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How To Predict And Profit From Publishing Trends

How to Predict and Profit from Publishing Trends

Whether you're a firm fan of futurism or a little hesitant about where tech and other trends might be taking us, engaging with what's to come is important in sustaining a profitable business in publishing, as in any other field. Four women in our industry who have a keen eye for predicting future trends are Alliance of Independent Authors Director Orna Ross, Enterprise Advisor and futurist Joanna Penn, strategist for authors and publishers, Jane Friedman, and author success coach Becca Syme. Today, the AskALLi team asks them how they predict and profit from publishing trends–so you might do the same.

We can't predict the future with any level of guarantee, but we can make educated guesses. Some people are much better and much more accurate with those guesses than others. So we asked: How do they do it? Are there techniques and tools they can pass on? What are the main trend indie authors should pay attention to right now? But first….

Why Predict Trends Anyway?

In publishing, change is inevitable. We only have to look at the history of self-publishing to see that change is the only constant. In our industry, change used to happen slowly (nothing much between Gutenburg and desktop publishing) but that all changed in the twenty-first century, particularly when authors caught hold of self-publishing.

But not all aspects of the industry change at the same rate. Today, digital publishing technology fires fast change, accelerated by augmented intelligence tools. Other important changes, like popular tropes and trends in your genre, change more slowly. Cover styles vary across months and years. Business models seem to stay glacial but can then collapse or transform, e.g. the monumental difference made by Amazon Kindle and then Kindle Unlimited.

We are in the midst of exciting technological and social developments that are highly favorable to entrepreneurial authors.

Such authors want to run profitable businesses that are sustainable for the long term. If we can be ahead of the curve, or at least catch it as the change begins, we're more likely to succeed. We have seen many times how writers have been rewarded for early adoption of winning tech and tools.

Orna Ross on the Importance of Knowing What's Important to YOU

I look ahead because publishing books, especially publishing our own books, is hard–and knowing about innovative tools, emerging technologies, or new way of doing things might give us an advantage. Also, it's part of ALLi's job. As an independent authors' association, it's part of our remit to inform and update our community–the most forward-focussed, pioneering authors on the planet. We need to stay abreast and point up what's happening, as we see it.

So how do we know which trends are worth following and which are going to die a death?

For me, the process of future gleaning is much like that of writing. I get a twinge of excitement and follow that curiosity, all the while looking back as I look forward. Sometimes the industry feels frenetic and future-fired, but in other ways it can feel like nothing much has changed in a thousand years.

The past shows us how often a sure thing didn't happen and how the unexpected or unimagined can sweep in and take everyone by surprise.

Questions I always ask whenever anyone talks about a trend or tool:

  • Who will this impact the most? Is this truly about publishing books as an author, or is it something that only applies to third-party publishing?
  • What is this most likely to mean for us? (indie authors)

Once something has grabbed my interest, I'll read widely about it, not just non-fiction but stories and poetry too. I listen to oodles of podcasts, and always read people whose opinions and take on the world are different to mine. It's important to know your own biases. You don't have to change your lens on writing or life, but you have to be able to see beyond them, if you want to spot trends.

Once you know the sphere you and your readers care about, read everyone significant, especially independent voices, and ask yourself: what is the perspective here? How deep are they going? How wide? Are they thinking too small? Too big? (the big guys often overlook the little ‘uns, to their detriment). There are real advantages of having an “outsider's eye” in more equitable worlds like digital publishing. People in powerful countries like the US or UK can be quite insular. Those on the margins are better at seeing crevices of advantage.
Observing the behaviors and platforms of ALLi's tens of thousands of members, listening to their concerns across the years, gives me context but anyone can digitally “spy” on any community these days. As an author, your creative skills are more highly honed than the average person. Bring those skills into understanding your corner of the publishing world and what it takes to succeed there.
Look around you. Wake up. Be curious. Learn everything you can about the things you care about.
Don't listen to every prediction or trendsetter, just to the people you most highly respect on the things that have most relevance for you. Lean into those and forget the rest. Niching is a publishing trend that is unlikely to reverse. The more you get to know your niche, the more you'll be able to trust your own sense of what's coming.

I would say that the main trend to pay attention to right now (besides working out which of the new AI-powered tools is of most use to you), is the shift in the economy from what business people call “B to B” (in our business, publishers to bookstores, via wholesalers and distributors) to “B to C” (publishers to consumers). Which in our sector translates as authors to readers.

If you don't yet have a transactional author website or Shopify store or equivalent, it's time to get one and start shifting at least some of your marketing in that direction. Many authors, seeing and feeling the changes happening around big tech, are going all in.

Publishing commentary tends to be a bit gloom-and-doomy. It always surprises me how many commentators overlook the most positive trends. More people are reading and writing than ever before. More people have access to publishing than ever before. Not everyone by any means, but both writing and publishing are less privileged than they used to be. (Prediction: that's a trend that will continue and self-publishing will be core to that).

Any author with good writing and publishing skills can make a living from their writing now, as never before. Look closely, experiment and explore, and soon you'll enjoy seeing your predictions come to pass and your publishing business reaping the rewards.

Jane Friedman, co-founder of The Hot Sheet

Jane Friedman on the Importance of Inputting Everything

Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in business strategy for authors and publishers. She’s the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, a paid newsletter for authors, and has previously worked for Writer’s Digest and the Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2019, Jane was awarded Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World; her newsletter was awarded Media Outlet of the Year in 2020.

If you want to notice or predict trends, it helps to be curious about new tools and technology, rather than resistant. Of course, it's normal to fear change, and not all change is good, but an open mind is a requirement. On the flip side, it remains important to be skeptical and apply critical thinking. Many businesses or startups want to sell you on their vision and have enormous self-interest in “predicting” a future that makes them rich.

I subscribe to hundreds of newsletters and media sources, which is important for getting out of the writing/publishing bubble, and seeing the bigger picture. I read thought leaders and authors I don't agree with, because if you want to see what's coming down the road, you have to be able to set aside your own biases and anticipate you have blind spots. If you're giving yourself a consistent diet of critical information and analysis, you can feel the winds shifting or you can notice patterns over many months, even years—what practices or businesses are growing increasingly challenged, and where growth and opportunity lie.

Finally, anyone who wants to predict the future needs a strong handle on the present and past conditions of the industry. Too many people who think they know what's going to happen in the future don't even understand the business model of publishers or authors. So if you want to predict the future, then I suggest knowing how we've reached the point we're at today and why some things have been so slow and difficult to change.

ALLi Advisor, Joanna Penn

Joanna Penn on the Inevitability of Change

Joanna Penn writes non-fiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F.Penn. She’s an award-winning podcaster and creative entrepreneur. Find out more about her on her website.

I start by following my curiosity. For example, when DeepMind's Alpha Go AI beat Lee Sodol at the game of Go in 2016, it sparked my curiosity because one of the moves was considered ‘creative.' That started my interest in how AI might impact the creative arena. I started reading books about AI and creativity, like The Creativity Code by Marcus du Sautoy, and interviewed him on my podcast to delve further.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

This initial interest led to other books, like AI Superpowers by Kai-Fu Lee, The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly, and more. When I discovered an author, I then listened to podcasts, followed them on Twitter and started to curate lists of people commentating in the area, as well as subscribing to newsletters. I also attend events like Wired Smarter and other future-focused live sessions.

All of these fragments of information and opinion represent signals which amplify over time as I synthesize them and consider how they might impact authors and publishing.
Change seems obvious to me because I dive deep into these areas of other people's knowledge and, if possible, I play with the technology. For example, when OpenAI released GPT-2 (which generates text) I knew this would have a huge impact on writers, and found ways to try out the tool for myself, talking to others playing in the space.
My biggest recommendation is to lean into your curiosity, adopt an open attitude of play and experimentation, and learn from others through books and other content.
I curate a lot of this in our industry here.
The over-arching trend for indie authors, and jobs in the wider world, is the growing adoption of AI tools in many spheres. In the last few years, we've seen tools for AI-generated text, art, and voice for narration. Authors have always used tools, and those who embrace them in the future will find it easier to shift into the next iteration of digital creation and commerce.

Becca Syme, Success Coach

Becca Syme on Coaching Writers and Seeing Trends

Becca Syme holds a master’s degree in transformational leadership and has been a success coach (primarily utilizing the Gallup Strengthsfinder®) for almost fifteen years. She’s coached 4,700+ individual authors and creatives through her Write Better-Faster and Strengths for Writers classes & coaching cohorts: six- and seven-figure authors, major award winners, midlisters, and new authors alike. Becca is the host of the YouTube QuitCast channel and a mystery author. She lives in the mountains of Montana. You can find out more on the QuitCast.

My future gaze is usually based on trying to make the industry more sane because I am also a writer and I have to live and work inside whatever we create together. Anxiety makes us act crazy, and uncertainty increases anxiety. So almost all of my future gaze is about trying to bring more certainty to a frenetic industry so we can all understand the rules and know how to have more success. This makes the industry feel more stable and makes me feel more stable.

Because I individually coach more than 120 hours a month, I get to see a vast amount of the industry on a very personal level. I also group coach somewhere between 50 and 70 people four different times a month. All-told, I see a huge variety of the industry on such a regular basis, I think it's easy to see patterns when I'm looking at the actual lives and platforms of authors. This volume allows me to see things pretty quickly. And I usually go through periods where I hear it all day long for days in a row and then think, “ok, I've been ignoring this long enough.” And then I take my life into my hands and talk about it on the Quitcast, which either confirms what I've seen, or makes me think we still need to wait a bit before we have the collective conversation.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

If you want to future gaze, pay attention to the people who are named in this article. Before I started coaching and could hear the trends for myself, I was listening to these women and trying to adjust my decisions according to what resonated about their advice. Not all of us are wired to look into the future and anticipate, but I think these women are. I value them for that.

My prediction at the moment is sustainability. 100%. We have to think about building sustainable businesses. Now that the gold rush is over, and the established industry is emerging (with more stable rules and basically no blue water), authors need to build businesses and processes that can be sustained, as-is. Or else we need to find support to replicate the process (which has a cost, and then needs to pay for itself).
It's no longer “rush to publish,” as all markets are flooded, but the good news is, there are still plenty of readers and indies have full access, so there are no barriers to long-term businesses other than sustainability. Things that expend too much of our personal time or our finances will be unsustainable. Building infrastructure around books that don't sell is unsustainable. I know that sounds harsh, but it's a basic principle of business that growth has to be sustainable or it will kill a business (either too much or too little).
That might mean making hard resource choices (like getting a part-time job when our income dips or waiting to leave a full-time job until we have 18 months of living and business expenses saved up, or saying no to an opportunity because you don't have the time), but it will mean better long-term viability. I know this is painful for some of us who came in during the gold rush and still haven't seen the take-off we wanted or were promised, but the sustainability reckoning is coming.
This means: don't build infrastructure around books that don't sell. Don't translate books that don't sell. Don't put books that don't sell into audio. Don't endlessly advertise books that have proven they won't sell. Don't do every new thing trying to make books sell that the market has, for the time being, rejected. Books can take off at any time and sell at any time, and you have a better chance of helping books sell in the long run if you write more entry points and keep focusing on writing books. Create a lean business until you see demand increase. Make the product the best you can and don't assume that books-not-selling says something about you or your talent. So much of selling is about timing. Focus on the writing and reserve “all the things” for when you know the product will deliver.


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