Publishing is partly an exercise in guessing what might be the next surprise bestseller. Some of it is an educated guess based on certain trends we see in the industry and in society at large. Any exercise in naming these trends bears the risk of expressing the obvious or being out of date the moment they are stated. So bear with me as I tinker with some of the factors that are either influencing trends or are trends within themselves.
The Blockbuster Mentality
If it were your money, you would likely “bet” on those book ideas you know will sell tens of thousands of copies. And only those who already have a track record are assured of a ready-made buying audience. In addition, for the nonfiction writer in particular, there is a demand for the author to have a visible or quantifiable platform from which they can launch their book ideas. Much ink has been spilled on defining platform and how to build one, and for a good reason.
Economically, a single blockbuster can make or break a publishing company’s bottom line for the year. Think of the impact The Five Love Languages, Jesus Calling, 90 Minutes in Heaven, The Shack, The Action Bible, Left Behind, God Gave Us You, and others have had on their prospective publisher’s profit. Those titles, published by Moody Publishing, Thomas Nelson/Harper Christian, Revell/Baker Publishing Group, FaithWords, David C. Cook, Tyndale, and Waterbrook/Multnomah respectively have each sold over one million copies and generated a windfall of revenue. No one could have predicted any of those bestsellers. But each has created a second book (or more), even a franchise. Every publisher wants one of their own.
The Power of the Brick and Mortar Retailer Is Changing
The demise of Family Bookstores, the closure of Lifeway and Cokesbury, as well as the shrinking shelf space at Walmart and other large retailers have had a huge impact on publishers’ acquisitions. In the past, those bookstore-chain accounts, along with Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million, could make or break the success of a single title. But the buying power of the brick-and-mortar stores has begun to wane as people have become increasingly comfortable with ordering online. Today it is that much harder to get the exposure necessary to launch new or midlist authors. Thus, the pressure to have a ready-made platform from which to sell those books.
E-books changed the game, but have settled and are no longer as disruptive. Instead, they are a vital part of a publisher’s offerings. Where we see disruption is the growth of subscription services like Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, and Epic. Publishers and indie authors are constantly exploring new ways to launch books without relying on traditional sales channels.
Risk Management Instead of Risk Taking
Economic pressure has caused a number of publishers to be more cautious than ever before when acquiring a new author (not necessarily a debut author but someone new to their company). It is part of the first trend mentioned above. Some of my publisher friends would argue that this has always been the case, and they are right to an extent. Fiscal responsibility has always been a part of the publishing equation. And yet we agents can see an overall shift since the economic challenges of the last few years. Many predict hard times in the near future, and publishers are not immune.
This situation affects us too. We must constantly make decisions about representing books or authors based on whether or not we think we can sell them. While one might argue that the lack of sale is without risk to the agent, I would argue that “time is money” and time spent on a failed project is time lost forever.
Advances paid to an author are being squeezed. Or the full payment is spread out over time so that the publisher’s outlay is closer to the revenue received on publication.
Printing costs have increased in the past year by nearly 40%. The timeline from placing a print order to receipt of the physical books has doubled if not tripled in time. Paper shortages are plaguing the supply chain.
A Pox on Your Trends!
I can hear the groans many of you have made while reading this. In fact, I have about four or five other bullet points that sound increasingly morbid and depressing. As I looked at them all together, I actually smiled, believe it or not. I wrote many of these same words ten years ago and was spot on. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
If publishing were easy, anyone could do it and be successful. That is why it is called work. I take these “trends” and have to say, “Okay, glad to know that. So let’s get busy.” Instead of reading doom and gloom and the sky-is-falling, I suggest we see the incredible opportunities we have before us.
It Is a Great Time to Be a Writer
Our agency has been incredibly busy this year, closing on multiple new contracts every week (over 120 new book deals from January to October). It has been astounding to see how many books are being written by our clients. This is both exciting and encouraging. It is truly a great time to be a writer. There are so many places for your ideas and your words to find an audience. While it is hard, I can’t name a time when it was ever easy. Therefore, take the challenge and do the work and enjoy the richness of changing our world word by word.
Out here on the open range
it seems like quite a shame,
seeing how the more things change
they don’t remain the same.
Paved roads coming closer now,
power-poles march ‘cross the fields,
grazing gets replaced by plow
and conversation’s ’bout crop-yields.
I’d like to keep my yesterdays
alive, not pressed ‘tween bookish pages,
but in the end I’m forced to say
they now belong unto the ages,
and I’m pushed ‘gainst will to bend
to a world I cannot comprehend.
Nice one! I hope to meet you. I don’t have any affiliation with William Shatner, okay?
Amy Haywood Hughes
“…take the challenge and do the work and enjoy the richness of changing our world word by word.”
Great advice! Thank you
As a new author I hesitate at times to pull the trigger, sending out book proposals. Then I remember it’s what I love doing now, and I try everyday to get better, knowing it will make a difference– somewhere, sometime, somehow.
Thanks for the reminder. I look forward to your words of wisdom weekly.
I’ve learned to write to MY readers (whoever they may be) and leave the rest in God’s hands. He’s the one who determines what happens with my books.
It’s not easy, for sure. But the better I know my Father, the more I can rest in His decisions.
Wow, that sounds so pious! hahaha! Believe me when I say I went kicking and screaming into this new mindset. 😉 And there are days, of course, when I slip back into the old mindset. Would having a blockbuster novel make my life easier? I don’t know. I worry about pride, which I struggle with a lot, and a best-selling book would feed into that. But working to leave it all with God gives me peace and lets me be more creative. I think that’s a better way.
I resonate with your comment. I am learning that writing isn’t just about me and my push inside to write; writing to publish is for the people who need what God created me to say.
Pam, for you.
I would be a paperback writer,
a life that really rocks,
winding head ever tighter
making books to bust blocks,
but something I see instead,
oh, alas, and OH, NO!
Is Lord God shaking His head,
pointing where I should go?
It’s a climb down the glitter tree
to the grass and the weeds,
swallowed pride and humility,
’cause it’s what the Lord needs
to reach all the least of those
whom I’d thought far beneath my toes.
This is daunting, but also encouraging. Knowledge is power. Thank you.
I’m traditionally published just this year, a brand new author, and I’m writing another book and developing my platform. Your blog encourages me, even with today’s difficult trends. Thank you for writing and publishing these blogs!
OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU
Many thanks for the encouragement. My prayer is for the continued grace to produce those words that will change the world!
This is depressing. Having my non-fiction book in a catalog would at least give it some legitimacy. It would mean that someone else thinks it’s good. I pretty much don’t look for or buy Indie books. The only standard they have to pass is the author’s approval. So, this news is very depressing. It could mean that many people who might buy it won’t even know it exists. I wish I had tried to publish 20 years ago.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yes, it has never been easy. Art as a business is a risky thing, but I’m so glad that the authors I know and love, their agents, and their editors are taking that risk!
As an international writer, my experience is, it is an additional challenge to access the US market. What is your view on that, Steve?
Your mention of platform here relates to non-fiction writers? For a debut fiction writer to have an established platform is another challenge – what do I have to offer that is marketable, to get followers? How important is it for fiction?
Is the route of self-publication an option for you – maybe not money wise but to get your book up there. Do you think e-books gives the self-publisher a slight advantage- provided the book is readable.