Thursday, February 6, 2014

Is the Pie Really Big Enough?

I've been publishing for fourteen years, since well before the ebook revolution. When I began, getting a publisher to accept your book was pretty difficult. A limited number of publishers existed (especially if you wrote sexually explicit fiction, as I do) and each company could handle only a small number of titles per year. If you did manage to get a publishing contract, this was a powerful affirmation of your literary skill (though definitely not a guarantee of fame or fortune!)

Luck of course played a role. Many a wonderful book languished in the slush piles. Talented authors received rejection notices because they happened to submit the wrong book, perhaps at the wrong time, when the publisher's calendar was already full, or simply because the right person failed to notice their manuscript.

The bar to getting your work accepted was set pretty high. The competition for publisher slots was intense. Once you'd passed that barrier, you became a member of a fairly select fraternity (or sorority), the elite society of Published Authors.

How the world has changed!

Now literally anyone can publish his or her book. The bar hasn't just been lowered, it has effectively disappeared.

This change is due to the advent of digital publishing, augmented by the phenomenal popularity of ebooks. Since the Kindle was introduced in 2007, ebook sales have grown by triple digit percentages each year. As ebooks gained acceptance, the cost of publishing dropped dramatically. At the same time, the market surged, especially for genre fiction like romance, mysteries and, yes, erotica.

In response, the number of publishers mushroomed. Setting up a digital-only publishing house required far less initial capital and fewer human resources than a traditional publisher. Do-it-yourself digital platforms like Amazon, Lulu and CreateSpace reduced the need for highly specialized skills. Bootstrapping became feasible. A new company could put out a few books at a time and use the resulting revenue to create more. Editors and cover artists could be paid based on percentages of sales, so there were no payroll unless there was income. Because digital book contracts rarely paid advances,a publisher's risk dropped. If a book didn't sell well, so be it. Initial outlay was small and the author bore the brunt of the failure.

At the same time, more publishers meant more options for authors. Indeed, publishers were forced to offer much better contract terms than traditional publishers in order to attract authors. And hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of individuals who had always dreamed of being published could suddenly realize that goal.

This trend had huge benefits – up to a point. New voices joined the market. New talents were discovered. For a long time, readers seemed to have an insatiable appetite for more ebooks. A few digital publishers made millions. A few authors, too. The rest of us saw our names in print, or at least on the web, and at least some money flowing into our PayPal accounts.

My books have never been my sole source of income, but I do appreciate getting paid for my work, from both a practical and symbolic perspective. I'd be lying if I tried to pretend I don't wait eagerly for monthly or quarterly royalty statements. It's only natural to want some recognition of the hours I spend crafting my tales, and even more onerous, marketing them.

However, over the past year or so, my royalties have steadily dropped, though I've continued to produce books at more or less the same rate and I believe that what I publish is at least as good, if not better, than my earlier work. I don't want to complain; I'm sure there are plenty of authors who'd be pleased with my take. At the same time, I can't help feeling miffed, because I'm working harder than ever, for less remuneration.

This isn't just me. Many of my colleagues (though certainly not all) are seeing the same pattern. The crux of the problem, in my opinion, is that finally, there are too just many books being published. The market is flooded. It has become impossible to be heard above the din of promotion.

Meanwhile, while ebook sales are still growing, the rate of increase has declined sharply. A recent report on UK ebook sales cited a mere 18% increase in 2013, down from over 100% in 2012. We have more (and more) authors, more and more books, all competing for a declining level of attention.

Exacerbating the situation, there are numerous books out there for sale that, in my opinion, shouldn't be. The epublishing gold-rush has made it easier for talented authors to get their books in front of the masses, but it has also enabled the publication of a tsunami of (pardon my language) crap. Some publishers make this worse by accepting pretty much anything that's submitted, as long as it seems to conform to some popular genre category, and by spending little or no effort on quality editing and formatting.

Self-publishing just adds to the noise level. Don't misunderstand me – I've read fabulous books that were self-published. That route is particularly useful for authors with original concepts that don't fit the stereotypes and which won't be accepted by a publisher for that reason. However, the ranks of the self-published also includes many people who cannot write a grammatical sentence to save their lives, let alone craft a story that will sweep readers away into the world of imagination.

I host a lot of blog tours. People are spending thousands of dollars trying to make their work visible. I participate in blog hops. In the old days, a basket of free books would attract readers. Now you need to provide at least a $50 gift certificate, and if you really want traffic, you'd better offer to give away a Kindle or a Nook. What's next, I wonder? A vacation in Hawaii?

What can be done about this situation? I really don't know. However, I've decided that I'm not going to spend as much time or money on marketing as I have been, because it's clearly not effective in today's reality. I'll keep writing and keep communicating with the readers who do know who I am, but I can't afford to buy the eyes of people who haven't met me yet. If they run across my work, great, but I'm not going to operate my writing business at a loss.

In my blogging and on my lists, I meet a lot of other authors who are new to the business. I do what I can to help them out, believing that what goes around comes around. They all deserve their chance. I used to tell them that the more books we produced, the more excited readers would get. The pie was big enough for all of us to take a piece.

I'm not about to stop supporting my colleagues, but I've started to wonder. Is the pie really big enough to go around? Or do some of us have to go hungry?

4 comments:

Pat Layne said...

Very good questions, Lisabet. I appreciate the fact that you are willing to help out those of us who are new to publishing. I wonder how much of the shrinking market is due to people having smaller disposable incomes? And books are considered a luxury.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, pat,

I do think that the economic situation is one factor. Also the "gee whiz" aspect of ebooks is pretty much gone at this point.

However, I also think oversupply and poor quality are significant problems.

Fiona McGier said...

And don't forget the difficulty of getting a reader to notice you! I feel like authors are jammed into a big room, all holding neon signs over their heads that read, "Read MY books!" and the readers are up on a balcony, drinking and partying, and only occasionally do they glance at us, and the only names they see are the ones they recognize. The rest of us they ignore. Sigh...

I read that it takes an average of seeing your name 7 times before a reader will even bother to click on your website to investigate. Yet when you mention your name or your books in comments, others accuse you of spamming. I've been published for 5 years, with 3 publishers, and I've spent hundreds each of those years, buying ads, promotional tours, and copies of my own books, not to mention my website yearly fees. And my royalties don't begin to cover any of that. So I operate at a loss.

My husband is beginning to make noises about how I should "forget about this, because it's obviously not going to be successful...ever." And on a bad day, I agree with him. But then the "voices" start yelling louder in my head, and I sit and let them talk through me again. And the whole thing keeps on going.

Lisabet Sarai said...

What a great image, Fiona, and very apt. It captures the reality very well.

Actually, I think that readers DO look for new authors, though. However, when I talk to my readers, I find they have hundreds of books on their TBR list. They're simply overwhelmed. Like us, they have limited time and attention, so an author they KNOW they like does tend to be a rational choice.

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