can make Kindle Scout “crowdsourcing” work for you, do it. If not, tie your book to a similar successful Amazon-imprint title in your marketing, so in time it will appear on that book’s page as a “People Who Bought This Also Bought” title.

With all the books out there today, how do I draw readers to mine?

Two answers here, both obvious:
1) Write it well, and
2) Market.

This may seem simplistic, but those are in fact the correct answers. As the Amazon store is increasingly filled with eBooks, the books that attract the most attention will be the ones that please readers (because they are written well) and the ones that have authors willing to spend time and occasionally money on marketing.

Once upon a time, every successful writer wanted a personal assistant. Today, the smart ones hire a book marketer. Using email, search engine optimization, and social media is more effective than any previous book marketing ever was–but it does require time and knowhow. Most writers would rather be writing. But I suspect that in the long run, this is what will separate those who sell well from those who don’t. So I’m going to devote the next several entries in my blog to marketing. Get the app and check it out. And follow what my wife Lara is doing with her new novel, The Wantland Files. She’s mapped out a six-month marketing plan that’s a virtual textbook on modern-day marketing, starting with the online launch party on January 21. Click here to see how it’s done.

(A longer version of this post appears in the most recent edition of the Red Sneaker Newsletter email. If you’re not on the distribution list, sign up here.)

Use Preorders to Crack the Bestseller Lists

Traditional publishers have long known the advantages of taking preorders. Did you realize that in most cases, the New York Times bestseller list number are based upon preorders rather than actual sales? True. It’s based on how many copies go into the store, which can sometimes be wildly different from the number that are purchased in the store, which has led many to question the validity of the list.

Up till now, taking preorders has not been an option for independent publishers, but that has changed. Amazon’s KDP platform for self-publishing eBooks now permits you to take orders for a book before the launch date. The advantage? When that launch date finally arrives, you’ll get credit for not only that day’s sales but all the preorders as well, and that extra boost can propel you to the top of the list (especially if you have carefully and strategically chosen the list when you categorized your book). Although iBooks and Kobo have done this for a while, this is a recent policy change for Amazon.

Does it work? Last year, almost two-thirds of the top 200 bestsellers distributed by Smashwords took preorders (though overall, only one book in eight at Smashwords took preorders). It would appear preorders get you on bestsellers lists.

This won’t happen by accident. You’ll have to work Facebook and other social media to encourage people to preorder. Presumably you’ve posted a lot about the book in advance, building interest and anticipation, before you actually offer it as a preorder. But once the book is available, every post about it should contain a link to the preorder site.

If you really want to spur preorders, the obvious play is to offer a lower price. 50% off for preorders, but the price jumps on release day.

Don’t start taking preorders until the book is a done deal, finished, uploaded, perfect and ready to roll. A book not ready on the release date will not only not get you on the bestseller list, it will be a personal embarrassment and a business disaster.

Get your superfans, your near and dear, to post positive reviews as soon as possible, preferably on the release date or, where possible, earlier. That can only help push you up the list.

Update the back matter in your previous eBooks to tell readers about the new book with a hyperlink to the preorder site. You could even lower prices or pulse prices to get more people reading the older books–and seeing the promotion for the new one.

And then? Plan an agressive marketing campaign that covers the entire week of the release. How? That will be the topic of next week’s blog.

Facebook is Your Friend

I know it isn’t what you want to hear, but I won’t lie to you: Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, you will have to promote your book, and most of that promotion will be done on social media.

I’m used to seeing crushed faces when I announce this at my writing retreats. Hey, look at it this way–It’s way better than traveling around the country taking 5 am flights to morning shows in Nowheresville, signing books at Waldenbooks when no one is there, etc. Social media is relatively quick and painless and free. Just don’t let it replace your writing time.

I also get wide-eyed expressions when I run through the gamut of social media options: Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Google Circles, etc. But the truth is, you don’t have to do all of them. Choose your battles. Here’s your guideline:

Facebook is king.

See the chart at the top of the page? Note the age group (though it would be no different in the 18-35 class). Facebook annihilates the competition. It is the best for meaningfully engaging an audience in a way that might lead to readers. Facebook has more people spending more time than any other platform. And it isn’t just kids. It’s the primary book-buying demographic.

Here are some rules for useful Facebooking:

  1. Start with your “Friends” account. Start a Fan page when that hits the 5000 limit. (People want to be your friend, not your fan.) On average, Americans have about 300 real social contacts. So the other 4700 will be fans masquerading at friends. Let them. I love my readers and I bet you will too.
  2. Switch the default setting to “Public” so everyone can see everything you post. Why not?
  3. Use video. Facebook now delivers more videos than YouTube. Take advantage. People love to see your smiling face. As long as it’s saying something of interest.
  4. Don’t talk about your books all the time. The hard-sell gets old. Do it maybe once a week. The rest of the time, chat. Engage in subjects of interest to others. Show your friend/fans what you’re really like. You can join up to 6000 fan groups. Is there any reason not to?
  5. Make Facebook your hub. Use Hootsuite or similar programs to post to Facebook, but send copies everywhere else, so you can effortlessly focus on Facebook but engage the other media.

Hootsuite: www.hootsuite.com

Your Name in Lights! (at Amazon)

In the past, I’ve told people at my writing retreats that the absolute social-media bare minimum, even before your first book is available, is: contact-info signature block on email, author-name.com domain name reserved, and Facebook Fan and Friend pages. But today I’m going to add another pre-pub must-do: Your Amazon Author Page.

Fortunately, Amazon makes this easy, so you can set it up in about ten minutes (and then keep improving it for the rest of your life). I hope the value of having a page to yourself on Amazon is already apparent. Amazon sells over 50% of all books sold in America, about 67% of all eBooks, and most adult fiction purchases. Your Author Page will be prominently featured any time anyone searches for your name (usually appearing second), and there will be a link to it on any sales page for a book you wrote. These pages often come up in Google and Bing searches too. The page gives you an opportunity to show anything you want to your readers–photos, bios, chatty posts, videos, Twitter feed, and of course book covers.

Most important: Your Amazon Author page will have a Follow feature. Readers who click on the Follow button will receive an email alert every time a new book by you comes up for order or preorder.

I recommend a short but friendly bio. Readers want personality, not boring details. You’re not applying for a job and this is not a CV. You want friendly, fun photos, nothing pompous or “writerly.” You should always post about signings, speaking engagements, or other events. If by error a book appears on your page that isn’t yours, or a title needs to be added, Amazon makes the problem easy to fix.

Barnes & Noble and Powell’s also have author pages worth your time, though they get less traffic and don’t provide as many opportunities to post material other than book titles. Still worth doing though.

Special note to other Penguin Random House authors. PRH has an author page for you already set up, and you may want to download photos and bios to make setting up your Amazon page easier.

Amazon Author Central: https://authorcentral.amazon.com

Penguin Random House: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com

Bernhardt Summer Writing Retreats: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Publishing a Lie?

Conspiracy theories may be common with Mulder and Scully, aliens, the Illuminati, and Bigfoot, but we don’t often get them in the erudite world of books and publishing. This week, however, we did.

As you are probably aware, in 2014-2015, Amazon engaged in a negotiation showdown with Traditional Publishing, most prominently Hachette. The common view was that the Big 5 wanted the right to set prices for their products when sold on Amazon–agency pricing. Everyone thought the outcome was that the Big 5 won the right, increased their prices, and made more money.

This week, several stories broke suggesting that everything we thought we knew was wrong.

Mike Shatzkin is a prominent publishing analyst who writes the Idea Logical blog. Based on conversations with publishing executives and even a source at the Department of Justice, Shatzkin claimed that although the Big 5 publishers wanted agency pricing in 2010, by 2015 they realized it was not to their advantage but were forced to accept it–by Amazon.          “[T]he big publishers had no choice about sticking with agency. Amazon insisted that they stick with agency.” Amazon also wanted and got a more favorable split of revenues.

Another analyst, Phillip Jones, agrees. Quoting other industry sources, Jones says that since Amazon dominates the eBook market, allowing publishers to overprice their books was a smart strategy that shifted sales from Big 5 eBooks to Amazon eBooks, allowing Amazon to rapidly grow its self-publishers and Kindle Unlimited market. Conversely, another blog, The Passive Voice, says this “revelation” is just propaganda designed to smooth over an imminent publisher reversal on agency pricing.

Perhaps even more startling is Shatzkin’s claim that the articles claiming “print sales rising in the US” last year was simply based on the fad for adult coloring books–which some people wouldn’t even consider books.

I will admit that Shatzkin’s “revelation” makes sense to me. I expected Amazon to fight to the death for what they wanted and to have the clout to win. Instead Amazon seemed to grant agency pricing to any publisher that wanted it. The story makes more sense if Amazon wanted the Big 5 to set their prices (higher) and focused instead on revenue stream. In any case, one thing seems clear–the agency pricing that seemed like such a must-have before looks like an albatross now.

What do you think?

See the debate continue at Idea Logical: http://www.idealog.com

Nate Hoffelder: http://ow.ly/Z7XRh

Philip Jones: http://ow.ly/Z7XNe

Is Your Amazon Book Description Doing Its Job?

At my writing retreats, one of the hardest assignments I give is this: Write a 100-150 word description of your book. Like a synopsis, only harder. I give this assignment for good reasons. First, focusing on the core of the story, its strengths and target audience, often helps students finish the book. But today there is a second reason–the brief Amazon-page book description may be the most important 100-150 words you ever write. Studies show that, more than any other element, those descriptions sell the book. If you self-publish, you’ll have to come up with the description yourself. Even if you use a traditional publisher, you may be asked to write it, and at the least should be asked to provide input or editing.

Make those all-important words count. Make them sell your book.

Here are your goals:

1) Quickly summarize or hint at what makes your book intriguing or unique. Tantalize the reader.
2) Define the genre (or subgenre). Readers must know what kind of book this is.
3) In most cases, suggesting similarity to bestselling books in your genre is a plus.
4) Integrate keyword phrases that readers might type into the Kindle search bar when looking for their next good read.

One good place to get ideas for your description is the Kindle Bestselling Books list in your genre.  (Ignore books that are free. They may only be “selling” because they’re free.) See what makes those descriptions work. See if you can create the same effect for your book (without copying). This approach may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how few writers actually do it. Too many writers blow this description off with a few cursory lines that don’t inspire anyone to read, much less buy.

A few more tips for writing this all-important description:

1) Start with a riveting blurb about one or two sentences long. Why? Because initially, Amazon only shows the first bit of your description, followed by a hyperlink to “read more.” You need a compelling opening that will inspire readers to click on the “read more” to get the rest of your description.

2) Include some reviews of your book. If you don’t have any yet, you can add this later. If you have writer friends, see if you can persuade one to give you a blurb. You can’t control what others post in their reviews, but you can control what goes into your description, and potential buyers will see this first.

3) Show your first drafts to critique partners, friends, fellow writers, readers, anyone who will look. Ask them honestly: Would you buy this book? Listen to their input and revise accourdingly.

I know you’d rather be an artist than a salesperson. Me too. But like it or not, an author is, in addition to being an artist, someone selling a product to a consumer. In a field with much competition. A brilliant description can separate your book from the pack and give you the attention your deserve.