By Mark Coker, Smashwords
Welcome to my annual publishing predictions where I reflect upon the state of the indie nation and make predictions for the year ahead.
Also, don’t miss today’s companion post, my annual Smashwords Year in Review and Preview for 2022.
How has the pandemic changed the publishing landscape? What does a post pandemic world look like for indie authors and publishers? How has the pandemic changed readers’ relationship with books? I’ll explore these and other questions as we look ahead to 2022.
As I prepare to press publish on the last day of 2021, Covid infections are hitting record levels. A New York Times headline from yesterday screams, “Meltdown!” as Omicron infections surge to record levels, causing temporary staffing shortages across multiple sectors of the economy.
Equally concerning, deep rifts have formed during the pandemic over the nature of reality. These disagreements have strained relationships with friends and family, and amplified social and political divides. It seems everyone is feeling some measure of anger, fear, hurt and resentment.
Yet amid this chaos and conflict, I see reasons for optimism. Evidence is mounting that the Omicron variant causes less severe infection. And early research out of South Africa this week found that the antibodies created by the body’s immune response to Omicron may confer partial protection against prior, more deadly variants. If further data confirms these findings, it means we’re much closer to the end of this pandemic than the beginning.
The State of the Indie Nation
It’s impossible to separate the state of the indie nation from the state of humanity.
Unless you’re a maker of vaccines, respirators, or caskets, it’s difficult to find a silver lining in the biologic, psychologic and economic trauma that has been Covid.
You’re an author and publisher, but you’re a human first. This experience has affected you, too.
Those of us who survived this pandemic will live out the rest of our lives in the shadow of its memory. All of us will carry some level of anger, anxiety, resentment, and sorrow we’ll need to overcome before we can feel normal again. Any one of these distinct emotions can be debilitating all by itself. In combination, the path to emotional recovery is even steeper.
Herein lies the opportunity for indie authors.
One common quality I observe in fellow authors is the ability to feel deeply. Authors and publishers are an extension of humanity’s nervous system. We help humanity see, feel, and understand. Many of you are empaths. Empathic sensitivity is a superpower for writers. It can also be your kryptonite when you take on others’ pain as your own. Now you will tap into both.
Millions of readers turned to books to help them cope with this pandemic. Your books provided readers comfort when they needed comfort, companionship when they were lonely, distraction when they needed distraction, and a smile when they needed a smile.
Your work has always been important. In the year ahead, your work becomes even more important.
Between now and the time this pandemic finally sputters to a close, humanity will re-emerge from its collective bunkers, eager to reconnect with the world but feeling wounded and disoriented from their experience.
Humanity is in need of healing. People will look to books to assist their spiritual and emotional recovery. They will need books that give them hope and inspiration. They will need books that help make sense of the world. Books that help them feel normal again.
You are the creator of books. You have a critically important role to play in the healing to come.
Now on to the predictions.
Mark Coker’s 2022 Publishing Predictions
Book consumption remains robust – As we enter the third year of the pandemic, millions of readers have become re-habituated to the joys of reading. Habits are difficult to break. After two years of spending more time reading and less time outside the home engaged in other activities, the habit of reading will stick as life returns to a new normal. Both print and digital (ebooks and audiobooks) formats will see solid sales in 2022.
Books become more important than ever – During the pandemic, readers found much-needed comfort, distraction, recreation, and value in books. Books are a healthy salve to numb the feelings of isolation and anxiety during pandemic life. Your readers after the pandemic might be the same readers as before the pandemic, but what they need from your books may change in subtle but important ways.
Books that heal will sell well in 2022 – Healing will be a major underlying theme of 2022. After two-plus years of pandemic living, every human with a pulse will be working through some form of post-traumatic stress. Books that bolster emotional well-being will be in higher demand. I’m not just talking about non-fiction self-help about overcoming grief, or books on spirituality. Fiction is a powerful vehicle for healing too, and it doesn’t matter if you write sci-fi, thrillers, romance, or erotica. Put yourself in the shoes of the emotionally wounded. Imagine the stories that will inspire or give hope and understanding to those who’ve suffered through the emotional trauma of the pandemic. Give your characters these same challenges, and light the path for them to overcome these challenges (or not!). Make it real. For ideas to incorporate into your stories, you can burrow into your readers’ psyches by studying the science behind grieving and PTSD, and the recovery options for each.
Indies will publish tomorrow’s post-pandemic classics – With over 150,000 writers in the Smashwords stable, I’m confident many of you have the talent to pull this off. You’re a first person witness to a once-in-a-century calamity. You have a unique perspective. When tragedies strike, writers rise to the occasion to help us make sense of it all, or at the minimum, to record for posterity what life was like during this time. From this trove of writing fodder will emerge new classics that future historians will label as the definitive accounts of this period of the Great Covid Pandemic. You’re living history, now take the challenge to write it. Write that classic in your genre and you’ll be the writer readers read long after we’re all gone. How’s that for immortality?
More book buying shifts online – During the pandemic, the shift to ecommerce accelerated. More consumers shifted more of their consumption from physical retail to online across multiple categories of products, ranging from groceries to automobiles to books. Many of those customers will continue transitioning more purchasing to online. This bodes well for indie authors, since your books have democratized access to the virtual shelves of online retailers and library ebook platforms. This then will further level the playing field between indie publishers and traditional publishers by negating the brick and mortar retail advantage that is now the primary domain of large publishers.
More authors embrace print on demand – With print on demand (POD), your book is printed after the customer orders it. POD offers myriad advantages to authors, publishers and readers. For authors and publishers, single-copy prints and small print runs are economical. POD eliminates the need to pay for and carry unsold inventory, and your book never goes out of print. By offering your book in print as well as digital, you increase the accessibility and desirability of your book to readers who prefer print, or who want to purchase both. Indie authors have historically made print publishing a secondary priority to ebooks. POD’s setup expenses, which for most indies involves additional investment in graphic design and interior book design, do make the current state of the art in POD more costly than the low-cost and simplicity of ebook publishing, but this is changing as the technology improves. With more book buying shifting online, POD makes more sense for indies than ever, especially considering that 75% of book sales by dollar volume go to print.
Auto-narrated audiobooks – At Smashwords, we’re big fans of audiobooks, which is why we formed our partnership with Findaway three years ago to handle audiobook production and distribution for our authors. Yet the cost of professional audiobook production is still out of reach for most indies. Even bestselling indies find it cost-prohibitive to invest the thousands of dollars it takes to produce a professional audiobook. Wouldn’t it be great if you could click a button to convert your ebook into an audiobook? That day is not far away. Auto-narrated books have been around for a while. The Daisy Consortium, which oversees the epub standard, has done a lot of great work over the years on what they call “talking books,” drawing upon Daisy’s roots as an organization committed to making books more accessible for the vision impaired. Yet their synthetic voices are still first-generation, not much better than Stephen Hawking’s synthetic voice. Now the second generation is coming. Thanks to artificial intelligence advancements in text-to-speech technology, it’s now possible to create more natural sounding audiobook experiences for customers at a fraction of the cost – for free, actually. In December 2020, Google previewed what they call, “Auto-narrated audiobooks,” a free solution that allows ebook authors to convert their ebook into an audiobook. Authors can select from a range of different narration voices and styles. It’ll be interesting to see if other major ebook retailers follow Google’s lead. While Google’s technology isn’t perfect, it’s still quite impressive (listen to samples here). And because it’s all based on rapidly-improving technology, we can expect the quality you hear now will improve dramatically in the next few years.
By the end of 2022, most writers conferences resume – Writers conferences provide an essential service to authors. Conferences are where writers learn essential best practices, make industry connections, and find community with fellow members of their author tribe. With most conferences canceled or on hiatus the last two years, it’s created a knowledge void, especially among newer indies who are still learning the ropes. It created a void of community as well. Writers need other writers. By the latter half of 2022, more writers will feel safe enough to mix and mingle in large crowds, thereby allowing more conferences to resume normal operation.
Scribd goes public in 2022 – In July 2021, Bloomberg News broke a story claiming Scribd was planning a billion-dollar initial public offering for as early as late 2021. That didn’t happen, and I have no inside knowledge as to the timing of a potential IPO. However, I do have insight into Scribd’s historical sales volume for Smashwords’ books. For years here on the blog and elsewhere I have celebrated their impressive growth. I’m excited about this potential IPO, not just for what it means for our well-deserving friends at Scribd, but also for what it means for our authors. By going public, Scribd will amass a war chest of cash to invest in their business to the benefit of indie authors. Readers who’ve read my prior analysis on Scribd’s subscription model vs. others know that Scribd’s model is more author-friendly. Good luck, Scribd!
Spotify enters ebook market – File this under long-shots. In November, Spotify entered the audiobook market in a big way by acquiring Smashwords partner Findaway, citing, among other things, the work they do with indie authors. One of Findaway’s missions is to offer a more author-friendly alternative to Amazon’s Audible, which has come under fire in recent years for their treatment of indie authors. With Spotify making a commitment to bring audiobooks to their nearly 200 million paid subscribers, they’re one simple step away from entering ebooks too, if they choose. Spotify’s current focus is audio. If they do enter the ebook market (they’d be smart to acquire Scribd, which would make them an overnight force in ebooks), it will reconfigure the power balance in the market. Such an entry would make the book content of indie authors more valuable than ever, since lower cost indie ebooks are what make the subscription model viable. As an indie author, you want your work to be recognized as valuable, because your value gives you leverage to grow and protect your publishing business.
Subscription takes more market share from single-copy sales – File this one under things that are already happening, but will pick up steam in 2022. Just as print, audio, and ebook are three great consumption formats for books, subscription is a great consumption method alongside single-copy purchases. In the long run, I think subscription will become the most popular consumption method among power-readers, much in the same way streaming media services such as Netflix have supplanted DVD purchases and rentals.
Indie content is king in 2022 – Any retailer or subscription service that wants to be competitive in the ebook market faces the same challenge: how to lower the cost they pay for ebooks so they can offer more reading pleasure to their customers at less cost. Since indie ebooks are priced much lower than traditionally published ebooks, it means indie ebooks will continue to be of high strategic value to every retailer, especially to the subscription services. Every major retailer or subscription service has strong incentive to forge closer relationships with indie authors.
That’s it for my 2022 predictions. I hope these predictions stir your imagination and give you productive ideas for your publishing business in 2022. What are your predictions? Please share in the comments below.
On behalf of the entire team at Smashwords, we wish you, your family, and everyone in our indie community the best of health, happiness, and prosperity in the year ahead.