Paging through the Future: Some Predictions for 2013

I was led by the crowds at my local B&N last week to believe that Barnes & Noble had been doing well. But apparently, the nation’s largest bookstore had a dismal holiday season.

What’s more, sales of its Nook are disappointing. Now, the Nook is a great device. But people are apparently drawn more to the Kindle and the iPad.

This is a shame. No one wants bookstores to do badly, least of all writers like me. And no one wants e-readers to do badly, either, especially if they help support bookstores.

But publishing is in difficult times, despite some big hits like 50 Shades of Grey and various young-adult titles. And despite the rise of self-published authors who are, increasingly, finding an audience on their own. (And who are increasingly courted by the very publishers who have turned down their books until these very same self-published books do well! Then publishers come with offers.)

Now, I’m not a prognosticator. Nor am I a futurist. Nor am I, like my friend and colleague Michael R. Drew, the author of Pendulum, an expert on social change and societal moods. But I’m going to venture to put forth a few thoughts for this newly launched, odd-numbered year.

1. More young-adult fiction will find an audience. In fact, according to a report in Publishers Weekly, 55% of buyers of young adult works, meant for 12 to 17-year-olds, are actually 18 or older. The reason? Stories told in a rather straightforward fashion, with little postmodern trickery. Plus, they’re short and easy to read. People will choose The Hunger Games over the latest over-hyped literary darling.

2. More erotica will be self-published, then snapped up by desperate publishers looking for the next 50 Shades of Grey. This has already begun to happen. Erotica has always been around, and won’t go away – what’s new is that the self-published author of erotica now doesn’t have to worry about sending out manuscripts to uninterested and lazy agents – they come to the author once the author’s self-published book sales show strength.

3. Agents are going to be increasingly relying on bestselling self-published books to find new authors. Forget the old query letter, the SASE and the manuscript. Forget the slush pile. Forget agents actually searching for something on their own. They’re going to look at lists of self-published authors helpfully compiled by Media Bistro and, perhaps other sites going forward. Agents are going to let the market speak to them to find fresh voices. Or even voices that, while not fresh, are selling.

4. Publishers will overpay for a book by a celebrity or hot media property only to have the book tank. This  is just one of those eternal verities: publishers pay too much for junk, simply because someone is famous. And then they have to eat that advance when the book sits on the shelves like rubbish waiting to be collected.

5. Self-publishing will become a more recognized option, rather than a last chance to see one’s work in print. Now that big media companies are actually reviewing a few self-published titles, there will be less dismissal of such works. Now, when the New York Times (or another national newspaper) runs lists of self-published books, we’ll know that the revolution has been won.

6. There will be more consolidation among large publishers. The Random House-Penguin deal isn’t the last one. Publishers will combine forces to fight the mighty Amazon. If you can’t innovate, consolidate.

7. E-book sales will continue to rise, but not at the same astronomical rates. There’s bound to be a leveling off, since how many tablets and e-readers can the market absorb? Still, sales of e-books will continue to grow. Paper-and-cardboard books won’t go away – but digital is the new everyday.

8. Nobody knows anything. Here, I refer to a statement by the screenwriter and novelist William Goldman, who said something to that effect regarding Hollywood. Nobody can predict what will be a hit or who will be a star. The same can be said of books, authors and publishing in general.

All I do hope for is that the industry, despite its turmoil, continues on. We need books, in whatever fashion.

Bob Hughes
Author: Bob Hughes
Robert J. Hughes ("Bob") was a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for over a decade, specializing in culture reporting. He was the paper's theater reporter, wrote on publishing, the art and auction markets, television, music, film and philanthropy, and reviewed books.