Tea Leaves: Year in Review 2022

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

I started this year’s Year in Review blogs with traditional publishing partly because that Department of Justice anti-trust case produced such juicy tidbits that I couldn’t ignore them, and partly because I have always started with traditional publishing. Back in the day, I saw all of us (writers, readers, and publishers) as creatures that emerged from traditional publishing.

Now, I see a lot of writers who didn’t start in traditional and have no desire to go there. I’ve met a lot of young readers who really don’t care what the newest hottest book is. Heck, I’ve met a lot of young people who have no sense of the latest music (something that was a big deal when I was young) because they have access to all music. They can easily find their niche, and go back to Patsy Cline if that niche is country or maybe find a song by Maren Morris and have them on the same playlist.

Reading the opinion in the attempted merger of Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, a merger that the courts ultimately blocked, giving a big (if twenty years too late) win to the Department of Justice, made me realize just how different the various areas of publishing are now.

It also gave me a glimpse into the future, with more clarity than I think I’ve had on the entire industry maybe ever.

Last year I wrote a post in the Year in Review called “The Split.” I finally had numbers that showed just how different the traditional publishing industry was from what most places call the self-publishing industry. Self-publishing is no longer accurate, as we’ll see below, and I’m not sure it’s ever been accurate. It’s more of an indie publishing industry. Some writers do publish their own work, but others have created large businesses that publish the work of many writers.

I wrote a second Year in Review post in 2021 about the splits in indie publishing, and I still stand by that analysis. In that post, I identified five different areas of the part of publishing I’m calling indie. (I still haven’t found a good name for it all. Neither, it seems, has anyone else.)

While I separated them into five areas last year, I’m only going to explore four areas this year. They are:

  • Actual self-publishing. It’s a one-person operation, with the occasional contract labor to help with things like covers (although we’ll see in a future post how that has gotten even easier) or copy edits or anything else the author wants to farm out.
  • The Individual Data Managers. People who like playing with algorithms and use the amazing amount of data that’s at our fingertips now to enhance book sales. Sometimes those sales are for the writer’s individual work and sometimes those sales are for books the writer/manager owns a percentage of. I love many things about these folks, but my favorite part—at least for the purpose of this post—is that traditional publishing could’ve used someone like this for decades…and never bothered to hire them. Right now, given the changes at Amazon and elsewhere, this isn’t as successful a route as it was even a year ago, but the more things change….
  • Small Publishers. This is a catch-all category, but suffice to say that these are publishers who started as writers but have a full-fledged somewhat traditional publishing business. Traditional in the sense that they license rights from other writers, publish the books or stories on all platforms, and pay the writer for that privilege. The payments are not standardized in this category as they are in true traditional publishing (New York based) but that’s irrelevant. These publishers exist and will become more important as the years go by.
  • Small Entertainment Companies. Last year, I described them as companies that “started out as something reading- or writer-oriented.” Then they became something that was not like anything we’d seen before, and eventually sold for millions to larger corporations. I’m not describing them further, because the more I see what’s been going on in 2022, the more I think this category is growing and changing and becoming something that’s about story in all of its forms. We might discuss this in a later Year in Review post as I discuss the influence AI products are making on creativity in general.

Last year, this analysis of the publishing industry seemed pretty thorough to me, although I knew I was missing something. Then, throughout the year, I looked at writer after writer after writer who refused to believe the information coming out at the S&S/PRH/DOJ trial, and continued to move forward into traditional publishing, no matter what. I couldn’t see what drove the writers there, except for old-fashioned beliefs.

I think those old-fashioned and engrained beliefs are there. But those writers were seeing something that I had missed.

They were seeing the “top-selling books” market. I analyzed that a bit in the previous year-in-review post, the one about bestsellers. The DOJ, in making its case against the merger, isolated this market for me, and made me understand that it will always be with us.

Writers, particularly writers without any business acumen or future vision, will always try to get into this market. I hate calling it “top-selling books” because that’s not accurate at all. (See that bestseller post.) I’m not even sure there’s a good label for this category.

Books That Get A Big Traditional Advance? Books That Get Special Traditional Treatment? Books Traditional Publishing Has High Hopes For?

Let’s skip the label, since it’s so hard to make an accurate one, and go with the definition from the opinion in the S&S/PRH/DOJ case.

These are books that get advances of $250,000 and above. From pages 34-35, those books “are expected to sell well, are more likely to include favorable terms like higher royalty rates, higher levels of marketing support, ‘glam’ packages (e.g., for hair, makeup, and wardrobe services), and airfare for authors.”


Publishers print more of the books they think will do well; circulate more advance copies of such books to reviewers or influencers to create excitement; push for interviews with more media outlets; and schedule book-tour appearances in more locations….Anticipated top-selling books get more attention from marketing and sales teams.

All of this I knew, of course. I’d seen it. I’d benefitted from some of it (although not a glam package, thank heavens). I also know how worthless most of this is in 2022. The “top-selling” market isn’t top-selling anymore. The numbers have gone way down.

But if a writer consumes a lot of traditional media and looks at the traditional promotions in brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as those rotating ads on the online book retailers, then they’ll see certain books get promoted time and time again.

I always assumed that those writers didn’t know that there were other better ways to get their books to readers. I thought those writers were ignorant. I still think many writers who go into traditional publishing are ignorant, willfully so.

But there’s another category of writer that I was having trouble accepting. I missed the writers who have different goals than I do. The DOJ defines these writers as “distinct sellers.” There are three points to that definition and two are more or less irrelevant to our examination here. (Those points are based on the idea that self-publishing is ineffective because writers can’t pay themselves an advance or market their books properly. Not kidding. See this post.)

I had missed that these writers have different goals than I do. The goal that caught me was the one described on page 33 of the opinion.

…authors of anticipated top-selling books…(1) care more about their publishers’ reputation and services, which ensure wider distribution of their books…

To which we can add “in the old-fashioned traditional media and marketplace.”

If it’s really important for a writer to get the full 1970s star author treatment, however reduced it is in 2022, then that writer will always go to traditional publishing, or more specifically here in the U.S., to the Big 5.

Think of it this way: The Big 5 have become network television. Once upon a time in the U.S., we had three TV networks. In the 1970s, top shows on one of those three networks could get an average of 20 million households watching every single week. (A household was generally considered to be four people, which meant that the viewership was around 80 million people at a time when the U.S. population was around 203 million people.)

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

5 thoughts on “ Tea Leaves: Year in Review 2022”

  1. The obvious label for the not-really-bestseller books above: Books to Dream On, or Dreamer Books, to be short. 😀

  2. Much of this is not entirely coherent. The “Small Publishers” category jumped out at me. There have been small publishers since forever. This category is entirely traditional. And no, having a publishing house based out of someplace other than New York is not new. It isn’t even newish. Quite the opposite. What I see actually described is a collection of new traditional publishers, which also is not new. New houses have been founded all along. What seems to be the actual distinction is that these are new publishing houses founded by people she approves of. Bully for them.

    I would posit that from my perspective as a reader, the important dividing line is whether or not there is a editorial selection process. In other words, is this outfit setting itself up as a gatekeeper? Or it is publishing everything that comes over the transom? The latter is not necessarily a vanity press. It might be an authors’ collective. But if there is no one who can say “This manuscript is not ready for publication,” then it is not a traditional publisher. If there is, then it is. The gatekeeping function offers me, the reader, no guarantee, but it means that the publisher is unwilling to put its name on any random string of words.

    Then there is “I had missed that these writers have different goals than I do.” Ya think? This is a characteristic failure of imagination within the self-publishing world, that they are interested in one segment of publishing–a large one, but just one nonetheless–and they think that this is all there is out there.

    • She straight up says they’re traditional in all but the irrelevant point of pay structure. You’re not disagreeing with her, and she doesn’t say anything about whether she approves of everyone in the catch all bucket, just that it is one.

      • She straight up classifies them as “indie.” What does this mean? Independent of what? The part about New York suggests that she simply means not the big five. But then she limits it to “publishers who started as writers.” This excludes a small publisher who started out as, say, an editor at a big five publisher. What is the utility of this distinction is not clear.

        • Try: “Publishers who started as “Indie* writers.

          With KKR (and DWS) their target audience is primarily newcomer writers, looking to help them chart a path to writing as a full time career. A spectrum ranging from tradpub-only aspirants to do-everything Indies. And one bucket are writers who, having had success publishing their works, move on to monetizing that expertise on the side, with other writers. Another spectrum ranging from consultant to micropress.

          Different folks, different strokes.

          The important part isn’t so much the borders of the buckets but knowing they exist, understanding that there are options now beyond the query-go-round and trusting “the universe to take care of you” as in Sue Grafton’s days.

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