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The State of Publishing Today - 2015 

Prepared for Jambalaya Writers’ Conference - 4-11-15

Regina Ryan

Everything in publishing changed in 2008 - with the financial crash. Publishers seemed to be hanging on for dear life, there were mergers, publishing imprints disappeared, houses shrunk, publishers’ lists shrunk and most importantly, advances shrunk drastically - many different sources say they have dropped by two-thirds.


So where are we now seven years later? It’s a good news / not-so-good news situation. First, the not-so-good news: Publishing is not in very good shape.

For a snapshot of the health of the industry, here are the latest figures: Trade book sales increased 12 percent over the previous year, due entirely to strong children’s / YA sales (mainly Frozen tie ins and Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT trilogy.) In fact, sales were down for every publisher but HarperCollins, Roth’s publisher. (Note: Penguin/Random hadn’t reported yet as of this writing.)

Adult sales were down 1.5% for the year, almost entirely due to weak hardcover/frontlist sales. Ebook sales grew almost 5%, again most gains coming from children’s/YA books.

Some of the largest growth came from downloadable audiobooks.

Where do ebooks fit in? In 2014, Nielsen reported that e-books accounted for 15% of the spending on all new books, up from 12%. Print books (or pbooks) accounted for 70% of new book spending. Most money was spent on hardcovers, followed by trade paperbacks, though more trade paperbacks were sold. It’s safe to say there has been no e-book revolution as publishers had feared.

Amazon sold 35% of all new books, down from 38% in 2013. (I wonder if that has something to do with the bitter backlash against Amazon in their fight with Hachette last year or whether this slide will continue.) Bookstore chains’ share of spending fell from 25% to 22% in 2014. Indie bookstores percentage dipped from 5% to 4%.

In my view, the industry will never go back to where it was, so we have fewer houses, lower advances, lower sales, fewer titles being published by publishing houses. This hasn’t changed much since the economy began to pick up, maybe a couple of years ago. What does all this mean for authors and agents? It’s simply getting harder and harder to sell books to publishers - and for publishers to sell books to readers.

Why? Declining numbers of readers and bookstores - there is just an awful lot of competition for eyeballs out there. Publishers are jittery and scared so are extremely cautious about taking on a project, and paying for it - only sure fire bestsellers get good money. It’s easier to sell enormous, almost unbelievable quantities of bestsellers like 50 Shades of Gray and harder to sell many copies of non- bestsellers, according to publishers.

Yet the good news is that there are more and more new start ups, some traditional print and digital, some digital only. As most of the “legacy publishers” - the big Five, and the other mid-size houses - have abandoned books that might sell in the mid range or lower range, new small publishers have sprung up to take advantage of these mid range books. These  small publishers haven’t got the huge overhead of the bigger publishers, and so don’t have to sell as many books to be happy. University presses have also stepped up to publish these books. The money is less for everyone, but these publishers can do a very nice job publishing books that should be published. And as an agent, it’s  good to have so many more possibilities. Now, these are beginning to shake out and some of them will disappear or merge. But there are plenty that are healthy and thriving.

One astonishing figure: Smashwords, a relatively new digital publisher (founded in 2008) says it has published to date: 350,001 books.

Here’s more good news: it’s easier for a writer to get published. Self-publishing has become accepted and there are more and more ways to do this. Unfortunately, most self-published books don’t sell well - maybe a hundred copies or so. They don’t get into bookstores and they don’t get reviews, so it’s very hard to get “discovered” amidst all the other books out there. (Discovery is the big new buzz word and describes a really big problem in book publishing today.) In fact, most surveys of writers report that almost all would prefer to be published by regular publishers.

But an energetic author who is savvy about publicity and social media can still break through.

More good news: If you write in the genres: romance, mystery, paranormal, suspense - you’re in luck - these sell extremely well as ebooks, and if you you write in series, once your name is known you can sell an awful lot of copies of all your books.  Some authors even cut their books in half to have more books out there - and it seems to work!  


The not-so-good news: If you write literary fiction, you’re going to have a hard time - agents tell me it’s almost impossible to sell. So are cookbooks, unless you are on a cooking channel or a legend in your town. Popular reference is hard because of the web. Parenting too. Anything where info is widely available on the web is going to be a problem.

Another piece of good news: authors are empowered to get attention for their books in a way they never were before. Today, instead of waiting for the publisher’s publicity department to do something for your book which may or may not happen, you can work social media yourself and even do other kinds of publicity yourself.

That’s where platform - another buzz word - comes in. An author today, whether a fiction or nonfiction writer, must have a platform. You have to be able to reach your audience directly - and make them part of your community. This is the key to successful publishing whether with a traditional publisher or you are doing it yourself. I can’t emphasize this enough.


(By the way, I’ll be giving another talk here on building your platform.)

Why is platform so important? One of the biggest problems out there today is getting “discovered.” With all the self published books and all the other books in the market, it’s very hard to get noticed. There are hardly any review media left, either in print or on TV or radio.

This is the other side of the coin of author empowerment: you have to regard yourself  as a partner with the publisher in making the book happen, not as a writer sitting at a desk creating a new book. Every agent, every editor,and every bookseller evaluates authors now in terms of whether they are willing to do work their book  - is the author a “live wire”? This may be the first thing they look at when they get a submission, even before looking at the idea!

Another big topic to consider: ebooks. Has their existence changed things fundamentally?

Yes. And here’s some of the ways they have.

1. The ability to sell books electronically has increased the book market. Easier to reach niche markets, for sure.

2. But generally the author makes a lot less money on an ebook than on a hardcover book. We agents and outfits like the Authors Guild - to which you should all belong, incidentally - a great group working on behalf of writers - are fighting to increase the authors’ share. We’ve made a little progress - going from 10% or 15%  to 25% of net. But it’s not enough.

3.  Publishers are beginning to court their authors. The fact that ebook publishing has made it easier for authors to get their books in print without a publisher has scared publishers and they are now trying to show that they really do add considerable value to their authors’ careers.

Of course, they have always had editors (though fewer and fewer editors actually edit these days), publicity and marketing people. But now, they are thinking of lots of ways to help their authors, including setting up speakers’ bureaus, and devising social media training courses, helping to set up websites.

They seem to be realizing they’d be nothing without their authors. I sure hope so! That would be a really good outcome - perhaps not enough to make the lives of writers and agents easier, happier and more lucrative  -  but still, a good outcome.  


What’s selling and what’s not selling:


Romance, suspense, mysteries, thrillers - are all selling - especially as ebooks

Debut fiction sells - second and third novels are harder.

Science, politics, history, big idea books sell. Brain exploration sells very well. Word books sell.

Young adult is a hot area - dystopian still seems to be hot, also zombies, vampires, combos of all of these.

Memoirs are a really hard category - almost impossible to place. Parenting and cookbooks are hard categories - reference too - because of the web.

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