It’s odd that in a relatively uneventful year in publishing, or at least one without the pronounced internecine legal warfare of years past, we’re seeing a not-insignificant decline in market performance. Sure, YouTube Megastars and adult coloring books bolstered print sales throughout 2015, and print sales do appear to be up slightly. But so far every indication is that overall sales (including ebook sales) will be down. Or, at least, they were down by 4.1% — from $5.82 billion to $5.58 billion — in the first half of the year.
To reiterate: yes, adult coloring books and books “written by” YouTube Megastars helped keep print books out of the red in 2015. And, yes, print sales are up. To many, this has been seen as a sign of publishing’s good health, but a closer look reveals that print’s resurgence is likely due to big publishing’s short-term victory in the war over “agency pricing.” After a war of attrition, in other words, won by big publishing over Amazon, publishers claimed the right to set (to some extent) the prices of ebooks. When they predictably raised the price, readers flocked to print.
The fairly straightforward lesson here is that it’s hard to extract meaning from short-term publishing data; it’s even harder, on the basis of this data or even recent publishing trends, to make predictions about what will happen in book publishing over the coming year.
With this in mind, I will now make a series of extravagant claims about what will happen in book publishing in 2016. Some of these claims, I’ll admit right now, rest on little but the shaky edifice of intuition. Some rest elsewhere.
But first, let’s take a quick look back at how I did last year. As it turns out, I correctly predicted the renewed importance of the ghostwriter, the rise of the YouTube megastar, and the emergence of Mark Zuckerberg as (some kind of) publishing force. I also correctly forecasted that we would see a surge in novels with more than one author.
Otherwise, I incorrectly predicted that Apple would win its legal appeal, that publishers would amplify their efforts to sell books through Twitter, and that “adult fiction” would make a comeback across the board. Only print sales improved for adult books.
Now that you’re aware of my record, let’s get started on 2016.
Books by Committee, Self-Published Books by Computers
Last year we experienced an increase in co-authored novels and the rise of the YouTube megastar, who often relies on a ghostwriter to produce their book. But if we take a look at this trend, it’s obvious (to me at least) that what we’re really seeing is a greater reliance on a literary division of labor: we simply don’t have the time to write books anymore. The YouTube megastar with their attendant ghostwriter is an extension of this reasoning; you rely on the built-in audience of the megastar, divide out his or her reputational value, and then enlist the labor of a ghostwriter to finish the book. The division of labor for books that are co-authored is likewise obvious: more than one person is writing it.
So it only follows that in 2016 we’ll see this tendency toward an increased division of labor — this Damien Hirstification of literature — accelerated in two key ways.
To begin with, we will see the rise of the novel written by group or committee. We’ve already witnessed stirrings of this craze in genre fiction, where groups of self-proclaimed geeks now gather in hotels to churn out novels in 75 minutes. It’s just a matter of time before such projects are published and sold to readers.
In a similar vein, we’re also likely to look on helplessly as computers write novels with increasing sophistication. And although we’re unlikely to see the first computer-generated novel published by a big (or even reputable) publisher this year, it is possible that 2016 may give birth to the first such novel published on a self-publishing platform — maybe Amazon’s. Yes, I foresee a future when self-published “bad boy” erotica is generated by a computer, lightly edited, and then sold like crazy on Amazon Kindle Direct.
Publishers as Media Companies
These days a book can’t be just a book. A book has to be more than a book; it has to be A Little Lifestyle. This is why Barnes & Noble is becoming a lifestyle brand. It’s also why the YouTube-Publishing Megastar Complex was founded.
Given that in 2015 publishing clearly had more success with books that were tie-in extensions of YouTube stars, I’ll bet that the “tie-in” model will only grow in stature in the years to follow. Look for increased investment in Hollywood-style superprojects, and look for content that is fabricated especially for this purpose. It’s sort of like how BB-8, the darling little robot from the new Star Wars movie, was designed to be a toy as much as a character.
This, of course, will put untold pressure on publishing midlists — the list of non-blockbuster books that should otherwise sell OK — which may continue to disappear.
Amazon Will Continue to Eat Ebooks
My guess is that publishing will lean harder on the multimedia blockbuster model of Hollywood because the “unexpected comeback of actual books” is not as strong as we’re making it seem. As I said above, the uptick in print sales is partially due to the higher price of digital books; readers would rather have a print object at that cost. It also appears to be the case, at least to some degree, that digital books have moved into a parallel or shadow market, one that we lack the information to properly assess (because many of these new ebooks lack ISBNs). In fact, we may be able to substantiate in 2016 that because of this “shadow market,” ebooks are doing quite as badly as we thought. And we’ll also likely learn that more of these books are sold by independent and smaller publishers — read: not the big five publishers — than we previously expected. The takeaway: Amazon is eating more and more into the ebook market.
More Discoveries of Lost Manuscripts
I mentioned above that adult print books did OK this year, mostly because of adult coloring books and YouTube megastar books. But they are also doing well, it turns out, because of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Given that this sophomore novel was relatively cheaply “discovered,” look for a more aggressive push for literary “discoveries” in 2016. Whose lost or long-awaited second or third or fourth novel will be published in 2017?
Books Will Stop Getting Longer
Books are getting longer, we discovered this year. Some people think it’s because of digital publishing — ebooks don’t weigh more if they’re longer — and others think it’s just a cultural shift. For my money, the days of books getting longer is over. My argument: more readers are turning to mobile phones, and no one wants to read a long book on a phone.
More Publicity Will Bypass Critics for Bookseller Blurbs
The pre-publicity push for Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, a book that received mixed reviews, was driven almost exclusively by bookseller blurbs. Instead of sending the books to critics and novelists to blurb, in other words, the publisher appears to have solicited them “democratically” from people who work in bookstores.
More “Adult Relaxation” Books
Adult coloring books were huge this year, so expect similar products. Paint-by-numbers, maybe? Maybe publishers will start inserting adult coloring illustrations into YA books, given that more than 70% of YA purchases are made by adults for themselves.
More Varieties of Self-Published Erotica, Including Prole Erotica
Any glance at a monthly self-publishing bestseller list will tell you that self-published erotica is huge. Bad boy erotica, stepbrother erotica, MMA fighter erotica: the list goes on. But perhaps the most tired form of self-published erotica is “rich guy” or billionaire erotica — it’s just aggressively played out. Thankfully, we’ve started to see a bit more “prole erotica” that includes self-described “white trash” characters or mechanics or what have you.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see a literary novel that emulates an erotic novel.