Tuesday, December 31, 2019

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: 
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)


Pamela Cummins said...

Sadly, for some Indie authors money is more important for them than their independence. Take the case of an author who knows that Amazon is paying him less than the amount of books sold through his Amazon ads reports, and in his own words, “But at least I’m making money.” Really? You don’t mind a company ripping you off?

What’s even worse is this is not only happening to eBooks, but now it’s occurring for paperbacks. If you’re like me who decided to publish through Ingram Sparks instead of Kindle Print, Amazon may lower the price of the paperback to outbid Walmart. They even priced my $12.99 paperback to $4.36, an insulting price that is way below cost, and would rather take a loss to have the lowest price! Ingram Sparks has been bombarded with emails and phone calls to the point where they state on their voice recording to press a number to receive a text link, which then takes the author to a blog on how they are not responsible for what other companies do on their platforms. I also learned that the only way to take my paperback off of Amazon is to take it out of distribution. Sure, I could go thru the work and hassle of putting the same paperback through Kindle Print. However, I refuse to feed the monster and keep my independence,hence the reason I paid for a package of ISBNs and went with Ingram Sparks to publish my paperbacks.

There are many ways authors and publishers can take their power back by going wide, start a mailing list, sell on their own sites, and link their social media posts back to a page on their own website and/or blog (with bookstores' links or to their own sale page) instead of just Amazon.

I’m grateful for Smashwords, Google Play, Barnes and Nobles, and so forth… that provide a place to sell my eBooks where I don’t have to worry about what their latest stunt will be. And I will support them to avoid being limited to only one platform that only thinks of their own bottom line.

Bruce said...

Interesting how the previous comment says two different things:

1. Amazon may lower the price of the paperback to outbid Walmart. They even priced my $12.99 paperback to $4.36, an insulting price that is way below cost, and would rather take a loss to have the lowest price! and

2. And I will support them to avoid being limited to only one platform that only thinks of their own bottom line.

So which is it...is Amazon always looking to their bottom line, or taking a hit?

I maintain the problem is not Amazon, and never has been. The problem is a gargantuan number of ebooks on the market, and how to best make them available equally. There is not enough space by any retailer/business/store to bring this about. You cannot fairly represent all books. With a few thousand, sure, but that's what the Big Publishers did when they restricted the books on the market. No one wants to go back to those days.

But now the market is wide open and everyone has flooded in. That is the reality that isn't going away.

So I applaud Amazon's efforts to make it work. And what on earth is wrong in advertising? Businesses who want to stay in business better advertise, and Amazon can't stay in business if they don't make money. They offer authors to the ability to put their books into a big pot, and they are paying millions of dollars each month to these authors. In what way is that not fair? In what way is that devaluing books? It's the customers who choose what to read.

Amazon helped open the floodgates to what we see in today's book market, and all I hear is complaining how they are being so unfair to authors. That is not balanced, and therefore the arguments in this writing don't square. They still offer 70%, they offer advertising services, they allow you to set up and make changes to paperbacks without charging any fees. Heck, they even pay authors when the giveaway codes they provide to authors are used to purchase the audio books! Findaway Voices doesn't do that, and never will.

Bree Bee said...

I've been a Smashwords author for years. I love the platform, and read these predictions every year. In 2018, I took advantage of the Findaway Voices partnership to start getting my books produced on audio. I'm a little disappointed to read here that you think audiobooks have already peaked. After spending a great deal of money on the production, I haven't yet recouped a tenth of that investment. But at the same time, I've probably sold more audiobook copies than ebooks in 2019, which is both heartening and sad at the same time.

Question: What kind of feedback have you been getting on the new arrangement of the main page of Smashwords.com with the categories? As an author, I'm sorely disappointed by it. The best thing about the Smashwords store was that it was democratic and allowed every author the same opportunity to be seen. I loved that the newest releases showed up on the page first because it was our chance to make an impact. Now there are rows of bestsellers, often the same books repeated in different categories, and the new releases have been relegated to the bottom of the page. It feels a bit like Smashwords sold us out to make an extra buck on the surer thing...

As for Amazon, KDP Select is a flytrap. It always has been and always will be. In an oversaturated market, people who have the money to pay to be seen will always come out on top. Sad to say I agree with your assessment that it will drive not only the lazy hobbyists, but also good writers without a strong enough platform out of the writing game. I've seen authors take to Patreon as an alternative and supplement to their royalties income. That may be a viable path in the future. Thoughts?

Pamela Cummins said...

@Bruce To answer your question of - So which is it...is Amazon always looking to their bottom line, or taking a hit?

Amazon has always taken a hit/loss on books and other products for their bottom line. Why? To squash out other competitors.

Do you think I want Amazon to take a loss on my non-fiction paperback and price it for that ridiculous amount because of their price war with Walmart? I was outraged by this action, which is why I went to Ingram Sparks to see if I could remove the paperback from their platform! Again, Ingram Sparks can’t remove a paperback from any platform because they distribute to thousands of bookstores and vendors. Personally, I became an Indie author to have complete control over my books and not be dictated by any company.

Shawn said...

I quit Amazon last year. They were burying my books in search results because I steadfastly refused to be exclusive to them. It is astonishing that authors still defend them. Amazon is, factually, indefensible. Especially morally. I'm with our future president, Elizabeth Warren, when she talks about breaking Amazon up.

I have not been a member of Facebook since 2010. I'll never go back. Nor will I ever be a member of Instagram.

I refuse as well to give up my data to Twitter.

Google is no innocent in this as well. Increasingly, Google search pushes out indies in favor of big "known" entities, regardless of field. My wife is a copywriter; she's got tons of anecdotes and data to regale disbelievers, as do her colleagues.

As for Smashwords: I have taken over the past year multiple screenshots of Smashwords' landing page, which, until very recently, featured at times 90% romance. It's actually gone higher on occasion. Again--until very recently, when changes were obviously made to be more representative.

No matter. I have 24 titles on Smashwords. There won't be a 25th. I have never made enough money to "make a living" writing; I'm extremely lucky in that my spouse supports me totally. I have looked hundreds of times for RJs ("real" jobs") in the past decade, but ageism is a very real problem in this nation, and so I have been repeatedly "passed over." So I write, and I play house-husband to my bacon-earning wife. Good enough. We live very simply and frugally. It works. For now.

I agree with thinkers like Cal Newport, Jaron Lanier, and others who urge creatives to take control of their own data and their own platforms. To that end I will be selling directly to readers from now on and not using big public platforms like Smashwords, which doesn't care one whit if I'm there or not, just as Amazon never cared. Why would they? I'm small fry, a nobody! More to the point, I don't write 3k-word romance "novels" in an endless attempt to game the system and the front page. In fact, I don't write romance at all. I'm gross buckets, useless, a waste of space.

I'm also done.

Only a handful of writers in the entire world can live on their writing. With giant platforms squeezing that power curve ever harder into the Y-axis, that number is only going to go down. It is time for a motherfuckin' revolution, folks. It isn't just in writing that this squashing is occurring. We're being robbed, and it's time to fight back, with guns if need be.

I remember when the Internet was going to level the playing field and democratize everything. What a joke. What a cruel, monstrous joke.


Vanessa Finaughty said...

Right from the start, I have steadfastly refused to go KDP Select, seeing the sense in not putting all my eggs in one basket - and have never sold a single copy of any of my books on Amazon, despite selling copies across numerous other platforms, including Smashwords. In fact, if I search for my books or author name on Amazon, sometimes they don't even come up in the search results! This just proves to me that, if I want to remain independent and retain control over my books, I should stick to my resolve to never give Amazon full publishing rights.

This year, I plan to try to find someone who can read professionally, but who isn't too expensive (perhaps someone with talent trying to break into the market), to read my books so that I can start selling audiobooks too.

Catseye1979 said...

I love the pre-sale option. I've always managed my release dates carefully (making sure amazon is the last retailer to see my book) and the pre-sale will make it so much simpler. Keep up the good work and thanks!

-Marc Van Pelt

henrytobias said...

It is still an almost impossible task to sell enough books to take one's family out for a meal at MacDonald's even once a year. The market is flooded with books, 99.99% of which are rubbish. Too many authors give their books away for free.
As well as short story anthologies and love stories, I also write adult erotic novels and decided to illustrate these novels with nude and erotic non-pornographic photos. Smashwords rejected these novels, so I now publish on Amazon Select.
My other novels are still on Smashwords.
It seems almost impossible to receive recognition without spending a lot of money advertising via Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Unknown said...

I wish there the playing field was more even, and that Amazon wasn't such a huge chunk of the market. But I also have to live in reality. I've got a family for which I need to provide, twin girls who need to be raised, so with writing as my main source of income, I've got to go where I can make the most money. That is Amazon, and I make 60% of my Amazon money with Select.

I've tried to go wide, and I keep testing the market with entire series, but it has always cost me revenue each time.

I love writing, and I love being a writer, but my family comes first. Bottom line.

Yes, I know that "if we all banded together," we can change the paradigm, but I don't see a rush to do that. I'm not going to be the one to sacrifice my income for the greater good. Like I posted above, my family comes first.

Ruth Ann Nordin said...

I'm one of the authors who is consistently losing income. Ever since 2015, it's been in decline. I think it mostly has to do with the number of ebooks in the marketplace. Readers can't get to all the books out there. When the supply is greater than demand, this will end up affecting the ability to sell a product. I like the idea of being as independent from retailers as possible. I think newsletters are helpful. I also like blogging since it allows readers to opt into subscribing to my blog posts. Then readers get an email in their inbox. Since we can't change the retailers, I think it's best to look at stuff within our direct control.

In addition to that, my method is to be as wise with my money as possible. Save what you can. Learn how to do as much on your own as possible so you don't have to pay someone else to do it. Barter services. Only spend money on ads if you get a profit. Don't go into debt. If you're in debt, dig your way out as fast as possible. Stuff like that makes a big difference in the level of stress you experience when you're a writer.

Debbi said...

Thank you, Mark, for saying this!

I could write a whole fricking book on this subject. And I may just do that. :)

Joel Puga said...

Are there still that many hobbyists publishing eBooks? I thought most of them had jumped to other platforms where they don't have to deal with formatting eBooks, sales channels and the "writing is a business" (from their point of view) nonsense.

Ernie J. Zelinski said...

First, thanks for the great article and your insights. Also thanks for introducing me to the essay titled, "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" by Carlo M. Cipolla. I may have to use some of the material in my new book called "Money Wisdom for Smart People - Dummies Don't Bother!"

For 2019, my books sales are down but will still have sold just a touch over 30,000 copies as compared to 35,000 copies in 2018. This breaks down to 25,000 print copies, 4,000 ebooks, and 1,000 audio books. I have never used KDP Select. Yes, I disagree with some of the things that Amazon has done lately. Nevertheless, Amazon is the reason a number of writers have been able to make a great income from ebooks and print books. Indeed, if it wasn't for Amazon, the ebook industry wouldn't be anything as big as it is today.

I first self-published in 1989 (before Amazon existed) and have made a decent living from self-publishing since 1991 when I self-published "The Joy of Not Working." Here is the problem with the publishing industry: There are way too many ebooks and way too many print books. On October 15 "Publishers Weekly" reported that the total number of print and e-books that were self-published in 2018 was 1.68 million, up from 1.19 million in 2017. Unfortunately, today practically anyone can afford to preach in the desert. Near as I can tell, the majority of self-published writers have a sense of entitlement and suffer from the world-owes-me-a-living syndrome.

Fact is, there is no easy way to being successful at the game of writing and self-publishing. It takes superb critical thinking skills, superb creative thinking skills, and common sense, which most people don't have. I offer these words of wisdom from other knowledgeable people who have inspired me to attain the personal freedom and financial independence that I enjoy today because of my self-publishing:

"Very Good Is Bad — It's Not Good Enough!"
— Seth Godin (My favorite Marketing Guru)

"Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read."
— Michael Korda, former Editor-in-Chief at Simon & Schuster

"The shortest and best way to make your fortune is to let people see clearly that it is in their interests to promote yours."
— Jean de La Bruy√©re

"In the arena of human life the honors and rewards fall to those who show their good qualities in action."
— Aristotle

"Books work as an art form (and an economic one) because they are primarily the work of an individual."
— Seth Godin

"Writing is the hardest way to earn a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators."
— Olin Miller

"Your success and prosperity are too valuable to depend on crowd funding or lottery tickets."
— Seth Godin

"Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity."
— Christopher Morley

“The amount of money you make will always be in direct proportion to the demand for what you do, your ability to do it, and the difficulty of replacing you.”
— Earl Nightingale

If these words of wisdom don't resonate with you big time, I doubt very much if you can ever be truly successful as a self-published author.

Ernie J. Zelinski
International Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Unconventional Career Coach
Author of the Bestseller "How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free"
(Over 400,000 copies sold and published in 11 languages)
and the International Bestseller "The Joy of Not Working"
(Over 310,000 copies sold and published in 17 foreign languages)

Michael Allan Scott said...

Great insights,

However, how do you we specifically do this?

"It starts with fiercely defending the independence upon which the indie author movement was born."

Exactly what actions would you have us undertake?

Respectfully, MAS

Ruth Ann Nordin said...

Ernie J. Zelinski, I love how you think. My goal is to be financially independent so I can keep writing because writing is my number one passion. I don't need to be a millionaire. I'm just aiming to have enough to sustain a living without having to worry about how many books I sell. I'm going to check out your books since you seem to line up with the other people I've been listening to and reading on the subject of financial independence.

Nirmala said...

Here is a contrary view that suggests that ebook subscription services are the wave of the future based on what has happened in the music and film/TV industries: https://www.forbes.com/sites/billrosenblatt/2020/01/03/why-ebook-subscription-services-will-finally-succeed-in-the-coming-decade/#6fa90fcb5dba

The article suggests that this would require another major player (Apple, Walmart) enter the book subscription arena.

Sunshine City Girl said...

Hi Mark! Fascinating analysis. I think there's another component that's on the rise, and that's serial fiction apps like Wattpad and Radish. This past year, I made a tidy amount off Radish and Wattpad's new Paid Stories program. The latter is more similar to traditional publishing in that Wattpad selects the books for the Paid program. But I'm finding that I reach a lot of global readers that way, without dealing with Amazon at all (I do have other books on Amazon, and iBooks and other venues).

Wattpad is worth watching, IMO.

Dr. King said...

"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."

You are perfectly right there. When amazon even started putting ads in author page, I objected to it by telling the same thing to them. They are basically going to lose customer's confidence by doing such things, while killing many authors who cannot afford to pay for ads. I don't know whether amazon got the point. But they stopped putting ads in author pages!

But probably every one has started doing it now-a-days. Kobo even wants you to pay for your free books! Findaway, chirp also hint that they will be charging for promotion/visibility.

I feel it is totally unethical when the seller/distributor who gets a cut, wants to extract more by means of ads/ visibility etc. Ultimately, the quality of a book should advertise for itself, or may be reviews (but even these are faked ).

As for audiobooks, I have decided to put no more books on amazon/audible for the kind of treatment they give to audiobooks. I have even written to them expressing my dissent. I feel that authors should assert themselves rather than compromise.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your comments. I cannot comment on them. However, I will share my personal take on success. I have two indie books out and feel they are a success because they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were written. I have lost money on their sales/giveaways, but they were both written to draw the reader closer to God--not for the financial gain.There is more than one way to measure success. Lorena Keck

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I always love reading your predictions for the upcoming year, but this one hits home for me, because it aligns with what I've been thinking and doing for the past year. While all my friends have been jumping aboard the KU train, I've instinctively held out, all the while wondering if I was making a big mistake and missing out. Your take on things reinforces my sense that one shouldn't put all one's eggs in one basket and that those who do are only greasing the guillotine (yes, that's a mixed metaphor, but I'm an author, and I can write whatever I want). I also appreciate the Nash equilibrium concept of Intelligence inherent in "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity," so thank you for that reference. Presales? Genius. (Glynnis Campbell)

Kevin Williams said...

read 'em both. I ignored audio books; the day I saw it here I also saw 50 audio books for $1 at Giant Tiger.

amazon? Comedy club wants 80% of everything you make for the rest of your life.
welcome to the future.

sf cons charge for intros (writing lessons), space on freebie table, contest entry, and (comment space) sorry, ran out of things there.

Same old, same old. Find readers, not thieves. Write popular without getting smeared. Talk to 'em all.

and if your don't have relatives or brilliance, have luck.

pat donovan (aka Kevin Williams)

Kevin Williams said...

read 'em both. I ignored audio books; the day I saw it here I also saw 50 audio books for $1 at Giant Tiger.

amazon? Comedy club wants 80% of everything you make for the rest of your life.
welcome to the future.

sf cons charge for intros (writing lessons), space on freebie table, contest entry, and (comment space) sorry, ran out of things there.

Same old, same old. Find readers, not thieves. Write popular without getting smeared. Talk to 'em all.

and if your don't have relatives or brilliance, have luck.

pat donovan (aka Kevin Williams)