There seems to be a disconnect between authors and readers right now. Many publishers are having a hard time finding the readers. In fact, a recent article from the Author’s Guild stated that “The Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey, the largest survey of writing-related earnings by American authors ever conducted, finds incomes falling to historic lows to a median of $6,080 in 2017, down 42 percent from 2009.”
I’d have to write many pages to explain why so many authors are having a hard time, but in the final analysis I’d have to also point out that self-published authors are doing pretty darned well. Even as novel advances in the traditional publishing world are drying up.
Let me see if I can explain rather simply what is happening.
First, let me ask a question: How many readers are there in your genre? Do you know?
Years ago when I started writing science fiction, there was a saying in the industry: “There are ten thousand people who will buy anything.” In other words, if a publisher put out a science fiction book in paperback by an unknown author, the publisher could expect to sell about 10,000 copies, even if there was no advertising and no word of mouth.
Those readers were the frontline of fandom, the people who read voraciously and who, when they found a good book, would go out and tell their friends.
Beyond that frontline were hordes of other readers. No one knew how many. I heard one publisher suggest that he thought there were three million people in the US who regularly read science fiction or fantasy. The made up our “avid” fans. But once again, it was hard to gauge how many there really were. I always suspected that there were more.
You see, I’ve had a couple of books that have sold a million copies in the US, yet I don’t believe that one in three science fiction fans has ever heard my name.
No one knows how many readers there are in any given genre. You see, people very often become readers for a time and then fall away in their practice. A hugely popular book comes out, and suddenly millions of people buy it, and the entire genre swells. When Scholastic decided to push Harry Potter, there had never been a middle-grade novel that was a #1 bestseller. But Harry Potter got a huge push from its publisher, sold some 40 million copies in the US, and suddenly created a “halo effect,” so that other middle grade novels were being read too. Thus one of my students, Brandon Mull, soon followed and hit as a #1 New York Times bestseller with his Fablehaven series, while many other authors were doing the same.
I recall hearing a publisher in the 1990s estimate that there were only two million active readers in middle grade—and this was at a time when R. L. Stine’s books were selling like mad. When Harry Potter came out, it sold far more than its two million copies in the United States. It sold tens of millions in short order. People who weren’t middle grade readers began buying it. People who’d never read a fiction book in their lives began buying it.
A couple of years later, Twilight did the same. The book became so popular that even nonreaders began to read it just so that they would be able to learn what everyone else was talking about. These books are what I call “superbooks.”
The number of potential fans for a genre is far bigger than the number of readers. There may be three or four million people who regularly buy fantasy novels for example, but when “Game of Thrones” debuted on television, it was estimated from polls that some 42 million people tuned in on the opening weekend. For the season 8 premiere, 17 million people watched the series on HBO, but it is estimated that another 51 million watched pirated versions around the world.
And these fair-weather fans can be fickle. They’ll watch a hit movie to be in the know, then never go back. Or maybe they have an effect on a genre for a couple of years. The huge sales in middle grade that we saw with Harry Potter have faded. The young adult boom that Twilight brought has gone bust. When 50 Shades came out, there was a 300-percent boom in women’s porn, and now that is gone.
So it’s hard to know just how big our audiences are, but here is something that I do know: the number of books that are getting published each year is booming. Over a million books were self-published in America last year. In July of 2018, I had one Facebook friend who noted that a cookbook he was searching for online was ranked at 7.5 million in Amazon’s search engine. In other words, there were that many books for sale online.
I want you to think of it this way. Imagine that the publishing world is a pond, and all of the authors are hungry fish hoping that someone will drop some food into the pond. Now imagine that you’re in this pond and somebody dumps 8 million more fish into your pond.
Would the competition for food become a bit more fierce?
That’s what is happening in the publishing world.
I recall a saying from one book promoter. He used to say, “A bookstore is the worst place in the world to do a book signing. Why? Because there are 50,000 competing books in that bookstore, vying for the customer’s investment.” He was kind of right.
Now you’ve got nine million competitors online, and each year there are a million new books going up.
How are you going to compete with them? How will you get the attention of buyers? That’s the question.
Right now, a lot of self-published authors are figuring out the answer to that question. Our tactics will change. Fortunes will be made and lost. In other words, it is all business as usual.
I will also be teaching at SpikeCon in July, also in Layton, Utah. Learn more here.
Also check out the deal on the Serpent Catch series on Amazon! All 4 books for $9.99. You can get them here.
Keep an eye out for two upcoming writing workshops. Writer’s Peak July 19-20 and The Plot Thickens Master Class September 18-21.
I have a short story set in the Runelords universe that is up for 2.99 today. Get it here.
Coming soon is a fun, new anthology called “Grifty Shades of Fey” that I will be featured in. Find out more information here.