Random Brain Cells Firing on “No one buys books anymore”

Bob Mayer
5 min readApr 27, 2024


Terry Gilliam

This is the title of an article making the rounds in the writing world based on Elle Griffin taking a dive into the results of a book about the testimony of industry insiders on the Random House-Simon Schuster merger. It’s an article well worth reading and well written.

I’m seeing a lot of chatter about it, much of it negative about publishing. Also, a bit of despair from a number of writers.

So the few brain cells I have left started nudging each other and here are a few random takes from my 34 years of making a living as a novelist. I am traditionally published, indie published, hybrid and also published by an Amazon imprint, which means I’ve seen the gamut. I’ve hit bestseller lists in multiple genres and also received quite a few “no thanks” on the option for my next book which in publishing means I’ve been fired a number of times as an author. Which, in the long run, turned out to be quite lucrative.

1. Nothing new. Really. I’ve heard the same stuff forever. A handful of big names make most of the money. I remember early in my career an author taking Stephen King’s last advance and dividing it into how many other authors it could sustain and it missed the point entirely. King does support many other authors. He makes the money that allows his publishing house to take chances on new authors.

2. There is no magic formula. Yes, they are throwing tens of thousands of books against the wall, hoping a couple stick. It’s the entertainment business. That’s an oxymoron. Entertainment is emotion. Business is logical (supposedly). No one really knows what makes something go viral.

3. Traditional publishing is not filled with fools who don’t know what they’re doing and the system needs to be revamped. I’ve worked with mostly brilliant people who love books in the trad world. They are running it the best way possible given the previous point. Having run my own small indie imprint for several years, I’m amazed they make any money at all. They all work very, very hard. That said, they are getting squeezed tighter. Mostly for time. It takes much, much longer now for agents and editors to look at material. I’ve always described publishing as slow and technophobic. They are even slower now. While the world is moving faster.

4. How many books sell how many copies, yada, yada isn’t really as telling as you think it is. Copies isn’t money. Money is money. There’s a good and bad side to this. The good side? There are always subrights. Foreign rights. Audio rights. Every author needs multiple income streams. The bad side? Many struggling authors drool over a $100,000 advance. But here’s the reality of that: take 15% off the top for the agent. Take off taxes. Divide by how long it takes you to write the book. Add in the uncertainty of whether you will get another contract.

5. As far as technophobic, trad publishing was slow to take up eBooks. In fact, they viewed eBooks as a threat. I rode the golden wave of the indie movement and that was sweet. When indie authors owned kindle and Bookbub ran one of my ads every month.

6. I submit that what isn’t being talked about is how a very important revenue stream for trad publishers is now eBooks. How the worm turns. Especially given the high prices on something that has minimal overhead. Over $10 for an eBook? Really?

7. Which leads me to the great secret: the #100 bestseller in Romance in Kindle right now is #169 overall on Amazon Kindle. And over 90 of those romance titles are indie. Priced at $5.99 and below, usually below $4.99. And, in Kindle Unlimited (KU), the Netflix of publishing which trad publishers fear.

8. Which leads me to the big lie: eBooks sales are going down. I’ve heard that for the past ten years. If it were true, there would be no eBooks left. The only entity that knows the true number of eBook sales is Amazon and they aren’t telling. No one is counting my indie sales. And all those other millions and millions of pages read in KU. I submit eBook sales are always going up. KU pages read constantly expanding shows that.

9. The problem for trad publishers, and somewhat for indies, is we get paid a LOT less for KU than a book sale. A $4.99, 100,000 word/400 pages novel gets around $3.49 per sale for the author. If the entire book is read in KU, it pays the author $1.66. Less than half. However, at least for romance, the voracious readers and movement up the bestseller list due to volume more than makes up for it. When Jennifer Crusie and I went into KU recently with our Liz Danger series, our sales increased 20 times.

10. Notice I said above that not getting my option renewed on contracts turned out to be lucrative? Because I got the rights back and republished a number of my titles as indie. My Area 51 series sold over a million copies at Random House, but through persistence (read, being obnoxious) I managed to snag the rights back. That original series, supplemented with new titles, now generates nice monthly income. The lesson: nothing is all good or all bad in publishing. A rejection is an opportunity to do it differently.

My recommendations?

1. Read the stats, shrug, then do your own thing. We’re all unique as authors. What works for one author isn’t going to work for you. You are not a statistic.

2. Content is king. There is way too much emphasis on marketing rather than content among authors. Sometimes gimmicks work, but they’re not sustainable. What is sustainable is good content over time.

3. Have multiple sources of income. If you are a midlist trad author you have to be working on getting some indie titles out there and becoming hybrid. Indie titles generate income forever. Trad titles, as the article notes, rarely earn out their advance. Once you cash that last advance check, that’s it.

4. A number of military schools I went to, such as West Point or Special Forces Qualification, would start with an instructor telling us “look to the left, look to the right, one of you won’t be here in X number of weeks”. And my thought was always, well tough look to those guys. It never occurred to me that would be me. You need, as Terry Gilliam, says, “mule-like stupidity” to succeed in the arts world. A belief in yourself that defies reality.

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Bob Mayer

West Point grad; Special Ops Vet; NY Times bestseller of over 80 books; for free books and over 200 free downloadable slideshows go to www.bobmayer.com