Adventures In Publishing: A Buyer’s Market

In a change to my planned first post for 2014, I’d like to talk to you (if I may) about a couple of articles I recently came across on my daily trawl of the internet. Both of them shed some interesting light on the publishing industry as it stands today, and in particular offer a revealing insight into the reality of what aspiring authors can or cannot expect to gain in return for their time and effort.

The first article comes to us courtesy of The Guardian, and paints a pretty bleak picture for any struggling author yet to cut his or her publishing teeth. In a nutshell, it cites a recent survey by the folks over at Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest that suggests that nearly 80% of self-published authors and over 50% of traditionally published authors make less than $1000 (£600) per year from their writing. Conversely, slightly less than 1% of self-pubbed and slightly more than 1% of trad-pubbed authors top the $100k per year mark.

At the same time we have a very lovely blog post from my favourite self-published soap-boxer, Joe Konrath. Over on his site he has an article in which he’s been having an engaging discussion with Steve Zacharius, President and CEO of Kensington Publishing; be warned, it’s a very long post, with three updates as I write this, but if you have any aspirations as a writer yourself I seriously recommend reading it. For once, a representative of a legacy publisher has finally stepped forward and willingly engaged in open discussion regarding the current state of the publishing industry and the results are at the same time entertaining and frustrating; entertaining because Mr. Zacharius isn’t afraid to openly defend his company’s position but frustrating because of the questions he doesn’t (or won’t) answer. This discussion started when the aforementioned Mr. Zacharius responded to a blog post on The Passive Voice, and then began to ask for feedback from the indie (self-published) authors who frequent the site. And of course, Joe responded in his usual style.

From reading both of these articles, one thing seems to be particularly noticeable for me; they both make the suggestion that very few authors make enough out of writing to pay the bills, a suggestion that I (as an aspiring author) find a little disparaging. Then again, I could also see it as a bit of a challenge…

The book market at the moment is very much a buyer’s market. Never has the dedicated (or even casual) reader had so many titles to choose from, in so many formats. Whether you’re a digital downloader or a print purist, the number and range of titles available to you is, I believe, bigger now than ever before. In the ebook market especially this means that new up-and-coming authors are fighting against an ever-growing sea of competition in order to get their work noticed. Even when an author manages to get his or her work in front of an appreciative reader, they’re still only one out of many, still only a single voice reaching that reader’s ears (or eyes, in this case). In order to keep that reader’s attention, the author needs to make their voice distinctive, their stories gripping, and their prose exemplary. You need to make the buyer come back for more if you want to keep on selling.

If the results of the DBW/WD survey are anything to go by then right now 50% of the legacy published authors and 80% of the indie authors out there are failing on that score. Is this because their work is sub-standard when compared to their peers, or is it a sign that the market is over-saturated? It might help to be able to compare the work of the top 1% earners mentioned in the survey to that of the bottom 50%. Knowing who the respondents to this survey were may help explain why so many are making peanuts while the lucky few are supping on caviar and champagne. Alas, without reading the survey as a whole (at a cost of almost $300 for a digital download?!) it isn’t possible to shed any further light on this disparity, and even if I was willing to part with the funds required I doubt if any names are listed in that report. However, it is interesting to note that in the Guardian article self-publishing poster-child Hugh Howey does suggest that the only legacy published authors tallied are those lucky few who have ‘made it’ in the industry, before going on to offer some small encouragement to the likes of you and I; he estimates that there could be as many as ten times as many people making a living out of writing today as there were only a few short years ago.

And that’s the challenge I accept: to make my writing good enough to keep the reader interested for long enough to pay my bills.

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