Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Screw Predictions. What the hell just happened?

There has been a slew of 2014 predictions this past week dealing with the ever-changing publishing biz. One or two (like J.A. Konrath’s) have dared to be audacious. I know of a few of the things Konrath is working on, and they really are going to be game-changers. But most of the predictions feign newness while describing past and current trends. You can read the headlines of 2013 in these posts that pretend to be about the coming year. Random House and Penguin merged, blowing collective minds, which means the next thing we’ll never see coming is another two publishers joining forces. Cue the collective yawns.

As someone who just returned to South Florida, it reminds me of hurricane predictions. If we have an active year, the forecast for the following year is dire. If we have a quiet year, the forecast is quiet. These people are in the business of describing yesterdays as if they were tomorrows. And really, it’s hard to blame them. Predicting the unpredictable is best left to desperate gamblers. What I want to know is this: Does anyone have any idea what in the world took place in 2013? I’m thinking the answer is “no.”

It’s not just that the industry is changing so fast, it’s that our data for what is occurring isn’t available. We see reports on ebook sales everywhere that don’t include self-published authors, who might possibly account for 25% or more of total ebook sales. (Really). We see reports on the number of books published in a year based on Bowker’s ISBN purchases, even though many e-book authors (such as myself) don’t use them. We see earnings reports based on surveys that somehow slipped the notice of those of us who geek out on all things publishing and all things survey. Nobody knows what’s going on because nobody knows what’s going on. Simple confusions abound. We can’t intelligently discuss the past, and yet people are going to predict the future.

Who saw BookBub’s rise to prominence this year? No one. But plenty of prediction lists for 2014 include the emergence of “some as-yet-unknown marketing tool.” Gotcha. Who saw e-book sales slowing for major publishers this year? Nobody. The forecast for next year? More flat sales. Why? Because it already happened.

What I want to know is this: How many authors are now making a living because of the explosion of e-books? How many are making a living self-publishing? Amazon is loathe to part with numbers, but they dropped us a crumb this week. According to their sales data, 150 self-published authors sold more than 100,000 copies of a single title this year. That’s freaking amazing. A small percentage of published books sell that many copies in their lifetime. Many books are deemed a success for selling 10,000 units.

But what I would love to know is how many writers are earning $50 a month from their craft? How many are making $100 a month? Nobody knows. As I argued over on Salon, the real story of self-publishing isn’t really being covered. That means the most important developments in all of the publishing industry might be completely unknown. And since we can only predict for tomorrow what we know happened yesterday, this means the true changes that are afoot won’t be on a single prediction blog you’ll read in the coming weeks.

And yeah, I know I said we should screw predictions, but I’m going to toss some really crazy ones out there anyway:

1. This data I’m complaining does not exist will get better. Amazon might even tell us how many authors are making $100 a month. I’m dying to know!

2. DBW will do a better survey in 2014 than the one they did in 2013. Because they’re just as interested in the truth as I am. The last one, and the way it was parsed, was not so good.

3. Tools for self-published authors will get better. We’ll see real-time e-book editing from within dashboards. More sales data. Apps for mobile to track and manage books (even modify metadata, keep up with new reviews, make quick edits, etc.) Daily and monthly reports will get much better.

4. A book club or subscription-based service will be announced. This will feed you a free story a week based on what you’ve read to completion and rated highly in the past. This will not be like the All-You-Can-Eat models that launched this year, which I predict (4a) will be a complete bust (the finances just aren’t sustainable). This will be more like a magazine or comic book subscription, but for e-books. (There’s an equivalent for shoppers these days called Stitch Fix that would be the perfect model for e-book delivery. Send five books a week based on your preferences. You only pay for the ones you read more than 20% of. You have your own personal bookstore shopper who knows what you like and what you want to read next).

5. Barnes and Noble won’t go bankrupt in 2014! (It’ll be 2015). Just trying to be different here. Most people have them walking dead right now. I’m a naive optimist — what can I say?

6. Someone will come up with a REAL bestseller list. Not many readers know this, but the NYT list is mostly bunk. It’s not their fault. They don’t have true sales data. They have to go by relative sales rankings on various outlets and the handful of stores that report sales (which are gamed by publishers with book tours) and incomplete bookscan data. Oh, and a room of people sitting around debating placement like American Idol judges (I think). It doesn’t have to be like this. There are enough indies scattered all across the various distribution outlets that their combined data could create a true list. We could know at any moment what the #10 and #20 and #7 books on the Amazon charts, B&N charts, ACX charts, etc. are selling. Have that data anonymously parsed by a company like BookTrakr, and make weekly and monthly sales data completely transparent. Readers could see what was really selling and how much. Imagine that.

7. A big-name author will move to self-publishing, and everyone will be shocked. I’m surprised this didn’t happen in 2013. Jim Carrey’s children’s book doesn’t count, as he isn’t a big-name author. This will be a perennial NYT bestseller who realizes how much better they would do, how much happier they would be, and how much freedom they would have with their art if they just appealed directly to their fanbase. For the big shocker of 2014, this is the one I’m going with.

8. Most of the 2014 predictions will not come true. But there will be exceptions, like this one.

46 replies to “Screw Predictions. What the hell just happened?”

I’d love to see Stephen King self-publish. He tried ebooks waaaaaay back…. when there were no ereaders! I think it was a miserable failure? Anyway, he shuns ebooks now? Not sure about all that, but he’s missing out on all the fun, and I think he’d love it, lol

“This will be more like a magazine or comic book subscription, but for e-books.”

I’m really surprised that this hasn’t happened already. There are a number of magazine and magazine-like startups, but it’s extremely puzzling that there aren’t a lot more of them.

I was expecting to see something analogous to the heyday of pulp magazines by now — specialty publications on every imaginable subject, focusing on the short form.

There are no serious barriers to entry that I can see, so it’s a real head-scratcher why it hasn’t happened.

Then there is a vast swath of us indie authors who publish, sell some copy, and get good reviews…but are loath (for one reason or another) to get into the marketing side.

Personally, I’ve made/make some money on my title WITHOUT (much) marketing, but it is in dribs/n/drabs, and until I can get volume two out there, I’m not interested in “pushing” the first one until I’m farther along with the arc of the series.

Marketing is the one thing that gives me heartburn just thinking about. I’m betting I’m not alone.

Sorry, have to ask, is that really true? did you have works from those 10 years? I mean some of us write for 10 years, but have nothing finished/publishable worthy at the end, so did you prepare publishable worthy things, complete projects in the those ten years? Just asking, because I’m calling 2013 the year I broke myself on the shores of my impatience:D 2014 is crawling back to writing and putting “marketing” on the shelf until I build a solid catalogue!

No, my plan was to write and publish for 10 years before I even worried if any of my books were selling. The idea was that I would write now, while I had the drive and the ideas, and 10 years and 20 novels later, I would start telling people about my works and really pushing them.

It didn’t work out that way. Within 2 years of writing and publishing my first novel, I was doing well enough to quit my day job and had to start doing promotional stuff to strike while the iron was hot. And yeah, I published the first novel I ever wrote. It still does pretty well. I just think the key is to not worry about how quickly your career takes off but to keep writing. An undiscovered work is still brand spanking new.

Hugh,

Sorry, for some reason I don’t know which is the first novel you ever wrote. Would you mind telling me/us so I can go buy it right away?

By the way, I am typically making about $25 to $45 a month through ebook sales on Amazon–sometimes I’m throwing out promos, but mostly not. And I don’t use BN Nook or Kobo with my titles because…well…frankly, it’s a waste for me.

Seriously. I wanna know what the first novel you wrote is called so I can go get it. Almost done reading DUST. Looking forward to SAND. Also…can’t wait to read all your Molly Fydes when time permits.

At least now I know I’ll die never having had enough time to read my entire e-library! :-) And that’s pretty awesome. But I’ll die tryin’.

It was MOLLY FYDE AND THE PARSONA RESCUE. I wrote it in 2009. I think it was around April of that year that I wrote it.

Very cool to hear your sales numbers. I’d love to know how many people are making in that range with their book sales. It shows that there’s a lot of room between being unpublished and making nothing and being one of the outliers that we are too focused on. Keep it up, man. I hope 2014 is fantastic to you!

I’ll put it out there that I have made between $50-$100 off of self-publishing since September. I first started in May and had my first novel out on July 1. It isn’t a success story like Hugh Howey, but my success is finally getting off my duff in 2013 and writing (and then publishing) a book! Everything else is gravy.
I have a full-time job where I’m content. I’d like to make writing a nice side business and my slate of writing in 2014 should help that along. If it takes off and I hit that 100,000 sales territory, I’ll rethink my job at that point, but I’m not dependent on writing as a career right now.

The number of 150 authors selling over 100,000 is a good one to know, and I was exciting about it, but somehow we’re still talking about the top few percent as compared to those who are making a few bucks here and there. At 100,000 books, if you have a good portfolio and a good per book average price.. say… $1.59 to $2 or more, you’re talking about someone making some really top level money in my estimation. I’d like to know how many people are selling 20k to 50k books a year and are either really making a living, however meager, or starting to do really well. I wonder how many people have added $1000 a month to their income. I’ll bet it is a lot.

Totally. Me, too. It’s been a fantastic year for me. :D

In all my dreams about getting published by a “real publisher” (before I realized how much smarter it is to go indie), I never even dared to dream as big as I’ve done for myself in 2013…and I also realized that what I’ve achieved this year is small-time compared to what’s possible now with a career as an author. You don’t need to be one of those top 150 sellers to have things pretty cushy…though I’m psyched for the people who are in that top crust! It’s awesome that any authors anywhere can sell so well, and especially cool that they can do it on their own.

I’m one of those. Began publishing in the summer of 2011, and made about $12,000 that year, primarily as a result of one brief amazing December week when KDP Select was brand new, and I made $6,000+. Never to be repeated… so far.

2012 my total was about $14,000.

2013 I sold over 15,000 books (99¢ books, nearly all of them) and my total was between $16,000 and $17,000. Higher in the beginning months, and slowing down notably in the fall.

2014 is starting out with a bang. I’ve been doing “assisted self-publishing” for others, none of which have made significant money until now, but suddenly one of my authors is doing well, and I get a percentage of that. Adding my book sales to what I make from her sales, I should be looking at $2,000 a month this year.

I vote for #4, especially if it would include an e-serial delivery system. Please, please tell Amazon we need to have a KDP version of Kindle Serials! And while I’m making wishes, can we have it before Season Two of my serial comes out mid-2014? :)

Maybe it will be ‘Pirate’ Coehlo?

Writing novels in the future will be more and more about content production, just like any other sort of writing?

Thanks, Hugh, for all the inspiration in 2013! My first book is out in 2014 and I’ve decided on the self-pub route. Second book also on track for publication later in the year. If it wasn’t for Hugh and others I’d still be waiting around for agents to decide if my books are worth taking a bet on – best let the readers decide that for themselves ;).

My crazy prediction? Start-up companies will begin to form offering a variety services to writers. I’m a CPA. You can come to the firm I work for and get a variety of services from monthly accounting, investment analysis, tax work, even a point in the right direction for legal advice. I predict start-up companies will form in the publishing world offering a wide range of services to indie authors like all forms of editing, cover design, social media coaching and other coaching, formatting, marketing and promotion, legal help when it comes to film rights, foreign translations and help with foreign rights, etc. I’m sure I could go on and on. These companies will make it possible for the writer who “only wants to write” to still go the indie route. These companies will be the full-service publishing option authors have always hoped for, but it will be fee based. As these companies grow, the companies who can stand out as professional and independent (not ripping the authors off) will replace the big publishers. These companies will make their money by offering and charging for services and being part of an author’s “team.” Authors will keep their creative rights and their right to 100% of their royalties, but they’ll have a trusted place to go for their every publishing need and for advice.

Happy New Year, Hugh! Thank you for being such an incredible source of inspiration to me and all indie writers.

*raises hand sheepishly* I’m a $100 a monther.
Well, when I released a new book (only 2 this year) or ran a Bookbub ad, my earnings for those months were well over $100, but that wasn’t the norm.
I’m okay with growing slow and steady. I’m predicting I’ll be the next big thing in 2018. How’s that for seeing well into the future? ;)

Happy New Year, Hugh!

Oh you just make my heart sing, Hugh. Don’t worry, we’ll give them something more to talk about in the coming years. In fact, I’m certain they won’t have anything else to talk about once we indies take over their market completely. Let’s just hope we can do a better job encouraging readers of all ages to pick up/download books than they did.

Also, my 2014 prediction: R.T. Edwins will be among that list of indies who sold over 100,000 copies. I made it over 10,000 in the last 8 months, why not 100,000 next year?

=)

I can dream right?

Ooooh…I hope you’re right about the real bestseller list! I’d love to watch that chart. I don’t give a rip about NYT anymore, now that I know it’s all rigged and they move the goalposts all the time to keep the unwanteds off of it.

What I know about 2013 is what happened to me: continued growth in sales, continued to out-earn my day job’s paychecks, positioned myself to quit the day job in a few months here, and my best-selling book sold 30,000 copies, which is three times more than what’s considered “outstanding” by New York publishers for this genre. That alone gives me plenty of reason to have a glass of champagne tonight.

For the record, I’m one of those $100 per month writers you were wondering about. I released at the end of August, and sales surged comfortably, but never quite reached the numbers I was hoping to see by the end of the year. I only reached 25% of my goal. I’m still plugging at it, hoping at some point, I’ll find that critical channel that will boost sales.

While sales have stagnated, everyone that read my book has raved about it. So, I figure eventually I’ll reach that viral tipping point and my book will sell.

I find it funny how the number “10,000” keeps popping up around me. It is .003% the population of the United States. I arrived at that number a few years ago when I calculated how many ebooks I needed to sell in order to pay off debt and have enough money left over to keep paying the bills until the second book came out (Sept. 2014, God willing). I figured I should be able to reach at least that many readers. After I arrived at that goal, 10,000 kept showing up in anything I read about self-published authors and the number of books needed to be sold to make a living at being a writer.

I admit, I bet the farm when I turned to writing and self-publishing. My career was in an industry sensitive to both private and government economies and I became one of the perpetually unemployed. I have no intention of abandoning the path I’ve chosen. I remain hopeful I will eventually succeed—sooner or later. Until then, I just have to keep working at it.

If you don’t mind a point of view from a reader in terms of how changes in publishing empowers the reader as well as the writer, I just spent the last few days thinking about it. A summary from the blog (link attached) where I wrote about it:

“When I picked up a book decades ago, whether a new release at a store or beloved classic from the library, I was holding something that was frozen in time. Of course, I gave it new life in my imagination, but in terms of the publishing process, it was the end of the line. The book was a product and in a sense, I was a product too. The book was a product of the publishing process and my purchase of it was a product of the promotion process, or at best, a response mechanism that could be aggregated with others to measure the worth of the first product.”

and:

“The new world is still evolving in its creation and so have its norms. But some of the old norms are still being assumed, even if they don’t quite fit anymore. Anachronistic terms like slush-pile are still being tossed around, even though readers no longer need a proxy to decide what they’re likely to prefer. What I think we have is not a stack of work where only a fraction would generate a return on investment from mass purchase by a passive reading population with the same cookie cutter tastes. It’s a repository of creative work in a dazzling array of styles and subject matter, in various stages of completion, which needs better tagging and indexing so that it becomes easier for readers to query and choose from, depending upon their inclination at that point.”

And thanks, Hugh, for being a champion of empowerment for reader and writer. Happy New Year to you and to all!

Hugh, As people are in the prediction mode for 2014 I am curious for what will happen to or for Self-pubbed authors in the Children’s Market. Most of the big success in Amazon based publishing seems to be with Adult genre fiction and I’ve heard people comment that kids still learn about books from librarians, teachers etc… and don’t make buying decisions and therefore don’t expect juvenile fiction to work too well for self publishing. And I am just curious, as an author who is really in the thick of both sides of the publishing world right now, what do you think about the potential for the self pubbed kids market in 2014? Daniel

You’re so awesome! I do not suppose I’ve truly read anything like that before. So nice to find another person with a few original thoughts on this subject. Really.. thanks for starting this up. This web site is something that’s needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!

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