For writers, the future of book publishing offers opportunity and peril. Here are 10 trends shaping the future for authors.
- The rise of ebooks - Ten years ago, e-books accounted for less than 1% of the book market. Today, ebooks account for about 25% of dollar sales and 40%-50% of units. Although the rate of growth has slowed for ebooks, the affordability and accessibility of digital will continue to erode print readership.
- Publishing and distribution democratized - Ten years ago, agents and publishers were the bouncers at the pearly gates of authordom. Publishers controlled the printing press and the access to retail distribution. Today, thanks to free ebook publishing platforms, writers enjoy democratized access to ebook retailers and readers.
- E-books going global - Much of the opportunity for authors in the years ahead will come from international markets. Billions of potential readers now carry e-reading devices in the form of smartphones. Every ebook is potentially two or three clicks away from being discovered and purchased.
- The rise of indie authorship - Indie authorship (a.k.a. self publishing) has become a global cultural movement. Writers are drawn to ebook self-publishing for the total creative control, faster access to global markets, and pricing and promotion flexibility. Writers retain all rights while earning 60%-80% of the list price as their ebook royalty. Traditionally published ebook authors earn only 12%-17%.
- Indie authors are taking market share - Every week, indie e-books top retailer bestseller lists, and hit the USA Today and New York Times lists. Indies will continue gaining digital market share as they pioneer tomorrow's best practices for pricing, production, and promotion.
- The stigma of self-publishing is disappearing - Ten years ago, self-publishing was viewed as the option of last resort for writers. Today, self-publishing is becoming the first choice for a growing number of writers. Writers are learning how to outsell and outcompete the larger publishers with ebooks. Each time an indie author hits a bestseller list, it inspires fellow writers to recognize that they, too, can self-publish with pride, professionalism, and success.
- The glut of high-quality, low-cost e-books will worsen - Ten years ago, the economics of print publishing and retailing limited the supply of books. With shelf space at a premium, retailers returned unsold inventory to make room for the next books. This forced many new books out of print within a matter of months. With ebooks, however, retailers have unlimited virtual shelf space. This is a double-edged sword for writers. It means that an author's ebook is immortal - it will never go out of print. It will forever be discoverable. But it also means that more books will chase fewer readers. It's simple economics that when supply exceeds demand, price competition ensues as desperate producers cut prices to reach readers.
- Amazon is devaluing books with Kindle Unlimited - Amazon is exploiting the glut of ebooks to drive massive devaluation with its Kindle Unlimited ebook subscription service. Kindle Unlimited provides readers unlimited access to more than one million ebooks for $9.99 per month, or about the cost of a single traditionally published ebook. Nearly all the books in Kindle Unlimited are supplied by the inventory of KDP Select, which in turn is powered by self-published authors who make their books exclusive to Amazon. Kindle Unlimited devalues what the customer thinks a book should cost and reduces what authors would ordinarily earn via a conventional single-copy purchase. Authors earn only half a cent per page read with Kindle Unlimited. Producers ultimately shoulder the burden of ever-lower prices. Authors must either lower their production costs or accept less for each sale. Unlike manufacturers of commodity products, authors can't outsource their writing to China. In the future, writers willing to write for less will reach the most readers at Amazon.
- Kindle Unlimited is undermining single-copy sales - Kindle Unlimited is eroding the market for single-copy ebook sales. Amazon's product pages for KDP Select titles encourage readers to read the book for free as part of their Kindle Unlimited or Prime subscription. An author who would otherwise earn $2.80 for a single-copy sale of his or her $3.99 200-page ebook will now earn $1.00 or less with Kindle Unlimited. If the same book is read in India, where Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription fee is equivalent to less than $4.00 per month, the author would earn about 33¢ for the same book. Amazon controls about 70% of the global ebook market. Amazon is training the world's largest audience of power readers to consume books for what feels like free, rather than purchasing single copies. Even single-copy purchases of 99¢ ebooks will begin to feel expensive.
- Indie authors are writing the next chapter of their industry's story - The power center of the publishing industry is shifting from publishers to writers. Writers will determine the fate of publishers and retailers by deciding when, where, and how they publish. If indie authors continue to enroll books in ever-greater numbers into KDP Select, competing retailers--starved of inventory--will go out of business, further solidifying Amazon's stranglehold on the market. The large New York book publishers, which collectively invest billions of dollars annually to develop and publish books, will increasingly face penny-pinching readers who are unwilling to shell out money for ebooks. In a cruel twist of irony, indie authors are slowly forfeiting their long-term independence by enrolling books in KDP Select.
Disclosure: Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, an ebook distributor which distributes ebooks to Amazon as well as to Amazon competitors such as iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others.
A shorter version of this article by Mark Coker originally appeared in the 07/25/2016 issue of Publishers Weekly under the print headline, A Look Ahead and online as 10 Self-Publishing Trends to Watch.