7 Embarrasingly Wrong Predictions about the Future of Books
Dumb literary projections from 2012
The year was 2012. I started a blog about the future of books with the compelling name BlaiseLucey.com. In November 2012, I wrote predictions for literature at a time when the Kindle had been out for just one year and the iPhone was barely three years old. Every single one of them was wrong. Expressed with full confidence at the time, I made these predictions when, during every morning commute on the subway, I counted the number of eReaders against print books, believing I was witness to a digital revolution in literature and unaware that both devices would vanish almost entirely in favor of the smartphone.
Ten years after these reckless prophecies, I want to revisit them. Here's what I said would happen in 2013.
1. Books are going to get shorter.
In 2012, I assumed writers would accommodate shorter attention spans by writing shorter books as more art went digital. Writers have done the opposite. A 2020 survey found that between 1999 and 2014 the average book length grew from 320 pages to 407 pages.
Rather than innovating in structure or length or distribution or communication to adapt books for a reader journey in a mixed media world, the publishing industry doubled down with fingers crossed. Who could blame them? There’s no measurable market value to making shorter books and digital literature all seems to be the same length.
As one article enthusiastically puts it:
There seems to be a growing demand for a longer narrative. This is increasingly evident across a variety of media…. the shortening attention span of people commonly reported in the media doesn’t seem to be applying to those who love a good tale. Getting immersed in a longer story has never been more popular.
The closest attempt at shortening books in accordance to digital attention spans may be James Patterson’s committee-written Bookshots, which were fewer than 150 pages and less than five dollars and assumed readers who prefer shorter novels would enjoy thinking of reading as something similar to firing a twelve-gauge or downing knowledge in one burning gulp. Upon the initial debut in 2016, Bookshots were described as an innovation to “sell books to people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media.”
As the website put it:
Let’s face it – far too many books are far too long. They start out great, but before you know it, you’re bogged down with characters you can’t keep straight, mind-numbing descriptions, and meaningless flashbacks.
Bookshots failed by 2018.
The website now warns visitors that the connection isn’t secure.
In 2021, a year after national lockdowns, Americans read fewer books than ever. Page length, possibly, doesn’t matter after all.
2. Writers will monetize books in new ways to keep readers engaged.
In 2012, I foresaw a rich world of pay-to-read chapters from independent authors, a second coming of serialization. I anticipated novellas and collections to accompany articles and media properties to be purchased, consumed, and shared by loyal readers. For example, I imagined:
Related content packages. Legacy publications like The New York Times would sell custom cookbooks on recipe pages or collections of old articles at the bottom of related contemporary pieces with slick new packaging, history books from news stories, interviews that were industry-specific, and more.
Monetizable content and merch. Indie authors would sell merchandise or digital experiences based off characters or settings to their most loyal fans to expand the experience across channels and devices.
Modular literature. Books would be disassembled and repurposed into modular parts to make them more agile in digital and print form and more marketable depending environment and audience.
These monetization strategies, which all seem pretty cool, remain underused likely due to the technical knowledge and resources and sheer time spent not writing for a return of a mostly apathetic readership that prefer to read the book and avoid any related experiences. One may point to Pottermore as the closest digital experience that gives readers the opportunity to dive into the world of Harry Potter and attempts to engage and monetize attention every step of the way.
3. Short stories will become a marketing tool.
In 2012, blog posts and bloggers reigned supreme. Micro-blogging sensation Tumblr saw 120 million visitors for a total of 15 billion visits a month. Next up: short stories. I believed that the ease of publishing and sharing would make it important for writers to share excerpts and free stories to attract an audience. This didn’t really go mainstream. The mass market for short stories died in the seventies and has stayed dead. As Stephen King describes his own short story career in his memoir, On Writing (2000):
From a financial point of view, two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin’ Donuts. The only edge we had came courtesy of magazines like Dude, Cavalier, Adam, and Swank. By 1972…fiction was on its way out, but I was lucky enough to ride the last wave. The stories I sold to the men’s magazines between August of 1970, when I got my two-hundred-dollar check for ‘Graveyard Shift,’ and the winter of 1973-1974, were just enough to create a rough sliding margin between us and the welfare office.
In predicting a rebirth of an extinct medium in 2012, I relied on the fact that people liked short stuff to read on the internet. I ignored the fact I myself barely read short stories, didn’t subscribe to short story magazines, and spent much of my time playing video games instead of reading.
3. Visibility from magazines & e-zines will be more important than cash prizes.
In one of my most unhinged predictions ten years ago, I decided that gatekeepers would be crucial to driving visibility and even used the term “e-zine.” Gatekeepers had scale and distribution. Getting in front of new readers by submitting to publishers large and small was critical. Unfortunately, I ignored the fact almost no publication has seen a growth in readership since the digital era. No one really knows how people decide to read what they read or buy what they buy at a bookstore. It’s still, after so many digital innovations, a very mysterious act of individual humanity. Some exceptions, like “Cat Person” (2017) are things that boil over on social media and actually create a writer’s career. But publications publish based on quality, not what’s trending, and have seemed to refuse to do anything else.
It isn’t necessarily visibility that matters to writers anymore. It’s audiences that keep coming back and invest in the creator as much as the content. Audiences that can be contacted by creators directly.
4. Publishers will acknowledge eBooks and come up with innovative ways to help authors.
Nearly 4 million books are published a year. Many are self-published and sell for a dollar or less. The loyal hybrid readers represent a black hole of opportunity for the book industry, the missing mid-market that made Jonathan Franzen famous after an Oprah recommendation and an apology for previously complaining about an Oprah recommendation. Mid-market readers are the ones that made genre-specific authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman famous and rich, not “book people.”
Contemporary mid-market readers are how an erotic fan fiction series based on Twilight sold 35 million books in 2012 and why today Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James is now worth $150 million. Signs for a radical reinvention of books and reading were very positive in the early 2010s. At the time, I thought publishers would see that and lead a renaissance.
Publishers defended print as more profitable and innovations got caught in bureaucracy and hierarchy that went stale two decades before Coffee Shop, New York City’s premier agent-writer destination, closed in 2018. Famous for late-night dancing parties and endless coffee pots, Coffee Shop opened in 1990 and lasted almost thirty years as an iconic neon wonder. It’s now a bank.
My 2012 prediction assumed an agility from entrenched industries facing an existential threat. As Amazon optimized the self-publishing paradigm and captured the mid-market reader, the traditional publishing industry over-indexed on catalogs of books focused on what the institutions believed to be “important conversations” frequently guilty of sacrificing plot in favor of literary lectures intelligible exclusively to degree-holding readers and self-sorting readers with identical values. Ebooks tempt all mid-market readers who only want a good story. The modern publishing philosophy is a mutation caused by ivory tower radiation, a belief that adaption to the way readers read is far from as important as making sure specific themes and messages are expressed in every book.
5. Writers are going to have to get used to all of this.
In 2012, I foresaw a wave of innovation that made us all rethink books and our relationship to them. Writers would have to ditch their penchant for isolation and actually advertise and engage to build their audiences. I explained how E.L. James built a following with fan fiction forums, Facebook, and book blogs. She originally put Fifty Shades of Grey on her website and published it with an independent publisher. Book blogs and their followers drove the series to eventually sell more copies than Harry Potter.
The publisher that James originally used, The Writers’ Coffee Shop, is a small, independent publisher. Primarily, publicity for the first iteration of Fifty Shades stemmed from book blogs.
Book blogs are useful tools for authors who are published, but haven’t really been marketed. Not many get that much traffic, but it’s still a good idea to search for bloggers with followings who would be willing to read your book.
It wasn’t until there was some pick-up of the novel – around January 2012 – that Vintage Books, a divison of Random House, decided to it up. So yes, Fifty Shades was more or less a self-publishing success… and it only took two years and three books
My prediction in 2012 was that writers would see successful models of eBook marketing and reader acquisition and repeat the formula. Book blogs would serve as powerhouses of influence and help drive book sales and reader retention and engagement. Kindle’s incentive programs would bless select books with overnight readership.
In the success stories of the early 2010s, I saw a bright future for books and writers. Other early adopters of digital books proved out my optimism that writers could adapt and thrive. Just take a look at the sci-fi short story Wool (2011) by Hugh Howey, which retailed at ninety-nine cents on release and sold 20,000 to 30,000 copies during the summer of 2012. This was obviously the new future of writers and readers. Literature as we know it would be disrupted for the better.
A decade ago, my predictions ignored the calculus of early adoption. Fifty Shades of Grey (2012) and Wool (2011) came out in the very first years of the Kindle (2011). Decent reads with target audiences who bought Kindles first, the books likely benefited from algorithm-powered recommendations and Amazon marketing teams tasked with capturing early eBook adopters to retain them. Today, in a sea of independent books, eBooks themselves have lost their luster.
Writers had a window to adapt and find a new audience in the eBook ecosystem, but relying on the algorithm only is like placing your book on a roulette table and spinning the wheel. The cream can sometimes rise to the top, as I saw with my friend Alec Hutson’s fantasy series when it became an unexpected hit from his dedicated following to Wattpad. As Alec explained to me:
It became readily apparent to me that my brand of epic fantasy – which, I will maintain, is actually the most popular style of epic fantasy today – was not in favor. Agents wanted grimdark or ‘non-European fantasy’. This, despite the fact you could click on any fantasy bestseller lists and see Sanderson, Martin, Rothfuss right at the top.
Today, writers don’t have to worry about adapting to the tides of technology. They just have to figure out how to reach an audience who wants to read their stuff. Audience, on any platform, is the rocket fuel for the algorithm that helps pieces break through the noise. My own prayers for the beneficence of Amazon’s algorithm went unanswered. Even with the intentionally clickbaited name “Technology and Culture Stink!,” my short story collection, published in 2013, proved my own predictions wrong just a few months into the New Year. That said, all four of the collection’s reviews are five stars.
Of Algorithms and Audiences
Fantasy author R.A. Salvatore always understood that the power of any book depends on the relationship to the reader, explaining:
Genre literature is literature, and I think that that word, 'literature,' is used as a bludgeon, because people spend so much time trying to prove that they're better than other people. C.S. Lewis said that the only one who can determine the relationship between a book and a reader, is the reader. I don't know what that word 'literature' means, and I don't think the people who wield that word know either. It is what it is, we do what we do, and no one should ask us to apologize for that.
Going into 2023 under the foreboding storm clouds of the book industry and AI writing tools, creators must make growing an audience an act of art in itself. Technology will keep changing, but relationships will not.
In 2012, I shared my final thoughts:
1. Don’t panic about the future of books. Adapt.
2. Short stories can be a serious potential tool in growing readership for your book. Write them. They’re fun.
3. Change is going to be violent and unpredictable for authors as traditional publishing houses and newcomers like Amazon & Apple clash.
4. Think about where your book will be published, how it will be read, and who will read it.
5. Keep writing, because your dreams of publication are an easy reality. It’s finding the readers and establishing yourself that’s the hard part.
6. Publishers have a huge opportunity to help writers establish themselves, but they need to redefine their notion of publication, just like writers need to redefine their notion of a book.
I’ve updated them with a 2022-style infographic.
If I’ve learned anything in these past ten years, it’s that creation creates community and community creates creation and creative consumption is always changing, but never gone.
Happy New Year and here’s to 2023!