The biggest issue for the latter half of 2018 was book sales. Indies and traditional publishers both complained that book sales were down, and that a crisis was imminent. Their ideas of crisis were different, but they come from a similar source, which is the current state of disruption in the publishing industry.
I wrote about where we stand on the macro level in the current state of disruption in the previous post. Please read that post to understand some of what I’m discussing here.
I’m doing this short series focusing on 2018 with an eye toward 2019 because I firmly believe that you cannot plan for the future if you don’t know where you’re standing right now. (And a note on terminology: I’ll be using indie published writer instead of self-published writer because indie writers are running a business, whether they like it or not. I want the terminology to reflect that.)
This series is important to all kinds of fiction writers, whether they’re traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid of both. Please remember that I write this blog for the writer who wants a long-term fiction career, so keep that in mind as well.
Traditional Publishing Sales
In November, The Hot Sheet, published by Jane Friedman and Porter Anderson, did a deep dive into the issue of declining fiction sales. The Hot Sheet, which I recommend if you want to keep up with all facets of the industry, lives behind a paywall. I’ll link to their deep dive here but to catch a sense of it, you might want to look at Mark Williams reflections on the post in his (also valuable) The New Publishing Standard.
The Hot Sheet articles got their start from a piece in Publisher’s Weekly, which you can read here. What started this discussion were some alarming numbers from the Association of American Publishers, which can track fiction sales through traditional venues but not, mind you, sales figures from Amazon, which is the largest bookseller in the United States. (Some of the Amazon numbers were reported to AAP from the publishers themselves.) There’s a lot of self-reporting in the old fashioned way that publishing numbers get gathered, from independent bookstores telling their numbers (without a fact check) to publishers doing the same.
Still, no small bookstore will deliberately underreport its numbers unless there is a business or tax reason to do so, which doesn’t seem to factor in here. Verifying the numbers from both booksellers and publishers has never been part of book sales reporting, not even after computers came into the picture. (Although, with the assistance of numbers from Bowker and book distributors, the introduction of computers did help.)
The numbers that caught everyone’s attention were two-part.
1) Sales of adult fiction titles fell 16% from 2013 to 2017.
2) That 16% represents a rather large dollar figure. Sales went from $5.21 billion to $4.38 billion.
Realize we are talking about traditional publishing here, not indie publishing at all. Those numbers aren’t really baked into the book sales numbers in any significant way. (Remember, Amazon isn’t counted here, and Kindle Unlimited isn’t reflected here at all.)
The scarier number for traditional publishers appears deeper in the article. This number comes from Bookscan, which only tracks print sales. I’m going to quote PW here. The italics at the end of the sentence are my emphasis added.
…the BookScan figures show that no fiction title topped one million copies sold in 2016 or 2017 at outlets that report to the service.
For an industry that used to sell print titles well over a million on a regular basis (at the turn of the century and before) that’s a scary, scary, scary number. For comparison, I tried to go to 1998 with a quick web search of Publisher’s Weekly, but I only managed to find 1999. It’ll do.
There were six trade paperback fiction bestsellers that sold one million copies plus, and trade was the smallest selling fiction category at the time. There were more mass market paperback bestsellers than I wanted to count—and these listings began at 2 million sales plus. Leading that list with 2 books was John Grisham at 4.1 million and 3.875 million respectively. Eight hardcover novels sold more than 1 million copies, including (again) a John Grisham.
PW stopped making these lists when the numbers tanked. Ebook numbers did not replace the mass market sales, at least for the traditional publishers, for a variety of reasons that we have explored on this blog many times.
Last year, John Grisham admitted to the New York Times that his novels sell half of what they sold in 2007, which was less than they sold in 1997. Here’s how Janet Maslin of the Times reported his comments:
He doesn’t worry much about book sales either, except he’s very alert to the numbers. “The biggest change for me has been that I’m selling about half the books I sold before the Great Recession,” he said. “Maybe a little bit more than half. This is discretionary spending, and people are not spending.”
Savvy readers will see that I used this same quote last year in discussing book sales. Nothing has changed in the year or so since I wrote that post.
Until the last ten years or so, traditional publishing dominated the marketplace. They could sell millions of copies to readers because there was no other game in town. Nothing competed with traditionally published novels. Sure, there were a few outliers who managed to shoehorn a self-published book onto a list somewhere, but those were often nonfiction books. Generally, the outliers were small independent publishers with a new editorial eye that could eventually compete and had pockets deep enough to allow them to pay for some of the same services traditional publishers used.
We are at Stage Three in the publishing disruption, though, and traditional publishers are no longer the only game in town. Not even close. And they’ve got a really serious issue: their business model was built in the previous century. To make matters even worse, they’ve consolidated. None of the big traditional publishers are nimble in anyway. They’re part of large conglomerates who expect major earnings from each corporation under their huge umbrella.
In an upcoming part of this series, I will examine how traditional publishers are looking to keep themselves relevant to their corporate masters. It will change the traditional publishing model forever, but it won’t benefit writers in any way.
But for now, let’s just deal with sales.
Traditional publishers are terrified by these shrinking sales numbers. Their solutions are based in their old model thinking—and, unfortunately for them, are mostly impossible.
The reason I chose John Grisham as my example is three-fold. First, there’s that lovely quote he gave the New York Times. Second, I looked up his numbers last year and the current ones are this: His books now sell in one month what they used to sell in one week. Sometimes in one day. The third reason? He’s still sitting on top of the bestseller list, as one of the most important big guns, twenty-seven years after he hit it.
He’s on the list, Nora Roberts is still on the list, Stephen King…
Let’s go back to that Publisher’s Weekly article that sparked so much discussion. A lot of the discussion was about what’s “wrong” with fiction sales. The discussion is lost in that traditional publishing bubble, thinking they’re still the only game in town.
They talk about movies and TV as competition (what is this? 1960?) and claim that people are either reading nonfiction or aren’t reading much at all. Worse, they’re blaming Amazon for much of their problems—refusing to see that Amazon is their biggest client.
(Okay. High horse. Stepping off that now.)
There is one line in here, though, that speaks to the problem that traditional publishers have had since 1997 or so—and they have not solved, despite being told over and over and over again that they need to rethink this.
They’re not building author careers. Or, as Peter Hildick-Smith of The Codex Group (which many industry insiders use for market research and pre-publication book testing) told PW:
Creating a dependable, bestselling author is a multibook investment that requires different strategies and great persistence. It’s not a one-and-done launch.
Codex’s own research shows that a consumer generally reads three books by an author before becoming a regular reader of that author. We’ve seen that analysis many different times from many sources.
The essence here is that the author is the brand, not the publisher, and traditional publishers are no longer putting the money into developing new brands. Which is why you’re seeing the same old same old on trad pub bestseller lists, and why the sales figures are going down.
There’s a lot to read out in the marketplace. Readers who like legal thrillers don’t have to read John Grisham. They can read a variety of other authors in a variety of different ways.
Hildick-Smith put his finger on the rest of the problem. He said that “so much inexpensive genre fiction [is] now available at ‘subprime price points under $5’ (from such channels as Kindle Unlimited), publishers must invest to develop brand name authors who can command premium-price loyalty.”
The price problem. It’s twofold. Traditional publishers can’t maintain their business model without charging higher prices. They’re top-heavy, with overhead and vice presidents and high printing costs and the cost of returns and…and…and…
Traditional publishers need to earn a certain amount per book which, with the loss of revenue from the mismanagement of the content itself, isn’t happening any more. No amount of cutting of staff or reorganizing labor contracts will change the fact that traditional publishing needs to change its business model in order to survive.
The good news for traditionally published writers is that trad pub is changing its business model. The bad news for traditionally published writers is the way that trad pub is changing the model. We’ll deal with that later in the series as well, when we look at changes on the intellectual property sides of things.
Traditional publishing is not going to build new writers into bestsellers. They’re not even trying. That’s clear from a quote from Paul Bogaards, a vice president of Alfred P. Knopf who is apparently still dining out on his 2009 acquisition of Stieg Larsson’s books. In talking about rebuilding fiction sales, Bogaards is simply quoted as saying this:
There will be another big novel. There always is.
A Digression: Price Points And Retail Sales
There are two points in the above section I need to point out. They both come from Hildick-Smith. He uses two loaded phrases in his discussions of price:
“Sub-prime price points” and “premium price points.”
Realize he’s talking to an industry that used to set the price, no argument, no discussion, consumers had to pay what they had to pay or they had to go to libraries or used bookstores or go without.
So traditional publishing believes its prices are the right prices, which is what led to the whole anti-trust suit several years ago. Most of the fights traditional publishing has had with Amazon has been over pricing, and those fights still continue. (You can see them if you’re paying attention.)
All of this snobbery on the part of traditional publishers is what has created the bind that they’re in regarding sales. Pricing isn’t a one and done prospect. It is both an art and a science. Entire business school semesters—hell, entire majors and graduate work—revolve around all the various ways that price influences purchases.
Traditional publishing has ignored this, and because so many indie writers build their careers either in a traditional publishing model or in rebellion against traditional publishing, the indie writers haven’t learned how to properly use price either. I’ve written a lot about pricing, particularly around discoverability, and you can find many of those blog posts here. (They’re old, but the concepts are not dated.)
But pricing is a major factor in retail sales. Some consumers love buying premium price items and will never shop discount. Some consumers who can afford premium price will only shop discount. Some consumers save to buy mid-range items, and some consumers consume so much of a particular type of product that a subscription model will help them save money.
The fact that traditional publishing considers under $5 “subprime pricing” is a serious problem for them.
To pick on John Grisham again, his latest novel released in October has a $14.99 ebook price. (Yes, really.) And the backlist ebooks, including Camino Island, which was the one he was discussing with the New York Times in 2017 sells for $9.99. But he is a premium price author, and has been for many readers for a long time. Is he picking up new readers at those price points? Probably not, which is why his sales are declining over the years rather than growing.
So let’s move to those subprime price points, that “inexpensive genre fiction being published by such channels as Kindle Unlimited.”
Indie Publishing Sales
Here’s the irony. Many indie published writers are claiming their sales are down as well in 2018…and, like their traditional publishing counterparts, they’re blaming Amazon.
In the United States, Amazon is the big player. So many indie writers are Amazon only, which is a serious problem, in my opinion. I dealt with it not too long ago in the blog post “Your Basket Is Leaking.” I’m not going to reiterate those points here, but I will expand on a few of them.
Before I get to that, however, let’s look at this chart from last week’s post.
Right now, we’re at the point of disruption where the old line (traditional publishing) and the new line (indie publishing) meet. So it makes sense that after a precipitous rise in profits for both groups that sales would level off. Both S-curves in this graph show the cross-over moment as a slower one for sales in both models.
Indie isn’t new and hot any more. It’s part of the landscape. Readers are buying books that they want, not caring what company published them. Readers are brand-loyal to writers, buying their favorites and often at premium prices. But readers aren’t one thing. They might buy the latest John Grisham and the latest Sarina Bowen, at two different price points. But that same reader might also have a Kindle Unlimited subscription to control costs, or love the game of finding new books to read in the free section of their favorite etailer.
BookBub enables this habit by sending a newsletter to its subscribers listing the books available for free every single day. Indies complain that BookBub is hard to get into. (BookBub provides advertising for book specials, in case you’re not familiar with them.) Old-timer indies are particularly annoyed at this, since BookBub got its start with indie authors. Now even the traditional publishers come to play.
A lot of systems that worked well or were indie only have now expanded to include traditional publishers, who are trying anything to shore up their sinking sales. And a system that worked in 2014, at a different stage of the disruption, won’t work as well in 2019. The newness has worn off.
So are indie sales decreasing? That’s not as transparent as traditional publishing sales. Anecdotally, yes, indie sales are down, particularly among the writers who are Amazon-only.
There seem to be a variety of reasons for that. Amazon is changing its algorithms again. This fall had a big to-do about the loss of also-boughts on Amazon, something that appeared and disappeared and then appeared again on my radar. Many indies are now claiming that Amazon, like Facebook before it, has become “pay to play.” If you want exposure on Amazon, even through KU, you need to pay for it.
Full disclosure: I’ve played around in KU under pen names, but I don’t have a heavy KU presence. Those pen names of mine are doing their level best in KU, but my health issues affected them as well, and I was not very prolific in 2018, so my participation in the experiment is not indicative of much.
I haven’t seen any pay to play in KU, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. As Joanna Penn says, Amazon tweaks its model constantly and is consistently experimenting (daily) with new ways of doing things. They probably are going to a pay-to-play model. I hate to tell you this, folks, but pay-to-play is the heart of retail.
Indies were simply lucky during the start of this disruption in that things moved so fast no one could figure out how to monetize the ebook side of things…except the authors themselves. That’s changing in a variety of ways. (This is part of what happens in Stages 2 & 3 of a disruption, or after a boom. Remember, during the gold rush, the people who made money were the people who owned the stores where everyone bought their supplies.)
Let me give you my theory on what might be going on with Amazon. Realize this is just a theory. But I suspect they tweak the KU prize pool to keep the costs down and all of the players happy.
Think of it this way: If you’re a good writer and you’re dominating KU, then you’re going to get the biggest part of the monthly pie. If you’re good at gaming the algorithm, the same thing will happen. If you get the bulk of that pie, then the remaining players aren’t getting much at all and they’re unhappy.
I don’t think Amazon looks at KU authors as publishing partners. I think they see KU authors as consumers of their system. And Amazon’s theory on consumer relation is to keep the bulk of consumers happy, even if it occasionally pisses off the high-end folks.
So is there a decline in revenue? I don’t know. Is there a decline in indie sales outside of Amazon? I’m not hearing that at all from the indie writers who are talking about sales. The sales with other venues are never (for the U.S. based author) as large as they are through Amazon, but they’re solid. And they seem to have remained so.
Our outside-of-Amazon sales have grown in 2018. And because WMG has an employee who made it her mission this year to grow our book sales revenue (even while Dean and I weren’t producing new books), we have more than doubled our books sold through ebook sites revenue.
So, anecdotally, from us, our sales are not down.
The Hot Sheet reported, citing writer MJ Rose as its source, that “The fiction market for books under five dollars is not declining but very healthy.”
Mark Williams in the New Publishing Standard believes as I do that fiction sales are growing. They’re just moving to harder to track places.
Book sales were trackable when they came from bookstores and the usual retailers who carried books. They remained trackable for indies, more or less, when the indie was dealing with a single retailer or three or four, as we all were in the beginning.
Speaking personally, though, my book sales in 2018 were on various etailers worldwide, in paper worldwide, in libraries, in bundles, in special deals and discounted titles on our own sites, as Kickstarter rewards (not just through WMG), and in a whole bunch of other places.
This morning, as I write this, I got notification that I’ll be going to the Global Licensing Fair here in Vegas as well as the Consumer Electronics Show, so I’ll be learning about even more venues, not to mention ways of licensing my own content.
As Mark Williams said, book sales are growing, just not in clearly trackable ways.
And that will continue into 2019. Just this past year, BookFunnel rolled out a feature that makes it easier for indie writers and publishers to host an estore on their own website. (Technically, the pages and the downloads will be on BookFunnel’s site.) Those of us who’ve been doing this for a long time have been clamoring for an easy way to sell our own books to consumers direct, and now we have it.
Those sales will be impossible track, since BookFunnel deliberately does not sell or report its data to other sites.
And that’s just one example of how book sales can happen outside of the usual tracking systems.
Another way? We don’t know how much general fiction readership is growing. People reading on their smart phones in rural areas with no bookstores. People reading all the free offerings on the internet. (I offer a free short story every Monday, and don’t track the readers of that. Nor do I look to see how many migrate to my novels. I’m just providing a free read, hoping to provide some enjoyment in people’s day.) There have been studies…and as I’m struggling to finish this, I can’t quickly put my fingers on them…on how the availability of internet increases literacy worldwide. (Here’s the closest I could find quickly. ) People who had no opportunity to read for pleasure now are. They’ll become loyal readers of a genre, a type of story, a certain author.
A lot of the reading occurs in English, because it’s the international language of business, but a lot occurs in other languages as well. I’m not seeing (because I’m not looking) how much worldwide book sales have increased in Chinese (the most spoken language in the world) or Spanish (the second most spoken language in the world).
So…long story short: are indie book sales down? Most likely they are on Amazon, particularly for Amazon-only writers in the United States, and maybe in the countries where Amazon dominates. There’s simply too much anecdotal evidence to ignore this. Does that mean book sales are down in general for indies? No, not at all.
We’re back to where we were at the beginning of this disruption. There’s no real way to track indie book sales.
If traditional publishers were actually publishers in the 2018/2019 sense and were focused on books rather than whatever the hell they’re focused on, then we wouldn’t be able to track those sales either. But we can because, oddly enough, traditional publishers are so old-fashioned that most of them are not moving to new delivery systems.
And that too is part of this stage in the disruption model.
The simple fact is that new profit pools may not be as deep as prior ones…. The challenge is to adapt and structurally realign cost bases to the new reality of profit pools, and accept that the “new normal” likely includes far fewer “rivers of gold.”
That quote, by the way, is for the established traditional businesses in a disrupted industry. But it can also apply to the indies who jumped on board in Stage One of the disruption. What worked then was a combination of boom, gold rush, and opportunity. Those things fade over time, and the business must adapt.
Yes, indie writers are probably making less money on their older platforms, partly because they’re using the same techniques that they used at the beginning of this disruption. A lot of the early indies refused to broaden their horizons out of Amazon.
It’s time to do that now. (It’s really past time.) So if you’re one of the writers who has been complaining about lower sales numbers and you’re Amazon-only, spend 2019 changing your business so that you can go wide.
The only constant in this industry is change.
Readers are out there. Readers have more choice now, which decreases the sales of the old established Big Guns, like John Grisham and Nora Roberts. It also decreases the chances of a reader buying a book from a traditional publisher. (The reader might choose their favorite indie instead.)
So this leveling of sales per title is not surprising.
Paul Bogaards of Knopf is right, however. There will be a next big novel that will dominate the sales figures and the trades and will capture the attention of a certain part of the reading world. (Maybe even most of the reading world in a certain language.)
There will also be big lottery pool prizes, and eventually someone will win those.
Betting on having a big book, which is what traditional publishers are still doing in 2018 and 2019, is as foolish as betting on a lottery win. Traditional publishers no longer control what’s available for readers, so the chances of that big sale coming from trad pub are the same as the chances of that big sale coming from indie.
And it has become an actual gamble, not a sure thing.
So indies need to stop hoping to be the next Big Thing, and plan how to manage their career in a world of scattered sales venues. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But it’s also fun work.
And remember: Each book sale equals one potential reader. Build on those. We writers are still very, very lucky.
This disruption enables us to get our books into the hands of readers in a way that we couldn’t do in 1998. We can build a career and a business based on our own creative abilities.
We just need to remain nimble.
As usual, I write series like this to clarify my own thoughts, but I might have just sketched things down on a yellow legal pad if I didn’t have the support and interest from all of you. Thank you! And big, big, big thanks to my Patreon supporters for advising me on various topics for this series.
You folks led me to these topics, and to some major ones in the future. Thank you!
I get almost daily emails from regular readers on the website too, with book recommendations, article links, and general thoughts. I appreciate those greatly as well.
Those are major ways of supporting this blog. There are others, some of them financial.
If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page. I will be blogging about my experiences at the Consumer Electronics Show next week for those who are at the $5 and above tier. I’m revamping the Patreon page to include more content like that, which will happen slowly throughout January.
If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
If you have limited funds, request a book of mine at your local library or recommend this blog to a writer friend. Those things are as important as the financial support.
Thank you all for being here and helping me focus my thoughts. That matters to me more than I can say.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Sales (Planning For 2019 Part Two),” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Graph in the center of the blog copyright © 2018 by Dean Wesley Smith. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.