Books are struggling to survive

In past articles, I’ve frequently commented that the market for books is only one element of a much broader market – that for entertainment as a whole.  Books compete with movies, TV programs and series, computer games, etc. for a share of the consumer’s entertainment dollar.  Increasingly, books are getting the short end of that stick – and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it worse.

I know that most of us who read and write here are bibliophiles.  We love books, we read them, we write them, and some of us even obsess over them.  It’s hard (and painful) to realize that we’re in a small minority compared to the general public.  Regular readers appear to be only a small percentage of the general population, and may be a diminishing percentage.

If you doubt that, let the numbers tell the tale.  Last year, the electronic games industry raked in more money than movies and sports combined.

With a year full of stay-at-home orders and lockdowns due to the coronavirus, video game revenue worldwide is expected to rise 20% to $179.7 billion by the end of 2020, making the global industry bigger than the sports and movies industries combined, according to the International Data Corporation.

The movie industry reached $100 billion in revenue in 2019 … Sports are predicted to gross an estimated $75 billion by the end of the year, with declines associated with the loss of live attendance revenue due to pandemic restrictions.

New consoles, hardware, software and the latest accessories all contributed to the global rise in video game sales, with U.S. consumer spending on the sector rising 22% in the first 11 months of the year to $44.5 billion. November’s release of the long-awaited Sony Playstation 5 and the new Microsoft Xbox boosted hardware sales 58%.

There’s more at the link.

By contrast, worldwide book sales last year (print, electronic and audio) are estimated to have reached only $12.32 billion.  That’s:

  • Less than 7% of annual video games revenue;
  • Less than 13% of annual movie revenue;
  • Less than 17% of annual sports revenue.

We’ve seen massive consolidation throughout the publishing industry over the past few decades.  Until last year, we spoke of the “Big Five” publishing houses:  but 2020 saw the sale of Simon & Schuster, one of the biggest US publishing houses, to one of its biggest rivals, Penguin Random House.  Both will now fall under the umbrella of German publishing giant Bertelsmann.  The publishing industry is already bracing for the fallout.

Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House are two of the largest publishers in the world. A merger between both companies would possibly mean fewer book deals for lesser-known authors and agents.

Literary agent David Kuhn told the Times, “There are projects that would have sold for $150,000 years ago that might not sell at all now to the big five, whereas the book that would have sold for $500,000 might go for a million,” he said. “They would rather go in bigger for the thing that they have the most consensus on.”

“For certain books, there will be only four possible customers, down from five,” Logical Company CEO Mike Shatzkin told The Times. “It’s another sign of how the trade publishing ecosystem has weakened.”

Again, more at the link.

So the Big Five are now (or soon to be) the Big Four.  How long will it take before ongoing consolidation reduces the market for authors even further?

In a COVID-19 world, the implications for bibliophiles are not good.

Still, the ongoing impact of the economic crisis has many authors, publishers and booksellers worried. With millions of Americans out of work, books may become an out-of-reach luxury, as discretionary spending falls. Likewise, many independent bookstores, a critical outlet for authors and publishers for driving discovery of new books, are at risk of having to close permanently. Amazon, meanwhile, may emerge from the crisis with an even greater market share of book sales. And it seems unlikely that the industry will fully recover until schools are able to hold book fairs, literary festivals and trade shows resume, classroom materials are once again needed for teachers and students, and bookstores are able to hold in-store events with authors — all of which seem like far-off prospects.

“Are we going to go back to in-person author events? Not immediately,” said Kristen McLean, the executive director of business development for NPD Books. “What does book culture look like in the post-Covid period?”

More at the link.

Here at Mad Genius Club, we’ve moved away from focusing on the business of publishing to try to provide more entertaining reading for our visitors.  Nevertheless, we’re all in that business, one way or another, either as vendors or as consumers.  It behooves us to keep a watchful eye on it, because what’s happening there will filter through to all of us sooner or later.

I’d like to throw this open to readers.  How have you found the book market, as writers or as readers, over the past year?  Have new books captured your interest?  If so, which books, and why?  Have you found more, or less, that you want to read among new books?  Are you turning to old favorites, or searching through favorite authors’ backlists, rather than try new authors?  I’ve been doing a lot of that, because many of the new books hyped in Amazon newsletters and other publications are “woke” – often by feminist or progressive authors, filled with modern tropes, and having little or nothing to do with reality.  I don’t react well to such books, as I’m sure most of us here don’t.  That being the case, what are you reading, and why?  Is your book budget as good as it was, or has it declined?

Let’s keep each other informed.  We’ll all benefit.

29 comments

  1. So, on a gaming discord I’m on, there’s a sub-section for books. Someone asked for some good novels to read, and many of the responses were canned ‘these are what my school told me are good novels’ responses. I popped out with a sci fi list (tbh, more likely to be read by the question poser) after making mention how the books they listed were the ones that drive most people away from reading, and i got a lot of agreement. We get told over and over anything genre is pulp, and that These Are The Great Books…. and people wonder why no one wants to read books.

    1. Perry Rodan remains the most popular and widely read SF series -ever-. Killed by Ace in the 1970s in N. America because it was too low-brow, despite the sales. I think I might still have a couple of those old Ace Perry Rodans kicking around in the basement.

  2. — How have you found the book market, as writers or as readers, over the past year? —

    2020 as a writer: it’s been tragic.
    2020 as a reader: I had a lot of trouble finding decent stuff to read.
    Aggregate verdict on 2020: Kill it! Kill it with fire!

  3. My TBR read pile from 2020 is huge – both figuratively with ebooks and literally with dead tree. But between an increased work load and spending way more time than is healthy on the Book of Farces keeping up with the world, I’ve not been reading enough. I just set a limiter on my FB time, so my 2021 goal is to spend more time either reading or playing with yarn, and less time getting pissed off at the world.

    As for how 2020 has impacted my book buying, it really hasn’t. We go to a huge used book store a couple times a year, but all of my other purchases are via Amazon. I hate going to B&N or BAM unless I’m going to buy albums.

  4. Half way through Bradbury, just finished all of heinlein (still not in order.) Tolkien before that. Haven’t finished any fiction on ku in a while.

  5. As a writer, my sales are about half of 2019. I’ll have to brace myself and do some actual math RSN. However depressing that’ll be.

    Reading . . . explains a lot.

    I finished seven books.

    Checking my Kindle List on Amazon, I see I’ve actually bought sixty-five titles. Some short stories I haven’t gotten around to, some for my husband . . . some I read a bit, then quit. But most I somehow haven’t had the energy to even open.

    Gah, when I was in High School reading seven books would have been a slow week, and I never walked away from one I started. Maybe it’s this year, maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s social media.

    But it’s going to be tough going for writers if I’m anywhere near what a super reader has devolved into.

    1. I’m not sure I was a top tier super reader in high school and middle school.

      But some time in adult hood, I started hitting mental health issues of a sort where I noticed that what I felt like reading had drastically narrowed in range.

      So, yeah, stress and stuff to try to read for work. But this year a lot of the time I wanted something silly, and light, with catharsis, that I /knew/ would not come too close to one of my real world worries.

      Forex, I really enjoyed Jean Rabe’s first book in the young sheriff series. But the second has a choice, and it touches on something I was starting to feel anxious about in real life. Had some stressful business due, so I had trouble getting into it. So I stopped, and dreaded continuing, and a certain event late 2020 meant that is has been a long time since I wanted to try. Stop-and-dread is a bad pattern I’ve gotten into, and a lot of time as soon as I get off the dread, I continue and enjoy it. But I’ve been months or maybe even years at the same place, many, many, many times and stories. So, mostly a personal anxiety issue, but it does relate to being stress, depressed, and a little bit unsure what the experience of the story will be.

      1. The best thing about KU: Low sunk cost in any given book. I used to be a “finish it even if it’s awful” reader. Now, I toss it aside if I don’t like it. If you don’t want to continue reading something, don’t. But there’s no need to stop reading, in general; switch to something else.

  6. As a writer? Nothing worth mentioning. Some progress on non-fiction work. Energy spent elsewhere that might have been enough to overcome my problem with the creative writing project. (OTOH, you can’t fix stupid with willpower and guts.)

    As a reader? I haven’t really gone anywhere I haven’t had to, where the mask is a requirement. So there goes visiting the bookstore after the first three months of 2020. Actually, I think it was two and a half months.

    But I had an increased income, and decided I could budget a small amount for purchase. Bought some stuff on kindle. Some of which has been a great comfort during periods of significant stress.

    Special mention is the apparent increase in Japanese Light Novel, etc., titles on Kindle. Some of the blogging fans of Sci Fi and anime have likewise read some of the LN titles I enjoyed, and have with basis reviewed them more harshly. I think this is partly because the way I budgeted wound up sharply limiting my pace, and I switched around between titles so that any one did not fatigue me so badly with its choice of shortcut.

    I’m sure anyone here can read the 13 kindle volumes of Infinite Dendrogram well inside of a week. I’m also sure that this is so concentrated a dose that most would hit repulsed well before that. I read them over a much longer period, partly because of the release rate. Like a chocolate bar eating contest, versus eating chocolate bars over the rate you can appreciate, a period that may be weeks or months or years.

  7. Yea, I don’t read anything like as many books as I did as a kid. This year, just had a hard time focusing, maybe ready a dozen all year. I might be kidding myself at even that total.

    I’m probably up over 100 in the TBR pile, if one counts (and I do) all the books I’ve downloaded off Internet Archive and Gutenberg for research. Kindle is loaded with SF&F, as is a whole shelf near my desk.

    And I hope to start selling some stuff this year. What is wrong with this picture?

  8. I’ve found that I buy mainly ebooks nowadays, but rarely from the major publishers. Most of the new writing I read is from independents, including many of the mad genii (geniuses?) here. I’ve also bought a lot of cheap ebook reprints of history and memoirs, especially WWII books published shortly after the war that are now available on Kindle. Project Gutenberg has a significant presence in my reading, as well – I’ve found that a lot of 100 – 150 year old books are quite readable and entertaining. So I’m still a near-constant reader, but buying less and less of what the mainstream publishers are putting out.

  9. Last year, more than half our income came from direct sales at events. All gone this year. We’re bad at AMS ads; improving them will help us some. We’re keeping at it.

    I can’t read as indiscriminately as I used to. I can’t focus. I really can’t read much of the current, mainstream fiction as I want to throw the book against the wall with great force because of the utter stupid wokeness.

    As I research more, it’s also harder to accept basic world-building premises such as the current book on the stack where magic comes in waves, then recedes so tech can come back. The waves sweep back and forth, lasting for hours or days or weeks. Um, no. The electrical infrastructure doesn’t like what amounts to a worldwide EMP on a regular basis. And that’s without buildings collapsing, airplanes falling out to the sky and landing on God knows what, and gas mains, and on and on and on.

    Luckily, due to decades of intensive thrift (I *highly* recommend Amy Dacyzyn despite how old her books are. Dave Ramsey is good too.), our monthly nut is very low. Not being debt slaves is what’s saving us.

  10. The way 2021 is going I expect that books will be declared problematic AF and cancelled. I mean, they’re full of predominantly white pages with a few token black words printed on them. Do I really need to explain how bad the optics of that is?

  11. I stopped reading in 2014. Went from two books a week to zero. Couldn’t stand the negative focus and repetitive depressing themes anymore. You all know what I’m talking about.

    Started writing instead. Finally published the first one on Amazon in Dec. 2019, “Unfair Advantage” by Edward Thomas, for those interested. Said tome does not contain those repetitive depressing themes, I assure you. Good guys win, bad guys don’t, and hero gets the girl. Also boy mans-up so the girl gets a hero instead of a useless twerp, for those who worry about such things.

    Occasional trips to various bookstores, much reduced this year thanks to lockdown, indicate that the Big 4 (down as predicted from Big 5) have learned nothing and don’t really seem to care a damn about what people like myself want to read.

    Occasional reading in the gaming fanbase indicates that the same political forces that f-ed over the publishing industry are having a go at gaming as well. They can’t get any traction yet, which is why the gaming industry is doing $180 billion this year at a guess. But clouds on the horizon, the latest greatest release Cyberpunk 2077 (apart from everybody clowning on the glitches) contains ALL those repetitive tedious themes we’ve grown to hate in SF/F. Post apocalypse, societal breakdown, senseless death and destruction, the usual litany of woe.

    On the bright side (if you can call it that) the comics industry went Woke back in the 1990s and they’ve been in harsh decline ever since. It appears there’s a lot of ruin in an industry, as they’ve clung on though 30 years of ever-increasing Wokeitude and ever-decreasing sales. But apparently this year is a bridge too far for DC Comics, which according to news reports is taking a hard look at stopping production and living off their back-catalog instead. After multiple corporate acquisitions, DC is now a sub-sub-sub subsidiary of AT&T, and the whole frigging comics market isn’t enough to even move the needle for those guys. After 30 years of being a hollowed-out skinsuit zombie for the Left, the thing may finally lie down and die, living on as a licensing entity for Superman(TM) branded tooth brushes and children’s lunch boxes.

    Will the Big 4 become the Big One that licenses old copies of Harry Potter and James Bond forever more? Could be. It would look good on them.

    I don’t really care, myself. I’ll be writing my books and publishing them by e-book for my own edification anyway, come what may. Or possibly bootleg USB sticks out the back of my truck at illegal SF conventions. That’s how they do things in Cuba these days.

  12. I don’t game, and most new movies appear to be uninteresting. So I fall back on older TV/Movies, and to a large extent older books. When I do buy a book written in the 21st century it’s usually either an author from Baen, or one that has been recommended to me (either here or some other social media), or very rarely a non-fiction book where the author doesn’t seem caught up in the woke politics of the day.

    I tend to download and save a DRM-free copy of whatever electronic media I do buy just in case the vendor decides to push out an “updated” version. For some of the older titles that haven’t been digitized I’m buying used physical copies.

    1. Have you seen the comments on the new Wonder Woman 1984 movie? 5.5/10 on IMDB. It is getting a solid “Meh” from audience response.

      Costs $30 bucks to rent on Apple/Prime/whatever here in the Demented Dominion. I’ll be saving my money for the standard $5 rental to come. Disappointing but expected.

      1. That’s unfortunate. I rather liked the first one for the most part and was hoping this one would be just as solid. le sigh

        I don’t do much on IMDb anymore. When they forced the interface change it became darn near unusable and I quit contributing. And then the got rid of the comments and there was really no point to logging in except to find out what a particular actor was also in.

  13. IMO it’s absolutely going to be a grapevine market. And I’m going to have to suck it up and get used to ebooks because I suspect that paper is going to become an expensive treat. Unless Print on Demand can be made viable in a really good way.

  14. More ebooks read in 2020 with KU and local library. Fewer hard copies overall purchased. I’m running out of room and there seems to be less out there I’m interested in reading – I save it for special books. Plus I have huge existing dead tree reading piles, but often on topics I don’t have energy for after the day job. Which also impacts writing energy levels.

  15. Forgive me, I wrote this before reading other comments.

    I don’t mind investing in genre or even buying pulp. But as a mom and homeschooling mom, most of my book budget goes to the kids, and there, what is getting published isn’t a good story. What’s getting published is woke agenda filled narratives.

    Books with straight male protagonists? Ages 8-11? None. Ages 11-15? None. YA? All I see, all there is, female waif or otherwise appealing to female teen.

    Want to drive boys to NEVER read a book? Well, gosh, push Percy Jackson out of the way for a laboriously explained gender bender lead. Turn even dragon stories into sjw diatribes. Make every sci fi or fantasy book have a lead girl. Publish yet another romance for a trans boy who likes a girl.

    FF7, ZBotW, Jedi Fallen Order have more fleshed out, interesting masculine characters than the books available for young men.

    If you don’t hook children on books, of course they won’t buy them as adults.

    Second point: I feel the same way–i want a well written story, not to be preached to. Finding a review of a book that will let me know just how many random gay characters they threw in for no reason other than to appease the publisher is difficult. Goodreads is a bad mechanism for selling new authors to book lovers. We need some better ‘ratings’ system than just trying to slot into a genre.

    1. I think grapevine, especially on social media, is probably the only way to go for recommendations these days. I can’t take any of the reviews from legacy media, nor any of the advertising, as anything other than woke propaganda, especially when they try to gaslight me about older authors that I’ve actually read. I’ve noticed an uptick in people “following” my reviews on GoodReads lately, not sure why.

  16. Almost all of my reading this past year has been comfort rereading. I don’t have the energy to risk getting beaten by wokeness in my fiction. I get enough of that in real life.

  17. For my part, there are 5 adults in my house, we are subsisting on my part time job and pension. So much for an empty nest! No debt, so we’re making it, but the entertainment budget got severely pruned. I buy hardbound reference books (secondhand if possible) as needed, nothing from tradpub, and ebooks mostly from you guys.

    My last purchase was Cedar Sanderson’s The East Witch, and I really had to think – do I want this book, or a large bag of rice? It’s kind of like RAH’s statement about the writer competing for beer money, for the money a person has to spend after the necessities are paid for, that he has a choice on. I may yet wish that I had bought that bag of rice instead, but I doubt it. Morale is needed, it’s the spice that makes rice and beans a meal instead of human fuel.

  18. I still read new books. Some are really new, and others happen when I discover (through recommendations, or a good shorter work in an anthology I was already picking up, for example) a new (to me) author, and pick up the backlist.

    And I still periodically decide I hate SF. Which means that I go off and read non-SF work for a few weeks. And if I see that I still hate SF, then I go back and reread older stuff (this doesn’t count the older stuff I reread every year just because it reminds me of how great the genre can be). But it’s hard to hate SF after rereading Poul Anderson, or Fred Brown, or Leigh Brackett, or Kuttner/Moore, or ….

    And I use the term “SF” to include the entire genre. That way, I don’t have to put things into categories. Since good stories don’t need categories (or break them entirely, with examples such as Zelazny’s Lord of Light being an SF story with the Buddha and the Hindu pantheon as characters, or Leiber’s Conjure WIfe having been released as Fantasy, and Urban Fantasy, and Gothic Horror, and Romance, and … — nobody knows what category it falls into, just that it’s a wonderful story).

    So far, I can find new books to read faster than I can read them — the unread pile is generally growing. But there’s still a lot of rereading to get me back into an SF mood, when necessary.

    1. I’ve long maintained that SF was what was left over when they defined the other genres.

      Even now, not quite “respectable.” I still remember the insistence that Robert Harris’ “Fatherland” and Len Deighton’s “SS-GB” totally were not science fiction… yet Keith Laumer’s “Worlds of the Imperium” and Richard C. Meredith’s “At the Narrow Passage” were “escapist”, not to be taken seriously.

  19. Peter, you inspired me to write up a review of a book (and then series) I am really enjoying. Word of Mouth is the best marketing and right now, it’s the only way to go and reach readers.

  20. According to GoodReads, I _almost_ hit a book a day in 2020 (“only” 330). Since GoodReads doesn’t count re-reads and gets confused when my Kindle is in airplane (aka battery saver) mode, I think I made it.

    it seems unlikely that the industry will fully recover until schools are able to hold book fairs, literary festivals and trade shows resume, classroom materials are once again needed for teachers and students, and bookstores are able to hold in-store events with authors
    Absolutely none of that has ever or will ever affect me. I’ve never been to a book fair. I don’t even know what a “literary festival” is. I’ve never been to a trade show, not being in the trade. I rarely read non-fiction (i.e. classroom materials) offline (tech manuals are all online, now). I haven’t been to a bookstore in at least a decade, if not longer. I’ve never met an author, let alone at an in-store event.
    I’m also very counter-cyclical, generally. For example, my (completely unnecessary and presumably taxable) stimulus money went to pay off a credit card, which is hardly stimulating.

    On the time-travel romance subject, I just read one. Time travel stories are hard and this was a first book. It had issues – although copy editing was not one of them. I have no idea if the history was accurate because I don’t know anything about 1830s Texas. Based on y’all’s “but 4 stars drags down the average” advice, I’ll give it three or four stars when I think of a nice, but accurate, review. It wasn’t awful. It has a lot of sentences. They ree very short. That can get tiring. I want to be encouraging. The review can wait. Maybe this is the answer. Write the review with many sentences. Someone might get it.

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