Business Musings: Tea Leaves: Year in Review 2022 Part 4
I started this year’s Year in Review blogs with traditional publishing partly because that Department of Justice anti-trust case produced such juicy tidbits that I couldn’t ignore them, and partly because I have always started with traditional publishing. Back in the day, I saw all of us (writers, readers, and publishers) as creatures that emerged from traditional publishing.
Now, I see a lot of writers who didn’t start in traditional and have no desire to go there. I’ve met a lot of young readers who really don’t care what the newest hottest book is. Heck, I’ve met a lot of young people who have no sense of the latest music (something that was a big deal when I was young) because they have access to all music. They can easily find their niche, and go back to Patsy Cline if that niche is country or maybe find a song by Maren Morris and have them on the same playlist.
Reading the opinion in the attempted merger of Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, a merger that the courts ultimately blocked, giving a big (if twenty years too late) win to the Department of Justice, made me realize just how different the various areas of publishing are now.
It also gave me a glimpse into the future, with more clarity than I think I’ve had on the entire industry maybe ever.
Last year I wrote a post in the Year in Review called “The Split.” I finally had numbers that showed just how different the traditional publishing industry was from what most places call the self-publishing industry. Self-publishing is no longer accurate, as we’ll see below, and I’m not sure it’s ever been accurate. It’s more of an indie publishing industry. Some writers do publish their own work, but others have created large businesses that publish the work of many writers.
I wrote a second Year in Review post in 2021 about the splits in indie publishing, and I still stand by that analysis. In that post, I identified five different areas of the part of publishing I’m calling indie. (I still haven’t found a good name for it all. Neither, it seems, has anyone else.)
While I separated them into five areas last year, I’m only going to explore four areas this year. They are:
- Actual self-publishing. It’s a one-person operation, with the occasional contract labor to help with things like covers (although we’ll see in a future post how that has gotten even easier) or copy edits or anything else the author wants to farm out.
- The Individual Data Managers. People who like playing with algorithms and use the amazing amount of data that’s at our fingertips now to enhance book sales. Sometimes those sales are for the writer’s individual work and sometimes those sales are for books the writer/manager owns a percentage of. I love many things about these folks, but my favorite part—at least for the purpose of this post—is that traditional publishing could’ve used someone like this for decades…and never bothered to hire them. Right now, given the changes at Amazon and elsewhere, this isn’t as successful a route as it was even a year ago, but the more things change….
- Small Publishers. This is a catch-all category, but suffice to say that these are publishers who started as writers but have a full-fledged somewhat traditional publishing business. Traditional in the sense that they license rights from other writers, publish the books or stories on all platforms, and pay the writer for that privilege. The payments are not standardized in this category as they are in true traditional publishing (New York based) but that’s irrelevant. These publishers exist and will become more important as the years go by.
- Small Entertainment Companies. Last year, I described them as companies that “started out as something reading- or writer-oriented.” Then they became something that was not like anything we’d seen before, and eventually sold for millions to larger corporations. I’m not describing them further, because the more I see what’s been going on in 2022, the more I think this category is growing and changing and becoming something that’s about story in all of its forms. We might discuss this in a later Year in Review post as I discuss the influence AI products are making on creativity in general.
Last year, this analysis of the publishing industry seemed pretty thorough to me, although I knew I was missing something. Then, throughout the year, I looked at writer after writer after writer who refused to believe the information coming out at the S&S/PRH/DOJ trial, and continued to move forward into traditional publishing, no matter what. I couldn’t see what drove the writers there, except for old-fashioned beliefs.
I think those old-fashioned and engrained beliefs are there. But those writers were seeing something that I had missed.
They were seeing the “top-selling books” market. I analyzed that a bit in the previous year-in-review post, the one about bestsellers. The DOJ, in making its case against the merger, isolated this market for me, and made me understand that it will always be with us.
Writers, particularly writers without any business acumen or future vision, will always try to get into this market. I hate calling it “top-selling books” because that’s not accurate at all. (See that bestseller post.) I’m not even sure there’s a good label for this category.
Books That Get A Big Traditional Advance? Books That Get Special Traditional Treatment? Books Traditional Publishing Has High Hopes For?
Let’s skip the label, since it’s so hard to make an accurate one, and go with the definition from the opinion in the S&S/PRH/DOJ case.
These are books that get advances of $250,000 and above. From pages 34-35, those books “are expected to sell well, are more likely to include favorable terms like higher royalty rates, higher levels of marketing support, ‘glam’ packages (e.g., for hair, makeup, and wardrobe services), and airfare for authors.” Further:
Publishers print more of the books they think will do well; circulate more advance copies of such books to reviewers or influencers to create excitement; push for interviews with more media outlets; and schedule book-tour appearances in more locations….Anticipated top-selling books get more attention from marketing and sales teams.
All of this I knew, of course. I’d seen it. I’d benefitted from some of it (although not a glam package, thank heavens). I also know how worthless most of this is in 2022. The “top-selling” market isn’t top-selling anymore. The numbers have gone way down.
But if a writer consumes a lot of traditional media and looks at the traditional promotions in brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as those rotating ads on the online book retailers, then they’ll see certain books get promoted time and time again.
I always assumed that those writers didn’t know that there were other better ways to get their books to readers. I thought those writers were ignorant. I still think many writers who go into traditional publishing are ignorant, willfully so.
But there’s another category of writer that I was having trouble accepting. I missed the writers who have different goals than I do. The DOJ defines these writers as “distinct sellers.” There are three points to that definition and two are more or less irrelevant to our examination here. (Those points are based on the idea that self-publishing is ineffective because writers can’t pay themselves an advance or market their books properly. Not kidding. See this post.)
I had missed that these writers have different goals than I do. The goal that caught me was the one described on page 33 of the opinion.
…authors of anticipated top-selling books…(1) care more about their publishers’ reputation and services, which ensure wider distribution of their books…
To which we can add “in the old-fashioned traditional media and marketplace.”
If it’s really important for a writer to get the full 1970s star author treatment, however reduced it is in 2022, then that writer will always go to traditional publishing, or more specifically here in the U.S., to the Big 5.
Think of it this way: The Big 5 have become network television. Once upon a time in the U.S., we had three TV networks. In the 1970s, top shows on one of those three networks could get an average of 20 million households watching every single week. (A household was generally considered to be four people, which meant that the viewership was around 80 million people at a time when the U.S. population was around 203 million people.)
Now, almost no TV show on the networks gets anywhere close to that number. Only Sunday Night Football (American football, you non-U.S. residents) gets around 20 million viewers on a weekly basis, and that’s because sporting events aren’t that much fun to watch after the fact. Twenty million viewers at a time when the population of the U.S. is officially 329 million. So, if you go by percentage of potential audience, viewership of a highly successful network TV show has gone from capturing 39% of the population to capturing 6% of the population.
If you look at how the numbers for TV viewership changed in the 1970s, you can see a parallel with book publishing. In 1970, only 4.5 million people had any access at all to cable TV. By the end of the decade, 15.5 million people had access to cable TV. The programming was nascent and not all that great. My parents subscribed to HBO in its early years, and it consisted mostly of a handful of movies, some relatively new, on a repeat schedule throughout the month. In fact, my folks let the subscription go because the price was too high for the content.
These days, network television still has a bit of prestige. It’s still advertising driven and it’s always looking for market share. But almost no one has a TV that’s set up on network only. Most people have streaming services. The number of people with cable is down, because they have to buy packages that includes channels they don’t want, so a lot of folks are cord-cutting.
As far as content is concerned, TV is in a new golden age. There’s a lot of great programming out there, and not all of what’s airing here in the U.S. and on streaming services is U.S. based. (Think Squid Game and Money Heist, among others.)
But there is more content now than anyone can watch, even if they watch in some form of triple speed 24 hours per day, seven days per week. This is a good thing, in my not-so-humble opinion. Very different from the world I grew up in.
(For my sins the other day, I was trying to remember [without looking anything up] the lyrics to the theme song for Green Acres. I hated that show with a burning hot passion, but my mother loved it, so the family TV was always tuned to CBS on Tuesday nights, which meant no one could watch anything else for that half hour or more.)
Network television still has some cachet, but not as much as it had even ten years ago. Lately, snide sideways comments have crept into the mainstream. Network TV is for “old people” or for people who are “out of touch.” The age thing is true: most of the viewers of network TV are older, just like most cable subscribers are older. From a pretty fascinating article on this year’s upfronts (the sales pitches to advertisers for next year’s shows) comes this nugget:
Tubi, Fox Corp.’s free, ad-supported streamer, promises advertisers a median age of 39 years, while viewers watching CBS programming on Paramount+ are 18 years younger than viewers on linear TV on average, per CBS CEO and president George Cheeks.
I’m pretty sure that cachet for network will disappear in the next few years, as all of the network channels now promote their in-house streaming service, and those services are attracting younger viewers. Surveys that I’m not going to take the time to find (but you can, especially if you look at The Hollywood Reporter online) show that younger viewers don’t care what service they stream from, so long as they’re not putting out a lot of money for a variety of streaming services.
My comparison to TV isn’t random. The Big 3 market share has been disrupted for fifty years. The Big 3 channels are still there, a shadow of their former selves, but they continue to play the same game. They market to advertisers, play in the traditional media, and even have some of the same programming they had in 1970. (The Today Show, anyone?)
As recently as ten years ago, I had producers contact me to option my work and assure me that they would make sure that they would approach the Big 3 networks first. I’m sure no one makes that claim any more, since those networks now get only 25% of monthly TV viewing hours (which is how viewership is measured now).
If you make the corollary between the Big 3 TV networks and the Big 5 publishers, you’ll see the future trajectory of “top-selling books.” These books will continue to travel on the same path that they did ten, twenty, and thirty years ago. The market share will get smaller and smaller, but for a while, it’ll seem like those books are the only “major” books there are.
We’re going to have the same problem that all of those TV shows are currently having—how to break through the noise and capture the attention of the reading populace. But that’s a discussion for an upcoming year in review blog post.
Discoverability is changing, just like it does every year. And some of that is trendy and some of it isn’t.
What I see for the future of the publishing industry is this: traditional will continue its not-so-slow decline. It will eventually become a tiny “top-selling” only part of the market.
Innovation will come from the indie side of the equation. Sometimes that innovation will be in the form of a blockbuster, attention-getting novel or series that breaks out of the pack and becomes a national (or international) phenomenon.
Sometimes the innovation might be a new platform or a new way to combine the actual book form with some derivative right (be that an audiobook or a homemade video or a condensed version read in 30 seconds by the author on TikTok). We’ve seen a lot of innovation in 2022, and I’ll be getting to that in the next few posts.
I’m moving off of traditional now. I actually wonder if I’ll even give traditional publishing more than a single post in 2023’s year in review. Traditional is losing its clout and knows it. What’s replacing it feels chaotic, unless you look at the history of television.
Then you know where this is all going. A lot of content, a lot of innovation, and some truly great storytelling—very little of which will be published by the Big 5. They’ll be the old-fashioned comfort food of book buying. Their writers will get the recognition they want through the old-fashioned media they admire, and little else.
The writers certainly won’t get money and they won’t retain their copyrights. But if recognition in the old system is what they want, then they might trade away everything of value to get their story to the world in the only way that those writers care about.
If the S&S/PRH/DOJ case convinced me of anything, it’s that those writers will never be this blog’s audience. I can argue with them about contract clauses and making better money and getting more readers until I’m blue in the face, and they’ll never listen, because they place more value on getting on Good Morning America to talk about their book.
Good Morning America, a show that’s been on one of the Big 3 networks (ABC) since 1975. Old media, without a lot of clout anymore.
But if that writer’s dream is to conquer the media of their childhood, then the only way to do so will be through the Big 5. If the writer can get a contract. If they’re a desirable author for those companies. And if they’re willing to sign one of those awful contracts.
Those writers will always exist. And they’ll keep the Big 5 in new books for at least ten more years. They’ll be part of the publishing industry, just like the networks are still part of the TV industry.
Those writers just won’t have the influence that they want or desire. Nor will they have the name recognition that bestselling writers had, say, in the 1980s.
Things change. Publishing has changed a lot. Traditional publishing is about to get very small, even the Big 5. They’re already fighting for every last dollar, as evidenced by all the contract terms cited in the court case, terms that claim more and more of a writer’s copyright in exchange for lower and lower advances.
But some writers won’t care about that. And they’ll jump into that market.
The rest of us will innovate and move with the new trends.
And now, this year in review will as well.
Thanks for indulging my look at the future in the year in review. My busy life schedule has just eased, so I will have time to go in-depth in a few trends that I’ve been wanting to examine closely. Those will come up in the next few blog posts.
I think the changes in the industry are really exciting, and I’ll be sharing those in the weeks ahead. But here’s my reminder:
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“Business Musings: Tea Leaves: The Year in Review Part 4,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / creatista.