Last year I went out on a limb with 21 predictions. Looking back on them now, several were spot on, several were premature but will still play out, and some were dead wrong. That’s the fun of the prediction game. Even incorrect predictions, analyzed in retrospect, help shape our understanding of the present and future.
Predictions stir our imagination of what’s possible. By imagining what’s possible, indie authors can prepare for the future, or take steps to realize the future they desire.
This year, I bring fourteen predictions for 2014.
- Big publishers lower prices – Traditional publishers have always fought tooth and nail to hold the line on ebook prices. By maintaining high prices, they left the sub-$5.99 market for ebooks wide open for indie authors to exploit. For several years, indies have enjoyed this playground all to themselves. The results of our 2013 Smashwords survey illustrated the competitive advantage indies received by pricing low. Our 2013 survey found that books priced $2.99 and $3.99, on average, received about four times as many unit sales as books priced over $7.99. This pricing advantage helped many indies out-sell and out-compete the traditional publishers. It helped indies build fan bases at a rapid clip. For indies who could write and publish low-priced books that were as good or better than what New York was publishing, placement in the bestseller lists became more achievable than ever before. For much of 2013, it wasn’t uncommon to see indies holding up to half of the top 10 bestseller slots at major retailers on some days. Big publishers have taken note. In 2013 big publishers began competing more aggressively on price with temporary price promotions. Until recently, it was rare to see a traditionally published book priced under $4.00. In 2014 their temporary price promotions will give way to a new normal. Discounting is a slippery slope. Once customers are conditioned to expect big-name authors for $3.99 or less, the entire industry will be forced to go there. The huge pricing advantage once enjoyed by indies will diminish in 2014.
- When everyone is pricing sub $4.00, price promotions will become less effective – If readers have an unlimited supply of high-quality books from their favorite authors at under $4.00, it means factors other than price will gain importance.
- Ebook growth slows – Here comes the hangover. After a decade of exponential growth in ebooks with indies partying like it was 1999, growth is slowing. We all knew this day was coming. Year over year growth of 100% to 300% a year could not continue forever. The hazard of fast-growing market is that it can mask flaws in business models. It can cause players to misinterpret their success, and the assumptions upon which they credit their success. It can cause successful players to draw false correlations between cause and effect. Who are these players? I’m talking about authors, publishers, retailers, distributors and service providers – all of us. It’s easy to succeed when everything’s growing. It’s when things slow-down that your mettle is tested. The market is slowing. A normal cyclical shakeout is coming. Rather than fear the shakeout, embrace it. Let it spur you on to become a better, more competitive player in 2014. Players who survive shakeouts usually come out stronger the other end.
- Competition increases dramatically – With hundreds of thousands of new books published annually, and with retailer catalogs swelling to carry millions of titles, it may come across as trite for me to predict that completion will increase in 2014 for indies. Yet in 2014, the competition faced by indies will increase by an order of magnitude, and will make some indies wish it was 2013 again. The ebook publishing playing field, which until recently was significantly tilted in the indies’ favor, has now leveled a bit. Yet indies still enjoy a number of competitive advantages, including faster time to market, greater creative freedom, closer relationships with readers and thus a better understanding of reader desires, higher royalties rates and ultra-low pricing flexibility including FREE.
- Ebook sales, measured in dollar volume, will decrease in 2014 – Yikes. I said it. The nascent ebook market is likely to experience its first annual downturn in sales as measured in dollar volume. This will be driven by price declines among major publishers and by the slowing transition from print to screens. Although readers will continue migrating from print to screens, the early adopters have adopted and the laggards will shift more slowly. Another driver of the drop is that the overall book market growth has been moribund for several years. As ebooks as a percentage of the overall book market increase, it means the growth of ebooks will become constrained by the growth and/or contraction of the overall book industry. Global sales in developing countries remain one potential bright spot that could mitigate any sales contraction.
- Ebook unit market share will increase – Ebook consumption, measured in unit sales and downloads, and measured in words read digitally, will increase in 2014. The industry-wide sales slowdown, caused by the drop in average prices, will mask the fact that more books will be read than ever before. This is great news for book culture, and good news for indies who despite the loss of their once-powerful price advantage, will still be positioned to profit more from low prices, or to compete at ultra-low (sub $3.00) price points than traditionally published authors.
- A larger wave of big-name authors will defect to indieville – Multiple market forces will conspire to cause a large number of traditionally published authors to turn their backs on big publishers. Publishers will try to hold the line on their 25% net ebook royalty structures, which means big authors will see their royalties suffer as prices drop and as the unit sales advantage of low prices decreases, and as the disadvantage of high prices increases. At the same time, readers will continue to transition from print to ebooks, making the print distribution to physical bookstores less important, and thus weakening the grip big publishers once had on bigger-name authors. Big authors, eager to maximize their net, will feel greater impetus to emigrate to indieville.
- It’s all about the writing – It’s back to basics time. In a world where readers face an unlimited quantity of high-quality low-cost works, the writers who achieve the most success will be those who take their readers to the most emotionally satisfying extremes. Books are pleasure-delivery devices. It doesn’t matter if you’re publishing a cookbook, romance novel, gardening how-to, memoir or political treatise. Your job as the indie author is to write that super-fabulous book. That involves great writing and professional-quality editing. It also means avoiding all the mistakes that create unnecessary friction that prevent readers from discovering, desiring and enjoying the book. To understand these points of friction, and how to avoid them, check out my discussion of Viral Catalysts in The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, or in my Youtube video on best practices.
- All authors become indie authors - Back in the dark ages of publishing, you were either traditionally published or weren't published. Writers who couldn't get a publishing deal were seen as failures, because without the access to the publisher's printing press, distribution and professional know-how, it was virtually impossible to reach readers. Today, failure is not an option. The next generation of writers can begin writing their book with the full confidence that one way or another, it will get published. Traditionally published authors now realize they have desirable publishing alternatives they never had before. Once a writer - any writer - comes to the realization that the power in the publishing industry has transfered from publishers to writers, it opens up a new world of possibilities. Publishing no longer becomes an either/or question. The best writers will have the option to publish independently AND traditionally, or do one or the other. It's their choice. Both options are worthy of consideration by all writers, and can be mutually complementary. Even if you're a traditionally published author today, you're an indie author because you decide what happens with your next project.
- Subscription ebook services will change the game – If the ebook subscription services – the most notable of which are Scribd and Oyster – can make their business models work, then they’ll drive a game changing shift in how readers value and consume books. I examined the potential implications of this in my two-part blog post on this model (read part one | read part two) . For ebook subscription service users, reading will become an abundant resource that feels free. It’ll become a utility service in the same way that water and electricity are utilities. When we flip the switch to turn on a light, or when we turn the knob on the faucet to brush our teeth, we’re not thinking about how our next 60 seconds of that service will cost us one or two cents. We pay our monthly service fee, and for the most part we use the utility as much as we want. With ebook subscription services, the reader will pay $9 or $10 a month and enjoy virtually limitless reading. Readers will be relieved of the cognitive load of having to decide if a given book is worth the purchase price. Instead, they’ll surf and sample books with minimal friction, as if every book is free. The reader’s attention, and the book’s ability to hold the reader’s attention, will become the new factor in determining a writer’s success. Even if these subscription services fail, they'll change the future of publishing by giving readers a taste of friction-free reading-as-a-service. It's a taste readers are unlikely to forget.
- Traditional publishers will reevaluate their approach to self-publishing – The vanity approach to self-publishing, as witnessed by Pearson/Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions (operates AuthorHouse, iUniverse, BookTango, Trafford, Xlibris, Palibrio, others…), has shown itself to be a boondoggle that harmed the brands of all traditional publishers. I predicted this last year. The Author Solutions business model is wholly dependent upon making money by selling overpriced services to unwitting authors. Their business model is expensive at best, and unethical at worst. It’s about selling $15,000 publishing packages to authors who will never earn the money back. The model represents the antithesis of what the best and proudest publishers have always represented. Great publishers invest in their authors. The money flows from reader to retailer to publisher to author, not from author to publisher. At the same time Author Solutions has tarnished the reputation of all traditional publishers - even those not engaged in such practices - the indie author revolution has continued in full swing. Indies are stealing market share. Indies have learned to publish like professionals. Many indies no longer shop their books to agents and publishers, and instead choose to publish their books directly to readers using self-serve publishing and distribution platforms such as Smashwords, or KDP, Nook Press, and others. Publishers are losing access to the critical deal flow that is their lifeblood. I talked about this in my discussion of black swans in last year’s predictions. If they lack an effective service offering for indie authors, the big publishers risk finding themselves on the wrong side of history as authors move on without them. The stigma once associated with self-publishing is melting away as the stigma of traditional publishing grows. How can publishers stem the bloodletting and recapture relationships with authors? The answer will come by publishers reevaluating their attitude toward authors. They must recognize that publishing is a service, and that they serve at the pleasure of authors. Now that authors have choices, the publishing game can no longer be about, “What can the author do for the publisher?” Authors no longer need to bow subservient to publishers, so business models based on this old practice and attitude will be rejected. The new publisher mantra must be, “What can the publisher do for the author that the author cannot or will not do on their own?”
- Platform is king – Platform is your ability to reach readers. Authors who can build, maintain and leverage their platforms will have a significant competitive advantage over those who cannot. Think of your platform as a multi-layered infrastructure that allows you to reach both new and existing fans. Elements of this infrastructure include your followings on Twitter, Facebook and the RSS feed of your blog. It includes the breadth of your distribution (more retailers is better than fewer), your uninterrupted presence at each retailer for every book, and the reviews at those retailers. It includes the number of authors who have “favorited” you at Smashwords, or who have added your books to their booklists at Goodreads. It includes subscribers to your private mailing list. It includes your celebrity, and your ability to leverage social media or traditional media or the love of your fans to get your message out. There are two primary factors that drive sales of any product or brand. The first is awareness. If the consumer is not aware of your product or brand, then they cannot purchase it. You need to put your product in front of a consumer and gain their attention before they can consider it. The second is desire. Once a consumer is aware of your product or brand, they must desire it. As I talk about in my Secrets book, the author is the brand. Your job as the author is to build awareness of your brand, and to build, earn and deserve positive desire for your brand. Awareness plus desire create demand for your product. This is why platform will become more important than ever in 2014. Your platform helps you get the message out to existing fans who already know and desire your brand, and helps you reach new fans who will attach their wagons to your horse. The larger your platform is, the easier it is to grow your platform further, because platforms grow organically.
- Multi-author collaborations will become more common – In 2013, I observed a marked increase in the number of multi-author collaborations. I’ve been encouraging multi-author collaborations for a few years in the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, but 2013 was the year the practice really took hold. Authors are collaborating with fellow authors in their same genre or category on box set compilations of existing and original content. These collaborations are often competitively priced and offer readers the opportunity to discover multiple new authors in a single book. The collaborations also enable multiple authors to amplify each other’s marketing efforts by leveraging each other’s platforms.
- Production takes on increased importance in 2014 – One of the most important secrets to ebook publishing success is to write more books. As a writer, your writing is your unique creation. It’s your product. Authors who write great books (and produce more of them), are the authors who build sales and platform the fastest, because each new book represents an opportunity to please existing fans and hook new ones. Organize your time to spend more time writing and less time on everything else.
View some of my previous predictions:
2013 Predictions at the Smashwords blog (published Dec 21, 2012)
2011 Predictions at GalleyCat by Mark Coker (published Dec 28, 2010)
10-Year Predictions at GalleyCat By Mark Coker (published Jan 4, 2010)
Did my crystal ball miss anything? Please add your own predictions below.