2020 will mark the end of a transformative decade for the publishing world, but the pace of change isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon. Many authors and publishers are still catching their breath and working hard to keep pace with the shifts we’ve already seen. But to find success in the coming years, authors need to keep one step ahead of changes on the horizon. And while many trends from the past few years will continue into 2020, there are also some developments that are just getting started.
The defining trend of the last decade has been the rise of self-publishing enabled by digital platforms and technology, and this shows no sign of slowing down. Self-publishing grew 40 percent in 2018, totaling 1.6 million new books. If they choose to, authors can quickly and easily publish a book on the world’s largest online retailer without help from anyone. And many, many authors are doing just that. Without any input to ensure quality, authors are writing books, selling them on Amazon, and even offering print copies with print-on-demand services. As a result, there’s been a seemingly endless flood of books with various levels of quality.
But these platforms did help authors find independence from the handful of huge publishing companies that controlled the industry for decades. So one current trend that will continue in 2020 is authors working to find a middle ground. This is playing out in a variety of ways, but that’s the big picture.
Collaborative publishing: the best of both worlds
Serious authors are asking themselves if so many are publishing by themselves and not getting results, what would make my book any different? Unfortunately, it’s not enough to have great writing if no one’s opening your book in the first place. Traditional publishers have known this for decades.
Today, authors are realizing that they can tap the same resources and talent that major publishers rely on to publish bestsellers while cutting out the middleman and still retaining independence. Whether they’re calling it hybrid publishing, collaborative publishing, or simply hiring freelancers, authors are empowering themselves to get expert help to edit, design, distribute and market their books.
This is bringing a new tier of quality to the self-publishing world, not just in terms of presentation and marketing, but in terms of the writing quality itself. In our years in publishing, we’ve seen highly confident authors realize only once a book gets to an editor that their goals are still unclear and that their book needs serious work.
If all authors want is to put a book out into the world, they can do that quite easily. It’s important to define your objectives as an author. Not everyone wants a bestseller, some are aiming for smaller-scale success in a niche, others just want to preserve history or personal memories. But authors need to know these goals and need a plan that can get them there. And if they do want a true bestseller, they’re going to need some help.
The mentality of authors is finally shifting as we approach 2020. If you want to start an airline, you don’t spend a few hours on Google teaching yourself how to build and fly airplanes, you seek out experts in the field that worked for years, day in and day out, gaining experience. While the risks involved with failure aren’t quite as serious, publishing a book is the same principle. We’ve seen authors that believe a little internet research is all they’ll need to get rich writing. You might become an Amazon “bestseller” for a day, by selling a handful of books in a niche category, at the right time. But they’ll need deeper knowledge and experience for sustained success.
Authors need an editor—ideally one that matches their needs specifically, with a background in their genre. One of the benefits of the traditional model, where authors need to convince major publishers to take a chance on their book, is that it pushes them to take a serious, critical look at their own work. If you don’t have anyone to give you feedback, or worse, if you’re told that everything is perfect when it’s not, then you’re going to wind up with a mediocre book. And make no mistake, few if any authors will come up with a “perfect” manuscript, without a few rounds of editing from a professional.
To find success, self-publishing authors will need to take cues from the traditional publishing world, aim to have a thick skin, and welcome constructive criticism. As we approach 2020, we’re seeing more independent authors with this mindset.
In addition to working with a team of experts, we can expect to see more self-publishing authors taking the role of “authorpreneur.” These authors build a platform with a book that’s part of a bigger plan to help establish their credibility in a given field. They’ll hire experts, use media to get their name out, and test the market to see if their idea will take off.
These authors understand that it’s not enough to simply write a book, authors are selling themselves in a PR role as well. This is especially true if the book is part of a plan to boost a career or get speaking engagements. Proper book publishing requires a business plan. Anyone hoping to earn money publishing is essentially starting a business, with you, the author, as the brand.
As these authors find success on a larger scale, they’re also encountering new legal headaches. Liability, permissions, copyright infringement, and accuracy mistakes all pose greater risks for authors if their book takes off. Authors that are aiming for high-profile success need to make sure they haven’t overlooked potential problems in these areas.
Publishing a book is a business venture, and CPAs and business lawyers can help authors find the best option to set themselves up as a business. Are you putting yourself in a position to get the right tax breaks? Opening yourself up to more liability? Do you need publishing insurance? It’s best to get advice from an expert and answer these questions in advance, instead of scrambling when you run into issues later on.
Authors working together
Independence from major publishers is still new for most authors and it’s come with some pitfalls. Going into 2020, we can (and should) expect authors to pull together to advocate for themselves.
For example, authors are beginning to challenge the control that ACX, a marketplace owned by Audible, still wields over the audiobook industry. For uploading an audiobook, and perhaps a simple quality check, they’ll ask for a percentage of sales twice the size of what the author receives. Authors are starting to question this, and more equitable alternatives are starting to pop up.
Another unintended consequence of the shift toward independent publishing is that it opened the door for dishonest companies that use misleading or high-pressure tactics. An important shift we’re seeing now is that these predatory and even fraudulent companies are being exposed, as authors come together to protect their best interest. ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, is helping authors sort the legitimate actors from those that have been subject to repeated customer complaints and legal action. Their ranking offers a one-stop resource for authors to determine if a publishing service comes vetted and recommended, with a Watchdog Advisory, or somewhere in between.
Print on demand
The rise of eBooks seems to have stabilized, and print books are showing no signs of decline, still favored by many readers. Print-on-demand remains an important option that allows authors to offer a print book without gambling on a big press run. Print-on-demand also saves authors the costs and headaches of inventory management. They can print copies all over the world, from Canada to the UK to Australia as needed, all within the same hour. Authors can first test demand for their idea, and save the investment they would have spent on a press run for other crucial steps like cover design and editing.
Authors publishing non-fiction and aiming for a credibility boost will find that their book will backfire if it isn’t properly fact-checked. You don’t want to go through the effort of writing and publishing a book just to have it destroy your credibility, as New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson learned earlier this year. In today’s climate, readers will hold authors directly responsible for publishing “fake news.”
And as budgets tighten at traditional publishers, even their authors are increasingly responsible for their own fact-checking, outside of academic publishing. Non-fiction authors in every corner of the publishing world will need to pay careful attention to their claims and quotes.
Increasingly, authors are competing with more than just other books. They’re also vying with other forms of entertainment for the limited budgets and leisure time of consumers. As new entertainment sources proliferate online, authors compete with not only radio and TV, but a range of new streaming services beyond just Netflix, including Disney+, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Not to mention sports, live theater, podcasts, video games, and more. Much of this content is riding a wave of big advertising dollars.
Organic growth has become increasingly difficult, with vast quantities of books published daily, it’s hard to stand out on your own. Even the most successful books can be buried. To stay relevant, authors need to brand themselves and use ongoing marketing strategies to stay on top. Consistent marketing plans can include everything from social media to radio, print, online, and even TV.
But it’s important for would-be authorpreneurs to start their marketing small and local, and work their way up to regional and then national media. And though Amazon is oversaturated, it’s also the central hub for online book sales, and Amazon ads will continue to be a crucial part of any marketing plan. Without a solid strategy, truly great books can get lost in a flood of mediocre content.
Authors also need to remember that for marketing and PR to be effective they need to make the most of their opportunities to stand out during the publishing process itself. The process of marketing a book begins long before it’s published, in areas like cover design.
The Bottom Line
Of course, behind these fundamental shifts in the structure of publishing, reader tastes and preferences continue to fluctuate, and authors need to stay informed here too. In 2019, we’ve seen sci-fi, crime fiction, “cozy mysteries,” women’s fiction, and historical fiction genres trending, and this is likely to continue into 2020. Audiobooks are still on the rise, with Americans increasingly tending toward multitasking wherever possible.
The publishing industry has already changed drastically. Now it’s up to authors to keep up. The good news is that they don’t have to figure it out on their own. There are more resources than ever for authors, and they can connect to the exact same talented experts that traditional publishers rely on. But they’ll first have to recognize that they need help, be receptive to input, and be willing to invest in their own book.