I’ll start by sharing some thoughts on the state of the indie nation and then I’ll jump into the predictions.
Also be sure to check out today’s companion post, Smashwords Year in Review and 2019 Preview.
The State of the Indie NationIf you’ve followed my posts here at the Smashwords Blog over the years, you know I don’t sugarcoat. I try to give you the unvarnished truth of what I’m seeing and hearing, and what it all means for the future of indie authors and publishers.
Grab a cup of coffee or your favorite beverage and let’s ponder the past, present and future of indie publishing.
When I met with authors this year, I sensed a growing unease with the direction of the industry. For some, their unease has given way to desperation and despair.
Sure, it’s a tough life as an author – this has always been the case. Yet something different is happening now.
Authors feel like something’s been taken from them, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. Their concerns often reverse and manifest as self-doubt. Are they not as good of a writer as their most ardent fans tell them they are? What are they doing wrong?
A lyric from the band Black Sabbath comes to my mind. It’s the title track from their classic album by the same name, Heaven and Hell:
“The world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams.”
~ Black Sabbath
Is someone or something stealing authors’ dreams?
The answer is complicated. I think at the root of the challenge, as I’ve discussed here on the blog for several years now, is that the supply of ebooks is growing faster than the supply of readers.
Since ebooks are digital, and because virtual shelf space is unlimited at ebook retailers, it means these books never go out of print. It’s great that your book will always be available, discoverable, and purchasable, but it also means that every day from this day forward you’re competing against more books.
If the glut was the only concern, most of the indies could deal with it through best practices alone. Most indies don’t take full advantage of best practices, which means those that do make the effort usually enjoy superior discoverability and sales.
But even best practices aren't enough now. Something else is going on.
Some smart authors are starting to feel as if the system is somehow rigged against them. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but these authors are on to something.
The answer is in Seattle. The industry’s dominant retailer is taking advantage of this glut to commoditize books and strip indies of their independence. This strategy was set in motion years ago with the launch of KDP Select in 2011, and the waves it unleashed then are now wreaking havoc on author shorelines.
This was a major theme of my predictions post last year. It’s worth a re-read because the same forces I described last year intensified in 2018 (Read it now).
For this post, in the context of my discussion on the state of the indie nation, I’ll examine Amazon’s strategy from a different angle. I’ll look at how Amazon’s strategy is forcing authors to make short term decisions that undermine their long term careers.
Amazon requires its suppliers – i.e. authors and publishers – to make concessions in exchange for greater visibility in the Amazon store. These concessions come in the form of exclusivity, lower royalty percentages, the loss of pricing control, and other hidden tolls and taxes that eat away at your profits. If you want to maximize visibility in Amazon's store, these are the pounds of flesh you must trade.
Talk to any large traditional publisher and you’ll learn these are the same battles they’ve been fighting and losing with Amazon long before indie authors came on the scene.
All these concessions are presented to indies cloaked in the cheery veneer of “options” you can take advantage of. Those that don’t swallow these options are disadvantaged.
No other ebook retailer demands these concessions. No other retailer is pushing to commoditize books. No other retailer encourages its customers to pay less when the customer would happily pay more.
Amazon does it because they can, and because their business model is all about commoditizing everything they sell.
Jeff Bezos once stated that Amazon’s business philosophy is, “your margin is my opportunity.” That’s all you really need to remember.
Most indie authors I know live hand to mouth if they’re a full-time author. It’s tough to make a living writing books.
Amazon acts like a twisted modern day Robin Hood who steals from the poor and gives to its customers.
Measuring the Mood of IndiesWhen I step back and consider how the mood of indies has evolved over the last ten years, I can almost divide the decade into two chapters.
The first chapter started in 2008 and 2009, and was marked by jubilence and unbridled optimism within the budding indie community as ebook retailers opened their virtual shelves to self-published ebooks. This democratized distribution was a game-changer because it allowed readers to discover and purchase indie ebooks right alongside the books of traditional publishers. It was during these first five years that ebooks grew from less than one percent of the overall trade book market to nearly 20 percent.
But not all parties can last forever.
In the second chapter, the most recent five years, the ebook market matured and its unsustainable meteoric growth stalled.
Indies responded by working harder than ever. But for many authors, it felt as if each time they took one step forward, unseen forces pushed them two steps back.
Since indie authors get most of their income from digital sales, the glut of ebooks stings. It makes authors ripe for exploitation by players who promise to improve the author's discoverability. These player's interests aren’t always aligned with those of the author.
Enter Amazon. Amazon presented authors with quick fixes such as KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited that offered to raise their visibility overnight. Never mind the consequences to the author’s long term future or the damage it causes to rest of the bookselling ecosystem.
I warned authors about these consequences the same day KDP Select was introduced seven years ago (Read Amazon Shows its Predatory Spots with KDP Select).
Authors who put all their eggs in the Amazon basket tell me they now feel trapped. They’re also angry because they feel Amazon’s competitors failed to give them a viable alternative to this fate.
The third chapter of this story will be written by indies. What happens next is up to you, and those who come after you.
Politics and PublishingThe other day I was having an email conversation with my buddy, Michael Larson, who I first met through our mutual friend, the late Dan Poynter. Mike and his wife, Elizabeth, co-founded the amazing San Francisco Writers Conference 16 years ago. To this day it remains one of the best writers conferences in the country. It was one of the first to embrace indie authors as equal members of the publishing community.
We were talking politics and publishing. I lamented to Mike how voters, like the entire publishing industry, can buy into simplistic quick fixes that are inadequate – and even counterproductive – to solving today’s complex challenges.
Wherever you land on the political or publishing spectrum, you probably agree it’s natural for most people to prefer simplicity over complexity. Complexity is scary!
There’s a political component to publishing, but it has nothing to do with conservatism or liberalism.
As an indie publisher, you’re an important member of the publishing community. Every publishing decision you make, like the flap of a butterfly’s wing, is a vote for the winds to blow in one direction or another.
Why is simplistic political pabulum so appealing and so effective? Why are so many traditional publishers and indie authors surrendering their independence and financial futures to temporary quick fixes?
Mike’s six word response floored me:
“Pain cries out for simple solutions.”
If I’ve got a throbbing headache and the only painkiller I have handy is Tylenol, I don’t want someone telling me how Tylenol is going to burn a hole in my liver 20 years from now. I need relief now.
I met with talented authors this year who were near tears when they described how they’re working harder than ever, producing their best work ever, yet their sales were dropping year after year.
Out of desperation, they’re trying everything.
They’re giving readers whiplash in the process. KDP Select is brilliantly designed to act this way. The moment you even try it, you’ve undermined the future you might have had. The thing is, you never know.
I see this anguish in the faces of these talented authors and it makes me angry. It doesn’t have to be this way!
Yes, the market is glutted, but why is the largest retailer working single-handedly to diminish the labor of authors and publishers, especially when readers are willing to pay more?
Are $3.99 and $4.99 price points – the sweet spots for most bestselling indies – too much to pay for a great book? No!
The entire publishing community is now living in fear.
Large traditional publishers are worried about making their next quarter’s numbers, and are terrified Amazon will take away their preorder buttons if they so much as look at Amazon cross eyed. Indies are terrified of Amazon’s next price-matching email or KU nastygram, which reminds them that repeated offenses could lead to cancellation of their publishing privileges. Indies are terrified of seeing their legit reviews disappearing without explanation or recourse. Or, like the NY Times bestseller who contacted me this morning, why should an author fear being kicked out of KU because Amazon might notice that a pirated version of her book was just listed for sale at another major retailer?
What kind of life is this, living in fear that your business partner who’s supposed to have your back is browbeating you, and threatening to drop the axe on you at any moment?
All too often, succumbing to Amazon’s offers of quick fixes like KDP Select can feel safer, but this decision can also lead to long term pain, bondage and servitude.
As I’ve repeated here on the blog, in my books and at my workshops around the world for the last decade, there’s no single magic bullet that will grow an author’s book sales. There are many secrets, and they’re called best practices. Best practices require hard work, consistency, iteration, and a steady hand over the long term.
Yet we’re drawn to the pill that promises to numb the pain now, not tomorrow. By jumping from one magic elixer to the next, we take our eyes off the balls that really matter.
Here’s what really matters: Do your books cause rapturous delight in the hearts and minds of your readers? Are your publishing partners’ interests aligned with your own? Is your partner trying to elevate you or control you?
Exclusivity is a form of censorship. It says you can express yourself here, but not there.
Algorithms that give preference to exclusive books are a form of censorship too. This struggle for free expression predates Amazon, and will continue long after Amazon is gone.
In fact, the seeds of the indie author movement, and this contemporary battle for free expression, can be traced back to the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press over 500 years ago. Ever since the introduction of the printing press, writers struggled against political, religious and commercial interests that sought to censor or control their free expression (For more on the fascinating historical struggle for free expression, check out episode nine of the Smart Author Podcast titled, The Indie Author Manifesto).
The good news is that Amazon’s practices can’t last. They’re unsustainable for the creators of books. Like all forms of oppression, the people will eventually rise up and take back their independence.
It won’t happen tomorrow, but I can assure you that here at Smashwords, we'll continue fighting to put authors in control (To learn what we accomplished for you in 2018, and for hints of what we have planned for 2019, check out my other post today, Smashwords 2018 Year in Review and 2019 Preview).
Now on to my predictions section of this post.
Mark Coker's Publishing Predictions for 2019Predictions are a form of speculative fiction. They help us imagine a world that might be if current trends continue, and they give us advance opportunity to encourage or reverse these trends via the collective actions of all participants.
I see silver linings everywhere.
There’s much to be optimistic about.
You are the creator of books.
Books, and readers' desire to consume them, will never go away. Books will always remain valuable and magical vehicles for revelation, joy and rebirth. In these turbulent times, books are more important than ever.
The world is cyclical, just like the seasons. Winter is upon us here in the northern hemisphere, but it too shall pass. Markets rise, fall, then rise again.
I have faith that at the end of the day, when toxic or unjust forces that limit freedom become too overwhelming, people will band together to tackle these complex problems. The alternative is annihilation, so pick your path.
Even during droughts, beautiful flowers grow in the desert. There are still millions of readers out there right now searching for their next great read, and they’re willing to pay for it. You can reach them.
As an indie publisher, you are powerful. Every decision you make is the flap of a butterfly wing. If indies concentrate their flaps in the right direction, we can shift this industry’s winds in a better direction.
Now I present you nine publishing predictions for 2019.
1. Indies Help Fuel Further Rise of Audiobooks in 2019 – Audiobooks create new time in the reader’s day to enjoy books. As a result, audiobooks are now the fastest growing segment of the book market. Some indies are already earning more from audiobooks than they do from ebooks and print books. Just as indies helped propel the ebook market forward, they’ll do the same for audiobooks in 2019, but to a lesser extent, since audiobook production is not an affordable investment for most indies. Although audiobook sales could surpass ebook sales within a few years if current trends continue, there’s no guarantee these trends continue. As we all know, the market for ebooks grew exponentially for first the few years before it matured and flatlined. At the end of the day, print, audio and e- are simply different formats for enjoying books. The audiobook market, like ebooks, is subject to the same over-saturation facing ebooks, though that saturation will play out slower because high production costs act as a gatekeeping force. Amazon is already attempting to commoditize audiobooks too, which will lead to price-cutting and lower earnings. But other forces are working to counter this. Apple Books is now carrying audiobooks from our production partner Findaway. If you can afford the investment, do it sooner rather than later, because it’ll be tougher to earn your investment back in a few years than it is now (be warned, however, there’s no guarantee you’ll earn your investment now). Smashwords authors will find an audiobook production option in their Smashwords Dashboard.
2. Ebook Preorder Adoption Will Continue to Rise – In the 2018 Smashwords Survey that I presented at RT Booklovers this year, we found that 16.7% of new books released at Smashwords during the survey period were released as preorders, up from 12.23% in the 2017 survey. It may not look like much, but it represented a 37% increase from the prior year. In 2019 I think we’ll see the adoption rate increase further. It needs to, because that tiny 16.7% of books accounted for 51% of our top 1,000 bestsellers. Authors who do preorders earn more sales, and those that don't are squandering their potential! This is an essential best practice that 80% of indie authors haven’t yet implemented. If you’re a long time follower of the blog or have read my books, you know I’ve been advocating preorders as a top best practice since 2013. To learn how to make preorders work for you, listen to episode 8 of the Smart Author Podcast on preorder strategy.
3. More Authors Will be Tempted to Quit – For the reasons outlined in my introduction, more veteran indie authors will quit publishing in 2019, to be replaced by new, less-experienced authors who are even more subject to exploitation. If you’re considering quitting, please listen to episode 8 of my podcast episode titled, The Art of Delusion. The path out of the darkness begins by staying true to your inner light, and by finding joy in the journey of publishing. Don’t measure your success by dollar sales. The only way to truly fail in publishing is to quit. Stay in the game if you can.
4. Amazon Algorithm Fatigue Sets In – Indies are obsessed with Amazon’s algorithms, and there’s no shortage of experts who will advise you on how to modify your publishing strategy to please Amazon’s algorithms. What few people realize, however, is that the obsession with Amazon’s algorithms is taking indies in the wrong direction. Imagine if all the attention shown to gaming Amazon’s algorithms was instead focused on writing better books? That would be a true benefit to readers, and a benefit to the author’s long term career.
5. Amazon Becomes Pay-to-play – In my 2016 April Fools post, I wrote a satire announcing a powerful new book marketing program at Amazon. It was called Kindle Power Bucks (read Kindle Power Bucks Solves Marketing Challenge) . Authors would pay Amazon each time a page of their book was read by readers. The larger your marketing budget, the more readers you could buy. This dystopian future came closer to reality in 2018 when Amazon started replacing “also bought” shelves with sponsored ad shelves. Sponsored ads are littered throughout their search results. Let’s be clear. When you have to pay a retailer to be seen, that’s a toll. It’s a tax on your profit margin. It means you’re not really earning 70% list at Amazon (actually, you never did earn 70%, since they charge a download fee based on the size of your book). This is another way for Amazon to pay authors and publishers less for their books. Why would Amazon do this? Is it because this service helps place better reader-pleasing books in front of their customers? Absolutely not. This is another way to extract margin concessions from its suppliers, much like the co-op dollars large publishers must pay to have their print books featured on front tables and shelf talkers at physical stores. Similar to Google Adwords, Amazon Ads pit advertisers against one another as they bid for greater visibility. Over the long term, this erodes your profitability, because the economics of ad bidding holds that you keep investing more dollars until a dollar invested can’t earn back the dollar in royalties.
6. More Authors and Readers Will Abandon Facebook – Facebook is in a world of hurt right now. Users are beginning to realize that Facebook’s business model is all about selling their users’ privacy and attention to the highest bidder. For authors, this means they hold your readers’ attention hostage so they can sell you ads. They’ve shown a callous disregard for the toxic content that spreads like wildfire on their site, possibly because they recognize that fake news spreads faster and is more engaging then real news. Facebook has created an environment that tends to make its users less happy the more time they spend there. Despite my criticism, I’m hopeful Facebook can reform their ways because there’s still much to love about Facebook, and there’s no other viable alternative yet that can match the better aspects of Facebook. If you’re considering quitting Facebook, don’t.
7. Facebook, Amazon and Google Will Face Increased Anti-trust Scrutiny in 2019 – Last year I predicted Amazon would face increased anti-trust scrutiny, and we saw new rumblings in that regard in 2018. In 2019 those rumblings will intensify, but this time it’ll be around all three of these companies. These three companies have grown so large and powerful that they’re now stifling innovation outside their walls, and decimating fair competition. Each of these companies started with fantastic missions, and each has created tremendous value for their users and shareholders thanks to their innovations. But they’re now so large it’s nearly impossible for new startups to gain a foothold. It’s another of those hairy, complex problems with no simple solution. Much of the challenge has to do with how large platforms and marketplaces operate on the internet. When businesses started moving online thanks to the Internet, it removed geography as a natural regulator on the growth of a business. These large companies also benefit by a concept known as “network effects,” which means that the more people who join their service or participate in their marketplace, the more useful that service becomes for all its users, and thus the more difficult it is for users to leave that platform for another competitor. Once you’re locked in, you’re subject to exploitation and dependence.
8. Blockchain Hype Subsides – I like new technology. In my prior career starting in the ‘90s, I ran a Silicon Valley PR firm. My job was to promote new technology. There’s good hype and bad hype. If a product or technology truly solves real world problems, then yay, shout your message from the highest rooftops. But bad hype is another variety. Bad hype exaggerates the true potential of a product or technology. Bad hype is inherently dishonest and disingenuous by over-stating reality.
Blockchain is one of those technologies with enormous potential for society, and it deserves to be talked about and considered. It’s the technology that underpins Bitcoin. There was a lot of hype about Blockchain in 2018, that it would somehow become the panacea to what ails indie authors. I kicked the tires. I wanted to believe. I read lots of articles, asked questions and listened to others I respect so I could understand why they were so excited. But at the end of the day I still didn’t get it. Maybe I’m not smart enough. I do believe Blockchain has potential applications, but those applications are so far out and so nebulous it strikes me as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
It reminds me of Bitcoin, which seems like a great digital currency for cybercriminals, but of questionable value to the rest of us. The value of Bitcoin plummeted 70% in 2018. I think Blockchain for publishing hype will decline 70% in the year ahead as well. But who knows, I could be wrong. New technologies have a way of disrupting things overnight.
9. Ebook Sales Will Rise in 2019 if Major Countries Enter a Recession – Recessions are horrible affairs. People lose jobs. Businesses close. Livelihoods are lost. But recessions are necessary to the long-term health of any economy, because they help deflate bubbles and rein in excesses.
The US is now teetering on the verge of entering its first economic recession in nearly a decade. Recessions tend to be global affairs, since our economy is so inextricably linked to others. Trouble in one country can tip others over the edge. The effect of a recession, or even the mere fear of a recession, is that consumers become more frugal. Books have always represented a low-cost spend for entertainment and knowledge, and ebooks even more so. A trip to a movie theater might cost you $15 for 1 ½ hours of entertainment. A $15 book can give you 15 hours of entertainment. It’s like ten movies for the price of one. If a recession hits, I expect all book sales to increase, and more readers will turn to ebooks, since ebooks are priced at a fraction of print books. Indie ebook authors will be the beneficiaries, since indies price their ebooks significantly lower than traditional publishers.
Summary of Prior Publishing Prediction Posts by Mark Coker
2018 Publishing Predictions (Published December 31, 2017
2017 Publishing Predictions (Published December 31, 2016)
2016 Publishing Predictions (Published December 31, 2015)
2015 Publishing Predictions (Published December 31, 2014)
2014 Publishing Predictions (Published December 30, 2013) and Huffington Post (Published January 7, 2014)
2013 Publishing Predictions (Published Dec 21, 2012)
2011 Predictions at GalleyCat (published Dec 28, 2010)
10-Year Predictions at GalleyCat (published Jan 4, 2010)