I’m putting on my input and futuristic hat, and this post is going to make people mad.
The collapse of the traditional book industry for fiction is coming.
It’s probably in the next 10-20 years, though with change moving faster and faster, it could come sooner. There are some other events coming into play like Ai writing that may change the dynamics, depending on how fast they move and how the publishers react (or don’t).
It’ll feel abrupt, but the seeds have been there for decades.
It started in the 1980s. Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes about the events that occurred during that time in Lessons from Writing the Fey. It’s a horrifying read. I was trying to finish my first novel then. If I’d gotten caught up in the craziness, it might have hit me at the wrong time and broken my writing.
Grocery stores were a major source of book sales, picked by the regional managers based on their location. Like mysteries sell well in Washington, DC, and there are states where Westerns sell well. This formed the mid-list and allowed writers to produce books that readers enjoyed and develop skills to be a better writer. Those new skills turned them into best-selling writers when one book took off nationwide.
But a major grocery chain decided it was more cost-effective to buy the books at the corporate level. We saw this thinking in a lot of places during that time. Television studios decided to focus on a very narrow demographic and canceled TV shows doing well because they didn’t fit that demographic. Movie industries started doing sequels because that was a built-in audience (Star Wars probably helped that along with the blockbuster movies. I’m sure the studios envisioned every sequel being a blockbuster).
The result gutted the mid-list. Publishers expected writers to be a bestseller with their first novel, mirroring what was happening in Hollywood. Anyone get hooked on a TV show only to have it canceled three episodes later? Yeah.
So a lot of writers wrote a few books, got dropped by the publisher, and disappeared.
And the publishing industry stopped making writers who built up skills to be a bestseller.
The first change I noticed was V. C. Andrews. I read Flowers in the Attic when it hit the bestseller list. It was like watching a car accident in slow motion. Horrifying and mesmerizing. But when I picked up later copies of the series, they weren’t the same.
The author passed away. Her estate hired a ghostwriter.
After that, it was Vince Flynn, who I met at the first ThrillerFest. Other writers have continued his Mitch Rapp series. He still gets top billing in a book published last year, like a best seller, but another writer wrote the book.
Clive Cussler also stepped back and spawned several series with his name on them and a different author writing them. His son Dirk Cussler has taken up the torch for the flagship series, Dirk Pitt, after his father’s death. All the series are still publishing, with Clive Cussler’s name prominent, books by someone else.
I was a fan of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt books. When he switched to the ghost writers, I tuned in for a few books. They were okay. But with his name on the cover, I expected Clive Cussler, and I didn’t get books that felt like him. It was more than a formula to check off. There was a personality I’d come to expect from his books that wasn’t in those.
These types of books are spawning everywhere. Lee Child is the latest. Vince Flynn ventured into it (and thankfully didn’t stay long). They’re like making a copy of a copy. After a while, the good gets diluted from what originally made the story marketable.
These best sellers built their skills in the early 1980s. Most of the writers you see on the fiction best seller shelves are those writers.
Not new writers.
Oh, sometimes a new writer might surface as a bestseller. But if the second book doesn’t do well, the writer disappears.
Those bestsellers who built their skills in the 1980s are in their sixties and seventies. As they retire or pass away, there’s no one to replace them.
All these various mergers, including the one that got derailed by the courts, are a sign of the problem. Businesses run into trouble, so they buy other businesses that look successful. It sustains them for a while, but eventually bad business practices will catch up. Sears and K-Mart are an example of this. Sears used to be a Fortune 500 company.
The publishing industry is remarkably short-sighted, and I think glaciers move faster. They may already be too far past the tipping point because no one bothered to ask, “What if we run out of best sellers?”
It’s not just age; it’s also the quality of the writing. (Of course, the two may be related.)
I’m thinking of a particular historical Romance author. Her early books (first published in the 1990s) were delightful – depth to her characters, and she seemed to pay attention to historical standards of behavior. (Of course, “standard” doesn’t mean everyone everywhere all the time, but it does mean that characters who vary from the expected standard should face social consequences.)
Her more recent books feel…thinner, for lack of a better word. Her characters all sound alike from one book to the next, and the characters even the same exclamations of surprise.
In other words, they’re all sounding alike, and what’s the point of buying a new book if it’s just going to be a retread of a previous book?
Thought-provoking post – especially when you consider that the standards for “best-sellerdom” have changed. As few as 5,000 sold copies of a book can land the writer on the best seller list these days…
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It might be series fatigue. This is a big problem for anyone traditionally selling. The publishers are extremely risk adverse. Writers can get tired of writing long term series, possibly even burning out on it, but the publisher won’t let them try something new because the series is still selling.
Or it could be that the writer hit a certain status and decided they don’t need to learn anything else. I had a writer I would have read forever, except she did that. Her writing skills have atrophied.
Another possible cause is a fight with the publisher. This does show up in the writing. I have a favorite author I’m reading (a mystery with some futuristic aspects). The last four books are aren’t definitely not what I would come to expect from her. I’m hoping the next one will sort that one out (she changed her publisher; just not sure how many are in the pipeline).