Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Smashwords 2019 Year in Review and 2020 Preview

Welcome to my 2019 Smashwords year in review and 2020 preview.



Also don't miss my annual publishing predictions companion post, 2020 Publishing Predictions: House of Indie on Fire.

2019 was a pivotal year for Smashwords as prepared for our second decade in business.  From the outside looking in, especially judging by the paucity of my blog posts this year, one might think things were quiet at Smashwords.  The truth is anything but.

Our engineering team continued to innovate and improve our publishing and distribution systems and the Smashwords Store, releasing new updates to the Smashwords platform each week.  Our vetting and service teams worked closely with our authors and publishers to provide quality support and rapid response times.

Thrill your readers. Grow your platform.
While the Smashwords team spent the year kicking butt serving our authors, publishers, retailers, library partners and book-buying customers, I spent much of the year in my writing cave.  But I wasn’t writing a book.  I was busy updating our product roadmaps and developing two super-secret projects related to presales.  We revealed the initial fruits of our presales initiative on December 3 when we launched Smashwords Presales, and disclosed we had filed our first-ever patent application to protect the technology, systems and methods behind Smashwords Presales.

Underpinning our presales initiatives are some admittedly audacious goals.  We’re working to:
  • Change how authors and publishers bring new books to market.

  • Help authors and publishers break free of an increasingly oppressive book marketing and bookselling regime that by design strips authors and publishers of their independence.
     
  • Restore a competitive ebook retailing ecosystem where more booksellers are working more effectively to serve the interests of authors, publishers and readers.
And if that’s not enough, I want to change all of ecommerce so that product creators like you – across all physical and digital product categories – have greater opportunities to capitalize on the excitement of new product launches.

Like all ambitious innovations, I’m confident our presales initiative will take unexpected twists and turns as early adopters experiment with Smashwords Presales and provide feedback.

I have no doubt that presales will eventually come to be recognized as an essential best practice for book launches, or any product launch for that matter.

As long time Smashwords authors and watchers can attest, we’ve been at the tip of the spear when it comes to identifying and evangelizing the best practices of today and tomorrow.  When we began evangelizing free ebooks and free series starters a decade ago as a profitable marketing strategy for authors, and promoting preorders seven years ago, we promised that such strategies would give indies a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.  This proved true.  As with all emerging best practices destined to grow strong legs and stand the test of time, the early adopters reap the greatest long term benefits due to how incremental advantages compound over time.  The same will be true for presales.  Presales are a new best practice every author and publisher would be wise to implement now to reap the greatest benefits in the future.

As is customary in my end of year review, I’ll summarize some Smashwords metrics and milestones and then I'll share broad stroke hints of what’s coming in 2020.

Smashwords 2019 Milestones:

Books published – We now publish 526,800 books, up about 4% from 507,500 books at the end of last year.

Words published – We now publish 18.7 billion words; up 690 million words, or 3.8% from a year ago.

Authors served – We’re now serving 146,400 authors and publishers, up 3% from 142,200 a year ago.

Smashwords files presales patent – On October 22, 2019, Smashwords filed our first ever patent application titled, “A PRODUCT RELEASE SYSTEM, METHOD AND DEVICE HAVING A CUSTOMIZABLE PREPURCHASE FUNCTION.”  The full application, which won’t be publicly disclosed by the US Patent & Trademark Office until April 2021, describes the methods, systems and devices necessary for product creators, product distributors and online retailers to collaborate on the creation, management and execution of presale events attached to new product introductions.

The launch of Smashwords PresalesSmashwords Presales, and the patent-pending technology behind it, represent our most ambitious undertaking since the launch of Smashwords 11 years ago.  Not only have we created an elegant tool for running public and private ebook presale events that will thrill your readers and help you build a marketing platform you control, we’ve also created a new foundation upon which we will build and reveal additional first-of-their-kind book marketing capabilities described in the patent application.  Underpinning everything about Smashwords Presales and its underlying technology is our desire to help authors and publishers harness more of the energy and excitement of each book launch for their personal benefit.  With the launch of Smashwords Presales, we showcased how one of the many exciting presale opportunities for authors and publishers is to use the promise of presale access to build their mailing list.  Smart authors and publishers recognize that if your access to your readers is mediated by another party whose goals aren’t aligned with your own, it means you’re at the mercy of that intermediary’s benevolence, assuming it is benevolent.  It means you’re vulnerable to having that intermediary erect tolls and taxes – such as requiring exclusivity or paid advertising to improve your discoverability – that stand between you and your customers. These tolls and taxes sap your profitability and independence, and undermine your long-term opportunities as a writer and publisher.  At Smashwords, we’re here to help authors and publishers take back their independence!  View the complete Smashwords Presales announcement here, or check it out in your Smashwords Dashboard.

Improved book discovery – Back in late 2018, we introduced a completely revamped book discovery experience on the Smashwords home page with multi-dimensional search.  In 2019, we continued improving our multi-dimensional search capabilities.  In January, we added the ability for readers to toggle between horizontal shelf views, a grid view, and a vertical list view.  We added the ability to expand a single shelf into a full page of 25 listings.  For example, the “Featured New Releases” shelf normally recommends four to five featured titles at a time, but when the reader expands it, they can view up to 25 Featured New Releases on a single page, as shown in this live example.

Improvements to the Smashwords Library – The Smashwords Library is where customers of the Smashwords Store track and manage books on their wishlists, and access purchased books.  In February we revamped the Library to give purchased books, wishlist books, and gifted books their own tabs.  Readers can display their books either as a list with full details or a grid display of book covers.

Introduced Global Coupons – Also in February, we introduced Global Coupons, which give authors and publishers the ability to create a single coupon code that works with multiple books.  For example, you can assign your coupon code to all the books in a series, to a specific few titles you want to place on sale, or to all the titles you publish.  Global Coupons can also be customized with the myriad other exclusive coupon capabilities offered by Smashwords, such as cents-off, dollars-off, percentage-off, metered (limited redemption) coupons, public coupons, private coupons, and time-limited coupons. You’ll find Global Coupons within the Coupon Manager tool of your Smashwords Dashboard.

Improved Smashwords Dashboard – We made numerous updates to the Dashboard to improve title management and bring more relevant information forward.  It’s not uncommon for some publishers to manage dozens or even hundreds of titles and authors from their Smashwords Dashboard.  Previously, all those books appeared in one giant listing, and that could get unwieldy when managing large catalogs.  To solve this challenge, we added pagination and filtering to the Dashboard so you can filter by words in the title, by author (great for publishers managing many authors), and by series.  In addition, each of the column headings are clickable to enable instant A-Z alphanumeric and reverse-order sorts and sort by title, series, author, publishing status, retail price, library price, books sold, date published, premium catalog status and more.  We also brought forward more summarized data, such as the number of times your books have been wishlisted in Smashwords customer libraries, the number of copies sold across all retailer and library sales channels, and a running update of current payable earnings you can look forward to in the next monthly payment round.

Smashwords home page displays the number of titles currently running sales – In the upper left corner of the Smashwords home page, we now display the number of titles that are enrolled either in one of our site-wide sales, such as Read and Ebook Week, plus the number of titles participating in Special Deals promotions.  Special Deals is our popular self-serve ebook merchandising tool, first introduced two years ago (read the Special Deals announcement here) that allows authors and publishers to launch temporary sales promotions.  These promotions are a great way to raise the visibility of your books in customer home page searches.  As I began drafting this post before Christmas, over 7,200 titles were on sale as a Special Deal, and then once we launched our annual Smashwords End of Year Sale on Christmas day, that number ballooned to over 60,000.  With a click of the link, customers can jump directly into the sale catalog.  To launch a Special Deal promotion, simply create a public coupon from your Dashboard’s Coupon Manager tool.

Improved tracking of coupon campaigns – In the Dashboard’s Coupon Manager tool, where all coupon campaigns are configured, we updated the “Manage Active Coupons" and "View Disabled/Expired Coupons" tabs to display a complete summary of ongoing and expired coupon events, including information on the number of coupon redemptions, and gross and net earnings for each campaign.  Expired coupon campaigns can be reactivated with a click of the button.

Onscreen alerts tell you if we’re having trouble sending you email – Email is our primary communications link with our authors and publishers, and also for our most popular payment method, PayPal.  Your email address comprises one half of your login credentials to the Smashwords site, with the other half being your password.  If our emails to your account’s email address or PayPal address bounce back to us as undeliverable, it can jeopardize our ability to pay you, cause you to miss important sales or merchandising opportunities, and even cause us to close your account.  We’ll provide you on-screen alerts at the top of your Dashboard, author/publisher profile page, profile editing page, account editor and your payment settings.

Improved tracking of customer favoriting and Smashwords Alert subscribers – When a Smashwords Store customer “favorites” an author, or subscribes to an author’s Smashwords Alerts (automatic email notifications to readers whenever you release a new title at Smashwords), those counts are reflected in your Dashboard.  For publishers that manage multiple authors, in June we enhanced this summary to break out these “favorites” and Smashwords Alert subscribers by author name.

Improved geographic sales reporting – The Sales & Payments Report and Per-Payment Report generator now display more human readable, country-specific sales locations, when such location is known.  For example, previously we reported sales from Germany as “country_de” rather than “Germany."  Now it’s plain English so you don’t need to guess or remember arcane country codes.

Sales Map – In September, we introduced Sales Map, a visual color-coded map that displays and ranks the countries from which your sales originated in the last 90 days.  If our retailer, library partner or Smashwords Store customer shares their country location, we’ll report it in the Sales Map.  The Sales Map makes it really easy to drill down and view author-specific and title specific maps. You’ll find your own Sales Map under the Sales Reporting section in your Smashwords Dashboard. 

Sales reports now show a book’s publisher / agent, when applicable – For authors who indie publish with Smashwords for some of their titles and work with a publisher who publishes and distributes their publisher-represented titles via Smashwords, the author’s Sales and Payments report now shows which sales will be paid by Smashwords, and which will be paid by the author’s publisher.  You’ll find this itemized in your Dashboard’s Sales & Payments Report and your Per-Payment Sales Report Generator.

Improved gifting delivery – In October, we made it easier for Smashwords Store customers to ensure that ebooks they purchase as gifts are actually delivered to the intended recipient.  When a customer purchases an ebook as a gift for another reader, Smashwords automatically generates an email to the intended recipient that allows them to access the gifted book.  Previously, if the intended gift recipient lost or misplaced their redemption email, there was no way for the gifter to re-send the special gifting link.  Now, it’s easy.  The gifter can re-send the gift link by clicking to their Account page’s purchase record.  The purchase record shows if the giftee picked up their gift.  If not, you can click “re-send gift email.”

Smashwords Store grows – As any indie publisher can tell you, it’s a tough market out there.  Most long-time indie authors have experienced precipitous sales declines at most major retailers over the last few years as Amazon works to devalue indie ebooks, and as other retailers lose customers to Amazon.  The Smashwords Store has been bucking the trend the last few years, eking out its third consecutive year of sales growth at a time when most retailers are shrinking.  This accomplishment is all the more remarkable given that our primary business focus for the last decade has been distribution to major retailers and library platforms, not the operation of our store.  Thank you to Smashwords authors, publishers and customers for making 2019 another year of growth for our store.  We’re looking forward to building on this growth in 2020!

What to expect in 2020

I’m excited about our plans for 2020.  You’ll see us continue to introduce continuous enhancements to our publishing and distribution systems, add new sales outlets as appropriate, introduce new enhancements to the Smashwords Store, and you’ll see us introduce new tools and never-before-seen capabilities covered by our presales patent application.

With your continued support, 2020 will be a year of pleasant surprises as we work to make Smashwords the best partner for indie authors, publishers and retailers.

How can you support our mission at Smashwords?  Publish and distribute with us.  Take advantage of all our free and exclusive tools that will help you create a more sustainable publishing future for yourself and your fellow indies. And lastly, please encourage your author friends to check out all our new tools and capabilities so we can help them too!

Here’s wishing you and your readers an amazing 2020!

2020 Publishing Predictions: House of Indie on Fire

Welcome to my annual publishing predictions, and hello 2020!

Also be sure to check out my annual companion post, Smashwords 2019 Year in Review and 2020 Preview.

2020 makes me think of 20/20 vision.  Can you see what’s coming in your publishing future?

Each year at this time I polish off my imaginary crystal ball, read the proverbial tea leaves, and generally attempt to divine a future that is anything but divinable.

The value in speculating about the future is that it gives us all an opportunity to imagine our place in that future.  We can identify opportunities and threats, and a take steps now to alter the course of future history.

I recall watching an interview earlier this year with Margaret Atwood discussing the prophetic insights of The Handmaid’s Tale, first published 35 years ago.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing) that although some would label her writing as speculative fiction, she really writes about things that are already happening.  I get that.  She calls attention to stuff hiding in plain sight that others should see too.

My predictions are based on what I’m seeing.  I’m the first to admit I’m not without my blind spots.  Your vantage point might be different.  I welcome your perspective in the comments.  Working together, we can paint a truer picture.

I try to spot emerging and entrenched trends, analyze the economic and psychological drivers of those trends, and speculate how those trends will play out over time.

I’ll start by sharing my thoughts on the state of the indie nation and then I’ll jump into the predictions.

Also be sure to check out my other annual companion post for today, Smashwords Year in Review and 2020 Preview.  Odds are, if you read anything upsetting below, and you will, Smashwords has already built tools to help you overcome it.

The State of the Indie Nation

If you’ve followed my publishing predictions over the last decade, you may have observed that in the early years my predictions were rife with gushy optimism about the increasingly important role that indie authors and indie ebooks would play in the future of publishing.  Those posts proved prescient, because indies did indeed become a force of nature in this industry.

Indies pioneered the best practices of ebook publishing and ebook marketing; proved that self-published authors can achieve awe-inspiring commercial success; and captured significant ebook market share from traditional publishers.  Indies introduced readers to an amazing diversity of new voices that would have been lost to humanity were it not for the amazing opportunities presented by ebook self-publishing and democratized retail distribution.

In recent years my publishing predictions have taken on an increasingly ominous tone.  Although I’m a naturally optimistic person and more inclined to see cups as half full than half empty, I’m a realist as well.

I care about truth.  Truth is my anchor, and I’m always searching for it to keep me moored in the choppy seas of an ever-changing reality.  In business as in life, I try to keep my opinions flexible and open to modification when facts change.

It’s time to recognize that if the indie publishing movement were a house, the house is on fire and not enough people have noticed yet. 

I celebrated the virtues of the indie author movement back in 2014 when I published the Indie Author Manifesto.  I celebrate the movement and its world-changing potential to this day.

Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the indie author movement and everything it represents is in jeopardy.  Authors liberated themselves from one gatekeeper only to find themselves in the clutches of another.

Can authors honestly call themselves indie authors when they’re getting 80-100% of their sales from a single retailer?

 What is independence anyway?  If I wrap myself in chains and submit myself to the mercy of a single sales outlet, am I still an indie author if such bondage is by choice?

If each of Amazon’s ebook retailing competitors left the ebook market tomorrow, would it make a difference to your future?

Indies appear to have made their choice.  Get a group of indies together for any period of time, whether it’s in an online forum or in person at a writers conference, and the conversation invariably devolves into questions of how to please Amazon and its algorithms.  Shouldn’t the conversation be about how to please readers?

The indie community is beginning to grapple with these difficult but important questions of what it means to be indie.  Although I remain optimistic about the potential of the indie author movement, I’m losing confidence that the community at large has the necessary situational awareness to dig itself out of the hole it now finds itself in.

I’m communicating with authors every day.  I love to hear what authors are seeing, thinking and experiencing.

To my eyes and ears, indies are experiencing increased pain, anxiety, desperation and depression.

Many bestselling authors from four or five years ago have seen their sales plummet.  Some have cut back production or quit writing altogether to take on a “real” job that pays.  Jobs that don’t involve writing.  This saddens me, because when you strip a person of their ability to pursue their creative passion, a part of them dies, and humanity as a whole suffers.

None of these talented writers suddenly became crappy writers.  These writers have readers who want them to write more books but the authors are refusing to write them.  When you depend on your author income to pay the bills and feed your family, you can’t write for charity.

The same factors hurting bestsellers are hurting every other author who’s trying to reach readers with their books.

When I meet an author who’s suffering, they’re often quick to blame themselves for any misfortune.  This year I heard each of the following repeatedly:

I need to learn how to do better on Amazon ads.
I need to learn how to do better on Facebook ads.
I need to find more paid marketing opportunities.

The above answers are like a moth saying, “I need to fly faster toward the flame.”

You can’t fix a problem if you’re unable to identify the cause.  In my 2019 publishing predictions post last year, I identified the primary cause, and expressed my bewilderment that so many authors and even large traditional publishers were continuing to make decisions that ran against their best long term interest.  As I wrote in that post, when I posed this conundrum to literary agent Michael Larson, co-founder of the San Francisco Writers Conference, he responded, “Pain seeks simple solutions.”

Myriad factors contribute to the declining fortunes of the indies who are feeling the pain.  Even if you think you're doing well, know that you'd be doing much better were it not for these factors that are dragging you down.  But to recognize and fully grok these factors, one must delve into the complexity.  The solutions are not simple or easy, and they’re not quick fixes.

Some industry watchers have attempted to divide the indie universe into two camps: The serious professionals and the amateur hobbyists.  As this thinking goes, the professionals are serious and implement best practices, and the amateurs are amateurs and therefore flail and fail.  I find this view unsatisfying and even dangerous.

Yes, there are lazy amateurs out there who still think their illegible homemade ebook cover is wonderful because if you click to expand the cover image and squint, you can read all the important words in the image (!!!!).  Darwin will sort out the delusional, pig-headed and willfully ignorant.

Yet there are talented professional authors who implement best practices, write super-awesome reader-pleasing books, invest in expensive professional editors and cover designers and marketing teams, and they too flail and fail.  Something else is going on here.

Over the last eleven years, in my books, workshops, Smart Author podcast and here on the blog, I attempted to help authors navigate the confusing darkness to realize a brighter, more prosperous future.  Sometimes it felt like I was herding cats.  I helped some people find their way, but I couldn’t reach everyone.

It pains me when I see an author fail.  I believe every writer is blessed with untapped potential.  It doesn’t matter if that author works with Smashwords or not.  If you truly love books, you can’t help but care for the magicians who write them.

Mass Confusion for Newbies

Publishing is not an easy business to learn.  It takes time, an inquisitive mind, and a lot of hard work.  A newbie author might have a master’s degree in biochemistry, neuroscience, or sociology, but that doesn’t mean they’re equipped to make intelligent publishing decisions.

Thousands of new indie authors enter the market each year.  The path forward for them is more confusing than it was a mere 10 years ago.  New authors are confronted by a cacophony of advice and unlimited options from so-called experts.

Often the advice from experts is conflicting or just plain wrong which causes further confusion.  Confusion leads authors to make poor choices.  Often the simplest solution to the pain is the wrong solution.  Confusion makes aspiring authors more likely to fall prey to predators, and more likely to make decisions that undermine the long term opportunities for all writers.

It's not just the newbie authors who are making poor choices.

The Wisdom and Stupidity of the Masses

I had a revelatory epiphany earlier this year that helped me view the challenges faced by indie authors in a new light.  The epiphany was triggered after stumbling across a brilliant essay from the 1980s titled, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Italian economist, Carlo M. Cipolla.  Check it out.  It’s a fun, thought-provoking read that will cause you to view humanity in a completely new light.

His essay attempts to explain how the behavior of each individual affects a society at large.  He posits that people occupy one of four quadrants, defined as follows:
Intelligent people contribute value to society. 
Stupid people cause losses to themselves
and others. Image by Vincedevries

Intelligent – Cipolla argues that Intelligent people make decisions that reap mutual benefit for both the individual and society.  These people naturally gravitate toward win-win decisions and relationships.  Their actions elevate a society for everyone's benefit.

Bandits – Bandits act selfishly with callous disregard for society.  Think of thieves, cheaters, scammers, and others who are only out for themselves.  Although no one likes thieves, Cipolla posits they’re a net neutral to society because they're just transfering value from one pocket to another. 

Stupid – Cipolla definines stupid people as those who make
Image source: 
http://harmful.cat-v.org/people/basic-laws-of-human-stupidity/
self-destructive decisions that also harm society.  Stupid people are a net negative to society.  Their actions sap society of its wealth and potential.

Helpless – Helpless people are adept at making decisions that never benefit themselves, but always benefit someone else. Similar to bandits, helpless people are a net neutral to society because their loss is someone else’s gain.  Although bandits and the helpless don't drag a society down per se, they also don't contribute to the society's prosperity.

The essay makes clear that intelligence, banditry, stupidity and helplessness have nothing to do with education level, race, religion, political orientation or socioeconomic class.  Instead, these labels are more a reflection of one’s personal priorities, world view, curiosity or willful ignorance, and the desire and capability – or lack thereof – to not act stupid.

Every society, country or large family will have a mix of each of the four types of people, as well as those who straddle the gray areas of each quadrant’s border.  The same holds true for any business entity, retailers included.  The really interesting stuff happens in the gray areas, because that’s where an otherwise stable or vibrant society can slip into stagnation or decline when things tilt out of balance.

The lessons in Cipolla’s essay are rich in their applicability to any situation, especially if rather than viewing it as an explanation for why a society might rise or fall, you view it through the lens of how a movement might rise or fall.  The outcome for any movement – whether it’s the indie author movement or a political movement – is determined by the interplay between the four groups.

Put another way, a society or movement performs best when the majority of participants are making decisions that produce enough positive benefits to society to counter the decisions by those that sap a society of its strength.  The more participants who occupy the Intelligent group, the more prosperous the society.  While it would be wonderful if all members of society landed in the Intelligent group, such a utopian dream is unattainable. 

The essay’s wisdom provides some degree of insight into the generally troubled fortunes of authors, publishers and retailers. 

Back in 2011, Amazon introduced a predatory scheme with KDP Select which later spawned Kindle Unlimited (2014).  These interconnected publishing options devalued indie ebooks, stripped indies of their independence, and starved Amazon's ebook retailing competitors of books and customers.  Traditional publishers acted like KDPS/KU was only a problem for self-published authors who were already selling their cheap books too cheaply anyway.  But when indie ebooks are artificially devalued to the point that readers are reluctant to purchase single-copy ebooks, all books are devalued. 

In other words, the entire industry had a hand to play in the banditry, stupidity and helplessness that authors observe today.

If you question why an individual author, publisher or retailer should care about the success or failure of the indie author movement, the answer is that we’re all in this together.

If we allow a single retailer to grind all the profit out of publishing, we can look forward to a dim future Amazon's competitors exit the market, royalty rates drop further, and where the only books that get published are from deep-pocketed hobbyists who are willing to pay more to be read than they earn in income.

It's not too late for indie authors to chart a more prosperous course for their careers.  It starts with fiercely defending the independence upon which the indie author movement was born.  Your independence is your power.  Don't let others take it away.

Now to the predictions.

Mark Coker’s 2020 Publishing Predictions

Sanctions coming against Amazon and Facebook – In my predictions for the last two years, I predicted that the pressure would grow for the political establishment to bring some of these too-powerful platforms to heel.  When a company tangles its tentacles too far, too wide and too deep, it suffocates innovation.  Here’s a cooking metaphor for those of us who’ve mastered the art of boiling water.  If 2018 was pre-boil, then 2019 became a full-on simmer, with politicians on both sides of the aisle agreeing that something needs to be done.  In 2020, the calls to break up these companies will reach a full boil.

Backlash coming against Amazon Ads for stealing author platform – Last year I predicted that Amazon would become recognized as pay-to-play in 2019, and certainly that view became more accepted in 2019.  Amazon's transition into pay-to-play marks a sad realization of the satirical April Fools post I wrote in back in 2017 titled, Kindle Power Bucks, which solved the age-old book marketing problem by allowing authors to pay to be read.  In 2020, we’ll see the author backlash.  It’s not that the idea of advertising is a bad one.  What’s bad is how Amazon implements advertising.  Amazon replaced their also bought shelves with sponsored ad shelves. This means they removed the organic book recommendation wisdom of fellow readers and replaced it with paid advertisements.  It's a disservice to readers because now a book's visibility is measured by the author's ability to pay for that visibility.  As I wrote in Publishers Weekly last month in my column titled, Platform Theft, Amazon Ads enable Amazon to sell your author platform to the highest bidder.  Try this exercise learn how this affects you:  Click to the Amazon home page, select Books, and enter your pen name.  It’s not uncommon for the first three search rows to be occupied by sponsored ads for four books by other authors.  It's also common to find that up to one third of all your results on that search results page are promoting other authors that Amazon knows are not you.  Each is a detour designed to take your reader away from your books.  It also means that Amazon is forcing indies to trample upon the platforms of fellow authors simply to remain visible in the store, in the same way that KDP-Select causes authors to trample upon the visibility of their fellow authors who refuse to go exclusive.  You work hard to build your readership and your author brand.  Now Amazon’s working hard to take it away, cloaked in the vapid veneer of a paid marketing opportunity.

Audiobooks disappoint – For indie authors, peak audio may already have come and gone.  The audiobook market will grow in 2020, but the average participating author will see slower growth or even declines.  The first indie authors to do audiobooks reaped the most benefits.  Now the market’s getting crowded.  Amazon’s Audible division continues to maintain a stranglehold on audio, and similar to Amazon’s strategy to commoditize and devalue everything they sell, they’re successfully devaluing audiobooks (by restricting the author's ability to set their own prices, and demanding long term exclusivity for the best visibility) which means your profit opportunity will continue to decline in audiobooks for the same reasons it has declined in ebooks.  This leads to my next audiobook prediction.

Most indies to forgo audiobook opportunity – I love audiobooks, and want them to be successful (Smashwords has been partnered with audiobook distributor Findaway since 2018), but professional production costs are beyond the reach of most indie authors.  As audiobook growth slows and devaluation pressures persist, and as more immortal audiobooks forever occupy the virtual shelves of online retailers, more indies will be shut out of the audiobook opportunity.  It’s extremely difficult to lower production costs without sacrificing quality.  Your choice of narrator can make or break your audiobook.  The best narrators are reluctant to work on spec.  Although there are interesting efforts afoot to leverage machine-learning and artificial intelligence to bring production costs lower, I remain skeptical that these efforts will produce anything but subpar audiobooks.  It’s extremely difficult for a machine to match the intricate and dynamic cadence, emotion and tonality of a professional voice actor.  It’s equally difficult to replace a talented audio editor for post-production.

Single-copy ebook sales face continued pressure from Kindle Unlimited – I’ve made similar predictions in prior years, and we’ll see this trend continue into 2020.  When readers have unlimited access to over one million ebooks with their Kindle Unlimited subscription they can read for free, and when the subscription service decouples author compensation from the author-set single-copy price of the book, it’s a recipe for significant devaluation, and it gives readers over a million reasons to never purchase another single copy ebook again.  Even 99-cent ebooks start to look too expensive to readers when they read other books for what feels like free.

Platform ownership to become a top indie imperative – Most authors already know the importance of building their marketing platform.  Your platform is your ability to reach your prior and prospective readers.  To date, most authors have focused the majority of their platform-building on growing their social media following, and building readership at the various retailers.  But when your relationship with your readers is mediated by a third party, it means that third party is the gatekeeper to your readers.  That third party can erect tolls or implement other policy changes that make it difficult, expensive or impossible to reach the readers who want to purchase your book.  In the examples of Facebook and Amazon we see blatant toll-taking.  In 2020, more authors will wake up to the danger and realize the imperative of building an author-controlled marketing platform.  This doesn’t mean authors will need to open their own ebook stores (most who try gain a new appreciation for the valuable services offered by a retailer).  Not all retailers are the problem.  I can’t think of a single instance in the 10-year indie ebook retailing history of Apple Books or Barnes & Noble, for example, where either implemented a single policy change designed to tax authors, reduce royalty rates, or strip them of their publishing freedom.  Despite Apple and Barnes & Noble being the second and third largest sellers of English language ebooks, both are small potatoes compared to the worst offender Amazon that has implemented new policies each year for the last 10 years that strip authors and publishers of their profit margin and independence.  This brings me to my next prediction.

Indies will redouble efforts to build their mailing lists – When a reader subscribes to your author newsletter, you own that relationship.  You can reach that reader on your terms whenever you choose.  You can direct the reader to retailers whose missions are aligned with your own, and who are not trying to sell your reader someone else’s book when they're looking for your book.  It means no third party can control your access to your reader.  If you don’t yet operate your own opt-in newsletter, or you’re looking for tips on how to grow your subscriber list, check out another of my Publishers Weekly columns from this year, titled, Taking Control, for help.  Also of help is my next prediction related to presales.

Ebook presales join the author’s best practices toolbox - This prediction is blatantly self-serving on the heels of our Smashwords Presales announcement on December 3, but I also know it to be true.  When we first introduced preorder distribution at Smashwords back in 2013, I predicted preorders would become an essential best practice for all professional indie authors and that's what happened.   The same will happen for presales.   In the long run (beyond 2020!), readers will find presales much more exciting than preorders because presales allow the customer to read the book earlier than everyone else.   Smashwords Presales is an author-friendly, author-controlled alternative to the more draconian KDP Select.  And for authors plan to enroll their new releases in KDP-Select, Smashwords Presales is compatible with publishing strategy that too!  Just run the presale BEFORE enrolling in KDP Select.  With Smashwords Presales, the time period of early release is entirely controlled by the author.  The period can be minutes, hours or months in advance of the book's general release. The author also sets the price and decides who can gain access to the presale.  This gives the author a greater ability to harness the value of the presale.  At Smashwords, ebook presales are designed to allow the author to trade something of value to the reader (early release and reading) with something of value to the author (using the promise of presale access to grow a private mailing list; earning higher royalties; capturing additional newsletter signups at point of purchase, diversifying their sales channels).  The early adopters have already started adopting this in the last few weeks.  2020 will be the year thousands more early adopter authors adopt ebook presales.  These early adopters will derive the most long term benefit, and they’ll set the example for the next authors and publishers.

Romance Writers of America faces make or break year in 2020  – I've long been a fan of Romance Writers of America, one of the largest and best organized professional writing organizations here in the US.  The organization has been operating continuously since 1980 when editor Vivian Stephens joined with other romance writers to form a national organization to advocate for the interests of romance writers.  In the years since, RWA has helped tens of thousands of romance writers.  This past July, it was my great honor when the RWA board of directors awarded me their 2019 Vivian Stephens Industry Award for my contribution to the genre.  Following the acceptance of my award in New York, I enjoyed meeting several RWA board members during the conference's after-party.  Therefore, as you might imagine, I was shocked and saddened to learn that most of the RWA board abrupty resigned over the Christmas holiday in protest to what they viewed as secret backroom dealings related to how they handled allegations of racial insensitivity.  The story even caught the attention of the New York Times who covered it yesterday.  Many members now feel angry, hurt and disappointed. This turmoil is a critical test for RWA's leadership.  How they deal with it will have lasting implications for RWA's future and possibly even its survival.  I hope they rise to meet the challenge and emerge from this crisis stronger, better, and more inclusive than ever.  Diversity is strength!

Ebook sales will rise if major book-buying countries enter recession – This was a big miss for me last year, so I’m going out on a limb and making the same prediction again.  Last year I predicted the US economy would enter recession in 2019, and this would cause consumers to become more frugal and therefore shift more of their book-buying budgets to ebooks.  But somehow, the US economy hasn’t fallen off the rails yet.  With every passing month, however, a recession becomes more inevitable, and the longer its arrival is postponed, the deeper the next recession is likely to become.  Just as a forest fire plays a natural and essential role in maintaining healthy forests, so too are recessions a difficult but necessary event to maintain the long term health of growing economies.

Thanks for taking the time to consider my predictions.  Please tell me what you think, and feel free to make your own predictions in the comments below.

Summary of Prior Publishing Prediction Posts by Mark Coker

2019 Publishing Predictions (Published December 31, 2018)

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)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Introducing Smashwords Presales

Smashwords today unveiled Smashwords Presales, a new book launch tool that will thrill your readers.

Smashwords Presales leverages patent-pending technology to enable the creation, management and merchandising of ebook presales.  An ebook presale allows readers to purchase and read a new book before the public release date.

Presales are different than preorders.  Presales provide readers early and immediate access to an upcoming book release, whereas preorders merely act as product reservations where the customer must wait until the public release date to read a preordered book.

Several New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors have already expressed interest in running Smashwords Presales for future book launches.

“I'm planning to use Smashwords Presales to offer early releases to subscribers of my newsletter,” said R.L. Mathewson, a New York Times bestselling author of romance novels.  “When I asked my readers how'd they feel if I were to begin offering presale access as a perk for signing up for my newsletter, the response was overwhelmingly positive. My readers want this.”

How to Run an eBook Presale at Smashwords

The Smashwords Presales tool is available now to all authors and publishers that have upcoming releases on preorder.

When you’re ready to activate your presale, go to your Smashwords Dashboard, click the Presale Dashboard link, then click  “Create Presale” to configure and preview the elements of your presale.

You can start and stop presales at any time in advance of your general release date.  Your presale doesn’t impact your general release dates at retailers and library platforms supplied by Smashwords.

10 Reasons to Run a Presale

  1. Thrill your readers - Your most enthusiastic readers will go wild over the opportunity to purchase and read your next release early, before its official publication date.
     
  2. Run private or public presales - Smashwords Presales supports both private and public presales.  With a private presale, Smashwords issues the author a private hyperlink to share with select readers or groups.  The hyperlink leads to a secret landing page from which the reader can make their purchase.  With a public presale, the presale is merchandised in the Smashwords Store and available to any reader.
     
  3. Turbocharge newsletter signups - Offer presale access as a loyalty reward for readers who subscribe to your private newsletter.  Your private newsletter is where most of your presales will come from.  Build a marketing platform you control!
     
  4. Capture customer email addresses – Wouldn’t it be cool if ebook retailers gave customers the option to subscribe to the mailing lists of their favorite authors and publishers?  Now it’s possible at the Smashwords Store thanks to Smashwords Presales. To take advantage of this capability, authors and publishers must first digitally sign a Smashwords Customer Email Privacy Pledge.  The customer is then presented with the option to subscribe to your private newsletter.  Or, if they don’t want to share their email, they can add the author to their Smashwords Alerts subscription, which notifies the reader whenever the author releases a new book at Smashwords.  Captured email addresses can be downloaded any time from the Presale Dashboard and then imported into your private mailing list.  Email capture is only available during the book’s presale period.
     
  5. Incentives for email sharing – We’re going the extra mile to help you build your mailing list.  Smashwords Presales enables authors and publishers to offer optional discount incentives to entice customers to share their email address.  Authors can configure a custom, pre-set discount offer that is presented to the customer at checkout.  Once the customer agrees to share their email with a specific author or publisher, they won’t be presented the incentive offer again for future releases from the same author.
     
  6. Compatible with KDP Select/KU Book Launches – Authors who plan to make their next ebook release exclusive to Amazon via KDP Select can satisfy a wider audience of readers by running a private or public presale at Smashwords BEFORE they enroll their ebook in KDP Select.  Here’s how:  1.  Upload your book to Smashwords as a preorder with a future release date, then immediately click to your Dashboard’s Channel Manager and opt the book out of all distribution channels (this will prevent your preorder listing from appearing at other retailers if that's your goal).  2.  Click to your Dashboard’s “Presale Dashboard” and follow the simple instructions to create and launch your public or private presale.  3.  When you’re ready to end your presale and enroll in KDP Select, click back to your main Dashboard, click unpublish and confirm, and voila, your book disappears from the Smashwords Store in seconds.  This same technique can be used by authors that distribute wide but prefer to upload direct to the major retailers.
     
  7. Works with Smashwords Coupons – Smashwords offers the industry’s broadest array of customizable coupon creation options for authors and publishers.  Authors can create custom coupon codes for cents-off, dollars-off, percentage-off, metered (limited redemption), public coupons, private coupons, time-limited coupons, and coupons that work across multiple books.  These features can be mixed and matched to create myriad customizable promotional options.  Using the metered coupons, for example, an author of a highly anticipated new release could create additional launch buzz by creating a coupon code that would entitle the first 1,000 presale customers to receive a dollar off, after which the coupon expires and the next presale customers would pay the regular price.  After you create your presale, click to your Dashboard’s Coupon Manager to create the coupon code.
     
  8. Satisfy readers on all e-reading devices – A popular feature of the Smashwords Store is that one purchase gives the customer access to multiple ebook file types (if authorized by the author/publisher), thereby allowing authors to satisfy readers on any e-reading device.  The author can use Smashwords-generated files by uploading their book as a Microsoft Word file or they can upload custom-designed .epub or .mobi files.
     
  9. Earn higher royalties – The Smashwords Store pays royalty rates of up to 80%, based on the checkout amount of the customer’s shopping cart.  Among common pricing sweet spots, a checkout amount of $2.99 earns 74% list; $3.99 earns 75% list, $4.99 earns 76% list and $5.99 earns 78% list.  Book or shopping cart totals at or above $7.99 earn 80% list or more.
     
  10. Option to require customers to sign anti-piracy pledge - One of the most common forms of ebook piracy is accidental piracy, which is when an enthusiastic reader shares a great ebook with a friend.  Authors and publishers have the option to require presale customers to digitally sign an anti-piracy pledge in which the customer must affirmatively agree that the book is licensed for their personal enjoyment only and they may not illegally share the ebook with anyone.  The pledge acts as a gentle reminder to customers of their legal and ethical obligation to respect the author’s intellectual property.

The Patent-Pending Technology Behind Smashwords Presales

The technology, systems and methods behind Smashwords Presales are patent pending.  This is the first time in our 11-year history that Smashwords filed to protect one of our many inventions.

The features revealed today within the Smashwords Presales tool barely scratch the surface of the innovations covered within the 65-page patent filing.  Smashwords submitted its patent filing to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on October 22, 2019 under the title, “A PRODUCT RELEASE SYSTEM, METHOD AND DEVICE HAVING A CUSTOMIZABLE PREPURCHASE FUNCTION.”  I’m a co-inventor along with Smashwords CTO Bill Kendrick.  An amended filing was made November 20 to consolidate claims and request fast-tracked review by the USPTO.  The USPTO, per law, publicly discloses and publishes patent filings 18 months after the filing date.  This means the general public can read the full patent filing starting around March 20, 2021.  International filings are planned.

To be clear, presales, alternately known as pre-purchases or exclusive early releases, are not a Smashwords invention.  Since the dawn of time, and before there were labels for such product release events, product creators have enjoyed varying degrees of freedom to launch their product when and where they choose.

When most people think of presales, they think of ticketed events.

What Smashwords has invented, as documented in the patent filing, takes the concept of presales to an entirely new level.

Unlike ticket presales where the customer must wait until the public performance to enjoy that performance, the Smashwords patent application covers products and services that are released early to select customers or affinity groups.

The Smashwords patent application describes a networked system that redefines the conventional temporal timeline for how online retailers and distributors collaborate with product creators to bring new products to market.

The patent application covers the creation, management, distribution, and merchandising of presale product listings across the ecommerce supply chain.  It covers physical and digital products and services sold over ecommerce, as well as the early release of products and services fulfilled to customers via subscription, streaming media, in-store customer pickups at brick and mortar retailers, and other methods.

We developed Smashwords Presales to address some of the most critical marketing and platform-building challenges faced by authors and publishers.  The same product marketing challenges faced by indie authors and publishers are shared by any individual or company that utilizes ecommerce to bring new products and services to market.

When shelf space moves from the physical to the virtual, it fundamentally changes everything for authors, publishers, any product creator, and customers.  Online retailers enable product creators to reach customers that were previously inaccessible to them, but it also creates new challenges.  Online shelf space is infinitely scalable, which means there’s no theoretical limit to the number of products that can be listed.  Retailers can list and stock an ever-increasing selection of products, and they’re able to keep those products in stock longer if not forever.  This creates a glut of millions of product listings crowding the virtual shelves of retailers, making new product launch discoverability more and more challenging with every day that passes.

For the last 30 years that I’ve been involved in helping companies and individuals bring new products to market, the conventional approach to product launches has always revolved a single product release date.  This single release date serves as the focal point around which all product development, production, distribution, marketing, merchandising and customer fulfillment revolves.  The product’s public release date also typically marks the point of peak customer demand and sales.

Tremendous energy and excitement
builds in advance of a release.
Harness the energy with presales.
There’s a tremendous amount of built-up energy tied to that single product release date.  Think of that single product release date as an atom.  Our invention splits the atom to unleash that energy for the product creator’s benefit.

In the features of Smashwords Presales launched today, for example, the author has the option to create a private presale they can choose to make available only to subscribers of their private newsletter.  This gives readers a strong incentive to subscribe, and when readers subscribe the author gains a double benefit – not only do they gain a high-margin sale, they’re also building an author- or publisher-controlled marketing platform where their relationship with the reader is no longer mediated by a social media platform or retailer.  The option to require the customer to digitally sign an anti-piracy pledge illustrates another positive implication - the opportunity for the product creator to exchange one thing of value to the customer (early access to a book) for something that's of value to the author (customer email address, reduced piracy).  The patent envisions myriad conditional access requirements that can be applied for the mutual benefit of customers, product creators and retailers.

The Smashwords patent application envisions a future ecommerce where product creators, and the retailers and distributors that support them, can collaborate on the launch of new products where, in addition to the public release date, there can be one or more early release dates, referred to in the patent application as prepurchase events.  It fundamentally transforms the conventional temporal timeline for new product introductions, and along with that transformation comes exciting new opportunities for product creators and retailers to generate greater customer excitement, target different customer segments more effectively with custom marketing campaigns, and to raise the visibility of new product launches.

Although the patent application – if granted – would provide Smashwords the exclusive right to exploit the invention as described in the application for a period of 20 years, it is not our intention to keep this to ourselves.  Smashwords is but a small fish in the small ocean that is book publishing.

Millions of new products and services are brought to market each year via ecommerce.  The invention raises the prospect that each of those new product introductions could sport multiple, customizable public or private product launch events.  We’re confident that such orchestrated presale events will eventually be recognized as an essential best practice for all new product launches, just as preorders are today.  We think readers will find presales more exciting than preorders.

What’s good for the creators of ebooks is also good for the creators of audiobooks, print books, digital music, games, software applications, art, consumer electronics, apparel, financial services, hospitality services and any other new product or service that can be listed, marketed, launched, and released early via online retail.

The global market for ecommerce, measured by the value of products and services sold online, is over $4 trillion annually.  In the U.S. alone, the market is nearly $600 billion.  A sizable percentage of these annual sales are derived from new product introductions that can directly benefit from our invention.

Smashwords Patent Licensing

We want to accelerate the adoption and commercialization of the invention across the industry so every product creator, retailer, distributor and customer can benefit from this.  This means that in addition to our desire to make this invention available to Smashwords partners, competitors and others in the book publishing industry, we also want to make the invention available to product creators, retailers and distributors outside of publishing.

Therefore, effective immediately, we’ll begin opening up licensing discussions with online retailers inside and outside of book publishing.  Since the patent has not been granted yet, it means we’ll be licensing trade secrets, technology and know-how to help retailers build elements of the invention into their platforms so product creators can take advantage of it.

As described in great detail in the patent filing, retailers and distributors have enormous flexibility to build the invention into their existing platforms, and then to use it as a foundation for further innovation and collaboration across the supply chain.

Retailer licensees will be offered the ability to issue limited sublicenses of the invention to their distributors, aggregators and product suppliers. Licensing inquiries can be directed to my attention at presales@smashwords.com

What Comes Next

The first major retailer or subscription service to adopt this will gain the ability to onboard a lot of exclusive product listings, and to harness the energy and excitement of early access.

In the meantime, we’re not waiting for potential licensees to recognize the potential and build this into their platforms.  Smashwords Presales is available today in the Smashwords Store.  In the months and years ahead you’ll see Smashwords continue to build out Smashwords Presales with additional first-of-their-kind capabilities covered within the patent application.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Smashwords Introduces Global Coupons

At Smashwords, we're committed to providing our authors and publishers the greatest possible control over their ebook publishing, distribution and marketing. 

Today I'm pleased to announce Global Coupons, a new marketing tool that enables authors and publishers to assign a single coupon code to two or more books in their catalog. 

Global Coupons are a boon to authors and publishers that want to initiate, track, and manage custom marketing campaigns encompassing multiple titles. 

With the addition of Global Coupons, authors and publishers now have another powerful Smashwords-exclusive marketing tool they can use to attract readers and turn fans into superfans. 

Authors and publishers can use Global Coupons to drive subscriber acquisition for private newsletters, reward reader loyalty, distribute review copies to reviewers and media, and make their books eligible for discovery with the Smashwords Store's ever-present “Special Deals” shelves.

How to Create Global Coupons

Here’s a step-by-step checklist for creating Global Coupons:
  1. Click to the Smashwords Dashboard’s Coupon Manager feature
  2. To create a single coupon code spanning multiple titles, either click the “Select all Books for Global Coupon” option, or select books individually
  3. Click “Generate Global Coupon”
  4. Next, select if you want to apply a flat percentage off to all books (i.e. 23%-off), or set a unified price (i.e. if you wanted to price all books at $1.00, or any other price), or you can choose to set unique and individual prices or discount levels for each title
  5. Set an expiration date
  6. Select if you want the Global Coupon public or private (with a public coupon, participating titles will be merchandised as on sale in the Smashwords Store, and available for discovery through the home page’s “Special Deals’ features; with a private coupon, the author or publisher decides where to share their coupon code).
  7. Assign an optional Campaign Label, which allows authors and publishers to more easily track redemptions from their Sales & Payments reports
  8. Click “Create Coupons” and you're done!

The Global Coupons feature is available now as an exclusive tool for all Smashwords authors and publishers.  The coupons work only in the Smashwords Store.

We quietly introduced the feature two weeks ago within the Dashboard’s Coupon Manager.  Although we didn't tell anyone about it, hundreds of authors and publishers have already discovered the feature and used it to attach Global Coupons to over 13,000 books.  Two publishers used the feature to assign a Global Coupon to over 800 books each, all with a few simple clicks.  Dozens more have used it to generate Global Coupons spanning over 100 books each.

If you've got two or more books at Smashwords, give it a try and let us know what you think.




Enjoy!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

10th Annual Read an Ebook Week Sale Starts March 3

Mark your calendars! 

The 10th annual Smashwords Read an Ebook Week sale kicks off Sunday March 3 and runs through Saturday March 9.

Thousands of Smashwords authors, publishers and readers will participate in this international ebook celebration featuring thousands of exclusive deals on great books. 

Authors and Publishers:  Enrollment is now open at https://www.smashwords.com/dashboard/sitewidePromos   The sale will be promoted to over one million Smashwords customers.  Don't miss out!

With a few clicks, you can enroll your books into discount categories of 25% off, 50% off, 75% off or FREE. 

To enroll all your books at once, click the Enroll button immediately below the discount level you desire.  This is a huge time saver for authors and publishers who manage dozens, hundreds or even thousands of titles.

Readers: When the promotion goes live on Sunday March 3, visit the Smashwords home page where you'll find multiple options to explore the participating titles.

Here are two shortcuts:
Be sure to check back daily because thousands of new books will join the sale throughout the week.

How to Join the Celebration

Here's a quick checklist to help you get the most out of the Read an Ebook Week event:

  1. Authors and publishers:  Enroll your books now at https://www.smashwords.com/dashboard/sitewidePromo.  You'll also find a link on the Smashwords home page.  If you're not yet publishing with Smashwords, now's a great time to join the over 130,000 authors and publishers around the world who publish and distribute ebooks with Smashwords.  Visit https://www.smashwords.com/about/how_to_publish_on_smashwords for an overview of our free publishing and distribution services, and then click "Join" to get started.
     
  2. Authors and publishers: Each day during the week long sale, celebrate your participation across your social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blog, private mailing lists).   Include a direct hyperlink to your author or publisher page.  Also be sure to complete your Smashwords Interview (also accessible under "Interview Manager" in your Smashwords Dashboard) so prospective readers can learn the story behind your authorship. 
     
  3. Authors and readers:  Visit the Smashwords Read an Ebook Week event page at https://www.smashwords.com/ebookweek where you'll find downloadable buttons, banners and images you can share on social media to promote your participation in the event. 
     
  4. Readers:  When you discover a great deal, share it with your friends on social media.  Be sure to tag the author (find their Twitter and Facebook addresses on their Smashwords author profile page) so they know you downloaded their book!  To promote the sale to your friends, share this hyperlink which places the reader into the heart of the Read an Ebook Week Catalog:  https://www.smashwords.com/shelves/promos/1/any/any
     
  5. The official hashtags for the promotion are #Smashwords and #ebookweek19

This promotion is exclusive to the Smashwords store.  It will not impact prices at other retailers.  Enjoy!

Monday, December 31, 2018

2019 Book Industry Predictions: The Butterflies Will Flap Their Wings

Welcome to my annual publishing predictions.

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 Nation

 If 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 Indies

When 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.

Point taken.

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 Publishing

The 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.”

Now I get why KDP Select is so successful for Amazon, but not so much for authors.  Now I understand why my attempts to warn authors for the last seven years have failed.

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 2019

Predictions 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)