As the Traditional Book Business Sinks Slowly Into the West …

Apropos of my Still Dreaming of Landing That Big Book Contract? is this, from the Association of American Publishers:

All major adult print segments—hardcover, paperback and mass market—showed a decline in sales in May, according to the AAP’s monthly sales report. While e-books showed a steep uptick of 146.9% for the month, bringing in $73.4 million in sales, adult hardcovers dropped 38.2%, adult paperbacks dropped 14.3%, and adult mass market fell 39.4%. For the calendar year, e-books brought in $389.7 million in sales, a 160.1% climb over the same period 2010.

To be clear: I take zero pleasure in the Titanicking of traditional book publishing. (Though I do like the way, what with book editors being hustled off stage and all, that we’re finally free to make up our own words.) How could I, when I’ve invested my whole life in getting well published? And I’m finally in the position to do just that: I have two top-tier agents (Deborah Schneider for the mainstream book market; Kathy Helmers for the Christian). Rob Bell’s editor at HarperOne — the most prestigious house in the world for exactly the kind of stuff I write — reached out to me to see if I was working on anything he might like to publish. (In a word: hell, yes, I was/am.) I was largely responsible for what may be book publishing’s last ever seven-figure deal.

I am in, baby. I finally got my linen, embossed invitation to the party. And just as I show up at the front door, tux and all, the party starts shutting down so fast caterers are asking me to help them load tables back into their trucks. It’s unbelievable.

So, trust me: I get no pleasure out of what’s happening to the book industry. It’s caused me some real and prolonged depression. I really have spent my life getting to a place that no longer exists.

On the other hand, I’m almost beside myself with excitement over what’s happening in publishing. It affords historically phenomenal opportunities for writers like me.

Anyway, we can talk about all of this any time anyone cares to. I just wanted you to know that I’m not cackling over what’s happening to book publishing, or anything like that. I’m basically just trying to alert my friends out there whom I know have aspirations to be a “published” author. I just want them to know — and I mean to really understand — that the word “published” doesn’t mean what it used to, at all.


(I certainly haven’t forgotten Your Inner Loser. I’ll be continuing that next time.)

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  • Don Rappe

    I wonder what all this has to do with Gutenberg and his Bible.

  • I really appreciate your being honest with this. I am wanting to try to break into the market, and had a suspicion that a non-traditional method was the way to go. I am currently looking at some literary pubs to take looks at what I’ve written, in the hopes of building a resume/portfolio, but now think this won’t ultimately be the way to go.

    It is a bit depressing to see that the way books have been published for so long is coming to an end, but its not all bad. Really, look at the music industry. We used to have only sheet music,then vinyl records, then 8 tracks. Now we can buy tracks and put them directly on an ipod. The literary world is just undergoing a similar evolution. Its just meeting with a bit more resistance then it should.

  • The printing of the bible in the vernacular created the priesthood of all believers – no longer did one have to go to the priest as the sole authority. In terms of my own study, in the years since I graduated from divinity school, the implosion of the internet has revolutionized how we educate ourselves. Lectures and library that you had to pay to access can now be had for free. Not sure what this will mean long-term but it’s a significant shift in theological education.

    I saw a major shift once ISBN numbers were accepted by Amazon – and in recent years, it’s become much easier and cheaper to market one’s own wares. Now, one can upload up to 10,000 word single Kindles for free provided one will charge at least .99. I see this move as saving the short story and possibly long-form interview, two genres that have about disappeared in the shifting marketplace.

    The one remaining obstacle a bit was marketing but with the demise of book review sections (who seldom would take on books that weren’t fed to them by a publisher), that no longer matters nearly as much. More importantly, we can tell the editors to *&^%$ off when they try to shove trendy garbage down our throats – we can buy what interests us and us social media to promote those books that pique our curiosity not what publishers are paying to pimp.

  • Dirk

    Knowledge is power.

    This is why so many countries have ‘on/off’ switch control of the Internet, this is why China invests so heavily in censorship of the Internet and prosecution of people who dare to read or write dissenting opinions.

    The traditional book publishing industry once provided an outlet for serious authors to challenge established opinion.

    Those days are all but gone.

    E-publishing may not be the future, but it is the present.

  • It’s the future. They’re not going to start publishing paper books again.

  • textjunkie

    As someone who hasn’t cottoned to electronic readers and likes the idea of *owning* a book, not just *licensing* it, I’m truly bummed.

  • You can upload any size document to Amazon for free, not just Kindle “singles.” It costs virtually nothing to make your e-books available for sale on Amazon. (Not counting, that is, the time/money it takes to do a decent cover, format the things, WRITE them, etc.) And (sorry; if you don’t mind my saying), the marketing of self-published books isn’t a “bit” of an obstacle. It’s now the mountain between authors and success.

  • Today anyone can be Gutenberg.

  • You’ll come to like e-readers. They have a lot of significant advantages.

  • The resistance (such as it is) is coming only/primarily from those in the book business. But, duh. The publishing industry has, for the stratum of those at its top, been such a cash cow for so long the idea of it leaving the farm is just impossible for a lot of them to believe/accept.

  • Thanks for this. Am trying to focus on the silver lining, not the gathering clouds.

  • actually the thought of less paper books is rather appealing. I can’t store books for too long as they get musty and musty and my asthma are bitter enemies. I am going to campaign for a kindle or some form of electronic reading device from my kids.

  • I didn’t use my Kindle for months after I bought it; I just couldn’t get into it. Now I like it.

  • Dirk

    Not quite what I meant, John.

    I don’t think the current mish-mash of mutually incompatible formats, poor display quality and companies which erase titles you have bought from your e-reader are the future.

    I was the first person of my acquaintance to switch to e-format in the 1990s.

  • But… but what happens when we are hit with a solar flare that causes an electromagnetic pulse that rockets us all back to the 1800s in terms of technology? Those who actually own paper books will be the keepers of the world’s knowledge, bwaahaha. What will I charge people to borrow my precious, non-electronic copies of The Hobbit?

    Then, I also like to wonder what the world would be like if we all suddenly stopped using guns and went back to swordsmanship.

    Not likely to happen.

  • Which causes a problem with Sturgeon’s Law, but I’ve found that the popular idea that tradtional publishing “seperates the wheat from the chaff” isn’t entirely true. There are a lot of “chaff” published books in the world. They pretty much only seperate “are we sure this will make us money?” from those they don’t want to take a chance on – at least from what I’ve heard.

    Still… anyone as Gutenberg… yeah, watch out for that 90%.

    (Those not familiar with the term, “Sturgeon’s Law” is basically a little “law” that applies to literature and art: “90% of everything is crap.”

  • I have been thinking that the self e-publishing route might be ideal for me (or at least a last-ditch effort since I’m no one traditional publishers seem to want to take a chance on). The stuff I like to write is off-kilter – fantasy but not fitting with most of the cliches and formulas of the genre – and, well, I do art and know some graphic design so I already lay up my own covers and do my own illustrations just for fun. One of my worries with tradtional publication, actually, is “Will they let me do my own cover or will they get some cluess in-house artist who hasn’t read my manuscript to do up something not having to do with the story?”

    I.E. there’s a song out there some fantasy author wrote to complain about this very thing. “The Bimbo on the Cover of My Book.”

    My big problem with this is…. promotion. When you’re “pro-published” the company promotes your book and sells it to bookstores (and e-book stores) and all that. The problem the self-publisher has is getting the word out there. I have no friggin’ idea how to do that. I’m not a social person (I suffer a lot of social anxiety, actually… bipolar, not good with people – which is why the job I have now is quiet and with animals). As for online promotion – I already promote my blog which has original short stories of mine for free wherever I go and I have all of maybe two or three readers and most of my stuff there doesn’t get any feedback (is it good or is it crap or is it just in need of work? I don’t know unless you tell me)!

    I even have it linked at the place I post my fan-fiction. You see, my fan-fiction actually gets read (because I’m playing in already-loved shared mythologies/intellectual properties that aren’t my own but are already published and popular). I say “If you like my fan-fiction, you’ll probably like my originals. Look, here are stories for free!” and I still don’t get a lot of “buyers.”

    So, I’m thinking – If I e-book one of my books, right? It will just sit there not being downloaded, not being read – and will remain as obscure as most things I do on the Internet.

    The self-promotion – I apparently cannot do it. I’m as clueless about it as a cat with a Kleenix box on its head.

  • It’s the reclusive writers who will be hit hardest. At least that’s what it sounds like.

  • CC

    Exactly. I’ve been trying to find a publisher for my fantasy novel. I could “publish” it myself as an ebook… and no one would read it.

    The problem with the Mountain Between Authors And Success is this: how does an author publicize their e-books? How does the author publicize them enough that someone will buy it?

    It’s almost impossible for an author to make a living writing paperbacks that sell for $7 apiece. How could an author do it with e-books that sell for $1 apiece?

    The e-book age is brand-new. If anyone’s ever found a way to scale that mountain, I’d love to see the map!

  • I hear you – I noted the Kindle Single option as it’s an easy way for folks to upload their ideas.

    I used the term bit because it was harder to market books when Amazon wouldn’t put them online. And often the skill sets needed to publish prose and the skills sets used to market books aren’t always the same – for example, I’ve seen some cutting edge church planters launch some kicks ass campaigns but their actual prose was terrible. But they got much more buzz than far superior products marketed by folks who aren’t as snazzy with their presentation skills. So what is a recluse type writer to do when marketing isn’t their strong suit – for example, could a J.D. Salinger make it today?

  • In light of all of this, I’d love to know your opinion on this question. IF one is in the position of having to choose between traditional publishing or self-pubbing (edgy YA genre;”commercially appealing” concept and writing), which should they choose?

  • With Borders closed, there is no choice left. If you’re a huge author — if you’re what amounts to a brand — then you don’t need a publisher, because you can sell directly to your own audience. But if you’re a new or midlist author, well, no one’s going to offer you a contract anyway. And if someone DID offer you a contract, it’d be for tiny money. And you’d be a fool to take that, since that would be the only money you’d ever make from that book, since publishers no longer sell back rights: now they keep all rights, for fear something they own goes large electronically.

    Either way, you sell your own books to your own audience. One way you keep about 70% of what you make; the other way, y90% of the money your book makes goes to its publisher—and 15% of what’s left over goes to your agent, FOREVER.

    That’s a choice that’s really no choice at all.

  • An option besides e-books is publishing your work as a web serial. If you’re already publishing an ongoing original series on your blog, submit it here:

    Unlike e-books, you don’t charge directly for a web serial, but you can have ads on your blog, and when your readership is big enough, you can self-publish e-books and/or hard copies. It’s model similar to web comics.

    Full disclosure: I write and publish a web serial. I’m in the early stages, and I’m by no means an expert in self-promotion for such measures. I still can’t figure out how to get followers on Twitter. But I’ve been having fun with my site, and I like getting immediate feedback from readers and having full control over my work.

  • Kindle Singles are actually a lot more difficult to publish than is anything else via Kindle, insofar as you have to submit your book to Kindle for inclusion in their Kindle Singles program/offerings. So the cover has to be great, and the formatting has to be perfect, and the content itself has to meet their standards, and all that sort of thing. But, yeah, as you say: the same person who’s very good at writing—who’s actually spent the 10,000 hours writing for publication that it takes to be half-way decent at it — is very unlikely to be the same person who’s good at marketing themselves. That’s the really difficult part of this whole new world. Though it’s hardly new news: publishers have always care a great deal about how “marketable” any author is they’re considering backing.

    What I REALLY love about this whole new world of writing and publishing is that it’s FINALLY going to be, again, about the writing.

  • What I have on my blog right now is a loose serial (just different stories set in a particular world as I think them up).

    To submit to a fiction guide, would I have to delete the more random content of my blog? It’s mostly stories, but I have a couple of rant/musing posts on there. My latest post is coverage of a concert I went to.

    Also, the reason I’m doing some stuff on a private blog (with ads enabled that I’ve yet to make a cent from) – is… I was hoping for feedback and it seems not even most of my online *friends* want to bother reading my stuff and telling me if it’s passible. (Well, one friend told me my latest was something she’d see a film of, asked her to review it before I posted it), but, yeah. I feel like “I don’t want to submit to anywhere until I know it’s good.”

  • By the way…. if you or anyone else here is interested in reading a series of experimental somewhat philopshical/political fantasy stories set in a world/landmass with one half in perpetual sunlight and one half in perpetual night – with snooty humans, humble deer-like people and a vicious demi-vulture race.

    As for other stuff, I do have the rough draft of a novel at my Deviant Art space, but the master copy has since been edited and added to (I’ve just been too lazy to change it out, and also too pathetically hopeful that some “real” literary agent might be interested in the cleaned-up manuscript). Then there are my other novels, of course…

  • Web Fiction Guide’s minimum standards (

    “We will not list stories or collections that lack basic navigation. Generally speaking, there must be a link at the bottom of each page to take the reader to the next page of the story. It is preferable that this link appear immediately after the text. For short story collections, we will accept a proper table of contents, either on a page by itself, or on a sidebar of every page of the listed story. Please note that we list stories, not websites—we may reject listings that mix non-story content into the page flow of the story.

    If you are unsure of how to set this up on your site, please contact us and we’ll do our best to help.”

    Yeah, it can be hard to find beta readers. When I’d drafted the first volume of my series, I got four people to agree to beta read the manuscript, and three actually did. I can see where they’re coming from. Reading as an editor takes a lot more time and effort than reading for pleasure.

    Thanks for posting the link to your blog. I’m having fun looking at it. 🙂

  • PS, I tried to leave a comment on your World Setting post (which I enjoyed reading) four times before I gave up. You may want to consider enabling “Name/URL” as a profile option.

  • I am unable to – that’s the way Blogger is set up. I was thinking of WordPress, but my SO was all “Go to Blogger – they let you have ads and when people click, you can make money!” and he had stars in his eyes becuase he’d been going to popular anime-bloggers’ sites where the people made their *living* from blogging. I insisted “I’m not important or well-known yet, so I doubt I’m going to make any money off ads, but whatever.”

    I’ll consider WordPress or some other, better blogging system if I decide to formalize my stories – as for now, they’re kind of… experiments, rough drafts.

    You can always email me a review –

  • cat rennolds

    so….there’d be a market for somebody who’s good at marketing books, and/or editing, etc? Is that what we’re saying here? Now I just have to figure out how/where to market THAT;)

  • cat rennolds

    Shadsie, I went over to your blog and browsed. Good ideas, in need of work. I tried to leave you a comment but don’t have any of the necessary account profiles to choose from, so it ate my comment. probably I am not the only one. are there settings on your blog comments that you can adjust? email me if you would like more feedback.

  • cat rennolds

    i don’t like them….conceptually. they bother me in abstract. I love books.

    practically speaking, however, this means I do not have to wait however long it takes the library to get the hard copy of what I want to read, because (once I can afford the reader) the books are inexpensive enough to be cheaper than paying library fines.

  • cat rennolds

    Guns jam, swords break, rocks work everywhere.;)

  • Yes, these are good times–and will get better–for freelance editors and those rare people who have put in the time necessary to really know how to properly serve the new markets.

  • Hovering over your name, not seeing email-link. I gave my own email above.

    And yeah, that seems to be a problem with Blogger, complained about above.

    I’m all for constructive criticsm – they’re all first-drafts there.

  • Mindy

    John, one of these days I want to pick your brain about marketing myself as a freelance editor. But not today, as my own brain is being beaten with what seems to be a sinus infection. I’m capable of little more than whining at the moment . . .

  • cat rennolds

    that, only replace sinuses with a toddler who doesn’t believe in sleep.

  • Mindy

    Sorry for that, cat – I remember that clearly!! Nowadays I have two teenagers who don’t believe in going to sleep, but also don’t believe in waking up once they are finally there! Headache much better – now just roiling in stress over teenager #1’s impending departure for a year in China as an exchange student. I have 20 days left with my sweet girl, then gone til next June. :::::::deep breath::::::

  • tavdy79

    From a writer’s POV, ePublishers have a lot of advantages over conventional “dinosaur” publishers.

    First, they’re more likely to take risks. If you’re writing something that has a potentially limited market, you often don’t have a chance with a dinopublisher because the reward comes nowhere near covering the investment for them. This isn’t an issue for an ePublisher since the only major cost to them is editing. Promotional stuff tends to be covered by the authors themselves &/or involve eMarketing, which is cheap, plus there are no production costs, and distribution costs are negligible. Many of the fastest-growing genres are dominated by eBooks because before they arrived few (if any) dinopublishers thought there was a market. LGBT romance has been around since the 1950s, but it’s only within the last decade that it has become a major genre.

    Second, they’re quick. For a conventional publisher it typically takes 18 months from submission to publication, whereas an ePublisher can take as little as 2 months (although it’s normally about 6-8).

    Third, they typically pay royalties on a monthly basis, rather than a yearly one like most dinopublishers. This is great for those who need a steady income rather than an inconvenient lump sum.

    Fourth, royalties can be significantly higher. A dinopublisher will bay 6-10% royalties, irrespective of whether a sale is hardcopy or eBook. Depending on how successful you are a a writer, the appeal of your book, and whether or not the sales are direct or through an intermediary (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) some ePublishers may pay as much as 40%. Even though individual sale prices are typically lower compared to a dinopublisher, that’s a big increase in the money earned per sale.

    Fifth, it’s by far the fastest growing segment of the print media. (In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the only currently-growing segment of the print media.) eBook publishing roughly doubled in size from August 2009 to August 2010, and eBook sales overtook hardcopy sales on Amazon at the beginning of this year, mainly because the Kindle became Amazon’s highest-selling gift item in the last quarter of last year. Long-term I expect the hardcopy market to shrink until it is focussed on specialist areas, such as high-quality gifts or sales to those who lack access to/cannot understand most modern technology, like stone-age tribes in Irian Jaya, the Vatican or the central Amazon. In other words, a new author is better off going straight for the eBook market since it’ll last longer.

    Sixth, many ePublishers sell hardcopies of successful eBooks, often on a POD (print-on-demand) basis, so just because you choose an ePublisher doesn’t mean you won’t ever see your work in hardcopy print – you will, if you’re sufficiently successful (which is, obviously, a reasonably big “if”).

    Seventh, unless they change their business models the dinopublishers are going to die out – that is pretty much why I call them dinopublishers. One of the key reasons Borders went belly-up was because it failed to develop an eReader to compete against the Kindle, Nook and SonyReader. In other words, Borders failed to move with the times and has paid the price – terminally. This is why Murdoch was so obsessed with getting total ownership of BskyB: to subsidise his increasingly-unprofitable print media. I’m not sure what will happen to the works of any authors who end up caught out, but I personally don’t intend to take that risk. That said, any dinopublisher CEO with half a brain has to recognise that the dinopublishers’ model for both hardcopy and eBooks just isn’t sustainable when ePublishers are offering higher profits to authors as well as lower prices to purchasers, so there’s a good chance that some smaller ePublishers will be bought up by big NYC dinopublishers.