Evolving world of publishing

I’ve followed Mike Shatzkin for years. Mike offers strategic consulting to the global book publishing business and posts every 4-6 weeks on happenings in that world. His latest post, which considers the end of the general trade publishing, got me thinking.

Mike’s premise is that “General trade publishing will be soon be recognized as an artifact of a trade that no longer exists. It doesn’t make sense any more for the organizing principle for title acquisition and marketing to be “if it works in bookstores, and we are confident we can convince them it will, we can do it”.”

Mike Shatzkin’s article compares the publishing world of the 1990s with today’s environment. I love making diagrams to reflect what’s going on and have attempted to highlight the differences Mike Shatzkin described in the following diagram.

  • It’s no surprise that Amazon is the elephant in the room. We’re all aware of its reach and influence. It operates as a home for writers who self-publish or are hybrid authors and as a publisher with at least 7 imprints. Through its electronic delivery and marketing machine, Amazon bypasses – and reduces the influence of – distributors, wholesalers, bookstore chains and small bookstores. In two earlier posts, I’ve also looked at how Amazon manipulates its best seller lists to feature its own authors. See here and here.
  • Self-publishing is an increasingly viable alternative for authors. In addition, for authors published by the ‘Big 5’, self-publishing offers an alternative source of revenue for books declined by their publishers, a more lucrative option in the face of declining advances, and/or a way to promote their backlists once they regain rights to those books. An increasing share of books are self-published.
  • Self-published authors along with Amazon reach readers directly. They bypass wholesalers and distributors, are infrequently sold through bookstores, and are less likely to be on library shelves.
  • Today, bookstores are roughly 25% of book sales. This means that it’s increasingly difficult for publishers to make the same margins they did in the past publishing a new book.
  • Audience-specific and topic-specific markets – particularly for non-fiction but also for fiction – are the way of the future. Publishers need data and marketing mechanisms to reach them.
  • General trade publishers who created profitable businesses based on selling 80% or more of their titles through bookstores must find, and are finding new mechanisms to reach readers. Unfortunately, Amazon has such a head start that this is a severe uphill climb.
  • E-books have upended the old world. With e-books more than 18 million titles are available at the click of the mouse. As a result older titles are taking a big share of revenue away from new titles.
  • Print on demand changes the need for large print runs. Print-on-demand also means that older titles that might have gone out of print under the 1990s model can in concept remain in print forever.
  • Today, a news event can trigger immediate marketing and sales from the backlist. The emphasis here is on backlist. Such sales undercut the sales of new releases.

Let me add a few of my own thoughts:

  • Bookclubs – remember the book of the month club? – are much less significant than in the past.
  • Between the 1990s and now, several book chains and many small bookstores have disappeared.
  • With the proliferation of cheap books, either through services like BookBub or self-published authors or tools like Amazon Prime, libraries do not have the prominence with readers that they did in the past.
  • Big Box stores sell books at discounted prices. They are one distribution channel Amazon uses to sell print copies of their authors.
  • Through its own pricing strategies, Amazon is training readers to expect cheap books.

According to Mike Shatzkin, all of this means that the notion of ‘general trade publishing’ is almost an anachronism.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

When You Don’t Quite Fit #HNS2019

Alison Stuart, author of historical romance and the soon-to-release historical mystery, Singapore Sapphire, and three other authors—Lauren Willig, Deanna Raybourn, and Leanna Hieber—discussed the notion of carving out your niche in a crowded market. It was a lively session with lots of laughter.

Publishers and retailers love labels; but what do you do when what you write doesn’t fit neatly on the shelf …

Lauren Willig refers to her novels as “genre stew”, a combination of historical chick lit, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Deanna Raybourn used the phrase “magpies of the writers world” to describe her novels which are Victorian, romance, mysteries. And Leanna Hieber has coined a new phrase for her novels—gaslight fantasy—to describe their blend of historical fantasy, mystery, and gothic.

The group shared stories about their obstacles to publishing. Deanna said that she originally “didn’t know what she wanted to write” and stumbled around for years trying to fit until her agent told her to spend a year reading rather than writing. What she discovered during that time was that the stories she loved to read all included mysteries, had women in the lead role, and featured romance. Two years later, she sold a series of six books in one deal, her Julia Grey series.

Lauren sold her first novel just when cross-genre stories “became a thing.” She then experienced a problem because the genre lines tightened again. Lauren has discovered that readers enjoy a “modern frame story”, which is what she writes. She also told the audience that her publisher changed the cover of one of her novels from a historical fiction look to a romance look, when romance was hot and historical fiction wasn’t.

According to the panel, we should realize that publishers are organized by genre.

Each panelist offered advice for other authors:

Leanna: say yes to every opportunity and say yes to your voice.

Deanna: choose fear … choose the project you’re afraid of

Lauren: be flexible when you go to market; remember that the market is a strange beast and changes on a dime.

Alison: understand what your core story is, understand the market for that core story, and pitch to the right market.

The group said that historical fiction seems to be booming. Positioning your novel is key. For example, “Kate Morton” read alikes are selling. You can also position a novel by using a combination such as: Jane Austen meets James Bond.

Other posts on HNS2019:

Tips on Writing a Series and The State of Historical Fiction.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Follow the Money

Follow the MoneyWhen big change happens in an industry – sometimes referred to as disruptive change – significant innovation is always involved. Think of the disruption digital photography has had on chemical based photography, or steamships had on sailing ships, or smartphones have had on traditional and mobile phones. Such disruptions affect all players in an industry along with the flows of money and profit.

Clayton M. Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, argues that established companies have great difficulty with disruption because their processes and values focus on evolutionary change and the very things that make them successful are at odds with disruptive innovation. Of course, publishing is no exception.

Industry statistics are confusing and often incomplete, but consider a few US stats included in a blog on The Future of Publishing, written by Thad McIlroy. (Some are a little dated, but I believe still relevant.)

  • Of more than 88,000 publishers in the US, nearly 68,000 had sales under $50,000 – a 2005 study. (Does this  mean there are a lot of publishers looking for good product? Or far too many publishers?)
  • The top 50 US publishing companies hold 80% of the market in terms of sales. (A huge portion of their revenue comes from established authors.)
  • And yet, more than 400,00 new titles were published in the US in 2007.  (Talk about competition! What other industry offers so many new products every year?)
  • Nearly half of all Americans aged 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure. (That’s zero, zip, nada, folks, and begs the question of what they are doing with their time. I suspect that one answer is social media.)
  • Between 1985 and 2005, average annual household spending on books declined 14%. (Averaging can be misleading. For example, this data said nothing about splits amongst hardcover, paperback or ebook spending.)

According to the authors of a JRC Technical Report on The Book Publishing Industry,

Digitization alters the legacy cost structure. Some costs disappear (printing, physical transportation, storage), some remain unaffected (creation, authors’ advances, editorial process, marketing and sales), some are shifted (e.g. promotion, with the coming of blogs and other tools) and some new ones also appear – mostly on the software side of the equation (computer programmes, file conversion, cataloguing and permitting search of text and metadata, storing, security, right management…).

This report went on to discuss the publishing industry value chain, noting:

One major feature on the creative side is that this creative workforce is usually not supported directly, at least on a regular basis by its main customer the publisher, a feature shared by other creative industries. The author appears to be more in the position of a supplier working under various contractual arrangements. They will receive in most cases royalties within the range of 7% to 15% of the list price set for the physical book.

An analysis of the French publishing industry workforce found that 12% are writers, while 69% are journalists and publishing executives. An interesting structural dynamic with significant impact on cost allocation.

Pubsoft, an organization with the mandate of ‘democratizing the ebook publishing world to the every day user’ suggests that “readers are the ones who determine what sells and what doesn’t. They want cheap, good stories. And they want them now. They don’t care how they get them.”

These are some of the many pressures facing the publishing industry, and it’s likely that someone has already articulated what I’m about to say, but I will say it anyway: Writers need to follow the money.

By following the money, both outflows and inflows, writers can adjust their approach to leverage today’s changed and changing environment.

  • Writing requires time. Time is ultimately money. The more you write (volume) and the better your writing becomes (quality), the more you can potentially earn. What are you doing to increase volume and quality?
  • Agents are paid by writers. Are agents gatekeepers to the publishing industry? Is your agent worth the money you spend? Can you get published, and protect your rights, without an agent?
  • Readers have lots of choice. Readers ultimately fund the industry. What are you doing to reach readers and build an audience? What about reaching younger consumers who don’t (currently) read books, although many read tweets and blogs and interact on Facebook?
  • Volume x Price = Sales Revenue. Publishers have traditionally paid around 10% royalty to authors for each book sold. What are you doing to increase the volume of sales for your books? What trade-off would make it worthwhile to take a different publishing path?

A few examples illustrate different approaches authors have and are taking (I originally pulled these examples together in 2012, and I am certain there are many more):

  • James Patterson adapted lessons from his career in advertising to create a mega-writing business that functions like a literary assembly line and generates revenues in excess of $100 million a year.
  • A. Konrath, author of popular detective stories, agreed a few years ago to publish his newest novel directly with Amazon. (He decided he could make more money that way.)
  • Less well established writers like Joanna Penn, who began her blog as part of a marketing strategy for her books, make money (in some cases more money) from their blogs as well as their novels.
  • James Redfield, author of the novel, The Celestine Prophecy, offers a chat forum for readers on his website and bi-weekly webcasts for his Global Prayer project. He began by self-publishing.
  • Terry Fallis published his first book, The Best Laid Plans, by podcasting it a chapter at a time. He built an audience and won Canada’s Stephen Leacock award for humour. His second novel, a sequel titled The High Road and published by McLelland & Stewart, has been released concurrently in podcast and book formats.

What are you doing to follow the money?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.