eBook Predictions Are Futile

I'm confident in making only one prediction; readers will continue to crave great stories from writers. It's how they will read those tales that is suddenly hard to predict.
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It's the end of the year, which means prophets will soon be flooding every possible venue with predictions for the future. Most of them will end up being laughably wrong. And because it's the end of the decade, they'll be wrong about what happens for the next ten years. The publishing industry is especially difficult to speculate about because it's undergoing so much upheaval.

I won't be making any prophecies because I can't tell what's going to happen with my own career, let alone the entire publishing business. A little more than 18 months ago in March 2009, I was an unpublished author whose latest thriller manuscript had been rejected by 25 publishers. Today that same novel, The Ark, is now a bestseller in the US and the UK and is published in 20 languages. If you'd predicted that turnaround back then I'd have asked you what you were smoking and whether I could get a prescription for it.

The latest double-whammy of news that Google has launched their own ebook store and that Borders may be in the market to buy Barnes and Noble made me realize just how much has changed in that short amount time. For those of you preparing to make your own predictions about the book industry, this might be a good chance to review the astounding differences between March 2009 and December 2010.

  • March 2009: Google had digitized over seven million books and let you read books that were in the public domain.
  • December 2010: Google introduces its own ebook store, including the newest titles from bestselling authors.
  • March 2009: Borders and Barnes and Noble were the last two nationwide brick and mortar retail book chains still standing.
  • December 2010: Anticipating a shakeout in the bookstore industry, Borders proposes a merger with Barnes and Noble.
  • March 2009: The Amazon Kindle 2 had just been released at a price of $359 and instantly became the online giant's number 1 bestselling product.
  • December 2010: The Kindle 3 is now just $139 for the WiFi-only version.
  • March 2009: The Apple iPad and Barnes and Noble Nook didn't exist.
  • December 2010: The iPad has become a phenomenon, even being featured in an episode of Modern Family. You can't walk into a Barnes and Noble now without running into a huge Nook display.
  • March 2009: The New York Times didn't count ebook sales in any of its bestseller lists.
  • December 2010: The NY Times announced that, beginning in 2011, it will add the ebook format to its bestseller lists for fiction and nonfiction. Even audiobooks, which have been around for decades, don't get that treatment.
  • March 2009: The thought that someone could make a living self-publishing ebooks was a pipe dream achieved by only the very few (M. J. Rose and Thomas Greanias were the extreme exceptions). In fact, very few authors were self-publishing at all on the Kindle.
  • December 2010: Self-publishing electronically has become a viable alternative for authors, and thousands of people have uploaded their books to the Kindle, Smashwords, Nook, and iBookstore. Joe Konrath, Karen McQuestion, and Amanda Hocking are just a few of the writers who are pulling in thousands of dollars a month selling ebooks on their own. Chime in if you're a self-published ebook author who's making enough to quit your day job.
  • March 2009: The royalty rate for Kindle self-published authors was 35%.
  • December 2010: The royalty rate for Kindle self-published authors is now 70% for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99. The rest of the ebook retailers have generally followed suit.
  • March 2009: Ebooks were a rounding error compared to the market share of print books.
  • December 2010: Ebooks now outsell hardcovers on Amazon. This doesn't mean that ebooks outsell hardcovers overall; Amazon's share of the hardcover market is fairly small. Just the same, it's an indicator of where the market is going, and ebooks have shot up to 15% of books sold overall.
  • March 2009: Ebooks were marketed under the wholesale model, where publishers sold books to retailers for a fixed price, and retailers could then sell the ebook for any price they wanted. Amazon decided to sell bestselling ebooks at a loss.
  • December 2010: Most publishers have moved to an agency model, in which retailers sell ebooks at the price set by the publisher and pay a royalty rate based on that price.

If you guessed all of those changes correctly back in March 2009, congratulations! Your name is Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs.

The one forecast I've seen consistently since that time is that the publishing industry will soon suffer a gruesome death. On this one, I disagree. The lightning fast pace of change makes it more exciting than ever to be in the publishing business. Scary for many, but you don't get thrills without suspense.

Whatever happens, I'm confident in making one prediction; readers will continue to crave great stories from writers. It's how they will read those tales that is suddenly hard to predict.

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