Chip MacGregor

December 31, 2013

What were the biggest publishing stories of 2013?


So we’re in a state of revolution in publishing — a season where everything about books is changing. The writing, the editing, the production, the marketing, the sales channels, even the way we read books is different from the way we did five years ago. In the midst of all that change, there has been a lot of debate over the state of the industry, with some people decrying the changes and other embracing them. Some folks (see the letter from Richard Russo that I shared on the blog last week) are worried about the decline of bookstores and the takeover by a handful of conglomerates. Others (see Konrath’s harangue via the comments section) are celebrating that power has begun to move from publishers and bookstores to writers. There are strong feelings on each side, and no doubt some truth to be gleaned from several sources.

In the midst of all the noise, I thought it would be good to review some of the biggest publishing stories of the last year (before we all start making predictions about what will happen in 2014).

Before I offer my thoughts, let me just state that I’m of the opinion there’s never been a better time to be a writer. There are more readers than ever before. There’s moire training available than ever before. The industry is producing more books than ever before. And the web has created more opportunities for writers than ever before. So consider me an optimist when it comes to the publishing future. With that in mind, here are what I consider the ten biggest publishing stories of 2013:

1. Flat sales for ebooks. While it’s true we’ve watched ebooks capture a huge percentage of the market over the past five years, the expected rise to a 50/50 split between print books and ebooks hasn’t materialized. Instead, ebooks make up about 20 to 23% of all books sales… and that number is pretty flat, and has been flat all year. I don’t see this as either good nor bad — it’s simply the market revealing itself. Ebooks have basically replaced the mass market book section.

2. The resolution of the DOJ court case with publishers. The publishers all capitulated and gave up on agency pricing, settling before the government’s case could go to court. Apple stayed in there and fought, but lost in a big way. This is significant because it lead to…

3. The dropping price of ebooks.One of the biggest stories for everyone in publishing has been the drop in ebook prices. It’s clear there’s roughly a $5 price point that is hard to exceed except for bestselling authors and in-demand titles. That has meant less earned income for authors and publishers. So while there’s more opportunity than ever before, the chance to make a good living at art is as hard as it ever was. And that’s significant because…

4. Advances continued to drop. The days of an author living from one advance check to the next came to a screeching halt for all but A-level authors. Everybody is saying, “Twenty is the new Forty,” and soon we’ll see “Ten is the new Twenty.” Because of this we’ve seen…

5. A huge change in the role of agents. There are fewer agents than there used to be, and that’s largely because the industry has given more freedom to authors to take their works directly to readers. Of course, most successful authors continue to rely on an agent for introductions, contract negotiations, book sense, and career advice, but few new agents are succeeding, and most of the old-time agents have radically changed they way they do business. One area where they are focusing is…

6. The rise of hybrid authors.Authors are finding they need to self-publish some titles, work with a small press for others, and work with a big publishing house for still other titles. The fact is, successful self-published authors are moving to traditional publishers. This is one of the most under-reported bits of news in the industry, probably because indies rule the blogosphere and tend to be negative toward legacy publishers. However, take a look around and you’ll see the most successful self-published authors are all finding the marketing and reach of a traditional publisher will make them more money. This is particularly true as we’ve seen…

7. The incredible growth of genre fiction in ebooks. It used to be that category fiction took a backseat to literary fiction with most readers. But a quick look at any ebook bestseller list will reveal that genre fiction is where all the money is being made digitally. That has been fueled by…

8. The rise of tablets. Dedicated e-readers are in trouble (the Nook is a wonderful device, but it looks like its days are numbered, and the Kobe reader never had any days to number), as the iPad and other tablets offer computing, games, and videos, as well as serving as an e-reader. Of course, the good news is that means the base of readership is broadening, as more and more tablet owners download books to read. And there will be more books to read than ever due to….

9. Google Books defeating the Author’s Guild in court. Love it or hate it, Google’s victory in court was a smack in the face to the Guild. After years of hearing how Google over-reached and authors everywhere were being cheated, the courts came down firmly on the side of Google, declaring it fair use. And I have no idea how that leads into my last point…

10. The merger of publishing houses. Penguin and Random House are becoming “the Random Penguin.” (Okay, not really, but that’s better than “Penguin Random House,” which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.) Rumors have HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster merging, possibly in 2014, and numerous mid-sized houses being gobbled up by the former Big Six.

Oh — and the one big publishing story that I couldn’t fit in here, because it doesn’t seem like a publishing story, but I think every writer needs to consider, is the implementation of Obamacare. You may like it or hate it, but the fact is it has finally opened the door for writers to purchase their own health care, without having to rely on a spouse to provide it, or risk going without insurance. I think this is going to lead to a bunch of new writers taking the plunge, and will be a boon to artists around the country. So while my fellow Republicans are right now crossing me off their Christmas card lists, I’m happy to see this change come about. No, it ain’t perfect… but it’s a heck of a lot better than the “nothing” we had in place for writers before.

Your turn — What would you say was the biggest story in publishing this past year? What did I miss?

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  • I haven’t heard the term hybrid authors and find that label really helpful. I would love to hear your thoughts about when an author should pitch a big publisher first vs. when they should self publish first. I’ve had two books published with large trade publishers and done alright, but not fabulously. My next book doesn’t fit into traditional categories easily. I know there is a market for it, but I suspect that publishers won’t know what to do with it (which was my agents gut reaction). I also feel some time urgency since it is partly about climate change. The only editor I’ve shown it to runs a small press. He liked it and definitely wants to publish it, but they have a split profit model and don’t discount to bookstores at all. The manuscript is almost done, so I’m wondering if I should just self publish first and market my butt off, rather than writing a proposal and pitching big presses or going with the small press. Any thoughts?

  • Great insight Chip. Oh…and you left out the other fiction lines that closed like Summerside.
    Do you have any predictions as to specific genre popularity for the new year?
    And…atta boy…what’s a post by Chip without ticking off someone *snort-giggle*…In 20 years Obamacare will be as important as Medicare…and all this bruhahaha will be forgotten, just like they forgot Reagon was the original Teflon President.

  • julesreffner says:

    Interesting. Do you think the demographic of those who read ebooks versus hardcover is changing the face of publishing much? i.e. Do statistics show a higher male readership in general? Will ebook sales have more or less impact depending on the genre we write in?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I don’t think the demographics are changing many publishing decisions, Jules — but I DO think publishers are paying attention to demographics. That’s why general market houses now want to do Amish books.

      Ebooks have tended to squeeze out mass market titles, but have not significantly eroded sales of hardcover fiction. So the impact may be more on the deliver or venue, rather than on the content or strategic direction of a book.

  • Ruth says:

    …oh and there’s this: In Washington state, ObamaCare will increase the underlying cost of individually purchased health insurance by 34 to 80 percent on average, according to Forbes.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah… I don’t think that means much, Ruth. We could point to other states where insurance is cheaper. My point was not to say all was well with health insurance in this country (where we pay MORE than just about any other First-world nation, yet get less service(. Instead, my point was to say health insurance now has a guarantee, so that authors know they can get it — something new.

    • Kerry Nietz says:

      I’ve been writing (and on my own, insurance-wise) for nearly fifteen years, and lived in two states. I never had a problem getting health insurance for myself, or my family. Did we really have an availability problem? I don’t think so. We do now have an affordability problem which we didn’t have before. My premiums next year–thanks to Obamacare–will more than double. So really, for me insurance is LESS available than it was before.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s not been true for everyone, Kerry. But I’m not turning this blog into a political discussion — things have changed in terms of availability for artists. Like the process or not, it’s a fact.

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    I definitely agree about the hybrid authors since I will become one in 2014. I am published through OakTara and will self publish my next book all while seeking a literary agent to assist me with my career. I was shocked recently by an agent who said the big publishers wouldn’t be interested in a self published book. Dad that I know more about the industry than this agent did!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Um… any agent who said to you that a publisher wouldn’t be interested because a book was self-published is not up on the latest news, Ruth. Sure, they probably won’t be interested in a self-pubbed book that tanked in the marketplace. But they’re sure to be interested in a self-pubbed title that is selling well.

    • Ruth says:

      That’s what I told him!! How sad that I knew more than he did. Needless to say, I passed on him and am querying other agents…

  • Policeartist says:

    You seemed to have covered most bases. Maybe B & H rethinking their fictional line and dropping some authors? Also Simon & Schuster settled their fight with Barnes & Nobles over pricing? Happy New Year to all.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      B&H dropping their fiction line, at a time when fiction simply RULES publishing, was one of the biggest head-scratchers of the year, Policeartist. But S&S making peace with their second largest customer was a no-brainer, of course. Glad you came on to comment.

    • Policeartist says:

      Excellent article. I dropped my subscription to Publishers Marketplace, but I think 2014 is a good time to renew–especially as Michael Wolff (The Guardian) is predicting Rupert Murdoch will dump HarperCollins. Glack! You’re prediction of a merger of S & S seems to have more substance.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’d just like to point out that Rupert Murdoch did NOT call me for advice on the matter…

    • Policeartist says:

      I believe he tried, but you were doing a seminar and not available.

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