2015: New Challenges in Publishing

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Now that the dust has settled on 2014, we begin to see what 2015 will bring. Is the e-book market crashing? Too soon to say, but there are some worrying signs of trouble. Here are the most likely:

1. A growing glut in books. The fast growth in titles in the Kindle Store will continue unabated: in August 2014, the number of books available was around 3.3 million, now, six months later, it’s getting to 3.7 million (as per the data available in the Amazon Associates search box; I just checked, the exact number of e-books is 3,647,578). At this rate, expect it to get close to 5 million by the end of this year.

2. Adding to the overflow in everyone’s Kindle is the fact that traditional publishers have now woken up to the market-effectiveness of low-priced e-books.

That’s a big change for 2015. Low prices and going free were the marketing strategies of choice for indies – no more. And Russell Blake was one of the first to catch on to this change (see here).

Big Publishers are no longer afraid that e-books will “gobble up” sales from their printed books. They’ve finally understood that e-books are no threat simply because they are not the same product. A printed book is an object, something you show off to your friends, give your family or use to scribble comments in the margin. An e-book is not an object, it’s a reading service: it’s hard to give as a gift (though it can be done) and it’s not even clear if it’s something you can bequeath to your children when you die. So now self-published authors must bear the onslaught of low prices on current New York Times best sellers – and that already happened at Christmas when Amazon showcased on its website a big sale of Hachette’s best sellers at $2.50 apiece.

Life was always hard for new self-published authors who had to withstand competition not only from the traditional, established “mega sellers” but from fellow “midlist” authors with huge back lists to self-publish and a big fan base acquired in earlier days when they were traditionally published.

Now life has just become a lot harder.

3. A breakdown in the e-book market caused by book subscription services. The latest arrival, Kindle Unlimited (KU), with 700,000 titles that KU members can access for the modest sum of $9.99 per month, is the biggest, potentially a much larger market than the other two, Oyster and Scribd. It is also the one that happens to pay its authors least, provoking the ire of many indies that have decided to “leave” KU (to do so is simple: all an author has to do is to get out of KDP Select).

Some argue that both Oyster and Scribd that pay authors better don’t have a sustainable business model, yet Scribd just raised $22 million to fund its e-book service (see here). Scribd’s aim? To get on board “all the significant publishers”.

No doubt Amazon wants the same for KU.

Perhaps it won’t be so easy, as a result of the possible withdrawal of some best-selling indie authors, the likes of J.A. Konrath who trumpetted he left KU or H.M. Ward who announced on the K-boards that “KU crushed my sales”, as the New York Times recently reported (see here). But KU will no doubt rely on traditional publishers, not to mention Amazon’s own imprints, and one can expect that eventually, KU will contain plenty of NYT best sellers as well as a myriad of unknown indies and better known indies who have smartly cut up their longer books in independent sections, creating out of each title, 3 or 4 books, as Bob Meyer suggested.

The strategy to deal with KU is simple. For example, if you have a trilogy, put all the books of the trilogy into KU and keep the omnibus edition out. If you have serialized your novel, publish every episode as a separate book on KU and keep the omnibus edition out – and available of course in the Kindle Store and on all other platforms (ibooks, Kobo, Barnes and Noble etc).

The implication of this strategy?

Expect the number of titles available on KU to grow exponentially this year. And the pay-out per book read to drop (Amazon pays the author as soon as readers have passed the 10% mark). It’s now around $1.40 per book read – overtime, expect it to drop to around 50 cents and below.

Are subscription services, and KU in particular, like Spotify?  More to the point, should we expect the destruction of the book industry?

The answer is complex, KU is not Spotify, books are not songs. Printed books will survive, what is at stake here are e-books.

First, an observation. So far, indies who became best-selling authors usually made big sales thanks to their “voracious readers”, i.e. people addicted to a certain kind of literature, like the teenager who reads every western that comes out, or the lady who reads every book about zombies, regardless of whether it is written by a big name or an unknown author.

In short, “voracious readers” are the ones who have made best-selling authors out of indies. They’re the ones who, because of their reading habits, were always looking for low-priced books in order to stretch their budget as far as it would go. That’s why going free or setting your book at 99 cents worked so well during the “indie gold rush” that began in 2010 and ended now with KU. It is clear that those price strategies are not likely to work all that well anymore. You can try them for your books that are outside of KDP Select, but not for those inside (there’s no need). And voracious readers are not going to respond to your price campaigns because they are safely esconced in KU and have plenty to read. Indeed, even for them, their Kindle may start looking like it’s over-flowing.

But, hold your breath, there’s a silver lining to KU. For an excellent, balanced and dispassionate analysis, read Jake Kerr on the subject (here); he’s had experience with the music industry and is probably one of the persons best placed to understand what is happening.

Kerr points out that KU won’t really make that much difference to big names like Rowling or best sellers in a niche, but “of all people who should consider KU, new authors are the safest bets for making the most of it”. Why? Because, bottom line, it provides them with excellent exposure to “voracious readers”, the real beneficiaries  of book subscription services and the ones who are likely to stay in KU.

4. Book marketing strategies in 2015 will have to take into account the “non-voracious reader”, that kind of reader who is more picking, more difficult to convince but once convinced, more effective at spreading the word about a book in a convincing way.  And they care about what is said about the book by people who can make professional reviews.They are always looking for a good read but like to check out on the author, they want to hear what is being said about books in the media, they are out to pick the ones that give them something more than mere entertainment from a “genre” novel, they don’t want to waste time with poor quality books. These are people who probably are not going to join KU or any other subscription service. They read less and they read in many genres and they are demanding. They buy fewer books than voracious readers but they do buy books – maybe 5 or 6 a year – and when they do, they are ready to spend more on a book if they think it’s worth it. Price is less important for that kind of reader than content. And what is important to understand: These are the people that turn books into lasting mega best-sellers because there are so many more people like them than there are voracious readers, the voracious ones have always been in a minority.

In a way, we are back to the traditional publisher’s eco-system of literary critics publishing thoughtful articles reviewing books in the mainstream media (from the New York Times to Granta magazine).

This is why Amazon will have to consider doing something to improve the review system in the Kindle Store. Fellow readers have told me that on Amazon they tend to ignore book reviews.  Given the quality of reviews now, they’re probably right to ignore them.

So what’s the problem?  Amazon, so far, has relied on “customer reviews” and the only effort at identifying top reviewers is through the Vine Program  – unfortunately, if you check them out, you will see that those “top Vine reviewers” were not necessarily knowledgeable about books and literature; they just happened to reach the top because of all the other reviews they did on Amazon products, from cameras to jewelry. For example, one of the Vine Program’s top reviewers for books is someone who likes to read and reviews exclusively a sub-sector of science fiction, military sci-fi, and nothing else. That is fine, it’s his right to do so. It is clear that he enjoys spending his time reviewing products like electronic gear which he gets to try out than the (few) books he gets to read.

What Amazon needs to do is to pull together a body of top book reviewers, thus creating a special Book Vine Program, showcasing those professional-level reviews separately from customer reviews. If this were done, book reviews would really help readers in selecting the right read – something that doesn’t happen now.

The digital age so far has been in the hands of Amazon’s commercial eco-system, where books are ranked based on sales in real time – no doubt, an interesting statistic that appeals to the competitive instinct in human nature but that also has a practical use: it allows Amazon to efficiently organize its bookselling website. Makes sense: you search for your favorite genre or sub-genre by refining your keywords, and you get a list of the top best-selling titles in that particular area. But you’re human too, you don’t really read beyond the 25th title in the list before choosing something on the basis of a catchy book description (pitch). Fair enough and a rather clever way to organize a website. But more can be done by adding a new feature, a ranking based on professional-level book reviews – not merely a filter for selecting books that have 4-star-customer-reviews-and-above, as is the case now.

That’s just one thing Amazon could do. And it could do more now that the Amazon-Hachette dispute is settled. Expect growing cooperation between Amazon and the Big Publishers in 2015 and some big surprises – probably not all of them going the indies way, but some might, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

And this gets us to the crux of the matter:

5. Book discovery remains the #1 problem, still waiting for a solution. Can Amazon propose a solution? I suggested above an upgrading in their Vine Program to make it more appropriate to the book market.

Surely more can be done – for example, in terms of more book fairs aimed at readers rather than at publishing professionals. Let’s make books fun to read! Let’s usher in the Age of the Enhanced E-book, mixing words with images, music and video! Let’s link with Hollywood, with the videogame industry, let’s expand e-book markets around the world, making it easier to buy digital…For example, Google books is using a better payments model than Amazon, easier to use for people who live in  countries like India, and that should probably be the payments model for the future.

6. The rise in tie-in novels. As Amazon famously pointed out to Hachette, books need to be priced low because they compete with other forms of entertainment, from video-games and TV series to sport and travel. But low-pricing is not the only rejoinder to that challenge. Remember the saying? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! That’s why you can expect tie-in novels to play an ever more important part in the industry, as the New York Times recently noted (see here).

As authors, we’ve always dreamt of seeing our work turned into movies, like the Hunger Games or Game of Thrones – this is the reverse: books are written after movies have become stellar, like Star Wars or the recent case reported by the NYT, Sons of Anarchy, that recently ended its 7-year run on FX and needed a boost from good old-fashioned books.

7. The world of self-publishing is changing fast and the gold rush is over.  Now everyone acknowledges this and it is no longer the subject of debate as it still was last year. Everyone has also become keenly aware that publishing is a fast-changing and highly complex industry, as it continues to be buffetted by the digital revolution (not least by KU and book subscription services). The way forward for aspiring authors is hard to see and they would be well-advised to carefully consider their options and not rush into self-publishing. This is precisely the kind of advice they can get from veteran blogger and best-selling author Anne R. Allen, see here. I recommend a careful read of that thoughtful post full of interesting information. It’s the first time I see what happened to the first generation of self-published stars like Amanda Hocking who, after selling a million copies on Amazon, had joined traditional publishing (with a huge advance that drew admiration from the press): we are finally getting the bottom line from an editor at St Martin’s press who confesses the disappointment of Big Publishers with their newly acquired self-published authors, saying they discovered the “market was tapped out”.

So, as Anne R. Allen puts it, “the self-published e-book is no longer the new query“. Even if you sell hundreds of thousands of copies, don’t expect a Big Publisher to approach you. And bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble and W.H.Smith and Waterstone won’t like you. Amazon is no longer the “indie playground it used to be”, bonuses are awarded to big star authors who belong to traditional publishers and Amazon imprints. Bookbub, the top advertising venue for indies, has become overrun by “trad pub” titles at the expense of indies. “Social media has been spammed to death. Facebook has become pretty much useless for authors” – and I would add, so has Twitter and Pinterest. The final, most striking comment comes once again from Bob Meyer who told the New York Times: “If you’re not an author with a slavish fan following, you’re in a lot of trouble. Everyone already has a ton of things on their Kindle they haven’t opened.”

In short, if you have chosen the self-published route, be aware that you have to stay in it forever (or change name and genre). You may never get the Pulitzer or the Booker, but you will probably make a lot of money. Provided you sell hundreds of thousands of books of course…So yes, don’t expect self-publishing to wither away, there are still plenty of self-pubbed authors who make a lot of sales (and money), particularly in well-defined niche genres (romantic suspense is probably the biggest, as Bella Andre’s success shows). But the days of the successful “hybrid” author, with one foot in trad publishing and the other in self-publishing, could be soon over. One of the main reasons why a self-pubbed super star went with a trad publisher was to get books in print and into bookstores – but that may no longer be needed with the recent improvements in Ingram’s services (see Porter Anderson’s interesting post on this, here).

Your views about the changes 2015 will bring? Please share in the comments. What else do you see as a big challenge in 2015?

 

Post-scriptum: To usher in the New Year, I’ve lowered the price of my latest book, Gateway to Forever,  at 99 cents. Wonder what that will do to KU (chuckle), but if you’re curious, you can see it here, and this is the new cover:

A love story set 200 years from now…

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