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21 Bold Predictions: The changing future of books

Sure, you need to write a good book to make it marketable. But what will be more marketable in the future? What will be different? Here are my sweeping predictions:

1. Non-fiction Shrink: Got a question? Got a problem? Ask.com or Wikipedia or any number of  quick searches will probably answer that question. What do I need you (and your book) for? In the future we still won’t have flying cars. There will also be less call for a lot of non-fiction. Instant, quick answers beat your treatise on bed bug infestations. I just want to know who to call and what to do to get rid of them.

Another instance: After faithfully reading the magazine for years, I don’t buy Writer’s Digest anymore. There is already more information than I can possibly read on writing blogs. For free. Um, like right here, three times a week, for instance.

2. Short form explosion: My horror and sci-fi writing friend Rebecca Senese articulated this for me first and it makes sense. People have less time and shorter attention spans as the web changes their brains away from the usual experience of deep reading. Cyber ADD aside, short stories are also 0.99 each, so people will download a little bouquet of short stories and take a chance on new authors that way.

Also, with ebooks, novellas and short novels are practical again from a manufacturing/pricing perspective. Think of the works of Albert Camus. 50,000 words for a novel was common. Then New York lost confidence in that formula and bigger books became the norm (so much so, in fact, that many authors now scoff at NaNoWriMo‘s 50,000-word winners.) Now, book length is less relevant. Ebooks don’t have page numbers.

3. Merchandise and books shall marry: Your platform and your content should optimally come together in a cult that wants more of your work. Witness all the Fight Club quotes, Youtube videos, tees and, well, actual fight clubs (years after the film phenomenon.) You’ll be spreading the awesome with passive income from whatever secondary sources you can manage. (I already started to plant my seeds here.)

4. Domination by Series: Having more ebooks available improves your marketability. Having more ebooks in a series improves your marketability even more. So, rather than sticking to a one off, consider how you can turn your masterpiece into the foundation for a series of books fans will clamor for. Your advantage as a self-published author is long tail merchandising. Your work shall be available until we embrace the Singularity and join ebooks in the cyberspace holodeck of our disembodied, fully-uploaded immortal minds.

5. Product integration: Slightly different from #3, here I’m talking about books as vehicles for products instead of the other way around.

You are a carpenter who specializes in bathroom renos. Order the book on how to renovate a bathroom in three days. The book pushes the advantage of your special caulking gun, available for immediate drop shipping before sledgehammering the bathtub.

6. First-person non-fiction: More authors who did something stupid and dangerous (tour Iraq for pleasure or go skiing off the approved slopes) will write their own first-person accounts. They’ll self-publish and the covers won’t say “as told to” some ghostwriter. The results will be horrific and ubiquitous.

7. Excellent journalists will find their place in analysis: The freelance market sucks for writers. However, if you’re a journalist with extensive financial expertise a la Too Big To Fail or can write like Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, you can provide the long tail analysis of WTF happened?

8. To be successful, freelance writers must own smaller niches: If you aren’t a genius like Matt Taibbi, there’s still hope, but you’ll have to think small. Maybe microscopic, like the asbestos beat in the tri-state area.

Generalist writing isn’t dead exactly. In fact, generalists are everywhere, but they are also free.  You may not think of it this way, but really, blogging is instant publishing. If I want a non-expert opinion, that’s the simplest thing in the world to get and the blogger probably isn’t seeing a dime from it. The writers who are making money now are either tech experts  or people who are plowing ahead to make way for the rest of us in the digital publishing revolution.

9. Cross-genre will be accepted: Cross-genre books (a la Scott Sigler, for instance) have long been a problem for publishers. Even if they loved it, if it was sci-fi and horror, they worried which bookshelf it should be placed on to sell. (For those of you who aren’t sure, go look up what a bookstore used to be. That worry used to be much more relevant.) Cross-genre’s stigma is fading. And self-publishers care not at all, though they will have to do a really good job with their promotion and publicity.

10. More humor: In order for a humor book to sell, traditionally it had to be penned by a celebrity or it had to have a Shit My Dad Says-worthy hook (in other words, a novelty book.)

Comedy writer Ken Levine has a long history of sit com hits, from Mash and Cheers to Frasier, among others. Despite his track record, he wasn’t famous in front of the camera so traditional publishing hasn’t given him a chance to screw it up. Who he was wasn’t enough for traditional publishing to invest.

However, Ken has an incredibly popular blog with a following. He could go back to trad publishing and ask them how they like him now. Or he could just publish himself and keep the profits.  He has a platform that heretofore went unrecognized. He’s a guy with a blog today. He could be the new Dave Barry tomorrow.

11. People will get better at platform: Not long ago a clueless agent told a baffled writer,”Go make a viral video.” Yeah, sure. But what makes a video go viral? As time has passed, we have a better idea of what elements make something go viral.

I’m not saying there’s a formula. However, I think we’re at the point where we recognize what won’t go viral. If your book trailer is going to catch fire on Youtube, it will have to be powerful or clever or charming or heartfelt yet funny or at least cute. If you don’t have any of those elements, you’ll know (and if you don’t know, I hope you have good friends who will warn you.) At least the tech has improved so if you’ve got GarageBand, you already have a shot at putting together a better book trailer. And if you screwed it up, you can take comfort in trying again since the costs of trying have come way down.

12. Curation will get worse, then improve: People are already learning to distrust Amazon reviews. Many reviews are by haters with nothing better to do but snark on others’ work. Other reviews are by friends of writers or even by the writers themselves. There are a lot of books coming down the pipe and you are going to need a filter. Goodreads, for instance, seems to be a place for real people to provide feedback on what they love. I’d trust that (or a friend with similar tastes) before depending on Amazon alone for a helpful review.

13. Eventually: Ebooks will boil down to one or two standard formats.

14. Eventually (after #13): Your device will get sophisticated enough to take the download and format your downloaded ebook however you like it, no matter what the Big Six decree. Proprietary defenses (DRM) will be cracked as fast or faster than they are now so prices will fall, many current publishers will be former publishers and if you want money to eat, you’ll have to make up the difference with volume.

15. And #14 won’t happen on an e-reader: I love my e-readers, but they are interim devices, like pagers and electronic planners were. When e-readers go, they’ll probably be replaced by tablets that can do everything. The screens will be expandable so you won’t be peering at books through the keyhole like on a smart phone. Also, we’ll be back to the two-page spread you’re used to with paper books.

Some say ereaders are already on the way out but they’re in a rush. Ereaders will be around for some time to come because lots of people want to read ebooks, but they can’t afford higher-end integrated devices. Ereader prices will fall so market saturation will soak much deeper and faster than previously thought.

16. Media integration: I tried to read an integrated ebook. The experience sucked.  It won’t suck forever. You’ll have that two-page spread, but you’ll be able to bop over to a cut scene of the story’s climactic event. Merch links will be embedded into the text so you can buy the t-shirt your hero is wearing and the villain’s yummy high heels. One click (only it will be a swipe and eventually, a voice command. Later, a grunt. Then, a thought.)

17. The future of reading is hearing: Audio will rise much higher in popularity. You don’t have time to read so you listen in your car, while you work out, while you walk the dog, while you do the dishes and/or have sex. Time management is more important than  money management (though they are often merely equated. that’s a different post for the glorious future.)

Audio will continue to be more expensive until voice tech improves. While we’re still paying actors to read (minimum $150 an hour and usually $300 an hour and up) audio will stay the indie authors last foray. No disrespect to actors. I know some. However, your computer’s voice inflection is improving so when that dramatic reading is up to snuff, this Jetson’s future will kick in. The voice of George Jetson will come from a computer, not a talented voice actor.

18. You’ll care less about grammar: Well, not you. But your kids probably, especially since in school they are already taught spelling (and handwriting) matter less. As an editor, I regret every grammatical and typographical error. But with the deluge of self-published books replete with typos, we’ll relax our standards. Instead of fetishizing a book’s typographic purity, we’ll freak out less when we spot a typo. Instead, high praise will be, “That one didn’t have that many typos.” Practical acceptance will ensue once today’s outrage becomes the new normal. Sure, you pride yourself on being a sharp word nerd, but anyone who can sustain the level of outrage required will be exhausted and have no friends.

On the plus side, a book that is well written and well edited will stick out more.

19. Instant will be prized more: Trad publishing works on long publication deadlines because of budgets and logistics. (Though it’s a factor for the editorial staff, contrary to what you’ve heard, quality is not actually Job One.) If they could pump books out faster than 16 to 18 months per book, they certainly would. That kind of agility would allow them to be more topical, hit trends and, most important, have more stuff for sale. Recently I read an ebook that mentioned the Japanese earthquake. Compare that to how long it took 9/11 to show up in traditionally-published novels out of New York.

There will be little to no delay in the future. An ebook on the ramifications of Bin Laden’s death was up for sale within a week of his death. You might think it was mostly prepared ahead of time, but actually it was a bunch of emails from socio-political experts contacted as soon as Seal Team Six did their job.

20. Romance will continue to dominate, but now it will be recognized: The love of the paranormal romance genre is not a new thing, but romance has never been recognized as the dominant force it really is. Amanda Hocking’s recent success is no accident, especially because she writes in a genre that dominates reader demand.

Look at bestseller lists. You’ll see “important literary works”  by big publishers. Good for them! Those are the sorts of books I like. However, those weekly bestseller lists are often based on booksellers reporting which books are sitting in front of them in the biggest cubes and stacks. Much of the math is suspicious, especially since bestseller lists don’t take into account sales from non-traditional book venues (Walmart, drugstores, the spinner rack at beach resorts or the vast call for romance books among ESL learners. Nope. Not kidding about that. If you’re learning english, simple stories of ribaldry and girl-next-door heroines are one way to do it.)

You won’t see Harlequin romances on bestseller lists. However, I used to work at Harlequin. I’ve seen the numbers. Romance sells huge. Romance sells much bigger than anything on bestseller lists. Why? Because english majors run Big Six editorial departments. They do not run the real world. Yann Martel writes great books. Nora Roberts writes fast, easy reads. Even snobby english majors read trashy, naughty novels for a break from lit that might be fresh and surprising. In the real word, the hare beats the tortoise.

21. Someday soon, everyone will make these changes in spelling: email, ereaders, ebooks. Of all these predictions, this is probably the one which will happen first.

And yes, #18 will probably happen last. As in, over your dead body.

Filed under: Books, DIY, e-reader, ebooks, Editing, publishing, Rant, self-publishing, , , , , , , , , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

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