2014: A Pivotal Year in Publishing

This is the end of the year, a perfect day to draw lessons from the main publishing events in 2014.

First, one bit of good news for 2014: it will be remembered as the year audio-book sales took off. In 2013, downloaded audio books hit an all time high in both revenue and units, and that trend continued in 2014 (see Bookstats.org). In February, I wrote on this blog about audio-books (here) reporting on the fast rise of audiobook titles. On Audible there are more than 150,000 titles in every genre – up from less than 5,000 in 2009, an amazing growth.  And 2014 was the year that saw the creation of the Deyan Institute of Voice Artististry and Technology (see here), the world’s first campus dedicated to audiobook production. Yes, audiobooks have come of age! Enhanced e-books, containing music and possibly video clips, long announced but not yet really successful, may come next as the technology progresses.
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But the news were not all good. We were all captivated by the show put on by Amazon and Hachette in their long, drawn-out dispute that took up half the year. As a result, we tended to overlook what was happening to the e-book market as a whole. Few of us listened when Amazon told Hachette that books should be priced low – maybe like a cup of coffee? – because books in our society are competing with other forms of entertainment, like TV series, videogames, travel and sports. Yet, if we had taken that argument on board, we might not have been so surprised at what happened next – specifically, when Amazon created in July its new subscription service, Kindle Unlimited or KU, that allows you free access to some 700,000 titles for just $9.99 a month – that’s a lot of cups of coffee -.

Actually 2014 had started on the heels of a lackluster year for the e-book market. Here is a chart that shows sales revenues from e-books since 2008 (remember, the starting point was November 2007 when Amazon launched the new publishing digital age with its famous first Kindle sale):

As you can see, US publishers collected $3 billion from e-book sales in 2013 – and (another reminder!) e-books are the preferred environment for self-published authors . $3 billion may look like a big number, but it’s not so big if you set it against revenues from the whole US publishing industry: $27 billion if you include journals, and $14.6 for “trade” (fiction and non-fiction books).

What is striking in this chart is the way e-book sales started to flatten out after 2012, suggesting that the e-book market by 2014 had actually reached “maturity” (there’s a typo in that chart: 2011 is repeated twice, but the data is correct). It is still too early for definitive data for 2014, but the available quarterly data suggests that sales have continued to plateau through the year. I won’t bother you further with statistics, but the data is in and tells a discomforting story for self-published authors that have come to rely on the e-book market (though they produce printed books too, they typically launch their books on e-platforms). In fact, if the stigma has been successfully removed from self-publishing and vanity presses have become a thing of the past, it is entirely due to the remarkable e-book sales of a score of self-published authors, including Amanda Hocking, JA Konrath, Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, HM Ward, Russell Blake, Elizbeth Spann Craig and many others (no space here to mention them all!).

The sense of discomfort was strong among self-published authors through the year and I felt it acutely, often blogging about it. Many of you, dear readers, must have felt the same way, because the blog posts that attracted the most traffic all had to do with the problems facing us as independent book publishers (being indies, we run our book selling as a small business). Out of a total 103 posts published in 2014, 35 attracted three to four times the average number of views and they all concerned publishing issues, from book discovery and how to improve the Amazon review system to  marketing advice you can get straight from Amazon’s Marketing Central (published in January 2014, that was the most viewed post in the whole year, see here).

Only one non-publishing post made it in the top 35, and this was about Putin and his “New Russia” dream (here). In a way, I regret that, because I enjoy writing about other things, such as politics and art. The best traffic I had on an art post this year was the one about the Mandela monument in South Africa (here).

The conclusion is inescapable: all the posts that attracted traffic were focused on publishing and book marketing (no surprise there, after all, I’m an economist by training). Noteworthy among them:

  • The tsunami of books, particularly in the Kindle Store (see here): when I wrote that post last August, the number of titles was around 3.4 million – now, I just checked, it’s close to… 3.8 million! This flood of books that fill up our e-readers is all the more worrisome that publishing as a whole is threatened by our obsession with visuals (here);  books need to be short to grab the distracted reader’s attention, hence the sudden success of the serialized novel (here); by the end of summer, I had become sufficiently preoccupied with the whole issue to try and summarize what was really happening to the digital publishing environment dominated by Amazon (here); remarkably, my concerns were not reflected in any of the debates about e-publishing held at the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, the biggest writers’ conference on the European continent, bringing together editors and writers from both sides of the Atlantic: here the sun was still shining brightly on the e-book market, with Bella Andre and many others explaining how they had achieved success;
  • The role of book reviews as we all drown into a tsunami of books (here) and the urgent need to improve Amazon’s review system by strengthening its Vine Program (here); I suggested that there is space on Amazon for two different types of reviews: the customer review and the literary critique; this would be an important first step to strengthen the e-book market, as it lacks what the traditional printed book market has, i.e. literary authorities who can help guide readers to good reads;
  • The rise of a new genre, cli-fi or what Margaret Atwood prefers to call “speculative fiction”; several posts revolved around the climate change issue and the kind of books inspired by it, notably here , here and here – including an interview of the father of cli-fi, Dan Bloom (here)- clearly, having just finished writing a cli-fi novel of my own, Gateway to Forever, and bursting with the research I did for that book, I plead guilty – please, consider it “content marketing”!

Looking to 2015, some clouds are accumulating on the horizon.

  • First, in Europe where Amazon (and other American corporations) have been clobbered by the European Union. They have been forced throughout the EU to apply national taxes on e-books – and the VAT on e-books happens to be high everywhere except in France and of course Luxembourg, a place that, as of 2015, will no longer be the tax haven it used to be for American corporations (see here for more on this question – yes, published in January 2014, I could see it coming!)
  • Second, in America, the growing furor over Kindle Unlimited; first, JA Konrath annoucing he is pulling out of KDP Select (the way for self-published authors to have their books listed in KU); next, a notable article in the New York Times reporting on authors “snubbing their nose” at KU, including HM Ward; most recently, a remarkable blog post by author John Scalzi who wonders how the damage can be undone. And the latest blog post on the subject that is a must read, is this one, on the Ebook Bargains UK blog. Is publishing about to go the way the music industry went with Spotify? Are authors going to be left high and dry the way musicians are? That is something that requires some serious thinking – I will post about this early next year.

What about you, dear reader? What would you like to see on my blog? More interviews of authors? I did a few, including one with romantic suspense best-selling author Liz Jennings published by Impakter (see here) that got shared many times and one with Marsha Roberts and Bob Rector. This is an unusual couple in many ways: they are both professional writers, Bob is also a film producer and Marsha a theater producer, and they have been happily married for 39 years, something of a feat for two persons working in the same sector and who are artists to boot, each with a strong independent streak. That post, published in May, got a flood of visits (here). I also reported for Publishing Perspectives on several events in Italy, including, inter alia, a reality show for authors on Italian TV that “ignored the psychology of authors”, the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera (it’s next September, do try and come!) and a publishing startup, Reedsy, a great place to find freelance professional editors and book cover designers. I also covered Reedsy on Impakter, but from a different angle and with some extraordinary images provided by Impakter (strong visuals are a characteristic feature of that site).

And for the first time this year, responding to a request from Impakter, I started to use my real name (Claude Forthomme) whenever I published articles based on my 25 year experience in the United Nations. The Impakter editor argued people were interested in the United Nations, that this was something people knew little about, beyond some (often boring) newspaper headlines. I complied and furnished Impakter with over a dozen articles and much to my surprise, the response was excellent – here is the Impakter section on the United Nations (to go to it, click here):

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As you can see, not all the articles are mine: many more people are now writing on Impakter, including a major FAO official, Laurent Thomas, Assistant Director General.

I’d love to know how you feel about what you read here and what other subjects you’d want me to cover…And how about yourself if you’re a blogger? What do you plan to write about in 2015? Please share.

Since today is 30 December and it’s Holiday time,  let’s ignore the gathering clouds for the moment. Look up, the sky is blue and allow me to wish you a very Happy New Year!

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5 Comments

Filed under book marketing

5 responses to “2014: A Pivotal Year in Publishing

  1. Reblogged this on RectorWriter and commented:
    Claude Forthomme’s analysis of the eBook market as it currently stands is a must-read for anybody traveling or wanting to travel that path.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob, thanks for the comment. The more I think about it, the more concerned I am about the future for indies. With big publishers playing the Indie game of lowering prices (see the Hachette sale on Amazon for Christmas, with all their best selling titles going for $2.50), I wonder how Indies can fight back…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Claude Forthomme’s year end analysis of the eBook market as it currently stands is a must-read for anybody traveling or wanting to travel that path.

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  3. Thanks for reposting this article, Claude. Unfortunately from what I can see the situation hasn’t improved. If anything, it’s a complete muddle. This is why I haven’t published my latest book, a comedy/satire, to the eBook market. In the current hostile business environment (to authors), what would be the point? I’ve been a professional in the entertainment business all my life. I’ve never been involved in anything as unprofessional and cheesy as the eBook market.

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    • Bob, happy 2017! Yes, about your new book, I’m sure you did the right thing. Traditional publishing is back very strongly and the best way to get published is the usual way, starting with having a good agent! Here is to wishing you a very fruitful search and seeing you published in 2017 by one of the Big Houses!

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