Last year was another terrible year for the publishing industry — book sales fell by another 15 to 30 percent, while e-books have risen 115 percent, amounting to nearly 20 percent of all book sales. The average age of book buyers is also high, around 55 for those who buy conventional hard and soft cover books. This all points to a dying industry, and yet reading is probably at an all-time high if you factor in the Internet, blogs, Twitter and all social media. At a time of flux, where should the aspiring writer turn?
I’ll begin with the cautionary tale of a disappearing best-seller. For two weeks I’ve been on a national book tour to promote a new novel called God: A Story of Revelation. It’s a grind, with late nights, long flights, and many enthusiastic fans who want their book signed. I love to meet the reading public, but even if I didn’t, this is how books have always been promoted. The book sold more than twice the number to make most bestseller lists in its opening week, and enough to stay on the lists the second week. But neither happened. God appeared on no lists, and the explanations varied: a computer glitch that failed to register sales, the down-grading of bulk sales when lots of people attend a single event.
Even established writers feel aggrieved when they deserve to make the best-seller list and yet don’t. Book chains base their future orders on these lists, and the week’s best-sellers get prominent displays up front. The caution I have in mind reaches further, however. At the best of times, the publishing industry was beginning to operate like Hollywood: the blockbusters paid for the flops. Just as in the film industry, best-sellers are nearly impossible to predict, except for the tiniest handful of authors. Now isn’t the best of times, and publishing houses face a shrinking market, decreased staff (most of my old editors are long gone), and the same unpredictability about which titles will have good sales.
At its core, the publishing houses are wonderful places, full of dedicated book people who are talented, committed, and eager to bring up new writers. They are not to blame for a system in flux. The economics of e-books are dismal for them, and for established authors, since the price is so much lower than hard cover books and quality paperbacks. So what’s the alternative? As long as the old best-seller system keeps declining, making it much, much harder for new writers to break in, alternatives will have to emerge.
The only advice that I can give is self-promotion and going where the readers are. Self-promotion usually doesn’t appeal to writers and their introverted nature, but it is known to work. M. Scott Peck had to sue his publisher when The Road Less Traveled sold poorly and they didn’t want to run the risk of a reprint. Peck won the right to a second run, and by vigorously promoting his book at libraries, book clubs, book fairs, and even churches, he created a phenomenal best-seller that remained on the New York Times list for 544 weeks, more than twelve years. Buying copies of your own book to sell out of the trunk of your car has led to more than a few successful books, especially if your book has local or regional interest. There is also desktop publishing, which has become easier and more affordable.
But self-promotion can’t happen until your book is published and somebody agrees to distribute it. New writers tend to miss the all-important role played by the regional distributors who warehouse titles and send them out to bookstores. The other mass-market distribution outlets were chains like B. Dalton and Borders, but we all know what happened there. Discount stores like Wal-Mart also play a part in the distribution scheme, but they focus on existing best-sellers and remaindered books sold for deep discounts.
Which leaves the second piece of advice, to go where the readers are. No one knows what the book business will look like a decade from now, and established authors will struggle for a while over the lost revenues connected to e-books. Yet the one bright light in this chaotic scene is that new writers can find their readers, target them, and speak directly to them as never before. This is thanks to the Internet, Facebook, blogs, Amazon’s open policy about e-books, Facebook, and other social media. Like it or not, successful writers are probably going to turn into book entrepreneurs at the same time. Publishers are becoming more and more risk averse. In a few years, no writers will be given advances except the most guaranteed sellers. The rest will enter into partnership with their publishers.
This means shared risk. The old system boiled down to an advance, followed by royalties of 10-20 percent for any sales that went beyond the cash advance. The risk for the writer was minimal, but the payout from royalties was proportionally low so that publishers could afford to take all the risk. Writers have griped about low royalties since Gutenberg. Now we are being offered half the reward for taking half the risk. This system, which is just emerging, should help writers, although on the negative side there are many titles – more than half, I am told — that never pay back their publishing expense, much less royalties to the author.
I’d also advise new writers not to write for praise, as much as we soak it up. Write to be noticed, which means in the end writing from the heart. I’ve taken my lumps critically, and yet my skin is thin enough that I want to throw eggs at reviewers who don’t even read the book. This just happened with God, when the reviewer at Kirkus Reviews, which has a wide readership, referred to a main character — the lovable English saint, Julian of Norwich — as a “he.” It was obvious that the book had been judged without benefit of reading. Admittedly, that’s more efficient.
Right now, it’s any port in a storm, and instead of getting a few thousand dollars from an inexpensive e-book, new writers may do better through profit sharing. At the same time, being a book entrepreneur doesn’t stop there. Networking is the magic word, and the better you are at it, the more chances your new book has. I’m sorry that my best-seller vanished, not for the payout but because I loved the book I wrote and I want my publishers to succeed. In the larger scheme of things, my books are being swept along in the tide of change. As one tide rises, another falls. Everyone who reads or writes must come to terms with the new uncertainty.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, is the author of more than 65 books including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest novel is God: A Story of Revelation (HarperOne) .