Are You Ready for the Next Asteroid to Hit Traditional or Indie Publishing?
I didn’t really know what to expect from the 20Booksto50k Vegas conference session Black Ice: What to do when your career spins out of control, but it was a masterclass by author Kevin J. Anderson. It was a masterclass on the writing and publishing industry, an overview of decades of change that have often blind-sided authors…and a nod to the potential for more upheaval.
Kevin J. Anderson has published more than 175 books including 58 bestsellers (ever heard of Dune? – he co-authored many books in that universe) – and he’s been intimately affected by a huge number of changes in the publishing industry.
A fabulous storyteller, he generously shared insights and his wish for authors to:
- Keep our eyes open
- Be prepared for disasters to happen
- Have a plan B
- Have multiple income streams
- Be adaptable.
- And never, ever assume you have it made as an author.
Kevin knows what he’s talking about. He’s experienced the volatility and unpredictability of the writing business over decades. He urged authors to stick with our day jobs as long as possible, and at least until we have a decent nest egg.
He kindly quipped that it’s not necessarily anything an author does that can derail a writing career (such as pick the wrong genre), things can just happen.
In Kevin’s case, he’s experienced:
- Successfully selling movie rights to his book about terrorists taking over the space shuttle…just before the space shuttle blew up in real life. The movie never went ahead.
- He wrote comic books based on Star Wars: two of the many he wrote hit number five on the bestseller lists a decade apart. The first sold 500,000 copies. The second 50,000 copies. In the space of 10 years the whole comic book industry and sales had imploded.
He adapted though:
- He regularly wrote books for the Star Wars franchise, until a dispute between companies and authors meant all the authors got the chop overnight.
- He wrote media and movie tie-in books that were all the rage for a while, but that work suddenly dried up when the mass market paperback market declined. That, coupled with the movie studios charging too high a licensing fee, meant the market, and therefore the work for writers, disappeared practically overnight.
- In 2010 he watched as the whole world of traditional publishing was knocked off its axis when Borders, the second largest bookstore chain in the US went bankrupt. Suddenly there were just not the shelves and outlets for all the books, especially the genre fiction.
But then the publishing industry contracted further:
- Whereas once his agent could shop his manuscripts to 13 or 14 major publishers, ‘they ate each other up’ and it reduced down to five major publishers. And that five may or may not have had some anti-competitive understandings between them. It felt like ‘there was no place your literary agent could even send your books’.
- He saw author advances drop 90% across the board which means authors today get just 10% of what used to be on offer.
- In 2009 he sold his fantasty trilogy to a publisher, and in 2019 sold his second trilogy to a different publisher…but even though he was a much bigger author in 2019 with a huge following, he got paid just a fifth of the amount of the earlier series!
And, as for Hollywood, the dream many authors would love to crack:
- He saw it take Brian Herbert 27 years to see the bestselling book Dune come to the screen.
- So, why not give up your day job to pin your hopes on Hollywood? According to Kevin, the average movie (if your book is not only optioned but actually bought to be made into a movie), will take 8-12 years to get to the screen.
- That’s without factoring other things outside author control that can derail your plans. For example, another book Kevin has been pitching for 21 years – Stalag X – and which was finally about to be made into a movie, has been further delayed by both the writers’ strike and the actors’ strikes. Many of us less established writers would have been absolutely hanging on the payment to come through to help pay our mortgages and living expenses, so delays of 6 months, a year…YEARS are just not sustainable.
And then, just when Kevin thought he’d be out and about for a few years signing books at massive conventions and being paid to speak on the corporate speaking circuit…well, we all know what happened: COVID. It did however, force him to adapt and he began to offer signed books direct to readers from his website.
Kevin’s talk was fabulously honest, compelling, and, also, in a weird sort of way, motivating!
I love understanding the reality of writing, the history of publishing’s ups and downs and that the reason so many people talk about the BIG author advance is because it’s incredibly rare – and becoming rarer still.
It made me also want to speak up again, to advise authors and hopeful writers not to buy into the myth of the ‘writing a book will change your life’ (sure, it can change you personally for the better and IT IS lifechanging via the thinking you do and the challenges/learning you face and the fabulous high you get when typing ‘The End’ – oh yeh, and there are so many other wonderful things that come from being an author including the imaginative flow, the meeting of new people, the elevation of ideas etc) – BUT, do not buy into the ‘I made five or six figures from my book launch’ hype…especially when that said author or service provider doesn’t tell you how much they spent on the ads/marketing of it, and how long they’ve been at it. It can take YEARS to develop a following, and ‘overnight bestsellers’ are the palomino polar bear, the albino echidna of the author world.
I share lots of realities with my book coaching clients and author hopefuls – we tease out why you’re compelled to write this book, your goals, the milestones and successes you want to hit, and we look at the realities. We work out the most economical, intelligent, innovative way to achieve your writing goals. No hype.
I love that Kevin’s final hope was that by sharing his story, it might help indie authors be more prepared.
‘You don’t know the next asteroid that might come down…it could be Amazon deciding to take a bigger cut, or something else.’
And that something else could yes, be Amazon changing the rules – or any of the major platforms. It could be the rapidly changing shape of the market due to Ai-assisted books and audiobook narration. It could be another entertainment form or global upheaval that further reduces the time audiences spend reading. Or…it could be something beautiful.
You want to write, so write. And it’s okay to dream too. But it’s not okay to not be prepared to face reality too.
A huge thanks to Kevin J. Anderson for this fabulous talk, and to Michael Anderle and Craig Martelle for everything that is 20Booksto50K Vegas and for making it available to livestream for all us authors and author helpers who couldn’t be there in person. Legends!