by Tess Gerritsen
You live and you learn. And what I’ve learned, over the past two decades as a writer, is how many times I’ve been wrong about developments in the publishing biz. When I go back and see old blog posts of mine, I have to either wince or laugh about how poorly some of my predictions have come out. Which only proves that too much of the time, I have no idea what I’m talking about.
But I’m willing to admit it.
Here are some of the things I’ve been absurdly wrong about. Or maybe just a little bit wrong about:
“E-readers will never be popular.”
I believe I made this assertion as recently as, oh, 2007. I said that no one would want to bring an e-reader to the beach, that we’re all too attached to real books, and that those gizmos were just too reader-unfriendly. But then I had a conversation with a Kindle zealot and, in September 2008, I bought one. And blogged about it. Not just blogged about it, raved about it. But I still didn’t see it taking over the publishing world.
“E-books will always be a small segment of overall book sales.”
Can I stop whacking myself with the wet noodle? I was so wrong about this, I want to blush. As Sarah Weinman writes in Daily Finance, e-sales comprised about 25% of overall sales for John Grisham’s latest novel. And they were more than 50% of overall sales for Laura Lippman’s recent hardcover release. I’ve seen the growth in my own sales, and the steepness of the curve, from last year to this, has been nothing short of breathtaking. The good news is that my total hardcover sales haven’t really declined because of it, which makes me think that many of those e-customers represent growth in overall readership. Or they represent readers who are buying both formats. I have absolutely no doubt that within the next few years, e-sales will make up 50% of the sales of most new releases.
“Piracy will destroy publishing.”
This past January, I blogged about how many of my books were turning up on pirate sites. I foresaw the same calamity falling upon publishing that fell upon the music industry. I worried about authors starving because too many readers would just swipe our work for free. I noted how many thousands of my books had been downloaded for free from sharing sites.
I think I worried about it for nothing. Because e-readers have become so popular, and downloading books has become so easy and for some titles, dirt cheap — that customers are bypassing those virus-ridden free-sharing sites and downloading books legally. The iTunes model, it turns out, works for books as well. It’s just a matter of keeping the books affordable and available. And if a reader steals one of my books? Well, I’ve come around to agreeing with publishing guru and author Joe Konrath: if the thief really really loves the book, maybe he’ll actually pay for the next one.
“Traditional advertising for books is the gold standard.”
By traditional, I meant the use of print ads in places like the New York Times and USA Today. But after an online conversation with marketing guru M.J. Rose, I was forced to re-think my position, which I blogged about here. And now, in 2010, I can tell you that I think print advertising is pretty much wasted money. For my last book, ICE COLD, no major print ads were bought at all. The advertising was pretty much all online, with two ad spots on television during the debut week for “Rizzoli & Isles.” I don’t think we’ll be going back to newspaper ads for the next book, either. Because why spend tens of thousands of dollars for an ad that will just be lining birdcages within 24 hours?
As for TV ads, that’s something else that authors should re-think. It’s cool, it’s glamorous, but for the most part it’s an expensive bust. Consider this fascinating article, which analyzes the effect of a TV ad on one author’s book sales. His conclusion: it’s a huge waste of money. Now in my case, this may not be true, because I was advertising on “Rizzoli & Isles, a television show that was built on my books. So I was playing to the same audience that already likes the characters. But if you’re just putting up an ad on a random TV show that has nothing to do with your books, you might want to think again.
“Self-publishing is a fool’s game.”
Back in 2006, I wrote a blog about how self-published books almost always fail. And I revisited the topic here. I’m not going to entirely back away from that stance, if what we’re talking about is print books. I still believe that if you pay to print your own book, you’re facing insurmountable odds when it comes to getting that book into stores, getting it reviewed, and finding any readers to buy it. But something drastically changed between 2006 and today, and that is the e-book revolution. Now you can self-publish your manuscript with Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and then sell it through their e-stores. True, you’ll face competition with all the thousands of other authors who are also self-publishing their books. But as Joe Konrath has proved, it is possible to make a living as a self-published e-book writer. Again, the odds are stacked way against you. But your investment is minimal, and there actually is the potential for an income.
Bottom line? If you’re a first-time author who’s been offered a traditional publishing contract with an advance, I would still say you’re better off taking it. Because you can’t dismiss the advantages that a real publisher can give you, from distribution to marketing to editing. But if you can’t find a publisher, or you’ve been fired by your publisher, there is now another way to sell your book to the public.
“The vampire/zombie/fairy/werewolf/blahblah craze can’t last.”
When it comes to trends in public taste, I don’t know what I”m talking about. And neither does anyone else.
So what have the rest of you been wrong about? Which trends did you dismiss, which developments did you pooh pooh?
To be honest, back in '96 or '97 if memory serves, I thought the Internet would be a passing fad. That was before I'd even heard of DSL or cable connections, and dial-up Internet drove me bananas. I thought, "How long are people going to deal with signing on, waiting for pages to load, and getting kicked off every fifteen minutes? And just to check movie times or talk in chat rooms? This is ridiculous."
I felt like the Internet was the biggest time-suck ever invented, and I couldn't wait for it to just disappear.
I'm an idiot, obviously.
I thought the internet would be a bust, too. I also thought that personal computers was a fad. But then, I wasn't the only one!
Wow! What have I been wrong about? Let's see, I told my father his computer would be a closet dweller, that no one would bother with something like that. Wrong! I thought the internet was for preppies. Double wrong!
Finally, I've learned my lesson, and I now believe that becoming a reader will be the conscious choice by the reader because of a connection to the author.
I have been wrong about so many things that by this point if I'd been around in Gutenberg's time I would've told him, "Yo, Goot-dude, who's going to want this crap of yours when you can buy a book that's been gorgeously illuminated by monks? I mean, seriously…"
However, the whole "Because why spend tens of thousands of dollars for an ad that will just be lining birdcages within 24 hours?" thing, which I've wondered about myself, has changed in my mind. I think we really need newspapers, as authors and as citizens–we need the good reporting, we need the book sections, we need the fourth estate to have a viable democracy, and they need advertising dollars to survive. But that's a subsidy to something that's important, not necessarily a good marketing investment.
Excellent blog, Tess.
I can't think of anything in the past (good lord I can barely remember the previous week) I've been wrong about but I HOPE I'm wrong:
-that the economy is going to get so much worse before we can fix it
-I've always joked about why I have hundreds of books in my home — in case the publishing industry collapses. I don't think it will but there may come a time when buying books will not be possible. I hope I'm wrong about that.
I'm very glad I'm not a trend spotter because I would be terrible. I agree with you, Tess, about the whole vampire/zombie/etc. thing. I don't get it but it's lasting longer than I would have expected.
I expected 'Rizzoli & Isles' to make it big, but I never thought the slash fans would dominate the fandom :). I admit I still have hope for Jane and Gabriel, and something unexpected, extraordinary for Maura.
I remember the discussion about illegal downloads – I still don't understand why people would even take downloads of any kind over the feel and smell of a new book, but that's me.
Also – that wasn't a book, but a movie – it's quite frustrating sometimes when you're a customer not in the US, and there are things you cannot legally download/purchase legally because of certain regional licensing. So much for living in the 21st century.
Nonetheless – thank you for this post, and congratulations on the renewal of Rizzoli & Isles!
Tess, you are refreshingly honest and humble, that's all I can say. Not many are willing to admit they're so wrong, and so publicly.
My two big worries about the publishing business–okay, three: The death of journalism; nothing to wrap the fish in/line the birdcage with/start the fire with; and that e-books for children means there will be no actual books to pass down to the next generation. So many of us, and so many of our kids, caught fire with reading because of a chance encounter with a good book, sometimes drawn in by a colorful jacket or illustration. How will that happen with tomorrow's children as easily?
Okay, this is taking a totally different turn but I was adamant that bottled water would never take off, that only an idiot would pay for something that you can get for free. 15 or so years later and I am totally paying for water that I can drink out a tap for free… go figure!
I completely agree that newspapers, and good reporting, are essential to society. I faithfully read two daily print newspapers front to back. But I question their value as a venue for book advertising. I think that advertising in the online edition of the NYT might be a better place to do it.
The ability to admit being wrong is one of the most intelligent, progressive things a person can do, which is why so few people do it. Kudos for opening your mind and being willing to learn, rather than closing your mind and defending mistaken beliefs, which 99.99% of the world does.
If I'm ever wrong about anything, I hope I have the same class that you do. 🙂
Kinda funny but I like watching trends come and go but especially come. Where do they come from? What makes them take off? friendship beads, disco, big hair, leg warmers, beta, 8 track, Pokamon cards, silly bands. In the adult world it's no different though. I watched the rise of frozen yogurt, coffee shops, and now tea shops. I'm pretty good at seeing the potential for a trend and when it's going to begin fading (usually not long after a potential new trend begins). I wouldn't give anything my nod of approval because that is certain death, but I do like the e-reader concept. The next generation…they'll just love books in a different format. They'll pass them along in a whole new way. Books didn't disappear with the advent of movies, TV, the internet. Things change, adjust over time, and when there is a viable, better system, tool…we adapt and move forward. Cars and wagons, side by side, wringers and clothes lines along side dryers. Not always bad, just different.
Going now to post a very funny but short video on my fb wall that is a comical look at print books and the electronic age. 😀 (If you're interested click my name and it'll give you the link.)
Joe, thanks for opening my eyes to the things I was wrong about!
Fascinating post. What have I been wrong about?
Just about everything, really…;-]
I remember seeing Bruce Springsteen in 1974 and thinking, he's great, but I think he's peaked. Many times since, I've thought, oh, it's too late for that, or that is through, and been wrong, so now I think twice before coming to that conclusion. Having recently seen the Boss, he still has it.
If we could have predicted the rise of the personal computer or the iPad, we'd all be Steve Jobs and rich, very hard to do. Accepting change (or "progress") is also hard. I have a difficult time accepting the death of TV as I knew it, and have resisted plugging into cable or satellite (I currently don't have a television). Sometimes I lament change and other times I embrace it — I love my newspapers, but do read news on line. I own a Kindle.
I do remember urging my law firm at the time to get on the web, that the web was the place to be, but wasn't sure why. How about Y2K though? Big bust.
Great perspective Tess, thanks for the frank insight.
Thanks, Tess, for an honest, insightful, and humble blog post. I'll be honest and say that, as a long-time fan of e-books (the first e-book I ever *purchased* was back in 2000 or 2001, when reading e-books meant a PalmPilot) and I'm not at all surprised that this market has taken off. Apart from the fact that we live in an instant gratification culture, where Amazon's "pick a book and start reading in 60 seconds" message is a seductive one, there are just so many advantages that come for everyone when the business model isn't built around shipping boxes of dead trees all over the place.
It'll be interesting to see how the world adapts to the more ephemeral nature of e-books. On a legal email list to which I belong, there's been a recent discussion about whether e-book collections can be willed to another person as part of an estate, for example. (The consensus seems to be that they can, but nobody was 100% sure.)
On the other hand, I never predicted that Twitter would take off as it has. And, I think that most of the people who say "oh, that will NEVER take off" or "oh, that could NEVER happen" wind up looking silly through the lens of hindsight.
"Mainstream authors will never take ebooks seriously…" 🙂
Gouchos. I should never have been photographed in gouchos.
When my students first started talking about Facebook in 2004, it never dawned on me I'd eventually have more contact with my readers through Facebook than any other forum.
Just . . . well . . . yes to all of them. The most astounding is the e-book/self-publishing trends. Right now I'd say that an author would be mighty foolish not to look at these options.
Tess – what a great and generous post.
The only things I haven't been wrong about are the ones you have:)
I've been wrong about a million things not internet or marketing related though:)
I was definitely wrong about Leg Warmers. I thought they would never become big and that there were just a few people wearing them. Not only are they big–but my friends have converted me to wearing them! I've gotten some great ones at: https://www.socks4life.com/search.php?mode=search&page=1&show=&q=leg%20warmers
What a great blog Tess.
It takes courage to stand up and point the way. It takes a whole lot more to admit you were pointing in the wrong direction. The e-book revolution and the growing legitimacy of self-publishing are taking a lot of people by surprise.
What a fantastic time to be a writer!
CJ, it really is a fantastic time to be a writer! Something I didn't predict ten years ago.
Leg warmers and gouchos and bottled water — I was wrong about those, too!
Tess – so funny – I love this post and discussion.
Polartec – I was certain that Polartec would fizzle away because wool is so superior… uh huh. Now I am wearing Polartec arm warmers. I know, so geeky, but they keep my muscles warm enough to keyboard for awhile.
Cornelia – "Goot-dude… " I love.
I didn't think I would ever enjoy ebooks. Life changes. I developed vision problems. The ability to buy an ebook and enlarge the type on bad days is a lifesaver. However, I believe the downward trend of ebook reader prices is the key factor in ebooks becoming bought by Joe Average Consumer. Now ebook readers jump in price when they add substantially more features. I wonder how many readers will be under the Christmas tree this year?
That said, I still love to touch a new book, smell the new ink, and hear that little crack when you open it for the first time. I will be one of those readers who ends up with a book in both print and digital form (and sometimes audio as well).. I never thought I would say that!
I remember being convinced that DVDs would never take off, you couldn't record on them like a VHS! Slowly my local video shop started to convert over to DVDs and now VHS has disappeared into the abyss… (and thank god I can now record TV on my dvd hard drvie thingy.)
I also thought Ipods would never last. Pfft. To this day I still don't own one. And don't even talk to me about blu-ray (that's so not going to happen)
I think I kind of struggle to embrace technology until it smacks me across the head. And yes I still have a couple of old VHS tapes in a drawer. Just in case.
Thanks for a great post, Tess.
there's nothing an author loves to hear more than a reader saying she'll buy the same book in TWO different formats!
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I was just telling a friend the other day how about a month or two ago I flew back to Cape Town from New York and had a book dilemma. I purchased two of your books (The Surgeon and The Apprentice) for the plane ride home, which was about 20 hours (including a lay over in Jo'burg). When I boarded the flight I had almost finished the first book and knew I would have ample time to start the second, however I did not foresee finishing the second book so quickly. If I had owned a Kindle/iPad I would have not had to consider luggage constraints when packing and would have not had to suffer the withdrawal one feels when you're really involved in a series and want only to be able to pick up the next book and continue reading.- I would have simply downloaded all the books onto one convenient machine. I now have an iPad!
I completely agree that newspapers, and good reporting, are essential to society.http://www.mygoodone.com
Tess, I greatly appreciate your insightful comments, not for what I've been wrong about- things like the internet, email, blogs and such, but for what I've been right about. I've been e-published for ten years and put up with a whole lot of derision and nastiness. But I made $9,000 last month. On ebooks. Only on ebooks. So I'm really feeling happy about that choice I made so long ago. And thank you for acknowledging it.
I was so wrong about e-readers myself. Who ever thought? They took so long to catch on. But I vowed never to buy one, as I love nothing more than the real thing. Alas, I will be getting one for Christmas. Out shopping, one day, I told my husband I wanted to check them out, since I do book reviews on my Web site. More and more people are having their books published in the e-book format, and I just don't have the time to sit at the computer to read them. Well, anyway, hubby, immediately offered to buy me the newest Kindle model for Christmas. And guess what? I can't wait, because I'll be trying out a lot of those free e-books Amazon offers, too!
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Tess, How courageous of you to post this. I'm embarrassed to admit how your list parallels mine. But I guess Bob Dylan got it right after all: "the times they are a-changin'." Thanks for sharing.