'Tis the season for evaluating the year gone by! Over the next few weeks you'll see plenty of articles summing up the successes and failures in industries all across the board: television, movies, automobiles, retail. It's no different for the publishing industry. Already the New York Times has run an article examining publishing's good, bad and ugly decisions of 2005. There are many tidbits here and there in Publishers Weekly as well. While the overall message can seem daunting for an aspiring author (sales down, even some celebrity books didn't do well), there are a few choice nuggets you can pluck from the dust and use to energize your publishing process for 2006.
Beware of Mixed Messages
Yes, sales are down. Both the Association of American Publishers and the American Booksellers Association reported a drop of 2 percent in adult hardcover and overall bookstore sales. This continues a trend that's a few years old. However, the USA's major bookstore chains (Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-A-Million) are planning to open about 80 new stores in 2006, ten more than this year. And we're talking HUGE stores, with the B&N ones topping out at nearly 30,000 sq. ft.!
Obviously, somebody is making enough money to justify these openings. Granted, such stores do sell more than books these days. Music, DVDs and expensive cups of java figure prominently in the sales ledgers. But I don't see Books-A-Million changing their name to Cups-A-Million! Bottom line: as long as the big guys think it's profitable to be in the book business, it can be profitable for you to be in the book business.
When Celebrities Fail
It seems like Martha Stewart had a banner year, doesn't it? She got out of prison, launched a couple of TV shows, made a spectacular return to the cover of her magazine and she wrote a book, The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success as You Start, Build, or Manage a Business. Despite her huge successes elsewhere, though, things didn't turn out so well for that book. The New York Times reports that after Rodale Books signed Ms. Stewart to a $2 million contract and planned a printing of 500,000, the book has sold just 37,000 copies since its October release.
I asked around about this and one editor wondered whether Ms. Stewart had crossed a line into overexposure land. But let's be clear about this and get the lesson right: this isn't just about seeing Martha Stewart everywhere and being too tired of her to want to read about her in a book. This is about whether Ms. Stewart had anything left to tell us that we don't feel we already know.
Understanding this nuance is important because in this time where having a "platform" is the "it" thing, you have to be quite savvy in how you put yourself out there. If you give away all your tips, secrets, strategies, life story, connections, etc., each and every time you're in front of people, you won't have anything left for them to look for in a book! Of course this only pertains to non-fiction authors and only for certain subjects. I'm sure Ms. Stewart's audience, for example, will never tire of getting new recipes and new household tips from her!
Classic Winning Move: Speaking Truth From the Heart
I'm a fiction writer, so it pains me to say it, but right now in the publishing industry non-fiction is king. And the stuff that people want to read includes thoughtful, heartfelt stories and essays from noted voices such as Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking), Jimmy Carter (Our Endangered Values) and Kurt Vonnegut (A Man Without a Country). The lesson here is a simple one: be true to yourself, write what you feel and at some point your audience will find you.
I know that can be hard to believe when it seems you can't get anyone to read a query letter let alone a manuscript, but this is an industry that rewards persistence. There are many ways to get your story out there and in a few weeks you'll have a whole new year in which to find the one that's right for you. The choice is yours. Good luck.