Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Amazon Service Eliminates the Need for Authors (April Fools)

The following April Fools prank is a satire of the post-authorial apocalypse.  It's fiction, at least for now.

The publishing industry is reeling today after news broke this morning about Kindle Author, Amazon's new service that  generates high-quality fiction using complex software algorithms.

It’s like Build-A-Bear for ebooks. The reader tells Kindle Author what they want in a story, and then Kindle Author automatically generates the book .

In this post, I’ll explain how Kindle Author works and I'll share never-before-seen screenshots of the service.  I’ll explain the science that made this breakthrough possible, and then I'll wrap by discussing what this means for Smashwords authors and the future of publishing.

How Kindle Author Works

Kindle Author is a new option for purchasing ebooks in the Kindle store.  It's receiving heavy promotion on the Amazon home page, which tells me Amazon is making the service a strategic priority for their business.

Amazon has modified all book listings pages to discourage
customers from purchasing real books.  Click image to enlarge.
Amazon is also advertising Kindle Author directly on the book listings pages of all books in their store.  A customer visits the listing page for a book written by a real author, and Amazon encourages the reader to create and read a free Kindle Author book instead.

At left I show how Amazon modified the book listing page for Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James.  “Don’t want this book?" asks Amazon front and center on the page.  "Build your own for free with Kindle Author!" 

Amazon's overt move to redirect customers from human-authored books to machine-generated books is unprecedented, but it's not a huge surprise considering how other Amazon-exclusive books already receive preferential merchandising in their store.

When Amazon launched their ebook subscription service Kindle Unlimited, they modified their book listings pages to encourage readers to obtain the book for free as part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription rather than purchasing a regular copy.  If the customer obtains the Kindle Unlimited version of a book, Amazon pays the author a lower royalty. Good for Amazon and its customers, but not so great for authors and publishers.

Once the customer clicks to Kindle Author, they're presented with a simple point and click interface of pull-down menus and radio buttons.  It's quite easy to use.  It's even fun.  It’s like color by numbers, but with words.

Customers select story characteristics from among thousands of different options.  As you can see in my screen shots at left and below, some of the radio button options are a bit quirky, but this is probably deliberate because it makes for better fiction.

A reader can tell Kindle Author, for example, they want to read a medieval epic fantasy of two million words that involves kings, queens, princesses, swordplay, intrigue, castles, a sexy young mother of dragons, and a stainless steel throne made out of spoons and forks.

Look out, George R.R. Martin.  Game of Thrones has met its match.

Kindle Author gives readers the option of having the book written in the style of their favorite authors. That’s right, if you want your paranormal romance written in the style of Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac or Jane Austen, it’s yours with the the click of a button.

You can even choose to have public domain books rewritten in the style of other authors, or in a style that blends multiple authors.

If you want the King James Bible rewritten in the blended styles of the voice of God, Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins, and Charles Darwin, it's yours for asking.  It’s an absurd combination, but you begin to see how Kindle Author opens up myriad possibilities to create different and unexpected forms of fiction.

With thousands of user-configurable options, it’s unlikely any two readers would ever select the exact same combination of story options.  To prevent this from happening, Amazon built in creative story randomness so that two ordered stories derived from the same characteristics will be different.  No two Kindle Author books will ever be the same.

Once the reader makes final selections, Kindle Author compiles an intricate, well crafted, original full-length novel in an instant.  It takes between ten seconds and two minutes for the story to appear on your Kindle, depending on length and complexity, but who’s counting. It's lightning fast.

The Disruptive Business Model Behind Kindle Author

Kindle Author is free to readers who use it to generate their next read.  Each reader-generated Kindle Author book is automatically published into the Kindle store priced at $.99, and the reader is credited as the author and earns royalties of five cents per download whenever anyone else reads the book. All Kindle Author books remain exclusive to the Kindle store.

I think we're witnessing the future of authorship.

Soon, tens of millions of readers will begin publishing billions of high-quality, low-cost books written in the styles of the greatest authors of all time (and the greatest indie Smashwords authors too!).  The more readers read, the more they’ll publish and earn.  Lazy readers who don’t want to configure their made-to-order custom books can read Kindle Author books produced by other readers for $.99 each, or they can read them free as part of an Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Books generated by Kindle Author are almost pure profit for Amazon.  It costs nothing to produce each ebook, and the five cent per copy royalty to the Kindle Author reader is covered from Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited subscription fees, not to mention profits from Amazon’s other diversified lines of business.

After playing with Kindle Author, I’m blown away by the quality of the produced work.  I must admit I really like it, even though it's horrible news for human authors everywhere.

Judging from early customer reaction, I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for Kindle Author. 

It won't be long before we hear talk of Kindle Author millionaires - those readers who configure and create the new bestsellers of tomorrow.  Or today.  It's already happening.  At this very moment, ninety-eight of the top 100 bestselling books at Amazon are Kindle Author books, and the books are earning five star reviews on average.

Here are a couple reviews that caught my eye:

“I ordered a paranormal steampunk thriller featuring alien mongooses, blimps, trains and a Victorian clockmaker.  I was hooked from the first sentence and stayed up all night until I finished the last page.  Thank you Jeff Bezos. I love you!!!”

This next reader’s comments will chill the bones of publishers.

“When I first heard of Kindle Author, I was skeptical.  I thought it was impossible for a machine to reproduce the creative magic of my favorite authors.  Boy, was I wrong.  Now that I’ve read books *I* created with Kindle Author, I’m never going to buy another novel written by a human.  Human novels are so banal and tired compared to the mind-blowing experience of a Kindle Author book.  I don’t know how Amazon did it.  You need to try it to believe it!”

The Publishing Industry Reacts

The publishing industry, as you might imagine, is horrified by Kindle Author.  For authors and publishers alike, Kindle Author is what the post-authorial apocalypse looks like.

Several publishers are considering a class action lawsuit against Amazon.

The US Department of Justice has launched a preliminary investigation into Kindle Author on the grounds it may be anti-competitive, though legal experts expect the DOJ to side with Amazon since Kindle Author essentially pays readers to read books.  If the government can't prove consumers are harmed, they won't have a case.

For many authors and publishers, news of Kindle Author confirms the industry’s worst fear that Amazon is on a mission to commoditize books and turn authors and publishers into tenant farmers tilling Amazon soil.  Now Amazon is cutting out the author - the ultimate middleman - by making the reader the author.

But not all industry participants are so pessimistic.  At least two authors are excited by how Kindle Author will improve publishing.

Author avatar for Hew Howling
Hew Howling, a bestselling author, had this to say on his Howling at the Moon blog:

Critics of Kindle Author should stop their incessant whining.  I celebrate Amazon for this innovation.  Kindle Author drives a stake through the hearts of the tyrannical, gatekeeping, legacy publishing dinosaur blood-suckers in New York.  This is what publishers deserve for over-pricing their ebooks, underpaying authors and for believing publishers - not Amazon - should set ebook prices.  I commend Amazon for bringing customers the highest-quality ebooks at the lowest possible price.  Rather than attacking Amazon, Amazon’s competitors should innovate like Amazon.  If publisher books are so incredible, they can beat Amazon by paying readers to read their books, just like Amazon is doing now.

Joe Dothraki, a popular thriller writer I respect, and an outspoken advocate for self publishing, had this to say on his blog, The Newbies Guide to Amazon:

“Kindle Author is f****** awesome.  It will crimp my earnings in the short run, but business is business and this isn't a game for wimps.  Read the writing on the walls, folks.  First cave painters were replaced by monk scribes, then monk scribes were replaced by publishers, then publishers were replaced by indie authors, and now authors are replaced by readers.  As legacy authors, we need to evolve with the times by repositioning ourselves as readers.  I’m going to start reading more books than ever thanks to Kindle Author.  Kindle Author will increase my publication output to at least 30 titles per month.  That's 360 titles a year I'll be releasing.  For the first time ever, Amazon has made reading more profitable than writing. Thank you, Amazon!”

The Science Behind Kindle Author

Regardless of how you feel about Kindle Author’s impact on the publishing industry, it’s difficult to not feel smitten by the science behind this important advance in artificial creativity.

The story behind how Amazon made this happen is fascinating, and it all starts with the human brain.

Our brains are comprised of about 80 billion neurons, and these neurons transmit electrical impulses. Neurons in the human brain connect via synapses to form a vast neural network.  It’s from the complex interplay of these electrical impulses that humans gain consciousness, memories, desires, creativity, the biological wherewithal to breathe and reproduce, and the desire to read and write great stories.

Amazon, which operates the infrastructure that powers a lot of the Internet already,  realized the human brain is simply a massive computer network made up of these billions of neural nodes and trillions of synaptic connections.  When viewed in this light, it's not such a leap for Amazon to create a computer network that mimics the neurological processes associated with creativity in the human brain.

Jeff Bezos Challenges Amazon Engineers to Reinvent Books

Jeff Bezos gave his researchers an audacious challenge:  If DNA contains the genetic building blocks of information that allow a living organism to function, grow and reproduce, then why can’t we decode the DNA of story-making?  Why can’t we give birth to unique books that are every bit as diverse, interesting and mind-blowing as human beings themselves?  Let's not just equal the quality of human-written books – let's create better and cheaper books.  Let's reinvent books!

With that mandate, and operating the secret project under the code name of Project Elysium, Amazon’s researchers embarked on an ambitious project to deconstruct and map the genome of stories.

Prior to today’s announcement, many scientists believed it was impossible for computers to create aesthetically pleasing literature. Stories require massive complexity and nuance.  But like all complex problems, once you break the problem down into smaller pieces, the challenge becomes solvable.  And this is what Amazon did. 

To create better books, Amazon needed to do better than the human brain.  A single author writes from just a single brain.  What if Amazon could harness the power of many brains?  Amazon’s researchers decided to build a massive parallel computer network comprising 500 trillion virtual nodes.  To put this in perspective, it's the equivalent to the neural connectivity and creative horsepower of a hive mind of 50,000 interconnected human brains.  Amazon is creating the Borg of books.

Their next challenge was to teach the neural network the logic and illogic of human artistic creativity, and how to string words into stories that please readers.

Amazon’s researchers started by deconstructing the book into its essential components.  Leveraging their massive catalog of over five million titles, Amazon applied algorithmic spiders to scan and analyze the words of all the books.

Next Amazon hired thousands of underemployed English majors and MFA graduates who worked from home over the Internet.  These temporary workers were required to sign non-disclosure and non-compete agreements and agreed to not work in any writing field for at least 48 months.  This secrecy explains why rumors of Project Elysium never leaked to the press.  To further ensure secrecy, team members worked solo and only interfaced with their handlers operating out of call centers in India staffed by biomechanical engineers, software programmers, behavioral psychologists, endocrinologists, and mathematicians. Workers were never told the ultimate end-purpose of their work.

Amazon divided the literary workers into multiple groups, each tasked with exploring a different aspect of the book genome.

One group was tasked with mapping the sentence structures of 20,000 bestselling books and 5,000 cultural classics. Using computer-assisted cloud-based tools, the workers diagrammed the structure of each sentence of every book in excruciating detail down to the subjects, predicates, nouns, pronouns, participles, gerunds, infinitives, passive and active verbs, adjectives, interjections and adverbs, compound subjunctives, and reverse triple superlatives.  I'm an author and I don't even know what all these things are.

Another team analyzed the plots and subplots of each book, tagging each sentence's location and role within the overall plot structure.

Yet another team mapped the story’s tension, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph.

Another team mapped the evolution of each character's relationships with the other characters, and each character's backstory sentence by sentence.

Another team identified the 2,000 most common plots and subplot variations found in popular and literary fiction.

And another team documented and mapped story arcs, and tied key points in each major and minor arc back to the text locations.

Several thousand linguistic experts studied the words, patterns and rules of each book that served as the connective tissue to string words into coherent sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, sections and stories.  A team of mathematicians translated these rules into algorithmic equations that would enable the automated production of original books.

From this complex and multi-layered analysis began to emerge the basic building blocks of what makes a story a story.

But missing from the analysis was an understanding of the mechanics of successful storytelling.  What makes a story a great story from the reader's point of view?  How does a story gain spirit?  Where does reading pleasure come from?  For this, Amazon needed live human subjects, and they had millions of unwitting readers at their disposal in the form of Kindle owners.

Starting in early 2012, and unknown until today, Amazon secretly installed sensors around the edges of all Kindle devices.  These sensors capture the reader's temperature, heart rate, perspiration rates, blood pressure, vasodilation, and neuro-electric signals in real time, and then Amazon used these factors as biomarkers to monitor the reader’s emotional state.  With this data, they could identify when the brain released endorphins, the "feel good" chemical in the brain.  Amazon then mapped these emotional markers to specific page and sentence locations in the book, and then cross-correlated the hormonal responses across the same trigger points in millions of other books.

From this massive store of data, they were able to identify words, sentence structures, patterns, pacing, story lines, plots, and character interplay required to deliver massive endorphin releases to the reader's brain.  If this sounds like Amazon was aiming to create the books that act on the brain like heroin (and are equally addictive), you're right.

Leveraging the predictive patterns they discovered, Amazon created software capable of generating imaginative and original reader-pleasing books featuring fully realized characters and story lines.

It’s quite unbelievable how scientists, mathematicians, programmers, and English lit majors joined together to create better, cheaper, more addictive books.

What’s also interesting to me is every book’s creator – the reader – brings a different background, purchase history, and Kindle Author configuration, and this in turn shapes the characters Kindle Author creates for the book.  These characters aren’t two dimensional stick figures.  Instead, they’re multidimensional and always unique.  It's like they're truly alive.

Just as the stories of our own lives are shaped by the chance and random interpersonal interactions we have with other people we meet, the characters and story lines of Kindle Author books are shaped by the interplay of the story’s unique characters.  Not even the masterminds behind Kindle Author know how the story will end until their algorithms crank out the last word and period.

Traditional authorship feels quaint by comparison.  Will writers ever want to write another book when their works will fall so short of the new perfection?  Or will writers begin using Kindle Author as a tool to amplify their true potential?  Only time will tell.

The final thing I find difficult to believe is that I chose April 1st to share this unbelievable news with you.

April 1st is a day more commonly known as April Fool's Day, a day for pranks.  My apologies to anyone who was fooled by this blog post. This has been a work of fiction, for the time being at least.

Here are my previous April 1st blog posts from prior years.  Enjoy!

2013:  New Smashwords WEED Service Treats Common Author Ailments
2011:  Smashwords Acquires Amazon, New Company Called Smashazon
2009:  JK Rowling Publishes Harry Potter Ebooks at Smashwords

Do you know a live human writer who's not yet publishing at Smashwords?  Invite them to join with over 100,000 writers and publishers around the globe who publish and distribute ebooks with Smashwords.  Click here to learn how to get started.  It's free!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Read an Ebook Week 2015 Kicks off Today!

The annual Read an Ebook Week celebration kicks off today.  Smashwords is again sponsoring the event for the seventh year running.

The promotion features thousands of free and discounted titles today through Saturday March 7.

Readers, the Smashwords catalog of participating titles can be found on the Smashwords home page, or click here to go directly to the promotional catalog where you can filter by category, bestsellers and coupon codes:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/category/1/newest/1


Readers and Authors:  The official Read an Ebook Week hub page is at Smashwords and offers access to banners, buttons and badges you can post on your web site, blog, Facebook, Pinterest and other social media outlets to celebrate your participation in this event.  I've also added the banners at the bottom of this post.   The hub page features links to promotional or free catalogs to make it easier for readers to find books.  Currently I have links to the Smashwords RAEW catalog, an iBooks catalog of free books, and a link to free books at Barnes & Noble.

Authors:  To enroll your book(s) in the promotion, click to https://www.smashwords.com/dashboard/sitewidePromos or click the "Authors, add your books to the promotion" button on the Smashwords home page. You can enroll in the promotion at any time before it ends.  Books already priced at free are automatically included.

The Story Behind Read an Ebook Week:  Read an Ebook Week was created by Canadian Smashwords author Rita Toews.  If you're interested to learn the story behind her creation of Read an Ebook Week, read my 2010 interview with Rita over at The Huffington Post .  Please note that the prior web address mentioned in the interview, www. ebookweek.com, is now controlled by a squatter and is not associated with this promotion, so please don't link to or promote the old address.  The Smashwords RAEW page at www.smashwords.com/ebookweek is a better option, and has Rita's blessing.

The official Read an Ebook Week Facebook page, operated by Rita, is at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Read-an-E-Book-Week/193882590629749  Show your support for RAEW by "Liking" it on Facebook and sharing it.

Authors:  How to Get the Most out of Your Participation

Read an Ebook Week is a collaborative multi-author multi-publisher event driven almost entirely by indie authors and their readers.  Here's what you can do to maximize the fun:

  1. Enroll all of your books.  Make it enticing for readers to add all your books to their shopping cart.
  2. Promote your involvement across all your social media outlets.  Have fun!  Download your favorite official RAEW buttons, banners and badges, and like stickers, stick 'em everywhere virtual sun shines - Facebook, Twitter, your web site or blog, Tumblr, wherever you connect with your fans.  Link the images to your Smashwords author page (you'll find the link in your web browser by clicking on "Profile" at Smashwords) so it's easy for readers to add your books to their shopping cart.
  3. Invite your writer friends to enroll in the promotion, and encourage them to promote their books to their fans.  Every author has the ability to draw more readers to the promotion, and the more readers the more sales and downloads for all the participating authors.  In other words, the more authors that participate, the greater the benefits for all the participants.
  4. Promote a favorite indie.  If your favorite indie author has books in the promotion, promote their books to your fans as well. If they don't have their books in the promotion, invite them to participate so you can share your love of their books.
Have fun!  Here are the official banners and badges you can use in your promotion.  Thank you Rita for creating these!






Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why Jamie McGuire Returned to Self Publishing


Jamie McGuire photo for Smashwords interview
Writer Jamie McGuire joined Smashwords on July 31, 2011. That same fateful day, she became a published author when she uploaded three novels to Smashwords.

The first two were Providence and Requiem, books one and two in her three-book Providence series of paranormal romance.

She also uploaded a contemporary romance titled Beautiful Disaster. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Beautiful Disaster went on to become a massive worldwide bestseller and is regarded today as one of the most influential books in New Adult romance.

Beautiful Disaster was later acquired by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, which republished it along with a follow-on title, Walking Disaster. Both novels landed on The New York Times bestseller list. Throughout this time, her Providence series remained self-published on Smashwords.

Jamie’s contract with Atria ended July 2014. Afterward, she decided to return to her roots as an indie  author. She now has eleven books on Smashwords, which we distribute to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Oyster, OverDrive, and Baker & Taylor.

Last month on January 27, she released and distributed Beautiful Redemption via Smashwords, and it shot to the top of The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.

I thought it would be fun to check in with Jamie to learn why she returned to self-publishing.



[Mark Coker] Welcome, Jamie. First off, why don’t you tell us what led you to Smashwords and self-publishing back in 2011? Those were the early days of the indie ebook revolution! Had you previously tried to get a traditional deal prior to publishing at Smashwords?

[Jamie McGuire]: Hi, Mark! I was drowning in query letter hell and received my first round of rejection letters for Providence. I didn’t try to get a publishing deal because I couldn’t get past the real gatekeepers back then—agents. I’m impatient, and waiting for someone else to tell me I was ready to publish just didn’t sit well with me. Author J.R. Rain introduced me to ebooks and self-publishing and told me where to find more information. Internet research led me to Smashwords. The moment I learned about self-publishing, I knew it was the right path for me.

[Mark Coker]: Tell me about your initial reaction when sales for Beautiful Disaster started taking off in 2011. I’d imagine it was a life-changing surprise.

shows a butterfly held inside a glass jar
[Jamie McGuire]: Beautiful Disaster sold less than a hundred books the first month it was available. I was a single mom then, and I just told my children they would have to use their backpacks from the previous year because we barely had money to buy school supplies. The second month, it sold more than 30,000 copies. It wasn’t just a life-changing surprise. It was life-changing money. I lost sleep over how much to put into college savings and which bills to pay off because I thought it would never happen again, but my sales only continued to grow. Almost a year later, author Jessica Park called to congratulate me on making The New York Times bestseller list. I hadn’t even known to look at the rankings because I didn’t think it was possible for a self-published author to hit a bestseller list.

[Mark Coker]: Like many successful indies, you became a hybrid author when Atria acquired the rights to Beautiful Disaster and its follow-on, Walking Disaster. What factors did you consider when weighing options?

[Jamie McGuire]: It wasn’t an easy decision, but I was in a good position to negotiate. Beautiful Disaster had been out for over a year at that point. It had already made The New York Times, and I knew its earning potential. I remember weighing what Atria could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself—at the time, that was putting books on shelves—and what value I placed on handing over my most successful manuscript to a publisher forever.

[Mark Coker]: From our prior conversations, I recall your experience with traditional publishing was generally positive. For other successful Smashwords authors considering the potential pros and cons of selling their rights to a large New York publisher, can you comment on your experience with Atria? 

[Jamie McGuire]: The industry is so different [today] from what it was just two years ago. I was lucky that I knew exactly what income Beautiful Disaster was capable of producing, so it was easier to negotiate an advance. Authors are getting picked up by publishers early on, so they might not have that luxury. I’ve done both, and I have no regrets.

I felt like a partner at Atria. I learned a lot more about how publishing and marketing work, about making deadlines, and how to compromise. I gained a broader readership from those who saw my titles on the shelves at stores. I still worked very hard to market my books and help the various departments (US, Canada, and UK print and audio while also pushing the various retailer promotions) market my books. Instead of working for myself, I had an entire company behind me, but they were also relying on me, and that is an incredible motivator. My favorite moments with Atria will always be the indie tours they put together. Atria’s publicity and marketing departments put so much effort into making large signings—sometimes twice a day—run seamlessly, and it showed.

If an author has a chance to sign with a publisher for a fair price, it’s a great learning opportunity. For some, it’s also validation. How else can you know which avenue you prefer? It’s a fair assumption though that successful self-published authors are happily autonomous. Authors facing the question of whether to sign or not sign with a publisher should take a moment to evaluate where on the personality spectrum they fall and if they are truly comfortable with handing over the reins. If you sign up to be a partner and show up behaving like the boss, it won’t be a positive experience for either side.

[Mark Coker]: Congrats on hitting The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists with your release of Beautiful Redemption last month! Given your track record as an international bestseller, I imagine publishers would have fallen over each other to acquire this.  Yet you decided to self-publish it. Why?

[Jamie McGuire]: Thank you so much! It was really important to me to see this particular title do well. Hitting the USA Today bestseller list with Happenstance, my first self-published work after signing with a publisher, and then again with Beautiful Redemption was an incredible validation.

As with all big decisions, there was no single reason. The deciding factor though was realizing that I had signed foreign book deals for five to seven years on average, and my domestic deals were indefinite.  That made sense before ebooks, but because the overhead for digital books is negligible, publishers can make them available indefinitely. Before, authors might have once been able to see rights returned to find new ways to revive their backlists, but now, signing is permanent. Going forward, I knew I could potentially make more money holding on to my digital rights because ebooks are forever. Writing is an art form. Publishing is a business. Successful authors must be good at both.

Another point I took into consideration was seeing a shift in print sales across the board. Paperbacks weren’t moving like they had before, and I wasn’t seeing my books on shelves, even during a release week. My original reason for signing with a publisher didn't make as much sense anymore, but Atria Books was family. It was one of the toughest decisions I've made thus far.

[MC]: Even though you had a positive experience working with a traditional publisher, you decided to reorient your publishing strategy going forward by returning to self-publishing. What drew you back to self-publishing?

[JM]: Going back to the Smashwords dashboard and changing the description, cover, and prices of my Providence series, I recalled how much I loved having that kind of control. I’d forgotten what it was like to release an excerpt or teaser without needing permission or to have the freedom to choose and change my own price point based on what was fair to my readers, not the booksellers.

Although nothing about self-publishing is easy or simple, I am the captain of my own ship. Whether a title sinks or sails is on me. I am the sole steward of my failures and victories—and there will be both. Not every writer is comfortable with that responsibility. Not every writer prefers it. Writing and then packaging my own manuscript is less stressful for me, and I’ve found my creativity thrives in that environment. 

[MC]: What advice do you have for traditionally published authors considering dipping their feet into the indie waters? Can you arm them with some realistic expectations? Is self publishing easier or more difficult than a traditionally published author might think?

[JM]: I chat often with traditionally published authors about going indie. Self-publishing was once a dirty word, but because we’ve seen so much success and streamlining of the process, making it  easier than ever, being indie is a positive label, and in many cases, it’s preferable. Self-publishing really boils down to independence, and that is exceptionally appealing to an author who knows the ropes and is considering taking a new direction that their publisher might not be excited about.

Most traditionally published authors have this idea that self-publishing is complicated when it’s really very simple, even more so for an established author. It can be as easy as asking a colleague for recommendations for freelancers for editing, formatting, and cover design and creating an account with the main platforms. With a description, genre choice, author bio, you can click publish, and your novel is live. Writing is the hard part—okay, that’s a lie. We all know editing is the worst.

I think the hardest concept about self-publishing is that it might feel permanent. Once traditional authors release a self-published book, they might feel they’re no longer welcome in the world of the Big Five. The beauty about being a hybrid author is, while not every book is right for a publisher, there is a potential audience for everything you’ve written.

[MC]: You’ve got an ambitious publishing schedule planned with five new indie releases for 2015, five in 2016, and four in 2017. Can you talk about your process, discipline and time management to produce at such a level while still balancing a busy family life?

[JM]: After I put my children to bed, I write until it’s time to wake them up for school. I play with the baby for a couple of hours, and then I sleep until the older children get home from school. We talk about their day, and the husband and I catch up on daily items. We have dinner and bath time, and then it starts all over again. My family is patient and very supportive. They know we’re enjoying the fruits of my dream job, and if that means Mom is in her pajamas when a friend pops over after school, that is a small sacrifice to make.

[MC]: Although you have the freedom to upload your books direct to several retailers, you distribute almost everywhere, except for Amazon, via Smashwords. How do you see Smashwords fitting into your publishing strategy?

[JM]:  There are many digital retailers, and although streamlined, uploading to each one is a process. Smashwords saves me valuable time because it manages multiple platforms with a one-time input of the metadata and a single upload. I watch as each format is converted, and then it’s done. Now, there is a preorder option as well. Keeping track of sales from the centralized dashboard is also a huge timesaver.

The most important factor for me turning to Smashwords as opposed to other distribution sites is the personal investment the Smashwords staff has shown me throughout my writing career. As a debut author and now as a hybrid author, Smashwords has been consistently respectful and eager to watch my success grow.

[MC] Thanks, Jamie!


Connect with Jamie McGuire:
Jamie McGuire at Smashwords
Jamie McGuire official Website
Jamie McGuire on Facebook
Jamie McGuire on Twitter

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Smashwords Daily Charts Updated to 90 Days

This week we released a minor but extremely useful update to our Daily Sales charts tool in your Smashwords Dashboard. 

You can now view your multi-retailer sales reports going back 90 days.  Previously, it displayed only the last 30 days.  In a couple months we'll improve it further by extending the time period to 180 days (6 months).

Our daily charts provide you a wealth of useful insight to help you track the performance of multiple titles across multiple retailers. 

For example, you can use our daily sales reports to learn at-a-glance how readers are responding to promotional campaigns, or learn how new releases, preorder releases, price changes, free series starters, cover changes, book description updates or category updates affect the sales of your other titles.  You can slice, dice and filter sales summaries by retailer, by series, and by author if you are a publisher.

The reports aggregate same-day sales from the Smashwords store and Barnes & Noble, and next-day sales from iBooks, OverDrive and Kobo.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Ebook as Annuity

As a self-published author, your book is your asset.  It’s something of value you own and control.

Like the orange tree pictured at left that bears fruit year round, your ebook promises to yield you, your family and your heirs benefit for many years to come.

In this post, I’ll share a framework that might help you view the financial value of your books in a new light.  As I’ll present below, self-published ebooks share common characteristics with annuities.

In the old world of print publishing, a publisher would pay you a lump sum advance to acquire rights to your book.  If you were lucky, the book would sell well, earn out its advance and begin paying royalties on an ongoing basis.  Unfortunately, most traditionally published books go out of print before they sell enough to earn the author more than the initial advance.  Once the book is out of print, the potential royalty stream evaporates and that asset – the book – yields no additional income for the author unless the rights revert and the author republishes the book.

This means that prior to the advent of ebook self-publishing, for many traditionally published authors that first lump sum advance was all they earned from their book.

One reason traditionally published books went out of print so quickly and with such regularity is due to how print distribution and retailing works.  Brick and mortar book stores have limited shelf space.  Even though your local Barnes & Noble (or WH Smith or Indigo or name your local store) would love to carry millions of books on the showroom floor, the economics of unlimited inventory are simply impossible for physical stores.  Instead, physical stores are forced to limit their in-store inventory to books that sell well.  So if a book doesn't start selling well within a few weeks of hitting shelves, the store will return the book to the publisher (for a full refund) to make room for other, newer books.

As most authors can appreciate, a few weeks is not enough time for a book to find an audience, which means many high-quality print books are forced out of print too early.  Even if the book had the potential to sell continually, if those sales aren't high enough to justify continued shelf space, the books were returned to make room for better-selling books, and as books lost distribution they were forced out of print.

In the new world of ebook self-publishing, there are no advances, but your book never goes out of print either.  Thanks to the scalability and efficiency of online retailing, the digital bits and bytes that comprise your ebook can happily occupy an online retailer’s shelf forever if you let it.   Your book is immortal.  You always have another day to find your next readers.  You harvest your income over time as the book sells.

This life cycle of the immortal ebook changes the dynamics of how you can model and measure the income stream from your book.  In many ways, the income stream from an immortal ebook is more closely akin to an annuity, and specifically a variable annuity.

If you’re not familiar with annuities, here’s a quick introduction:  Annuities are financial investments usually sold by insurance companies, and often purchased by individuals for the purpose of retirement planning or income diversification.  The individual puts forth cash (an asset) to purchase the annuity, and then the insurance company in turn pools this cash with the cash from other investors and invests the money on your behalf in underlying assets that might include agricultural property, hotels, office buildings, bonds or any other bundle of income-producing investments.  The insurance company then promises to pay the individual a steady stream of income for many years, or for the rest of their life.  A fixed annuity pays a fixed monthly or annual amount.  A variable annuity pays a variable amount based on the performance of the underlying asset.

So this means your book, which is an asset you control 100%, shares some similarities with variable annuities with the exception that you (not the insurance company) control the asset, and you are the sole beneficiary of that asset’s performance over time.  Your book-as-an-annuity will very likely produce some level of income for you for the rest of your life.  All you need to do is keep the book in stores.

This variable annuity dynamic of self-published ebooks also changes how an author can measure the financial value of their asset.  For example, let’s say your book or your full catalog of books is earning you $200 a month, month after month.  What's the value of this income stream to you for the next five or 30 years?  Luckily, there are free calculators for this (click here for one such calculator).

To use the calculator, enter your expected monthly or annual income, and also enter an alternative interest rate. The interest rate can reflect a rate you’d be able to earn if you invested cash into some safe interest-bearing investment for the same period of time.  By entering the going interest rate, you’re better able to calculate the present value of your income stream.  In the example at left, I chose a 30-year period so I entered an interest rate of a 30 year US government bond, which today earns 2.58%.

In this example, a book that earns $200 a month for 30 years has a present value of just over $50,000.

Obviously, it’s impossible to predict future levels of income with precision. The longer the time frame you calculate, the greater the odds that your numbers are off by a significant margin. Your actual earnings might be higher or lower.  Nevertheless, this model for measuring the financial value of your asset is useful, especially if you’re approached by a publisher who offers you a lump sum amount of money (AKA an advance) to acquire your rights.  By analyzing the present value of the expected annuity stream of income, you’ll be better prepared to negotiate a fair price for your book, or you’ll have the confidence you need to reject the offer and walk away without regrets.

Here’s an even simpler, more practical example of annuity thinking:  A few months ago, a Smashwords author told me she was offered a contract for her book by a traditional publisher.  She rejected the offer because she realized that based on her current monthly sales, she'd earn more in the next three months self-publishing than she'd earn from the publisher's advance.

Ebook self-publishing changes the dynamics of the earnings stream for authors. Whereas most traditionally published print authors will earn the bulk of their book’s income from the advance, or from the first few month’s sales, self-published ebook authors are likely to earn the bulk of their income spread out over many months and years. This is especially true for fiction writers since great stories are evergreen.

When you run the numbers on your book as an annuity, even for shorter time frames of three to five years, you might discover your book is more financially successful than you realized.



Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Smashwords Year in Review 2014 and Plans for 2015

Each year I provide Smashwords authors and publishers a review of our progress in the year as well as hints of our plans for the coming year.  So here goes.

2014 marked another exciting year for Smashwords as we create new ebook distribution tools and capabilities that give our authors and publishers a competitive advantage in the marketplace. 

If you’re new to Smashwords, a brief introduction to Smashwords is in order. 

I founded Smashwords in 2008 to empower writers to become professional self-publishers.  I wanted to transfer the power of publishing from publishers to authors.  Back in 2008, large publishers controlled the printing press, the knowledge of professional publishing, and the all-important access to retail distribution.  Publishers had the power to determine your fate as an author.  No more.  I wanted to make authors the captains of their own destiny.

Over the last six going on seven years, Smashwords introduced our free ebook printing press, Meatgrinder, which made it possible for any writer anywhere to publish an ebook in minutes; we opened distribution for the first time to major retailers and library partners that were previously inaccessible to self-published authors; we developed sophisticated yet easy-to-use publishing tools that help writers and small indie presses publish with pride and professionalism; we worked to actively educate our authors and publishers how to leverage best practices to publish with greater success; and we’ve been fierce (but friendly!) advocates for the rights and long term interests of the indie author community.

We exist to serve our authors and publishers, and we serve you by developing tools and relationships that help you publish faster, smarter and more effectively. Our time-saving tools help you spend more time writing and producing and less time managing multiple upload platforms.

In the years since we launched, Smashwords has grown to become the world’s largest distributor of self-published books.  To the extent we’ve been successful is entirely thanks to the continued support of the authors, publishers and retailers we serve.  You’re running a business, and we realize you work with Smashwords by choice, not by necessity.  Through continuous improvement of everything we do, we will always work to earn and deserve your continued business, trust and partnership.

So let’s take a look at our progress for the year.

Among our service milestones for the year:
  • New distribution channels - We added new distribution partners including OverDrive, the world’s largest ebook supplier serving over 20,000 public libraries, and Txtr, a European retailer.  New partners Oyster and Scribd were brought fully online.
  • Faster distributions - Working in close partnership with all our retail partners, Smashwords dramatically increased the speed and reliability of our distribution systems in 2014.  We’re now shipping multiple times daily to most of our retailers, and near-real time to iBooks, where, for example, and it’s not uncommon for authors to upload a book to Smashwords and see it appear at iBooks the same day.  Faster distributions of new titles and metadata updates give our authors more control over their publishing.
  • Faster sales reporting - We improved the speed of sales reporting.  In May, we introduced our Daily Sales tool which provides next-day and same-day sales reporting from iBooks, Barnes & Noble, OverDrive and Kobo.
  • Added EPUB 3 support - Smashwords now accepts EPUB3 files as part of our Smashwords Direct feature.  EPUB3 gives authors and publishers greater language support and text layout options, including right to left reading and vertical reading.
  • We helped more authors realize their full potential - Smashwords authors bring us their talent, and we give them tools to help realize the full potential of their talent.  Multiple Smashwords authors hit retailer bestseller lists in 2015 as well as national lists such as New York Times and USA Today, aided in part by the power of Smashwords preorders to iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, and also supported by enhanced metadata tools such as Smashwords Series Manager which improves series discoverability at retailers.
  • Diversification pays off - Our broad distribution network helped authors and publishers diversify their exposure to an industry-wide slowdown in ebook retailing.  Strong merchandising support for Smashwords authors by our wonderful colleagues at iBooks combined with sales growth from new distribution partners FlipKart, OverDrive; Oyster and Scribd helped many Smashwords authors and publishers have a great year.
  • Diversification pays off again - Authors who fully distributed their titles with Smashwords were partially insulated from the dramatic sales drops many Amazon authors reported following the introduction of Kindle Unlimited.  If you know indie authors who only upload to Amazon, invite them to diversify their distribution with Smashwords.
Among our business milestones for the year:
  • Title growth - The Smashwords catalog grew to 336,400 titles, up 60,300 titles or 22% during the year from 276,100 at the end of 2013. 
  • Word count - Smashwords helped indie authors and small independent presses publish over 2.5 billion words in 2015, up 26% to over 12 billion words!
  • Author growth - Smashwords now serves over 100,000 indie authors and small independent presses around the globe.
  • Profitability - For the fourth year in a row, Smashwords maintained profitability.  Profitability is important to our authors and publishers because it allows us to reinvest in the development of new tools and capabilities to serve our authors and publishers.  We continue to achieve this profitability by aligning our interests 100% with the interests of our authors, publishers, retailers and readers.  Unlike many competing self-publishing services organizations, we don’t employ sales people and we don’t sell services or publishing packages.  We only make money if we help our authors and publishers sell books.
  • 26 team members to serve you - We end the year with a team of 26 full-time professionals, up from 23 in 2013, 19 in 2012, 13 in 2011 and 3 in 2010.  This year we made significant investments in technology, distribution systems and finance.
  • Independence - Smashwords remains entirely self-funded without the assistance or interference of outside investors.
  • ALLi Award - The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) named Smashwords its service provider of the year, in recognition for the depth and breadth of our distribution capabilities, our advocacy for authors and our relentless commitment to continuous service improvement to empower the success of indie authors worldwide.
  • INC 500 - INC Magazine named Smashwords to its INC 500 list of America’s fastest growing private companies.  They named Smashwords the #1 fastest-growing media company.  Full credit for this accomplishment goes to Smashwords authors and publishers!
  • Bowker survey - Bowker, in their annual survey of self-publishing services, named Smashwords the #1 producer of ebooks in the U.S.  View the report here (opens a PDF)
  • Forbes America's Most Promising Companies - Forbes Magazine, for the second year running, named Smashwords to its list of America’s Top 100 Most Promising Companies.
Despite our accomplishments in 2014, we’re not finished pushing the envelope.  We still feel like we've only scratched the surface of what's possible.  Our roadmap for 2015 and beyond is exciting.

Here are some hints to our direction.  In 2015, our authors and publishers can expect to see continuous improvements across every part of our business, including:
  • New distribution and merchandising tools that make your books more discoverable and desirable by readers
  • New price management tools that give our authors and publishers more granular control over pricing in multiple currencies and territories
  • New retailer additions to the Smashwords distribution network serving retailers and libraries
  • Improved, more intuitive sales reporting
  • An upgraded Meatgrinder to improve the ease and capabilities of our flagship ebook conversion tool
  • Improved search for the Smashwords retail store
  • ... and some fun surprises that will set the stage for even greater things to come.
On behalf of the entire team at Smashwords I want to thank you for your continued trust, partnership and inspiration.  We’re looking forward to serving you in 2015!

2015 Book Publishing Industry Predictions: Slow Growth Presents Challenges and Opportunities

Crystal ball - Mark Coker's 2015 book publishing predictions
Welcome to my annual publishing industry predictions for the year ahead.  This year I share 12 predictions.

Before I speculate about what 2015 holds for authors and publishers, let’s reflect for a moment about how self publishing has transformed the book publishing landscape.

Thanks to ebook self publishing, every writer in the world has democratized access to the tools and knowledge of professional publishing.  It's now possible for writers to make their books instantly accessible, discoverable and affordable to billions of readers around the world.

Most exciting of all, we're still in the early days of the ebook self publishing revolution.  I'm confident that decades from now, ebook self publishing will be viewed by historians as no less transformative than the advent of the Gutenberg printing press.

Despite the incredible opportunities available to every indie author, clouds loom on the horizon.  Recent years of exponential ebook growth have given way to a new normal of slower growth, greater competition and disruptive business models and power struggles.  These factors create new threats and opportunities for publishing industry participants.

This is why annual predictions are so useful.  To the extent any of us can predict the future (an exercise fraught with folly I might add!), predictions help stir the imagination, spark constructive debate and assist with strategic planning. 

So without further delay, I present to you my predictions for 2015.  Enjoy!

Mark Coker’s Publishing Predictions for 2015



1.  More authors will aspire to publish indie – In 2008 when I founded Smashwords, nearly all writers aspired to traditionally publish.  Self-publishing was viewed as the option of last resort – the option for failed writers.  Today the former stigma of self publishing is evaporating.  Indie authorship has become a global cultural movement, as I described when I published the Indie Author Manifesto earlier this year. The indie author movement will grow stronger in 2015.  Traditionally published authors will continue to transition to indie, led by midlist authors.  We’ll also see more hybrid authors reorient their publishing strategy back in the direction of indieville.

2.  Indie authors will capture more ebook market share – The percentage of reader dollars going to indie ebooks will increase.  The growth will be fueled by a continued increase in the number of indie-published ebooks, and by more indie authors adopting best practices to publish with greater pride and professionalism.  In March I shared some of my longer term market share projections here and here.

3.  Screen reading will increase, but at a slower rate – For readers of English language books, the early adopters of ebooks have adopted.  I think reading will continue to transition from print to digital, yet the rate of growth will slow.  One bright spot will be the continued growth in screen reading in developing countries aided by the ubiquity of smart phones.

4.  2015 will be slow growth for most authors, indie and traditional alike – I blogged about this topic last month in my post titled, Ebook Publishing Gets More Difficult From Here.  While some indies had a fabulous year in 2014 (look no further than the Smashwords bestseller list published in Publishers Weekly each month), most authors experienced a slower growth year - especially when compared against the go-go days of exponential growth from 2008 to 2012.  The causes for this slow down include a new equilibrium between print and ebook formats; immortal ebooks published by publishers and indie authors alike that will never go out of print; the continued growth of self-published titles; and myriad low-cost and free non-book alternatives competing for slices of consumers’ time such as social media, Internet video and games.

5.  Indie authors face increased competition from traditional publishers – For the first years of the ebook revolution, large publishers all but ceded the $4.99 and lower ebook market to indie authors.  Publishers tried to maintain higher prices, and indies – empowered with the ability to earn royalty rates of 60-80% list price -  offered budget-conscious consumers high-quality books at low prices.  The low prices, including the ultralow prices of FREE and .99, made it easier for readers to take a chance on unknown writers.

In the last year, large publishers, borrowing a page from the indie author playbook, have stepped up their price-cutting in the form of temporary promotions on titles from big-name authors.  In 2015 we’ll see the temporary promotions from large publishers that were so common in 2014 give way to permanent lower prices on backlist titles from big names, and faster, more aggressive discounting on recently released titles.

This means indies will face increased competition in the sub $5.00 price points.  In the past, you could identify indie titles on the bestseller lists by price alone.  This is no longer the case.  Large publishers will also make greater use of ultra-low prices.

6.  Large publishers step up usage of FREE – Inspired by the success of indie series writers who’ve had enormous success pricing series starters at permafree, large publishers will start making increased use of this unconventional price point.  Although few large publishers have made use of free as a promotional tool to date, this will begin to change in 2015.  As retailers such as iBooks run more "First in a Series Free" promotions which heretofore have been dominated by indie authors, publishers will feel the pressure to jump in.  As I write these predictions, iBooks is running a major multi-genre First in a Series Free promotion with nearly all the titles supplied by indie authors. Fifty nine Smashwords titles are featured!

7.  FREE will lose more mojo – Since 2008 I’ve encouraged authors to utilize free as a price point to turbocharge downloads, build readership and reader trust, and drive readers to priced titles.  Authors who followed this advice early on reaped the most benefit.  However, free is losing some of its gusto as the market becomes flooded with free ebooks. At Smashwords, nearly 50,000 titles are priced at free.

In our 2014 Smashwords survey we found that free books at iBooks were downloaded with 39 times more frequency than books at a price, down from a multiplier of 91 in the prior 2013 survey.  In 2015 I predict the multiplier will drop further.  Despite the anticipated drop in effectiveness, free remains one of the most powerful merchandising tools for indie authors, especially when applied to series starters. This also means that authors who utilize free today will get much more mileage from it than authors who use it a year from now (hint:  If you’re using free, make sure your free titles are upgraded with enhanced backmatter so they direct readers to your priced titles. See my blog post and video on this subject).  If you haven’t experimented with free yet, now is the time.

8.  Many indies will quit in 2015 – Authorship is tough work.  Discouraged by weak or slumping sales, many indie authors in 2015 will either give up on publishing or will decrease their production rates.  With the rapid rise of anything – whether we’re talking tulips, dot com stocks or real estate – bubbles form when the market becomes too frothy, too optimistic, too euphoric, and too crowded.  All markets are cyclical, so this boom-to-bust pattern, while painful for many, is healthy for the long term, especially for authors who stick it out.

Indie authors will be forced to take honest stock of their dreams, motivations and commitment.  What drives you?  Is it the joy of writing, or the necessity of putting food on the table, or both?  Either reason is respectable, but if your family’s next meal is entirely dependent upon your book sales, you’re under extra pressure.

9.  Time management will separate winners from losers – Raise your hand if you have too many hours in the day.  I’d hazard to speculate that each and every one of us fails on time management to some degree each day.  We only have so many minutes in a day, and only so many heartbeats in a lifetime.  Are you optimizing your author time so you’re spending more time writing and less time on the nonessentials?

For example, if it takes you multiple hours to format your ebook, why not hire a low cost formatter for $40 or less?  I’ll give you another example, and this one’s entirely self-serving but will resonate with many Smashwords authors - using a distributor.  Smashwords is a distributor.  Our job is to help you quickly deliver your book to multiple retailers, and then help you manage and control it with minimal effort.  When an author works with Smashwords, in exchange for a small commission we earn on every sale, the author gains the time-saving benefits of a single upload, centralized metadata management, and consolidated sales reporting and tax reporting.  I think this is why the vast majority of Smashwords authors choose to fully distribute with Smashwords rather than uploading direct to retailers.  The time-saving advantages of managing your publishing with a distributor become even more pronounced once you’re managing multiple titles.  No author’s career will fail because they gave 10% list to a distributor, but many authors will fail because they’re not focusing enough time on writing.

Another example. Many authors spend too much time on marketing and social media when they should be spending more time writing.  Your best marketing is a book that sparks enthusiastic word of mouth, so focus on the book.  If you enjoy social media, that's great, but try to make it your end-of-day brain break after you've completed your daily writing quota.

10.  Amazon Will Use Kindle Unlimited to Pay Authors Less – Whether you love it or hate it, KU is already a massive disruptor in the world of ebook publishing. Many writers are claiming it caused their sales to plummet, while others say it has helped them reach new readers.  You can check out my prior analysis of KU here and here, or check out David Streitfeld's recent story on KU in the New York Times.

KU will have broader impact in 2015.  Unlike its ebook subscription competitors Oyster and Scribd which allow authors and publishers to set prices and receive retailer-level margins on qualifying reads (Smashwords authors earn 60% of their book’s list price), KU pays from a shared pool.  Author/publisher compensation is based on a book’s prorated share of readership multiplied against the size of pool.  If it sounds opaque, that's because it is. Amazon determines the size of each month’s pool and the value per qualified read after the month ends.

This wouldn’t be a problem if Amazon was a benevolent player, committed to paying their publishers 70% list.  In November Amazon paid only $1.39 per qualified read, regardless of the book’s length or price.  $1.39 works out great if your regular retail price is $.99 (a $.99 ebook sold at Amazon otherwise earns about 34 cents).  Yet if your regular ebook price is $3.99 and you’re accustomed to earning almost 70% of that or $2.80, then KU means your effective royalty rate was cut by almost half  in recent months to 35%.

Kindle Unlimited represents Amazon’s end-run around the Agency pricing model.  With Agency, Amazon is obligated to pay publishers 70% of the list price set by publishers and cannot discount books. KDP has an “Agency-lite” equivalent model in which Amazon doesn't discount except in price matching situations.  With KU, your book’s price becomes irrelevant to Amazon.  It also gives Amazon the ability to pay you less than 70% list for each qualified read.

By providing KU preferential in-store merchandising, Amazon discourages customers from purchasing individual ebooks.  Since Amazon has a critical mass of over 700,000 books in Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s most voracious power readers already have nearly one million fewer reasons to purchase indie ebooks at full retail price.  This means that for many budget-minded readers who love indie ebooks, your $2.99 and $3.99 ebook is now too expensive when they can read it (or similar books) for free as part of their subscription.

As I mentioned in my last post, Is Kindle Unlimited Devaluing Books, most of Kindle Unlimited’s catalog is supplied by indie authors enrolled in Amazon’s KDP Select.  Without indie author support and participation in KDP Select, there’d be no Kindle Unlimited.

Will indies step up to the plate in 2015 and say no to KDP Select?  Since most indie authors sell poorly, I fear many indies will hear KU’s siren song and decide that earning $1.39 or less is better than earning nothing, and this will then perpetuate a slippery slope that will jeopardize earnings for all authors at Amazon.

11.  New VAT rules in Europe will put a damper on European ebook sales – Indie authors will suffer a drop in earnings from European ebook sales in 2015.  The cause?  New European Union VAT (Value Added Tax) rules.  On January 1, 2015, new VAT rules go into effect in the European Union.

In the past, the VAT imposed on ebooks was based on the VAT rate for the country in which the retailer was based.  To reduce the tax hit, retailers located their European headquarters in Luxembourg, where the VAT was only 3%.  At Smashwords retailers, the price set by the author was always VAT-inclusive, which meant the author and retailer’s cut was calculated after the 3% VAT was deducted.  At 3%, the rate was negligible and went unnoticed by most customers and authors.

Effective with the new EU rules that start January 1st, VAT is charged based on the customer's geographic location.  Rates across the European Union will range from 15% to 26%.  This means that effective January 1st, myriad tax rates will be applied to your ebooks sold at Smashwords retailers such as Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble UK, Txtr, and Kobo.

Indie authors must now decide whether to raise their prices to pass the tax burden to readers, or hold the line on prices which means the author absorbs the tax hit.  Either way, the author loses.  The ebook retailers are harmed as well since the tax comes out of the purchase price before the retailer earns their 30% cut.  As one retailer told me, “we’re all hit with the same stick here.”  (Update: To help mitigate the pain, on December 31 Smashwords launched a new pricing tool that allows authors decide if they want to bear the burden of the VAT tax to keep customer prices the same, or if they want to pass the increased VAT burden on to customers in the form of higher prices.  Find it in your Smashwords Dashboard or click here.)

12.  Back to basics:  The bestselling authors in 2015 win with best practices - The formula for bestseller success isn’t rocket science.  Success is all about best practices.  For every well-executed best practice implemented by the author, the author gains an incremental advantage in the marketplace.  What are some of these best practices?  1. You must write a super-awesome “wow” book that takes the reader to an emotional, satisfying extreme (this applies to fiction and non-fiction).  2.  Your books should be professionally edited and proofed  3.  A great cover image makes your book more discoverable and more desirable to your target reader.  Great cover images make an honest and visual promise to your target reader about the experience your book offers.  4. Give your book a fair price.  5.  Release your book as a preorder.  If you’re not doing preorders, you’re missing out on one of the most powerful merchandising tools today (click here to learn how preorders work).  6.  Avoid exclusivity and distribute your book widely.  7.  Write another book, rinse and repeat.

Although the best practices aren’t secrets any more (check out my Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success for a refresher on best practices – or watch my best practices video tutorial), most authors fall short on the best practices front. Some authors fall into the trap of searching for easy silver bullet shortcuts. There is no single silver bullet.  You must do many things right and avoid pitfalls that undermine your opportunity.

~~~

That's everything!  I hope you enjoyed my 2015 predictions.   Please add your own predictions for 2015 in the comments below.  What big trends are you seeing?

For your reading pleasure, below is an archive of some of my previous predictions.  How did I do?

2014 Predictions from Smashwords Blog  (Published December 30, 2013) and Huffington Post (Published January 7, 2014)

2013 Predictions at the Smashwords blog (published Dec 21, 2012)

2011 Predictions at GalleyCat by Mark Coker (published Dec 28, 2010)

10-Year Predictions at GalleyCat By Mark Coker (published Jan 4, 2010)