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.