Business Musings: The Year in Review (Overview)
In 2014, I wrote a year end wrap-up, looking at all aspects of publishing. I had done that for me more than for any other reason. You see, in 2014, I wrote six books of the Anniversary Day saga and the project ate my brain. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
I had stopped doing the blog toward the end of the saga because I couldn’t think of anything but Anniversary Day. When I returned to the real world, I needed to catch up on everything, including the industry.
The year-end wrap-up examined the changes that I noticed in publishing, traditional and indie, during 2014 but couldn’t blog about due to the Project That Ate My Brain.
After that, I intended to do a year-end wrap-up every year. I have no idea what happened in 2015 and why I missed. I do know why I missed in 2016; I couldn’t face looking back at that year for any reason.
The looking askance at the world continued in 2017, as I dealt with a lot of personal issues, from the deaths of friends, close and formerly close, as well as acquaintances, and the destruction of many other things I value. I found I was spending too much time looking outward at the world, but not at publishing.
I also had a book project that I kept trying to write and failing at. This happens to me from time to time. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, until October, when I realized that I needed to listen to myself.
I kept imagining myself on a retreat somewhere—just me, alone, in a hotel room or a Starbucks or a city where I didn’t know anyone, and reading and writing and thinking and not talking or worrying or listening or getting distracted by social media or the regular media or the fire hose of news and noise every single day.
I finally recognized that fantasy for what it was—my subconscious sending out flares, asking for rest. I was burning out on drama from all directions except my fiction.
So I made changes. (I write that as if it was easy. It wasn’t. It still isn’t.) I did small things, like change my homepage from a news site to emergencykittens.com on my writing computer, and the cartoon Breaking Cat News on my email computer. I did big things, like say no to project after project after project. I instituted one screen-free day. I changed when I answered email. I started some new exercise routines. I gave myself unfettered reading time.
And I redid my writing schedule again, changing it up. That lasted an entire week. And then the book I couldn’t figure out clicked in my brain—because I had the quiet I needed to think about it.
I’m working on that now, and it isn’t quite as bad as the Anniversary Day Saga. It’s not quite Eating My Brain. But it is snacking on my brain. And I’m having fun.
It’s been a few months of this, and I find I now need to know what happened in publishing in 2017. I don’t really need to find out as much as I need to review. The news slid past me and got lost in all the other drama playing out in my life and in the world.
So I’m not going to do a year-end wrap-up quite like the one I had done in 2014. The industry doesn’t divide itself as neatly as it did three short years ago.
But it does lend itself to some analysis.
During one of our writer-lunch Sundays, I asked the other writers to list all the things that changed in 2017. I got a huge list of mostly indie writer stuff, most of it good. Some of it is difficult, and some of it is overwhelming, but I stand by my point that, in the U.S., at least, the disruption has slowed down.
Here’s how I think about it: In the early years, the disruption in publishing was as if a volcano had erupted. Lava spewed everywhere and no one was immune to its effects.
Nowadays, the lava continues to ooze out of the large opening in the mountain, but we have come to expect it. The ooze covers and coats everything, and we can’t always predict what it will leave, what it will push aside, and what it will change forever.
The lava flow is so huge, and the changes so massive, that we are not able to see all of it.
Which is why I’m having fun looking at 2017. I can take on the whole year, look at the changes and see if I can squeeze them into a pattern, so that I can talk about 2018—which is the point of all of this.
Every year, I spend December preparing for the next year. I plan the direction of my work, figure out what I’m going to focus on, and decide what I want to build on.
A friend of mine labels his years—The Year of Education, was one (I believe)—giving each year a unifying theme. He spends his money on the theme for his year, and works in that direction.
That’s too organized for my subconscious, so I don’t even try. Instead, I figure out my goals, not just for the writing, but for the various businesses that I have, build some flex into the schedules and expectations, and then charge forward with the new plan—which might be the same as the old plan. Or it might be a completely new direction.
I spent 2016-2017 trying to hold on as the winds of change from the outside world buffeted everything around me.
In 2018, I’m going to try to do more than hold on. I’m going to take control of what I can control, keeping in mind the Yiddish proverb, “Man plans, God laughs.” (Mann traoch, Gott Lauch)
But in order to know where I’m going, I need to know where I am. Where we are. So, I’m launching into this short series. Again, it’s me talking to myself, organizing my thoughts, but you folks get to listen in.
Normally, I would have liked to start publishing this in early December, but I wasn’t that organized. Two other posts and the holiday got in the way.
What I am doing is writing these blogs all at once. They’ll all be on my Patreon page as I finish each one, but they’ll show up one per week on my website until I go through all of them. It’ll probably take the entire month of January to publish all of them. (And during that time, I’ll also be writing other blogs, which will go on Patreon first.)
Here’s a quick overview of what I see right now before I finish all of my research:
I’ve been trying to get my arms around what’s going on with traditional publishing for about a week and a half. I have varied reports from other writers, still working traditionally. I have been perusing back issues of Publishers Weekly, looking at other news sources, and reading some of my list serves.
I’m beginning to think I can’t figure out what happened to traditional publishing in 2017 because traditional publishing doesn’t know what’s going on in its own industry.
I’m writing this blog on December 26, 2017, and I’ve just seen the data that Amazon released on its various lists. I haven’t had time to go over it in-depth, but I did notice all of the backlist titles with legs on the Amazon lists. I said to Dean, “It’s amazing that traditional publishing still exists as mismanaged as it has been.”
I think that story of mismanagement continues, which is why I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what’s going on. Publisher’s Weekly barely mentions Amazon and doesn’t use its numbers to report its bestseller list, preferring BookScan. For an ebook bestseller list, PW uses the iBooks and (occasionally) Smashwords, which is well and good, but only gets a small picture of what’s going on.
Then there are all the cutbacks in genre fiction from the Big Five. That, and the lack of effective publicity for books. I ordered too many books at the end of this year, because I was looking through PW and was startled that this favorite author of mine had published a book or that favorite author had published two books, and I hadn’t heard of those books.
Granted, I’ve been focused on other things, but I still read the usual magazines, trade journals, and I bought a bookstore this year, so I really should know what’s being published.
It looks, at a casual glance, like the Big Five (Four? Three? Who the hell knows) is cutting its way to quarterly profits, and doing so exceedingly stupidly. In 2017, for example, Randy Penguin dropped its cozy mystery line, which thrives in mass market. Writers whose series were growing or selling at excellent numbers (for this time period) were unceremoniously dropped.
But…smaller traditional publishers, long-established traditional publishers, like Baen and Kensington, publishers not beholden to some international corporate overlord, are scooping up as many of these dropped genre authors as they possibly can, knowing cash cows when they see them.
Also, both publishing houses (and others like Soho Press) are enthusiastic about the books they publish. They’re familiar with their authors and titles, not viewing them as items on a balance sheet, but as actual books, and that makes a difference.
So, I think we’re at the beginning of a shift that will lead to new big names in traditional publishing houses. I expect a lot of shake up between now and 2020.
I’ll deal with this more in the traditional publishing posts (and see if I agree with myself, even two days from now).
As for authors in trad pub…oh, man. Scary, uncertain times. I’m not sure I’d be hitching my wagon to any of the huge companies right now.
I wrote a post earlier in the year about all the traditionally published authors flooding into indie publishing right now, and the lack of patience long-term indies are showing them. That flood was the direct result of the cutting that occurred in traditional publishing.
We’re going to see a lot more hybrid publishing from writers, particularly those who have huge traditional careers. One traditionally published #1 New York Times bestseller just told me that his “test” indie published novella out-earns every single one of his bestselling titles.
I would have expected that from the financial angle—making 65% to 70% of each sale is much better than 12-15% (minus agent fees)—and I said that to him. He corrected me. He said that the novella outsells his bestselling titles as well. And that surprised me.
But the earnings are speaking to him, and he’s not alone. I’ve heard rumors about other bestsellers who are frightened by their sales numbers through traditional, and watching their income decline precipitously. Some of those writers are going hybrid fast.
Others are moving full indie.
We had a number at our Business Master Class this year, and at first, some of the long-term indies were annoyed at us letting in “beginners.” I snapped at one long-term indie, “That ‘beginner’ you’re talking about has been publishing longer than you’ve been alive.”
Some of the skills translate. Some don’t. But I think we’re going to see a rise in hybrid authors for the next few years.
The rise, however, will be interesting all by itself, because, really, it’ll be a rearranging. I think just as long-term traditionally published authors put a toe in the indie waters, long-term hybrid writers will give on all of traditional publishing and go full indie.
Hybrid might end up being a stage in the career. I want to give that some more thought before I write a longer piece on it.
As I indicated above, lots and lots and lots of changes have occurred in the indie world in 2017. Many of them are good—the rise of some incredible time-saving technologies, some great new distributors, some fantastic competition for Amazon—but some of the changes, while expected, were devastating.
The most recent devastating change reversed itself in less than a month, but the damage was already done. Patreon announced a new system for fee payment—basically making the patrons pay it, instead of the creators—and that led to a huge backlash. People fled Patreon in droves.
Patreon reversed itself, but too late. Many creators’ Patreon accounts suffered devastating blows, and I don’t yet know if they’ll recover or not. (You folks have been consistent with me, and I’m really, really grateful. Thank you for hanging in.)
Patreon wasn’t the first or the only site to devastate writers this year. 2016 ended with the announcement that All Romance Ebooks was shutting down, and writers who had made huge amounts of money there took a gigantic hit.
As I talked to writers at Sunday lunch, they reminded me of other incidents in 2017 from other companies as well.
All of this is, sadly, foreseeable—not for each individual company (in some cases), but in the way it hurts writers. There’s a reason long-term freelancers tell writers to make sure they don’t have all their eggs in one basket.
It doesn’t matter how big that basket is, it is not too big to fail. Or disappear. Or change its policies without saying a word, like YouTube did this year.
I haven’t even gotten to thinking about how I’m going to approach the indie side of these posts, but I know all of that will factor in.
I’m adding bookstores, partly because I own one again, and partly because they’re on the rebound. Not bookstores as we knew them for the past fifteen years, but their own hybrid model—new and used, with a lot of online presence and some sales creativity. And that means more discoverability for authors.
Plus, if the rumblings about Barnes & Noble are true, then we might see some big changes on the traditional publishing horizon, because B&N is the last big non-Amazon bookseller in the U.S., and traditional publishers who once hated B&N now look on them as some kind of book savior.
Yeah, right. We’ll see what happens.
Online retail is growing and growing and growing and growing. The numbers for the holiday season are just coming in, but it looks like in the U.S., online sales jumped again.
And that doesn’t count the online growth overseas, not just in the usual suspects—Great Britain, China, Germany—but in almost every single country in the world.
Markets are growing at light speed, and so is readership in English. Talk about trying to wrap your arms around a hurricane. This one is huge, and just beginning to make itself known.
We are getting used to the new landscape of publishing, with books being readily available in most countries, in many languages, in a wide variety of formats, and writers are struggling to find their place in this new world.
It’s hard to find your place when you can barely see it, or if the ground is still shifting under your feet.
I don’t think the lava is spewing from the volcano any more. I do think the lava is still oozing downhill.
Lava creates new landscapes. Sometimes it creates entirely new mountains, which I think it might be doing with smaller publishing houses. Sometimes lava lays waste to everything around it. Sometimes lava enriches the soil, so that what grows out of the devastation is stronger, healthier and even more powerful.
But for the next few days, I’m going to dig into the interwebby, read the magazines around here, pick a few brains, and see what I can figure out. If you think I might have missed something, send me a link on Twitter (@KristineRusch) or comment below.
I feel like I just poked my head out of a dark cave and I’m standing in the sunlight for the first time in 18 months. Yeah, I’m blinking a little at the brightness, but I’ll get oriented quickly enough.
I hope you join me for this journey.
“Business Musings: The Year in Review (Overview),” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo/wead.
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