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The Reality of the Publishing Industry in 21-22

Wow, even the title feels bleak. But there are many great statistics we can look at to help make us feel better. The below statistics are from the first quarter of 2021.

The good news: Book buying has had continued growth across all of its platforms from 2020 continuing through now. Audio has had the largest amount of growth since 2018.

Print book sales grew buy 29%

Adult fiction is up 35%

Nonfiction is up 24%

Children’s books were up 32% in 2021 including backlist titles.

And most notably, YA was up 60%

Those are great numbers considering it was just a few years ago when people were lamenting the death of the industry and the printed word.

So why is publishing so hard?

Saturation: On average, 2,700 new books are released every day. Over 1.2 million books were self-published in 2019 in America alone. That is a supersaturated market with a surplus of books on every topic or genre. Every title is competing with millions of other titles available for sale, while other media are claiming more of people’s time. In a crowded marketplace, brand name authors and books stand out, and an increasing portion of the limited sales are going to mega-bestsellers (Publishers Weekly, November 4, 2019).

Backlist: Backlist titles still win the market and are accounting for an ever-greater share of publishing revenues (U.S. Books Performance Review of the NPD Group, January 22, 2020.) Backlist titles accounted for 67% of all print units purchased in 2020, up from 63% the year before. It’s wonderful that people are reading but that means almost 70% of all units sold, are backlist. Which leads to the battle for shelf space.

Shelf Space: A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore. For every available bookstore shelf space, there are hundreds or more titles competing for that shelf space. It is just good business to use that space with a proven seller/brand name or a popular backlist title.

Brand Name: In a crowded marketplace, brand name authors and books stand out, because they are proven sellers. When you see that book sales are up, please understand that a major brand name outlier like Michelle Obama’s autobiography can skew

the statistics.

Money: Major publishers rely on Brand Name authors and Outliers to afford to stay in business. Only around 20% of authors at those major publishing houses sell more than 20,000 units in a year. That means around 80% of authors at Major publishing houses make less than $20,000 per work in a year.

Marketing: Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers. The time when authors could sit quietly by while their publishers did the marketing is gone. All publishers, large and small, expect that the authors will do extensive marketing. Publishers still have an essential role in creation, distribution, availability, and “behind the scenes” marketing but authors are the face of the brand and they have to be willing to put in the work to represent that brand.

Don’t despair, patience, time, and consistency may get you to the New York Times best Seller list just yet. Here are some ways you can overcome some of the realities listed above.

First and most importantly, forget everything you’ve ever seen or heard about the industry in movies and television. None of it is applicable in today’s publishing industry. Let go of any expectations of how it is “supposed” to be. To paraphrase Garrison Kellior, Publishing is what you make it, make the best of it.

Saturation: There isn’t much you can do to change that but what you can do, is learn how to stand out in the saturated market. Stand out to agents and editors by knowing your genre, your word count norms and formula expectations. Stand out to your market audience by great social media and by playing the “amazon” game. I highly recommend Amazon Decoded by David Gaughran.

Backlist: Build your own backlist! Write 7-10 books in the same or similar genre and in 10 years, you too may be able to profit off backlist titles.

Shelf space: This one may be a bit of an ego check. Ask yourself this question, how will my book being in print benefit me? Most of the time, it won’t. Nope, penny for penny most of the time, print is just about ego. Authors can make more money on audio versions of their books or even gaming/read along apps. Think outside of the printed page.

Brand Name: Build one! Again, stay in one genre and make sure your marketing revolves around your brand. Learn social media, I don’t care how old you are or how much you hate it, this is an absolute must in the current market. I recommend reading, Influencer: Building Your Personal Brand in the Age of Social Media by Brittany Hennessy. Make sure that the information you are ingesting is as up to date as possible because social media influence changes very quickly and so do its users. Don’t waste time on a social media that won’t benefit your brand. Connect to writers and readers of your genre, be authentic, be nice, and write, write, write!

Money: Write because you love it, not to make a million dollars or because you want to be the next outlier. Writing isn’t a lottery ticket, it is excruciatingly hard work. It isn’t a retirement plan either. You have to dedicate tons of time and your own money into making it a success. Think of it like a small business, you need to be able to stay afloat for at least five years without making a profit. The brilliant author, NK Jemisin once commented that not even a Hugo award could keep her afloat as an author. She still had a regular job. Don’t define your author success by how much money you make. Some of the best authors in all of history died poor and some of the worst authors are currently millionaires.

Marketing: Every human that you encounter should know you are an author and they should have a way to buy your book within two clicks on their phones or computers. Make it easy on yourself. You aren’t expected to know everything, just take the time to learn it. I recommend, How To Market a Book by Joanna Penn. Don’t waste energy resenting others for not marketing for you, do it for yourself.

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