Because no one really buys them. In fact, your social media posts probably get way more reads.
A good article - but I think you have left out a very important revenue stream -- Kickstarters. I've run a number of them and I've earned around $950,000 from them. Fees are just 5% to Kickstarter and 2.9% (+ $0.30) for CC processing so that kind of direct selling leaves a lot of margin for authors.
I adore your books!
This is a super thoughtful post, and I love your newsletter, but I also feel that some of the metrics are off. The Bookstat citation you used includes all books, not just new ones, right? I mean, I’ll say this- I have a book under contract with the largest indie press and I got that (paid) deal without any real social media following or public presence. I agree that the publishing industry needs to be disrupted…and also that it already is disrupted. I agree that Substack can be a great model, but that it’s also saturated. You have a super successful newsletter , but you also have to advertise continuously to get your voice out there, and not everyone can afford to do that. I personally love my Substacks, and am working on getting a larger readership, but a lot of the prime advertising space is already taken, and what’s left is so pricey!
There’s something left out here, too. Publishing a book with a reputable publisher isn’t necessarily about how much money I’ll make. It also opens doors. To teaching jobs, possibly more book deals, etc. I feel like you’re really writing off an entire, very important, industry. My book will go through rigorous fact checking and legal stuff that won’t happen on Substack. My publisher is one that I truly respect, my fellow authors are people I also respect. The truth is that there are multitudinous ways to get our work out there. You’re choosing this way, but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t try and get their books published, or that that’s impossible. It IS possible. And every single person I know buys and reads books, including myself. I also listen to audiobooks, a market not addressed here.
Also, many books are optioned for film and for Netflix etc!
I truly admire what you are doing with this newsletter but I see a lot of negativity towards traditional publishing when there is a lot of good there too. Just like there is on Substack. Your experiment is working for you and that is totally awesome. I hope the momentum continues! And I hope every writer who works their butt off sees the success they deserve, no matter which path they choose to get there.
This is a fascinating discussion -- thank you! I do believe that serial storytelling could really take off with the right platform.
Very interesting article, however, I'm not sure why you omitted audiobooks. Most people that I know, have books read to them via Audible or some other service. Do you have the numbers for that? I'm fairly certain that there are many book series written that get more "reads" via audiobooks than paper books.
Great article Elle - so in depth
Good info. Important to know: It has long been this way. Making $ on books has long been difficult. Even name authors have hired PR specialists--because their publishers were so bad at promoting them. I keep my self-published books going because they're my conversation with the world and make my life more connective and interesting. Nonfiction books like mine started losing traction as the WWW became the go-to world library. Self-publishing gurus have long said you should promote your books to people directly and look for grant funding or sponsorship opportunities as well as specialty publishing opportunities. And of course it's all shifted into content marketing and selling information products and now the Patreon and subscription model. But books can be part of the value ecosystem. Thanks again.
Thank you for this informative article and new perspective on platforms and writing. It saddens me to know that people can't sustain long enough to read a book but your article gave me hope of how people are consuming literature. It has been fun to read all the comments as well. I am new to Substack and writing? I have been the receiver of writing for some many year and it has been a gift. I dabble in writing but more for the hobby not the income.
Your research, intelligence, personality, and aura are just so impressive! Thanks for all the words, Elle! Really enjoy reading you.
I'm a little late to this post, blog, or whatever, but I have been contemplating putting out fiction story on substack. I have a small, but loyal book following with a series I self-published on Amazon, but I'm looking for a new home for a new series. Everything you've described in this post is spot on. I think the delivery of written fiction evolves as time goes on, but who knows where it is going. Serialized Fiction seems to be a neverending fad, but the delivery method is so abstract. Ugh. What am I going to do...
Great post, glad I found you! I'm thinking of going online as well and you have lots of good tips.
I just came upon this as I've been thinking of serializing a novel. I wondered if you'd given it a try since this post and how it went? Did you stick with substack?
A clear analysis of the situation of authors in the US. Thank you. One additional point may be worth mentioning: there is a glut of writers in the US and that is something that did not exist 30 years ago. Moreover, many of this new generation of writers are graduates of MFA programs - or teachers in these programs. "Creative Writing" programs were less frequently on the map until the late 1980s or so. U. Iowa was one of the few in earlier times. Moreover, digitalization has made publishing easier than ever before. Digital mags, e-books have democratized the market to accommodate the crowd. Nevertheless, it does not assure you readers. Not even publication at a small press with a meager PR apparatus will buy you readers. In earlier days, the writing business was tough, but any writer had direct access to editors. That was then. On the other hand: why not be satisfied selling 5000 copies of a book? That means 5000 fellow humans interested in something you may have slogged out over the course of three tough years. By the way: the situation is not (yet) as extreme in Europe. There are still many traditional publishers around - and direct contact is usual. The agent racket has not quite taken off. Best wishes.
Elle, this is remarkably perceptive, informed, and readable. I have often observed (including to friends who are in Big Publishing) that publishing desperately needs a talent scout model, rather than a platform model. Every time someone reads a hyped "must read" book that turns out to be boring crap, their willingness to read another dies, so sticking with Big Names has its drawbacks (and it isn't good for society, but that's not publishing's concern). And don't get me started on how many zillions of Black authors have been self-publishing for years in the South (I've met them, as a fellow self-published pariah at book fairs. They are still being ignored, despite having so much to offer. I'm considering popping my fiction onto my Substack, hoping to build on my small but enthusiastic following for the existing books. But I'm encouraged that I'm not alone in giving a go. :)
Very useful and informative. Definitely seems to that since it is incumbent on writers to build their own audience, publishers are more like late stage venture cap funds jumping on board only after previous rounds of funding have established some proof of concept. Alas, that seed funding now comes either from the author’s own pocket or from a dedicated band of passionate followers.
I was on the fence about where to post a work-related memoir that I'd written. I considered serializing it but wasn't sure if/where I could do that. Then I read your article, and it helped me so much, especially the section enumerating why you specifically chose the substack platform. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I ended up going the substack route myself, and have posted a few chapters already.