08/08 – Judith Ashley, Romance as Therapy

Saturday, December 28, 2019

So how's your decade been?

by M. L. Buchman

Yep, we humans like our round numbers and there's another tenner coming up in just a few days. So, I thought I'd take a moment and look backwards so that I could try to peer forwards.
  • 2007 - the first Amazon Kindle came out (about the kajillionth entry into the e-reader market and not the best of them). The main thing that set it apart is that it was backed up by a direct publishing platform (KDP) and a wireless delivery system.
  • 2009 - I dropped my first couple KDP books.
  • 2011 - "The Kindle Christmas" This was the year when suddenly the Kindle was THE gift under the green boughs. (That would be the Kindle 4, the one after the one that I bought with the clicky keyboard.)
  • 2015 - Hugh Howey and Data Guy set out to discover the scale of this new-fangled indie pub industry...and discover that it is over 30% of total e-book unit sales and about 15% of total e-book revenue. (This was the tail end of the $0.99 discounting madness that we still haven't fully recovered from.)
  • 2018 - By their last report, the numbers were more like 40% of unit sales and 25% of income--that's of the entire publishing industry! Poke into fiction and most genres are over 75% of unit sales.
So, let's look at this for moment.

In 2009, a small group of friends and I were very early adopters of the indie publishing realm that would reshape publishing in ways that hadn't happened since the pocket-sized paperbacks of the early 1940s, the collapse of the pulps in the late 1950s, and the distribution collapse at the turn of the century. (Remember when your grocery store had big racks labeled: "Local author"? Then Safeway said, "No, we just want to order in a few places, not 400 local distributors." Chain stores jumped on the bandwagon and suddenly every store complied with New York-mandated stocking levels rather than manager or regional preferences.)

But all that aside, I'm trying to go back to our 2009 / 2010 excitement and see how I felt about the next decade. I knew the money was there, but I knew that without an audience, I didn't stand a chance.

Thankfully, 2010 was also the year that the 440 rejections I'd earned over the 1990s (roughly a submission every 8 days for 10 straight years) finally paid off. My publisher, with their (back then) vastly superior distribution system helped my work find an audience. I spent those 13 titles on a traditional publisher from 2012-2016 knowing full well that I'd be making a tenth as much per book sale. I figured that was worth it to find an audience.

Turns out that it was. Laid off late in the recession for the second time in three years, 2013 was the year I made the jump to being a full-time writer.

How? I wrote my ass off. As did so many others.

Now lets peek for just a moment at the fads.
  • The $0.99 discounters. Made some money (and a LOT of sales), but they're gone now.
  • The madly fast-releasing single authors (any heard from Amanda Hocking lately? Certainly not the way we used to).
  • We won't mention the KU scammers (Round 1, 2, or 3)
  • The fad chasers (most are in it for a few years then gone).
  • Now we have the 20 to 50k folks chasing the hot markets with vast quantities of fast-written work. The few really successful ones have mostly created ghost author publishing collectives, some big enough to generate almost daily sales.
Then there were the career builders, in it for the long haul. That absolutely included me. My desire to go back into the corporate maelstrom is so low that I'd rather live on an Ecuadoran beach...and I don't want to live in Ecuador.

So, what sustained my friends and I through the 2010s? A lot of it was writing good story and releasing steadily.

But that's no longer enough.

By 2017-18 discoverability wasn't just a challenge, it was becoming downright hard! Even the mega-sellers who used to drop 5-10 million copies of a title are now thrilled if they can break 1M. (Their New York advances are plummeting to match.)


There is so much more choice. In 2007 (the year Kindle launched), there were approximately 43,000 fiction titles published in the US. It's now over a quarter million.

OOPS! It's over a quarter of a million if you only count the books published with ISBNs. Extrapolating from the Data Guy reports, we know that the number of fiction titles published in 2019 is probably at least twice that, maybe 3x. No e-publisher requires an ISBN.

Changing from 43,000 to 1/2-million (3/4M) new titles. Yep! That's some kinda growth. The good news is, more people are reading than ever because it is cheap, convenient, and any particular subgenre they favor is now published (rather than New York curating it out of existence).

2020 and Beyond
Is that slowing down? Dream on. More people with ideas. More first-time authors finding the urge to complete a book.

And finding newer and better tools to complete those ideas:

  • Plot builders
  • Dictation
  • Grammar fixers (Grammarly is just the beginning on that.)
  • Vellum may seem like the be-all of formatting and book layout right now, but it will get easier. (Pre-load your metadata and passwords into the file and it will auto-pub for you to the sites of your choice? That's practically what D2D is already doing for you.)
  • Anyone tried building a book cover in Bookbrush yet? They're very, very close to being a point-and-click Photoshop killer. They're hoping to pull that off within the next year, btw.
And let's look further ahead:
  • By the end of 2020 (maybe mid-2021), the massive price threshold on translations is going to crack. Instead of human translation, we're going to have AI translation in seconds followed up by a week of work for a clean-up editor. We're talking about idiomatic translation, not simple literal translation. Not so fanciful. If I had a spare ten grand lying about, I could have this up and running within a! The tools are here, they'll just be common and significantly more mature by end of year. Right now, you need a really good cleanup editor and a proofreader (but that's a book in 2 weeks rather than 3-6 months). Within a year to 18 months, a proofreader should do. I know several people who've already switched over to AI-assisted translation. At present, the cleanup editor is still a critical role.
  • Oh yeah, by later in the decade, translation probably won't be an issue at all. I'll publish an English-language book. On your Kindle 2030 you just select the language you want to read it in and idiomatic translation (or close enough for 99% of folks) will show up on the screen. The translator will download just as easily as the Google Translate dictionaries now pop onto your phone. Think of all the new readers you can find for your older work then!
  • Auto-generation of new books that match the style of an author's written works? That's already being debated in copyright circles. If I upload all of Stephen King's works into an AI, then generate a new story in his voice, who owns that? Me, Stephen, or the AI? Seriously, the 2020s are going to have copyright issues that make the 2010s and ebook rights look timid. This will definitely be in the courts by 2025. And probably running reasonably well by end of decade at the latest. Clean up the auto-gen and publish.
  • You can already create a perfectly acceptable audiobook with a digital voice in minutes. I was a beta-tester on one over a year ago and they've come a long way since. Emotions will be harder (2022?) and real dynamic expression (2025?). For now? Consider doing two: a cheap read-by-machine and a spendier read-by-human version. Great for the 2x listening speed crowd anyway. (I'm not there yet, but I'm definitely looking into it.) Did I mention that you can do this right now at for $10/month. Think of the $2.99 "Machine read" version...except you can teach the machine your voice. It will be a flat but acceptable reading. I'd price a novel something like this: $2.99 machine-generated audio in my voice, $4.99-6.99 e-novel, $9.99-12.99 human-narrated audiobook, print at whatever price matches the pages. Here now!, not 2025.
  • Will we see auto-export of scripts into film with realistic electronic characters by the end of the decade and point-and-click stage direction? Maybe... You think that one's crazy? Did you see all of the characters that Disney brought back from the dead in Star Wars? Consider what effectively turned days of QuarkXpress layout into minutes of Vellum over the last decade. 
  • Oh, and did I mention that several of the Big 5 publishers are going down. A couple will be swept up by media giants seeking massive libraries of previously contracted content. (Oh, wait, Viacom/CBS already owns Simon and Schuster). Big 4. One may just collapse (and won't that be a mess). Perhaps one will shatter into a number of medium-size pubs or just shrink until they are one? I'm betting on a Chinese billionaire buying one just to get his money out of China.
So, a wild ride is coming. But that's not the whole picture.

A friend observed, "Cultural changes take decades no matter what cool tech arises."

People have been seeking story for millennia. They've been reading books for centuries. Yes, audiobooks are on the rise in our busy society, but the vast majority of readers are still readers and will continue to seek story. The format we're consumed in may change, but the world still needs storytellers.

So, while I'm seeking to position myself for the future (a third of my novels are already in audio with more every month, and I'm hoping to get into translations in 2020), technology isn't my guide for the 2020s.

My watchword for the 2020s is "Discoverability." That's what I test all new non-writing ideas against. This kind of ad. That kind of interview. This new tool.

Will it increase my discoverability? If yes, I pursue it. Unsure? I may test it. Not so much? I don't bother.

I think that writers who consciously ask that question, will have the greatest success no matter what changes are headed our way.

M.L. "Matt" Buchman has 60+ thriller and romance novels, 100 short stories, and lotsa audiobooks. Booklist says: 3x “Top-10 Romance of the Year” and among “The 20 Best Romantic Suspense Novels: Modern Masterpieces.” NPR and B&N say “Best 5 Romance of the Year.” A project manager with a geophysics degree, he’s designed and built houses, flown and jumped out of planes, solo-sailed a 50’ sailboat, and bicycled solo around the world…and he quilts. More at:


Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thanks for the post, M. L. I'll have to consider these things as I create my writing business plan, and you pulled it all together in a concise list for us.

M. L. Buchman said...

Glad it helped.

Sarah Raplee said...

This was a mind-blowing post, Matt. The times, they are a-changing at breakneck speed!!! As are the tools available to authors. Wow! Thank you for an amazing look down the rabbit hole.

Deb N said...

You never cease to amaze me - I know I've said this before, but I wish I could crawl in your brain and understand all this as you do. Instead it will take me a month of rereads of this blog to even comprehend :-) Thanks for this - incredible.

M. L. Buchman said...

Anything that doesn't make sense, feel free to ask. That was sort of just a stream of consciousness brain dump. And since it's about the future...I give it a 25% probability rating...maybe. But it's where my thinking is at this point in time.

Paty Jager said...

Good post, Matt! After all the other talk of technology and things that scared me... This brought hope back: "My watchword for the 2020s is "Discoverability.""

This is what I have been striving for and what I will continue to strive for and let the rest work its self out.

Thanks for always giving us something to think about!

Barbara Rae Robinson said...

Amazing, Matt. I marvel at how you can break down the business side of writing so well, while maintaining the creative streak in your stories. Fascinating look into the future. I wish I were younger and could take advantage of all of it. But I'll be on the sidelines cheering you on. What you have achieved is phenomenal.

Hot Ash Romance Novels said...

Thank you for your invaluable insight. I'm still on the fence re: trad vs. Indie. I've been watching your career since we were both at Sourcebooks. If I knew I could get the discoverability I needed without a traditional publisher, it might be a much better way to go.

Maggie Lynch said...

Excellent break down of an entire decade. I didn't realize you were in so early in the Kindle arena. I didn't get in until 2011.

I agree with you 100% about the technology. I'm particularly interested in the translation end. Because my husband speaks German and French (used to translate German for a very high security government agency), I've been checking on Google Translate regularly. Even in the past two years it has come leaps and bounds.

Two years ago I asked him to give me words in both French and german for me to use on my Amazon Author Pages in those countries. Two weeks ago I was doing a cut and paste of someone speaking German in a family FB group, so I could see what was said and respond. I asked him to check the German translation of my English response and he said: "That's exactly as I would have said it." When I told him it was Google Translate he was amazed because it got both the use of idioms and, more importantly, the correct structure of the sentence in German.

That is what AI does. It learns and adapts. I am now ready to try a novelette using Google Translate and then ask a native speaker to read it and tell me if it seems smooth. DH is not a Native Speaker and because he has been away from translation now for 30 years he doesn't feel qualified to be the proofer.

On the audio reading and book creation side I must admit I'm less excited. For me, I want emotion in the audio and am willing to pay for it or narrate myself. That's more a reflection of me than the audiobook audience. I rarely listen to audio. So, when I do, I want it to be a very rich listening experience. However, I do know that some listeners are like those readers who zoom through a book hitting the high points to get to the end. So, there is certainly a market for the non-emotional read. I suspect this would be particularly true for skill-building nonfiction books.

On the book creation side, I do expect AI can already (and is maybe already being used without my knowledge) create trending genre books that follow specific plot and subject structures. Much like when I started writing romance back in the 1980's and Harlequin would send out a cassette tape to aspiring authors with exact instructions on how a Harlequin novel is structured. This 30 minute tape included approximately at what page in the novel certain things would occur--the meet cute, the beginning of falling-in-love, the beats to growing that love, the black moment, the denounment, the resolution, and the HEA. The tape reinforced the instructions with the narrator reading a paragraph or two that illustrated how that was done in a particular novel.

Matt, you have always been an intelligent writer and entrepreneur. I admire your ability to analyze, to learn, to pivot when needed, and yet write the stories that speak to your heart and your voice. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge with all of us.

Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

Some fascinating possibilities. So much appreciate you sharing this peek into the future!

M. L. Buchman said...

Barbara, It's not about age. It's about picking and choosing. I can't do half of what I listed there. I can see it! But I can't make time to DO it. 5-10 years ago I might have, but back then that blast of energy was focused on writing and trying to format a book and trying to figure out how to upload to Apple and... My advice to myself? Pick and choose my battles. If you only choose 1 or 2, make it a clear, conscious choice, and then commit to that choice. I've learned that dabbling in a little of this and a little of that is a fine way to sabotage yourself. Example: What if I had written in 3 series instead of 19? I'll bet I'd actually be much more successful due to audience building. However, I might not have gathered the data that said, "Hey, I've got a strong thriller-style voice." So now, after decades of writing, I'm finally down to 3 series. We'll see how that goes.

Machine-read Audio
I think you're right on it being a better fit for non-fiction. But even that is better served by a more dramatic, classroom-style reading. For myself, I've been considering the 100+ short stories that I'll NEVER get around to recording (not when I have a 30 novel backlog). And I think splitting it across widely variant price points is a must. My worry is about it possibly diluting my brand...and I just don't know.
AI Book Generation
At this point it still generates little better than nonsense, but it can do it in the voice of the author. That problem won't last for long and that's going to have a KU-level of impact.
Machine Translation
I spoke at length with a company called SDL*Trados. Right now, their AI let's you dump in a company's user manual and spit it out in 30-50 languages--a godsend to the corporate world. We spoke at length about fiction. He said that they start with a strong common core translator. But when you load and generate a translated book, it will create a side-by-side document for the clean-up editor. As the editor cleans up the translation to match the original, the machine builds those connections. You eventually end up with a knowledge base of how you write looks in French, German, etc. So, the next book generated in that language is just that much more accurate until you end up with an AI trained specifically in translating your voice.

The whole thing can be purchased for about $10K ($3-5k yearly recurring charges). That's the cost of human translation of one full-length novel. I'm working with several folks in the hopes of having them: 1) make the investment, 2) provide a back of editors and proofreaders (I already have a company willing to do this), 3) build marketing objects in those languages. Imagine doing 10 novels a year through that AI (front and back list) into multiple languages. Price per title falls.

The vendor admits that at this time, a fiction translation would be messy, so editor involvement/cost would be higher. But he said with training, or by the end of 2020 (due to technology advancements), this should be totally doable. Wild huh?

The Writing
And you're right...NOTHING supplants the writing. Nothing

M. L. Buchman said...

There's no contest for me. When I left trad, it was 65% of my writing time and 17% of my income. Being indie, I can also twist and pivot as I see fit. Leaning into audio...I have my audio rights, except for those 13 Sourcebooks. Translations opening up? I can do them all...except those 13.

My one suggestion, if you do want to try indie, write in a completely new series. It doesn't have to be a new genre, but it MUST be a new series otherwise: a) you're just making them money and b) you won't control book one of the series so you can't do effective promotions. I cost my career probably 2 years with that mistake.

Judith Ashley said...

Matt, thanks for an interesting and in some ways mind-boggling look at the future in publishing. Discoverability will always be important unless I become a household name.

M. L. Buchman said...

Judith, I think that discoverability is an issue all the way up. I've talked to major NYT #1 bestsellers whose books (and new contracts) are moving at 1/10th of prior numbers. Why? Because the opportunities for readers have increased on the order of 20x. Readers can now discover new authors constantly and not be left on tenterhooks for the "household name's" next release.

But for my year, the reason it's become my watchword is more as the litmus test for my chosen actions. I need to focus more cleanly on what's important. Will this or that choice help my discoverability? For me that's the real purpose of that word for me.

Madelle Morgan said...

Thank, you, Matt, for a valuable post and comments. I am definitely interested in what's ahead re machine translation and machine read novels. In fact, thanks to your post I will be writing and editing the next book's dialogue with special attention to dialogue tags so it clear who is speaking, without a narrator's voice/tone change.

I think there are a LOT of people in other parts of the world who want to listen to affordable audiobooks in order to improve their English!

M. L. Buchman said...

Madelle, that's a fascinating point. I don't use dialog attributes in my writing...ever! (Like 3-5/book). I'll definitely have to listen for that as I test.

I absolutely agree on the need for ESL enhancing audiobooks. That's got to be a coming market.