Looking Ahead to 2018–and Beyond

Writing about Hollywood, William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.” I feel much the same about publishing. When eBooks first borke, I repeatedly heard people say, “That will never catch on,” or “I love the feel of a real book in my hands.” Well, guess what? EBooks account for abou 75% of sales in popular fiction, and a large chunk of the other categories. Similarly, the big New York publishers were little concerend when Amazon hit the scene. Who wants to buy online? “People want to hold the book and thumb through the pages, then carry it home with them.” Wrong again. The ease of advance ordering, home devliery, and deeply discounted prices vastly outweighed the advantages of brick-and-mortar stores, at least in many people’s minds.

It’s been almost ten years since the eBook revolution began, and the publishing world is still going through tremendous changes. Audiobooks are not a fad. They are the future. Amazon is the nation’s most sucessful retailer, not just in books, but overall. Self-publishing is not only viable, at least for some, it is profitable. Online marketing is paramount. But people wonder–how long will this last? Is this a fad or a new world order?

Prognostications for the Future:

  1. Indie Authors (Self-Pubbed Authors) Will Increase Their EBook Share. Traditional publishing in many ways seems mired in the past. They price eBooks too high and rely on “legacy authors,” which means their output shows little innovation. Indie authors can be more flexible and responsive. They can price their books lower, or use price pulsing and short-term free promos to spur sales. Indie works best when it innovates, not imitates. Indies are better at taking risks. There are too many idenitical-looking romances and Star Wars ripoffs. Indies are free to experiement, which doesn’t always work–but when it does, that’s when you see someone break out big. In 2017 the number of authors who reported making over $100,000 from writing grew by 70% over 2016. Who did this? The authors who paid attention to trends, stayed up-to-date on the latest information, and made the most of their opportunities, I predict the indie eBook share will increase in 2018.
  2. Marketing Will Change and Some Approaches Will Stop Working. Facebook and Amazon ads have become more popular and, as a result, more expensive. (I’ve had success with Amazon ads, less so with Facebook.) As more and more authors go indie, the need to market your work to emerge from the crowd will increase. I suspect more authors will use freelance marketing agencies, because it makes good business sense, and because the work is complex and time-consuming. (We will have some narketing firms at the RSC writers conference.) I believe you will see more emphasis on email marketing–going direct to the reader. Of course, that means you need a solid, curated list of readers, and you know what interests them.
  3. Amazon Will Continue to Grow–and That May Not Always Be Good. What happens if Amazon doesn’t love us anymore? Does anyone have the power to retaliate? Last year, Amazon made changes to its affiliate program that basically made it less profitable for participants. This trend will probably continue, because Amazon no longer needs to drive customers to them–they’re already there. Kindle Unlimited has some competition, but it remains by far the largest reader subscription service. KU pays out a lot of money each month, but it is divided into many different hands. For authors with a few titles, it is the simplest way to go, though it means being completely dependent upon Amazon. Last year, after much hand-wringing, I took all the titles I controlled out of KU, but it was a tough decision and there were no clear answers.
  4. You Need an Audiobook. Will I never stop talking about this? No, not until you’ve all recorded your audiobook. If you really want to invest in your publishing future, this is what you should be doing. A few weeks ago, I recorded an audiobook for a fellow wirter using our home studio–and his audiobook is already outselling the eBook.  According to Kelly Lytle of Findaway Voices, “Digital audiobooks will remain the fastest growth area in publishing with sales increasing 30% to 40% or more. The dynamics—ease of access for consumers, lifestyle habits, increased market competition, new selling models—have all synced up to create significant staying power. It should surprise nobody when the market size of audiobooks surpasses eBooks in a few years.”
  5. Readers still love reading and still love books. This was my final point in the last newsletter, too, because it’s still true and, for me, it’s the point to always keep uppermost in your mind. Yes, you need to remember that this is a business, and you need knowledge and connections to be successful in any business. But writing is also an art. Books have changed people’s lives and have changed the world–and they will again. What is it you want to say to the world?

What Writers Learned in 2017

When the calendar reboots it always seems like time to reassess and plan for the future. I know, this was a month ago, but the new year never sinks in with me until: 1) I’ve remembered to start writing “2018” on checks, which  takes weeks, and 2) all my 1099s arrive–the definitive word on what worked and what didn’t. So in this blog I’m going to discuss what we learned in 2017, and in the next blog, I’ll make my annual forecasts about what we can expect in the future.

What We Learned In 2017:

  1. Audiobooks Are Still Hot. In fact, they are the fastest growing segment of publishing, and have been for several years running. Don’t believe me? See for yourself here. If you haven’t got an audio edition of your work, you are literally leaving money on the table. Every year at my writers conference we’ve had someone speak on how to produce your own audiobooks professionally and affordably. This is critical information. In today’s world, it’s just as important as knowing how to use a word processor.
  2. Bookstores Are Not Hot. Which is not to say they are unimportant. Just less so. We have one national bookstore chain and it appears to be in financial distress. The Nook and its associated ebook businesses have declined for years. (Forbes says B&N has lost $1.3 billion on the Nook.) B&N says they are now focusing on the core business–books–but when I go in, I see lots of games and toys and magazines and coffee and CDS and DVDs. If B&N crumbles, what then? Brick-and-mortar retailing appears to be steadily failing, replaced by online buying. Some say bookstore sales only account for 7-10% of the total market.
  3. The Indie Market May Be Maturing. Some people are making money with independent or self-publishing (click here for details), and that will increase in the years to come. CreateSpace controls 80% of the print-on-demand market. It’s growing while its competitors (Lulu, Smashwords, etc.) decline. Overall, ISBN purchases have declined, which could mean  that fewer people are publishing–or fewer people are bothering with the print edition (eBooks do not require ISBNs at KindleDirect). A lot of fly-by-night operations are closing, which may make it easier for writers to know what to do and how to do it. I will write more on indie success techniques later this year.
  4. Wattpad is Profitable. Wattpad received a $40 million cash infusion from a Chinese retailer. They’ve also partnered with Hachette for audiobooks and offered a premium “no-ads” subscription. They generated 20 million in advertising revenue, a big increase over the previous year. Wattpad Studios is developing film projects. The point being, if you think of Wattpad as just a place where adolescent girls publish fan fiction, think again. Serious writing careers are being launched at Wattpad.
  5. Traditional Publishing Can’t Launch a Bestseller. Yet again, NY publishing failed to produce a single breakout hit. The bestselling novels last year were 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, neither new books, surging due to television and current events, not NYC marketing. Which does not mean publishers aren’t making any money. But the stories about eBook sales declining are nonsense, not borne out by any statistical analysis that includes Amazon, where self-published eBooks are about 40% of all unit sales. Traditional publishers are responsible for “just over half of paid ebook downloads” (Publishers Marketplace). And that doesn’t consider all the online “borrowing” that takes place through Kindle Unlimited.
  6. Readers still love reading and still love books.

That last one is, of course, the most important. That’s why we bother.

Made plans to attend the Red Sneaker Writers Conference yet? Register in February and the entry fee for all contests is waived. Stay at the conference hotel and save another $50 off registration. Click here for details.

Publishing 103: The Other Alternatives

In the last two blogs, I covered traditional publishing and independent (i.e., self-) publishing. This time I’ll cover all the other possibilities–that I know about. If there are some I missed, please write and let me know.

You’ve probably heard the term “hybrid publisher,” which originally meant someone who has both traditional publishing contracts but also self-publishes. (Today, with so many options, the hybrid might be doing several of any number of things.) The statistics at Author Earnings indicate that hybrids, as a group, are pulling in more author income that any other category. The usual, though not only, hybrid approach, is to self-publish, develop a following, then parlay that success into a traditional contract, which may only include print rights, or may be for a sequel or related work. In fact, they may come to you. Traditional publishing watches the Kindle bestseller lists carefully, and if they see a self-published author running up impressive numbers, they often contact them with an offer.

Amazon Publishing is a major force in today’s book world. (I’m not talking about Kindle Direct Publishing for self-pubbed eBooks, I’m talking about Amazon’s own traditional publishing branch.) When people talk about the Big Five, they are usually referring to the big corporations with New York offices (kind of like the Tonys only go to plays presented on Broadway). If Amazon were put on the list, in terms of sales, they’d be No. 3. With a bullet. While the number of books Amazon publishes is relatively small, their sales are significant. Are you surprised? Of course Amazon the retailer gives preferential treatment to Amazon the publisher.

Amazon’s contracts are among the most progressive offered today–usually for a set term, 50% royalty on eBooks, paid monthly, and allowing you to reserve subsidiary rights. Amazon has an imprint for every kind of book imaginable, including both genre and literary work. You do need an agent to approach Amazon Publishing, which means you’ll be giving a good chunk of your earnings to an agent. Unless…

…you go the Kindle Scout route (like I have, twice). Kindle Scout allows you to get into Amazon Publishing without an agent, and in much less time. They call it a crowdsourcing site, but in truth, the decision what to publish and what not to publish is based on many factors, not merely how many “nominations” your book receives. Like any other publisher, they choose the books they believe will be most successful.

A more genuine crowdsourcing alternative would be funding a book through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, or acquiring patrons through Patreon (which full disclosure: I have a page on). Kickstarter has funded many individual books, while Patreon funds the artist, allowing them to produce their work or provide mentoring to others. The patrons receive many rewards, so it should be a win-win for everyone. The magic of the internet is that, even if each individual makes a small monthly contribution, the aggregate could make it possible for the artist to create without being controlled or robbed by a big corporation. If you’re interested, please check out everything I’m offering on my Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

BEWARE! The Big Five publishers now have vanity press lines (Simon & Schuster’s Archway Publishing, for one example). Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s affiliated with a big company. If they ask you for money, it’s a vanity press. I don’t care if they call it a marketing fee or an editing fee or anything else. If they want money, it’s a vanity press, and if you think that will ever lead to anything good, you are simply kidding yourself. Don’t let the desire to tell friends you have a contract with a Big Publisher lead you to a poor decision. Your friends will learn the truth. This path can only lead to embarrassment.

The Big Five also have “digital-only” lines, that is, all they want is the eBook. They may or may not acquire the print right or audio rights, but they will only publish the eBook. These lines have proven profitable for the big companies–but not so much for individual authors. If you prefer this to learning how to self-publishing, that’s fine, but if you’re doing it because you think you will have great sales or the prestige of being affiliated with a big publisher, I would reconsider.

Don’t be overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Be delighted. When I started back in the 80s, authors basically only had one viable route to publication. Now we have many, and that’s good. I like anything that puts more power (and income) in the hands of the creators, the people without whom books would not exist.

What’s Really Going On in Publishing

If you keep up with the publishing “news,” you may be confused by recent contradictory indicators. Some sources claim that eBook sales are declining, but any popular-fiction authors who’ve looked at their royalty statements lately sees a different story. The NYTimes consistently suggests that Amazon is the Antichrist and destroying literature, but a growing number of independent authors credit Amazon for the ability to work without a corporate overlord. Who’s right?

Good numbers are hard to come by in the book world, because the Big Five  play their cards close and Amazon won’t release sales figures at all. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the statistics coming from AuthorEarnings.com are, while perhaps not perfect, the most reliable statistics we have. Why? Because by using computer data-gathering bugs to collect sales information, they take into account Amazon sales, which is currently more than 50% of all books sold in the US and about 75% of all eBooks. Those articles about eBook sales declining are based upon data from the AAP or Neilsen–so they include the Big Five but not Amazon. EBook sales are declining at the Big Five, because they’ve raised their prices, which you’ll recall they fought hard for the right to do. At Amazon, the far bigger share of the pie, eBook sales and independent authors are increasing.

Image 1

So gross unit sales are rising, but…

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…the books that are selling are increasingly those from independent authors, not the Big Five. The Big Five have (somewhat) larger gross profits, due to the higher prices, but of course most of that money does not end up in the hands of authors:

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As a group, independent authors are taking home more money than Big Five authors. Remember, an independent author can claim a 70% royalty at Amazon, whereas a traditionally published author will get somewhere between 4-15%. So you can sell far fewer books but still take home more money.

I urge you to visit AuthorEarnings.com, read the report, and draw your own conclusions. Read May 2016 Author Earnings Report: the Definitive Million-Title Study of US Author Earnings.

 

Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing? The Definitive Answer

The next book in the Red Sneaker Writers Series, Excellent Editing, goes on sale Friday (May 13). Toward the end of the book, I discuss the possible avenues for publishing your perfectly edited work. I review the pros and cons of each route and how ultimately your decision must be based upon your goals, your personality, and the book itself. I’m not going to repeat here what I wrote in the book, but I will augment it in light of two interesting perspectives that arose this week.

For the first time ever, the most popular American financial publication, Forbes, has weighed in on this question. Unsurprisingly, the analysis centers around money. What did surprise me was how the article made the decision contingent upon whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.

Forbes author Nick Morgan argued that the bottom line is: “Fiction writers should probably self-publish, since they’re going to have to market the book themselves,” because the odds of a traditional publisher putting any significant marketing muscle behind your book is minuscule. If you self-publish, your royalty rate will be 70-80%, whereas in traditional publishing it will be 4-15%, perhaps rising to 20% for eBooks. Do the math.

Nonfiction authors approaching traditional publishers will be asked if they have a “platform,” which is just a fancy way of asking if you have a way of selling a lot of books, like a cult following or students required to buy your textbook. If you have that, you might think you don’t need a publisher. But Forbes argues that you do need a traditional publisher if you want to use the book as “a calling card to do something else.” If you’re trying to establish your expertise in a field, or want speaking gigs on the professional circuit, the imprimatur of a publishing house increases your prestige and credibility. Speaking bureaus typically aren’t interested in self-published authors.

Of course, you’ll still make more money per unit self-publishing.

Also this week, Hugh Howey, perhaps America’s best-known self-published author, titled his blog “Self-Publishing Has Never Been Easier.” Of late, some have argued that self-publishing was only profitable if you got in early, during the “gold-rush” phase. He argues just the opposite. It’s easier now and more potentially profitable than ever.

Helpful? Okay, perhaps I exaggerated when I called this the “definitive solution.” But it’s always good to have the best data when you’re making a difficult decision.

Did I mention that Excellent Editing comes out on Friday?

Hugh Howey’s Blog: http://www.hughhowey.com/it-has-never-been-easier/

Forbes Magazine article: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorgan/2016/05/05/which-is-better-self-publishing-or-traditional-publishing/#502f172f29dc

 

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.