I’ll be on the road much of next week, so I thought I’d do my annual predictions about the publishing game a little earlier than usual this year, mainly so I can loaf through the holidays and dip into more eggnog than I ought to. So for whatever they’re worth, here they are:
1) Subscription services will make it much harder to sell books. The voracious readers who are most likely to try an indie with a “WTF purchase” will instead tend to borrow instead of buy. This will result in drastic reductions in author take-home pay, all assurances of “increased exposure” aside. A whole group of readers are being conditioned to believe that books have little or no value/should be free/should only be read if virtually free. This will continue. For an idea of where this progression ends, look at music. Musicians can’t earn decent money anymore by having a hit, or even several hits. The economic model is broken in such a way that the artist sees virtually nothing, with the intermediary company that enables the download taking the lion’s share of the revenue. Musicians now earn their livings by touring, by selling merchandise (shirts, hats, etc.), by selling virtually anything but music. Alas, authors don’t have the option of filling coliseums at $50 a ticket or being cool or mainstream enough to hawk $22 concert T-shirts with their likenesses on them, so expect things to get much harder.
2) The importance of brand will increase. What do I mean? Well, I like to use water as an example. In developed countries, water comes out of the tap, and is virtually free. This has been the case as long as I’ve been alive. And yet savvy marketers have convinced the lion’s share of consumers that they need to pay, often large amounts, for a product that is essentially identical (it’s H20) to what they can get free. This is a triumph of consumerism and I believe there’s a lesson in it. As art becomes increasingly commoditized in the eyes of consumers, being able to create demand for a particular brand of commodity becomes essential. Authors who want to have careers doing something besides chasing the next fad will have to develop a brand in their readers’ minds that’s worth paying for. Back to water. Not only is water free from the tap, but there are countless generic bottled water producers. And yet some manage to position their identical product (H20) at many dollars per container, while others are almost free (bottle cost, shipping, filling, inventorying). The difference is the apparent value of the brand. Some brand adherents will go so far as to claim one virtually identical product tastes better or is in some other way superior to those icky generic variants, never mind the drinkable, safe tap water. That’s genius from the brand management standpoint, and smart authors are well advised to pay attention to what’s worked to create billion dollar industries from nothing.
3) Perma-free isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still pretty good. Used to be you could put your first book free in a series and be guaranteed tens of thousands of downloads per month, with some conversion factor to the rest of the series (paid). Now, not so much, in that the number of downloads will be lower. But it still beats putting your book out and tweeting “Buy my book” or “Today only – .99!” until blue in the face. I noticed a substantial drop in free downloads via Amazon once KU came out, so the subscription model has monetized some percentage of those readers who largely or only read free – but at the expense of author discovery. Good for Amazon. Not so much for authors trying to get visibility by giving readers a taste for free.
4) Apple is coming on strong. B&N isn’t. Kobo, yawn. Google Play, mmm, not so much. Exclusivity to any vendor will continue to cost authors more than it earns them over the mid-to-long term. The reason is that exclusivity used to pay better, in that Amazon made it sort of worth your while. Now? If you think selling your novel for $1.39 royalty via borrows is a good reason to forego every other vendor out there, hey, you better than I know what your work is actually worth. But for anything longer than a novella or short story, I don’t see it as a decent deal for anyone but Amazon. And I’m not alone in that perception. Sometimes Amazon throws us a great big meat-covered bone, and sometimes a rotting table scrap. This time, it’s not even a scrap, although I know some authors who have done well. They are exceptions. Diversification across all vendors will continue to be important for smart publishers, indie especially. On a side note, traditional publishers get full royalty on a borrow, from what I understand – it’s only the indies whose work is considered worth a fraction of a sale royalty. That should tell you a huge something about how the vendors view indies as business people, as well as how they view the value of their work. Doesn’t take rocket science to figure it out. Whether they’re right, or wrong, is open to debate. I don’t like selling ten to fourteen hours of entertainment I invested hundreds of hours into and spent thousands editing, proofing, creating covers for, etc. for $1.30-something. Some may well might. Up to them.
5) Trad publishers will step up the competition with lower priced backlist offerings. The reluctance to price lower will give way to shareholder demands for fat profits, meaning a lot of $2.99-$5.99 novels from quality names. This will result in the average price paid for an ebook continuing to spiral downward, reducing the apparent value proposition of indie offerings. As I said in my last blog, if I can buy an edited, professionally presented novel by a marquee name for $4, my interest in paying that for an amateurish, questionably or non-edited screed from someone I’ve never heard of is going to be pretty low. That’s going to make it harder for new names to break out, as well as for many names that have respectable sales to maintain them moving forward.
So there we have it. Nothing revelationary, but hey, what do I look like, frigging Nostradamus? I could make more inflammatory predictions, but wouldn’t have confidence in them. These I believe accurately describe the 2015 playing field as it’s shaping up.
All in all, it’s going to be a tougher year in 2015 than in 2014, which was tougher than 2013, which was tougher than 2012, and so on. However, there will still be breakthrough authors who come out of nowhere and whose work electrifies an audience. There will still be exceptions. Many of those will be indies.
It remains an exciting time to be an author. I certainly can’t complain. To wrap up my year, I was on the cover of The Wall Street Journal and in The Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, and a host of others at the top of the year, have sold nearly a million books now (not counting my co-authored tomes), released my co-authored novel with Clive Cussler in Sept. and hit #2 on the NYT Bestseller List with it, sold foreign rights to Germany, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, have a half dozen name production companies nosing around JET and my Assassin series, have a wonderful agent who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the biz, and have generally had a nice run of it. Next year will see a host of co-authored romances, five Russell Blake novels, another co-authored tome with Cussler, and plenty more surprises, I’m sure. For the end of my 42nd month in the publishing game, can’t whine too much, although I certainly do, early and often.
Oh, and for those who buy my crap (which should be everyone at this point), JET – Survival is available on pre-release and goes live December 26th. Hint, hint.