By now I’m sure you’ve read, with great interest, my blog reports on the Publishing Business Conference & Expo, which I attended last week in New York. I’m also sure they left you asking, “Yeah, but, as an aspiring fantasy and science fiction author, what does all this mumbo jumbo mean to me?” Glad you asked. What follows are some short distillations of discussions from the conference in the form of good advice for authors.
Take heed, my young apprentices, for there is a great disturbance in the Force . . .
The general consensus at the conference was that e-books and print books (or what Chris Keneally of the Copyright Clearance Center called “tree-books”) do and will continue to exist side-by-side. I agree, and am firmly of the opinion that authors shouldn’t care. Don’t suffer over format, this has always been cyclical, dependent on the whims of the marketplace. If your book has been published in any format, is available for purchase by real people, you’ve been or are getting paid, then you’re ahead of the game. Expect that any contract you sign will have e-book language in it, and that an e-book edition will be released at the same time or shortly after the print book. And further, don’t stress if you’re not in hardcover. The hardcover is one of the most bloody victims of the publishing recession, and may end up listed as Killed In Action—until the economy swings around again and it’s brought back to life. There is nothing you, as an author, can do to change that. Likewise, there’s nothing you, as an author—unless you’re James Patterson or J.K. Rowling (maybe)—can do to effect the e-book pricing debate, so just stay out of it. Agents, on the other hand, should stay in.
Looking out to five years in the future I think we’ll all find that there are a larger number of smaller publishers serving niche audiences. Horror, fantasy, and (to a lesser degree, for the time being) SF are big niches, so the bigger players like Tor and Del Rey will still be in that game, but even they are starting to make some adjustments to the way they do business. Expect smaller advances. The days of an unknown, first-time author commanding six-figure advances have come and gone. If you hear about big advances for authors like Audrey Niffenegger, keep in mind that that came to her after she had a huge best seller that was also made into a reasonably successful movie. No longer are advances going to be effectively flat fees that authors will never be able to earn out. That business model was never sustainable. This is just a reality of the business, an untenable practice that won’t survive the recession.
“Traditional book marketing” (print adds, Advance Reader Copies, bound galleys, etc.) is over, plain and simple. Now (not a few years from now, or “eventually,” but now) all marketing is digital marketing. Everybody (authors, editors, publishers, booksellers) is learning the digital world as we go, creating it as we go. We’re all at least a bit unsure as to what our day-to-day jobs will be like in a year, but we’re smart people and will figure it out. Expect change on this front, but not disaster.
As an author, you have to do your own marketing. This has been true for a long time now, actually, but some authors still don’t get it. Social networking is not an option. You simply must be out there in the digital sphere, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, whateverisnexting. And be in this for the long haul—building an online community takes time and patience. In a future blog post I’ll offer more detailed advice on this, but for now, here’s a short list of what you must have on your blog/web site: covers (what does this book, or these books, look like—what am I looking for in the store?), unique content (give me something worth coming to your blog for), links to ways to follow you (help me find you on Twitter, Facebook, etc.). I use Twitter and WordPress, and will soon break down and set up a Facebook account. You should use those and others. What others? As many as you can manage, but no fewer than three. If it’s free, and not a scam, do it.
The crisis in retail doesn’t seem to be coming to an end—or even coming to a head yet. Don’t be surprised if your book is not in stock at your local chain bookstore, but there are increasing avenues to match readers with books. Amazon is only getting bigger. Google isn’t really even in the game yet, but they’re coming and its going to be huge. Likewise Apple. There are distributors like Greenleaf that work directly with authors, and Print-on-Demand (POD) is growing in both number of titles and respectability. We have a few years full of transition ahead, and many or all of those transitions will be painful to people in all segments of the publishing business, but they will all be survivable. Hang in there.
Foreign sales are an increasingly vital component to every publisher’s plans, and the same should be true of authors. Make sure your agent has a decent foreign rights crew, or hire a separate foreign rights agent. This could be the difference between writing full time and keeping your day job. Both Steve Forbes and Cathie Black mentioned at the conference that 40% of their revenue is coming from foreign sales. That’s the magazine business, but books aren’t far behind.
Readers are out there, and the recession didn’t make people hate books. The recession has made readers spend less money on books, though, and a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on it are out there working hard to try to get that money back. The business will be suffering over format and pricing, but authors need to continue to suffer over writing. If you’re a content provider, rejoice. People still want that content, it’s just going to take us a little bit to figure out how to package it.