It’s that time of year when book people make their predictions for the year ahead. I bring you, my dear reader, my epic predictions for 2013.
I say “epic” tongue in cheek, because I went a bit overboard this year. When I sat down to write this, I was thinking of maybe eight or ten predictions with short narratives. I’m bringing you 21 predictions with expansive narratives.
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1. In the US, ebooks sales will reach 45% of US trade book market
Ebook sales growth in the US is slowing, but we’ll still continue to see ebooks take eyeballs from print books. Brick and mortar retailers will reduce shelf space for print as more readers turn to screens as their new paper of choice. Ebooks as a percentage of overall trade book sales in the US should hit 45%, up from what I’m estimating will probably be 30% in 2012. I might be underestimating both numbers. It’s tough to find reliable market share data.
2. Follow the eyeballs: 2013 will be the first year unit volume of ebooks exceeds print
The dollar sales growth of ebooks understates the profound shift to ebooks and screen reading. 2013 will be the first year more books are read on screens than on paper. To really understand the seismic shift toward screens, follow the eyeballs. Ebooks cost less than print books. The price of ebooks is declining, which means that the dollar sales growth cited above understates the increase in unit sales volume, and unit download volume. Furthermore, the data doesn’t measure free downloads.
Here’s a newsflash, and you’re reading it here first: Smashwords authors are generating about 3 million downloads at the Apple iBookstore each month, for books priced at FREE. Annualized, that’s over 36 million downloads. I expect we’ll do more in 2013. My 36 million number doesn’t include the millions of readers our authors are reaching each month across Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBookstore, Page Foundry, Blio, the Smashwords.com store, and at public libraries. Our authors are building platforms and fan bases at a faster rate than many traditionally published authors.
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5. Publishers, in search of Black Swans, will lose authors to self-publishing platforms
Publishers are in the business of selling books, not publishing books.
The dirty business of publishing is simply the means to the bookselling ends. The publishing industry has always been built around a model of scarcity and exclusivity. Publishers want to acquire and publish only those titles they think have the greatest commercial potential. They reject all the rest as riff raff, and then they carefully meter out their chosen books in seasonal catalogs.
Publishers have built barriers – let’s call them dams and dykes and parapets – to protect against the hoards of aspiring writers seeking publication. Publishers require writers to work through agents, who are charged with identifying titles publishers will want to publish. Many top-tier agents reject 5,000 authors for every author they sign on. Publishers still reject many of the agented books as well.
Big publishers see the great unwashed masses of aspiring authors as a problem, and these walls insulate them from the problem. Publishers are simply unable to take a risk on every author. They realize most of these books don’t have strong commercial potential, and on that count they’re correct.
Publishers devote tremendous energy and expense trying to build barriers to hold back the flood, but in the process of rejecting the riff raff they’re also rejecting the unrecognizable future breakouts. These breakouts are the Black Swans of publishing, to borrow a term popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. As described by Taleb, a Black Swan event is unexpected, unseen, unanticipated, improbable, and unpredictable. When it hits, it turns everything upside down and changes the world forever.
Since most books fail, we can think of a true breakout book as a Black Swan event. The newly hatched Black Swans are invisible to the publisher because they’re hiding in a sea of baby black geese. By sheer luck, numbers and some skill, Publishers pick out a few of the swans, but miss the others. Only the full marketplace of readers can reliably identify the black swans. In the dark ages of publishing, prior to five years ago, the baby swans were culled by publishers, denied any chance to reach readers. How many great classics have been lost to humanity simply because publishers missed the black swans?
This philosophy and attitude among large publishers that “most authors are a problem” and are unworthy of publishing is deep-seated. Yes, most authors don’t sell well. Most authors published by big publishers don’t sell well either, and therefore are unprofitable to publishers.
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9. Global will be the biggest story of 2013 for indie authors
The market for English-language ebooks outside the US will eclipse the US market in 2013.
As I predicted above, in the US, ebooks as a percentage of the overall trade book market will probably reach about 45% in 2013, up from approximately 30% in 2012, 19% in 2011, 8% in 2010, 3% in 2009, and 1% in 2008 (these are AAP numbers, with 2012 and 2013 my personal estimates).
This means that while the US market is still growing, the growth is slowing. Ebooks broke out first in the US market. Now they’re breaking out internationally as other countries enter the exponential phase of growth for their ebook markets.
Indie authors have a similar ground floor window of opportunity to become big fish in the small pond of these fast-growing markets, like the early indie ebook authors had in the US market in 2008 and 2009. And like the market of 2008 and 2009, larger publishers were slow to enter the party. Today on the global front, they’re struggling to overcome decades of legacy territory rights practices that have hamstrung their ability to distribute ebooks to all countries. They’ll get there soon.
As an indie author, you can get there now.
The rise of global also means that authors should modify their marketing to become more world-aware. Each store in each country has its own reviews and its own web page addresses. A great review at Apple or Amazon in the US is invisible to customers shopping in their UK stores. Each store in each country represents its own micro-market, and your opportunity is to build fans everywhere. On your blog and website, start providing direct hyperlinks to the different stores operated by each retailer in each of your primary countries. Outside the US, English-language authors will do best in Australia, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand, but you’ll still sell into other countries. Your social media marketing on Facebook, Twitter or on your blog will cross most international boundaries.
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17. Stigma of Big 6 (or Big 4 or Big 3) publishers will increase as prior stigma of self-publishing evaporates
The stigma of self-publishing is disappearing. Each week, indie authors are hitting the ebook bestseller lists at all the major ebook retailers, as well as lists maintained by the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, GalleyCat, and Digital Book World. A year ago, this was rare. A year from now, it’ll be commonplace. The future bestsellers of tomorrow are the indie authors of today. Indie authors are poised to take more market share in 2013 as the next generation of writers turns its back on traditional publishing.
Five years ago, back in the dark ages of publishing, self-publishing was seen as the option of last resort. It was seen as the last refuge for failed authors. Publishers controlled the printing press, the access to distribution, and the knowledge to professionally publish, which made authors entirely dependent upon publishing gatekeepers. Today, these three elements of professional publishing are fully democratized.
Indie authors now have the tools to publish faster, smarter and more effectively than traditional publishers. Many indies are publishing books of equal or greater quality than what’s put out by large publishers. Indies are pricing more aggressively, and as a result they’re building bigger platforms faster than many traditionally published authors who are now disadvantaged. As ebooks continue to take market share, and as physical brick and mortar shelf space disappears, the allure of traditional publishers will fade further.
At the same time the stigma of self-publishing evaporates, the stigma of traditional publishing is increasing. Authors are questioning what big publishers can do for them that they can’t already do on their own. Authors are realizing, as mentioned earlier, that the traditional publisher business practices (high prices, slow release schedules, limited marketing support, etc) can actually harm a writer’s career.
Traditional publishers are also showing themselves skilled at adding their own self-inflicted injuries. Traditional publishing’s cynical misadventure into vanity publishing will stain the reputation of all big NY publishers, even those that haven’t made the same mistakes. That’s sad, because I think the world of books would be better off if we could maintain a healthy and vibrant ecosystem of large publishers in addition to smaller ones.