It’s time to face facts: online lending and streaming media is, increasingly, the future of books.
(If you’re thinking deja vu, yes, this post was scheduled to appear on Friday, and accidentally came out on Thursday for a while before being rescheduled. Apologies for the confusion!)
I’ve written before about the threat that streaming media poses to traditional book sales. I’ve had a certain amount of pushback about that, particularly from those who don’t like the thought of their income from writing declining to such an extent. Some have even refused to make their books available on streaming services such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. Now, however, the signs are clear. We have to face up to the reality of streaming media in our future – or be swept aside.
Those signs are most clear in other areas of the entertainment industry. Let’s not forget, that is our industry, too. We’re not selling books. We’re selling entertainment, and our products (books and stories) are competing with every other avenue of entertainment out there – movies, TV series, music, games, the lot. If we don’t offer sufficient entertainment for consumers’ dollars, they’re going to spend them on another form of entertainment – and we’re going to starve.
The recent release of Taylor Swift’s new album brought some very sobering figures with it.
… in the three years since Ms. Swift’s last album, the music industry has changed so drastically that much of the old playbook no longer applies … what counts as a hit when all the traditional goal posts keep moving?
In 2014, when Ms. Swift released her last album, “1989,” streaming accounted for only 23 percent of music consumption in the United States, according to Nielsen, and it was still seen as unproven format. Ms. Swift snubbed Spotify as a “grand experiment” with unappealing economics, and “1989” sold 1,287,000 copies in its first week, better than any album in the previous 12 years.
Now, streaming is 63 percent of the market, and the success of subscription platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have turned the fortunes of the entire industry around. Last week, shares of the French media conglomerate Vivendi rose after Goldman Sachs valued Universal Music, a Vivendi division, at $23 billion, almost triple the size of a takeover bid four years ago.
But with streaming on the rise, sales of CDs and downloads — the most lucrative formats — are plunging fast. So far in 2017, the market for single-track downloads is down almost half of what it was three years ago. The question lingering over the industry is whether Ms. Swift can match her last sales number, and how.
“For the right artist, there is gigantic demand out there,” said David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen. “But in order to reach that same level of success, there are different levers today to push and pull than there were the last time.”
There’s more at the link. Interesting reading for all entertainers (like ourselves).
The changed market for music (which, the Financial Times claims, has saved the music industry) is mirrored in the changed market for movies. Consider these headlines over the past year:
- Film and TV streaming and downloads overtake DVD sales for first time
- How Netflix took over the world
- Netflix and kill: Is streaming hurting movie theaters?
- THE LIVE STREAMING VIDEO REPORT: Forecasts, emerging players, and key trends for brands’ and publishers’ next big opportunity
I might add that movie theaters are in no doubt as to their competition:
“Our competition is not Netflix. It’s not the internet. It is sporting events, it is bowling, it is nightclubs,” Tim Richards, CEO of leading U.K. movie theater chain Vue Cinemas, told CNBC last week.
That quote was from 2016. Just look what’s happened to the 2017 box office. There were other factors in play, but I think Mr. Richards was right. Competition from other sources of entertainment meant that when Hollywood didn’t deliver a sufficiently entertaining product, its consumers simply spent their dollars elsewhere. We, as writers, face the same dilemma.
Since we’re part of the entertainment industry, and also subject to the vagaries of that market, writers are going to have to get used to making much less money per copy of their work than they’re used to. I’ve been analyzing my own sales since I started releasing my books in 2013. There’s a very clear decline in the sales of each book, both older titles and new, as Kindle Unlimited ‘borrows’ ramp up. Combining the numbers, I’m moving a similar number of copies, but earning much less for each. Today, I’d guesstimate that I’m going to make between one-third and one-half as much per book, in total, as I did back in 2013, and that figure is continuing to decline.
There’s another important factor, and that is the level of competition we face. When I started publishing my own books in 2013, Amazon.com’s Kindle Store had just over two million titles available, both paid and free. Today, as I write these words, Amazon.com reports that there are 5,533,182 publications available in the Kindle Store. The number is increasing by 50,000 to 100,000 per month – I’ve checked it over the course of this year.
Do the math for yourself. There are more and more titles chasing approximately the same number of consumers – and those consumers have probably got fewer entertainment dollars to spend today than they had four or five years ago. The economy hasn’t improved. Ergo, each title we offer has to be that much more attractive to consumers than the multitude of competing titles out there, if we’re going to make a living from our writing.
If we add that increased competition to the reduction in “pure” sales caused by the rise of services such as Kindle Unlimited, we face a real problem. The Amazon.com sales ranks achieved by my independently published books rival, and frequently exceed, those achieved by my work published commercially by Castalia House and, most recently, Baen. However, that’s cold comfort when I have to work harder for every sale, and I make less money per sale or ‘borrow’. That’s reality.
This means that we, as writers, are going to have to do more to promote and sell our books. I know we’ve hashed out the implications of an Internet presence, mailing lists, etc. ad nauseam. I won’t repeat all that again. Nevertheless, if we’re going to make less per book, we’re going to have to sell a lot more copies – in the face of greatly increased competition – in order to make a living at the writing game. That means we’re going to have to look into new methods of promoting and advertising our work.
Mike Shatzkin points out that cooperative marketing and support has the potential to be a much more important factor for authors.
One expectation I’ve had that has never become manifest is a “United Artists” for authors. Although the original vision didn’t last long, UA was formed in 1919 by the biggest movie stars then alive: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Another example of artists joining to manage their own business, and one that has lasted a lot longer with its original vision, is Magnum Photos, formed in Paris by Cartier-Bresson and several other photographers.
Since the digital age began, I have been expecting a handful of major authors to form a publishing house. It has never happened. A few, notably Stephen King, did some experimentation (remember “Riding the Bullet”?) but true commercial use of independent publishing has not tempted the authors who have been working with established publishers to strike out on their own.
But Trelstad made clear that authors are talking to each other about marketing and organizing themselves to help each other. With modern digital tools, this is easy. It is also very hard to track. There is one effort that has gotten some notoriety called the Tall Poppies, a collection of writers organized and spearheaded by author Ann Garvin. Their mission statement explains that “Tall Poppy Writers is a community of writing professionals committed to growing relationships, promoting the work of its members, and connecting authors with each other and with readers. By sharing information and supporting one another’s work, we strive to stand out in the literary marketplace and to help our members do the same.”
According to Trelstad (who is herself a “Tall Poppy member”), this kind of collaboration among authors is becoming increasingly common under the radar, like with her “masterminds” groups. It makes sense. The Trump and Sanders supporters didn’t need the party apparatus to get themselves together in common cause. Using the same tools and techniques, authors can also unite in their own interest without needing a publisher or agent to facilitate it for them. And apparently they are.
Again, there’s more at the link.
In one sense, I suppose those of us who write here at Mad Genius Club are an “author collaboration”, but it’s not primarily marketing-oriented. Similarly, a number of authors living in close proximity, including yours truly, have formed a small cooperative in north Texas. At present, we promote each others’ books on our blogs and social media accounts, but it’s relatively informal. I suspect we may get to the point, over time, where we invest money together in joint advertising and promotion activities. It’s certainly something I’m considering.
That’s just one potential approach. There are others, such as producing more work – perhaps in shorter formats – in order to appeal to more readers. I’m also trying my hand at different genres, in the hope of broadening my market. So far, I’ve written science fiction and Western novels, as well as a volume of memoirs. I’ve just launched my first fantasy novel, with a couple more planned in that genre, to test the market.
If I can gain a profitable foothold in the fantasy genre, I’ll continue to write such novels. If I can’t make enough money in that genre, I’m going to have to make a cold-blooded business decision to write where the money is. It’s as simple as that.
There are many other potential approaches. We’ve explored some of them here in the past, and I’m sure we’ll explore more in future articles. The main thing is, we’re faced with market reality. We have to respond within that reality . . . or be shut out of it. What do you plan to do about it? Please let us know in Comments, so we can all benefit from the discussion.