As the year closes, I thought I would share with my followers some things I’ve learned about the creative writing industry in the last year. I do not mean this as a rant, but rather a serious reflection on where we are today and as food for thought for readers as well as my fellow writers.
At the start of this year (2019) more than 6,000 books were being published each day -- yes, day -- in the United States. That included print, ebook and audiobooks released by both commercial publishers and self-publishing authors. Of those, based on past years (no stats yet for this year) 15% of those books were novels. That's 900 new novels being published every single day.
Traditionally publishers accept on average just 1% of all books submitted to them. They make money on just one out of ten. That means they lose money on 90% of all their releases.
Most self-published novels "sell" about 50 copies. Most of those copies were bought by the author to give away to friends and family.
Let me start with the subject of reviews. There was a time when book-reviews were written by select “literary critics.” These people didn’t need any specific qualification, but they did have to have a way with words and the ability to write prose that was fit to print in a reputable newspaper or magazine. They tended to be a bit “snobby” and “high-brow” -- literary critics and reviewers, journalists, professors and teachers of literature, librarians, and book-store owners.
With the advent of Amazon's “reader reviews” and the even more casual “rating” (without a whiff of justification) on Goodreads, those days are gone. The professionals along with their unique biases and prejudices no longer dominate the market. In their place are “reader reviews.” These, at least in theory, reflect popular opinion – or one would think.
The problem with them, however, is two-fold. First, the quality leaves a great deal to be desired. Far too often they boil down to nothing more than “I didn’t like this book” or “I loved this book” without a trace of analysis or explanation. This is particularly pronounced in the case of Goodreads ratings where a reader (or non-reader) can just slap one or more stars without a hint of what was going through their heads.
Second, and even more serious, however, is that there is now a market for reviews. It is possible to buy reviews for as little as $10. Indeed, you can buy 100 reviews for $1,000. These 100 reviews are guaranteed – but there is no guarantee that the reviewer will actually read the book first.
True, they will have to download the book to be a “verified purchaser” for Amazon, but with most ebooks priced below $5, a reviewer still nets at least $5 a book. If they concentrate on free books, they can make the full $10 per book. Just think how many books you can download in an hour, a morning, a day? Clearly, this is a great source of supplemental income for anyone on welfare, social security, or simply a low-paying day job. It just doesn’t help inform readers about the content or quality of the book reviewed.
Yes, the reviewers are obligated to write a review, but they can get away with a single sentence that they can use for every book. Something like: “This is AWESOME. I can’t WAIT to read the next book by this author.” (Note, no need to even change the name of “the author” for each review. Amazon is littered with reviews of this type.)
If the reviewer is a little more sophisticated, they can turn the cover blurb into a review. Example: “This is sensitive literary fiction at its best. A mixture of insight and humor, this book is guaranteed to both educate and amuse. The author is bound to make a name for herself as a 21st century Jane Austin.” Lovely, just what the author has put on the back cover, and the reader still has no second opinion, much less a qualified second opinion.
In my opinion, a more disturbing development in the publishing industry is the changes that have altered the definition of “best-seller.” Before the days of print-on-demand and ebooks, a book needed to sell 30,000 (hard) copies of a single edition at prices generally between twenty and thirty dollars in order to qualify as a “best seller.” Today, it is not the absolute number of sales that a book logs but rather the title’s “sales rank” on Amazon that earns a book the rubric of “best seller.” This has a number of implications -- most of which appear to have gone unnoticed by readers.
At one level, obviously, the overall Amazon sales rank still reflects large sales volumes. Although the absolute number may vary on any given day, on average the overall #1 best seller on Amazon will have sold 5,000 copies on that one day alone. Books ranked at or near 1,000 will have sold 100 books that day, those at 10,000 15 books a day, at 50,000 2-3 books and at 100,000 one book.
However, there are two problems with these numbers that make them qualitatively different from the traditional method of counting “best-sellers.” First, Amazon's numbers are daily numbers not cumulative. Theoretically at least, a book might be a “flash in the pan” that sells enough copies one day to rank in the top 100 books, yet never sell another copy thereafter. Second, and more important, the Amazon sales ranks for ebooks includes not just sales but free downloads as well. There is a very serious difference between a sale and a free download that is obscured by this methodology. If someone spent $20 to $30 on a book, they were clearly seriously interested and very likely to read it. Downloading a "freebie" on the other hand can be done on a whim (or a request) without anyone ever really planning to read the book.
The problem is compounded by Amazon's categories. The creation of categories is undoubtedly useful – or should be – in helping readers find books of interest to them. The broad categories conform to common conventions for categorizing books whether in libraries or book stores: fiction vs non-fiction, then sub-categories by topic for non-fiction (biography, business and finance, cooking, self-help, history, religion, politics, parenting etc.) and by genre for fiction (mystery, romance, science fiction, historical, thriller, “adult” and children’s fiction etc.) Comparing books in similar categories also makes perfectly good sense. Why should I care if my book about dog grooming is under-performing compared to cookbooks or the latest political thriller?
The problem is that Amazon has created so many sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that the value the rankings has been watered down to meaninglessness. Let’s take an example. Suppose you have written a dystopian novel about two teenage vampires who fall in love and you keep all the love scenes very “clean and wholesome” because these vampires discover Jesus. You have now written a book that fits into the Amazon categories of romance, teen romance, “clean and wholesome” romance but also Christian, vampire, and dystopian novels. Indeed, you invented the category of “dystopian, Christian, vampire, clean and wholesome, teen romance.” My guess is you will not have a great deal of competition in this category, so even if you only sell one copy to your mother, if there is no other book in this category you can become a “#1 best seller”!
Or let’s take this example a step farther. Maybe there are already 99 other authors who write in your niche genre, and they all “sell” more copies of their books than you do. You can still bill yourself as a “best-selling” author because you’re in the top 100.
I put “sell” in quotation marks, however, because free downloads count. So, if you price your book at $0.00, then you can personally download it thousands of times – as many times as it takes to become the #1 in your niche category – without one single other person (whether mother or lover) downloading - much reading and liking - your book. That’s pretty awesome, don’t you think? You can make yourself a #1 bestseller without spending a single cent or persuading any other person to read it!
One cannot blame authors for giving books away – especially if no one is willing to actually spend money on them! Nor can one blame desperate authors for downloading thousands of copies of their books personally – if no one else will -- in an effort to push themselves higher in the Amazon ratings.
The problem is not unethical authors, but rather readers obsessed with “best-selling” books rather than quality. Think about it.
Happy New Year!