Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Sunset or sunrise on the Indie Summer?

Stephen  Leather, 19th September 2011, UK Amazon Forum:
"I think a lot of 'Indie' writers are going to find the times ahead quite difficult. Most don't really understand how publishing works and have had their hopes and ambitions raised by the sudden interest in eBooks which started late last year. But the simple fact of publishing remains the same - very very few writers make a living from their writing. It has always been that way and just because companies like Amazon make it easy for anyone to publish their work doesn't change that fact.

A lot of Indies thought that because they were selling lots of books at the start of this year that they now had a guaranteed income stream and that they would be earning money for ever more. That's not how publishing works. It doesn't work that way with paperbacks and people are starting to realise that it doesn't work that way with eBooks either. Most of the books that were in the Top 10 at the start of the year are now selling just a few copies a day. Writers who were heading the bestseller lists in the spring are now lucky if they have a book in the Top 100. And by next year most will have dropped out of the Top 1000. Books come, and they go. So do writers. It has always been a precarious way of earning a living and that hasn't changed!

What we have seen over the past year isn't so much a revolution as a bubble. The bubble isn't going to pop, but it is now deflating slowly and will continue to do so, and my prediction is that once everything has settled the eBook bestseller lists will be dominated by the same names that top the print lists. Just my humble opinion...."

Mark Williams, 11th September 2011:
"Fully one third of the top 500 ebooks on Amazon are indie-published. That means that the trad publishers, with all their money, their professional resources and their years of expertise, their huge marketing budgets and their acclaimed ability to know what readers want to read, combined with long-published names that have loyal followings built up over decades, can only manage to hold 66% of the market.

Indie publishers, on their own, often complete beginners, unknown names with no following, no resources and a shoestring budget, are mopping up 33% of the ebook market. And that can only get bigger.

How on Earth can totally inexperienced indie authors, most with day-jobs, just come along and outsell the experts? Here’s why: The success of the indie e-publisher is based on their ability to be flexible; to price low; to offer quick turnaround; and to engage directly with readers and deliver what the readers  actually want to read, not what the gatekeepers think readers should be reading."

So who is right?
Speaking from my own experience, just when I expected to sell more - the two month Amazon Summer Sale is over, and I've published two new books - my sales have slowed dramatically. I am not alone; it seems to be happening to most other indie writers. See this thread here on Kindleboards. The consensus is that Amazon has tweaked its algorithms twice this year, back in spring and about a week ago, each change incidentally making it a less favourable marketplace for the self-published, and better for the big publishers.

Publishing is still in a state of turmoil, though, and the fat lady sings on. Pottermore, due to launch next month, will be a game changer. Agents and publishers feel beleaguered, and with good reason. Indies have got a taste of freedom and success, and will never again feel quite so abject towards the publishing industry.

For me, the last year has enabled me to prove there is a readership for my writing, and cock a snook (whatever that may be) at all the agents who rejected my novels. I've sold over 44,000 books, and made quite a bit of money. Even if it is all downhill from now on, I'll be eternally grateful for the opportunities Amazon gave me.


  1. A simple sum...

    Writers need Readers

    Readers need books

    books + sales = Writers

    Too many books + too many writer = not enough readers
    Means no sales = poor writers

  2. This whole subject is fraught with fixed, dogmatic viewpoints that approach religion, so it's hard to say much without inciting arguments. A few points I'd suggest:

    Ebooks are a technology; not a business model. Any business model can sell ebooks.

    It's very much in Amazon's financial interest to turn every book sale into an ebook sale. Real numbers to which Amazon can be held accountable are not well known. You wouldn't believe the trouble investment analysts have squeezing actual sales breakdowns out of Amazon's company statements.

    Since Amazon represents almost all ebook sales, and since Amazon can be relied on to colour things in their own favour, whatever they claim for ebooks can be assumed to be somewhat better than what is actually happening in the market.

    The only equation that matters is SALES X PRICE. Since the market isn't fully elastic -- nothing like it in fact -- neither price nor sales on their own mean much.

    The northern hemisphere summer is a known slow point for publishing. You've probably noticed blog hits drop too. Mainstream publishers schedule their light holiday reads for this period. I wouldn't worry much if sales are currently low. Hang in there, Lexi.

  3. Lexi, I've seen the complete reverse in my case. Started off very slow in February and now picking up speed. Certainly not in but in .com and I'm happy. It won't support me, it never could, but it validates the writing and makes me realise there is a niche readership for my books.
    The model will change, there is no doubt, but it will be in Amazon's favour. I think Mark's comment is key, that indie writers have the freedom and capacity to change swiftly with the model.
    But in the long run, the best way to keep the readership is to write THE best book you can.
    I have to say I agree with the comment you made on Facebook: this whole experience has bought as much joy from contact with the readership as with making any money!

  4. The low pricing by many indies has been a great temptation to those with new ereaders to play with, but I'm not sure it's sustainable long term. Personally I'd be happiest to pay around £4 for an ebook (ie a bit less than a paperback from Amazon)and as long as the quality of the story, writing, editing, production, etc is equal then I don't care who the publisher is.

    Of course, getting me to know that the book exists remains the main problem. And, yourself not included Lexi, many indies aren't producing stuff of the same quality as established publishers - they just think they are.

    I'm pleased you've done well from the turmoil, Lexi, and hope you pilot a safe course through wherever the river runs next.


  5. Aww such bleakness!! I say bravo Lexi for selling these many books!!! Good luck to you!

    Do forgive me though if I continue to fly the flag for print and snook a cock (so rude!) at all things eeeeeeeeeee! LOL! Take care

  6. It's impossible to say whether Stephen or Mark is right about the way things are ahead. There are so many factors at play.

    As an e-book shopper, I've come to love the lower prices of indies, have read more since buying my Kindle than I have of any year in the past 20 and have discovered some truly memorable books from talented writers. I do wholeheartedly agree with this observation from Mark: "...deliver what the readers actually want to read, not what the gatekeepers think readers should be reading."

    Over the past year, it does seem to me that it has gotten more difficult for new indies to gain a foothold. Some of thus may have to do with the long backlists being released by publishers and authors. It's going to take time, a few years perhaps, for this crazy e-book market to settle and gain a direction.

    As an indie author, I'm in this for the long haul.

  7. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all had a crystal ball and knew how this was going to play out. But we don't - all we can do is carry on writing the best books we possibly can, present them as professionally as possible. Then celebrate our successes and keep angst over Amazon whims and fancies to a minimum. There's so much we can't change - but we do have a responsibility to present the very best work we can.

  8. I think both are partly right. I agree with Stephen's proposition that it will still be difficult to make a living (as it is in any arts field) but it won't necessarily be the same "big names." I say the exact same amount of writers will be successful and with the same amount of money, but half of them will be new names.

    I think Mark is absolutely correct--but only for this fleeting moment in time. As we've seen, huge seismic forces are at work. Amazon could alter the entire landscape with one swipe of its magic wand, and then the "successful indies" will be scrambling for day jobs, myself included.

    These beliefs aren't surprising--Stephen is "old money" and Mark is "new money" so of course they are going to espouse their personal beliefs as truths. But that makes neither a universal truth.

    The antidote is to keep jumping and keep inventing and don't expect anything to stay the same. It never does!

  9. Some really interesting insights here - thanks to you all for commenting.

  10. Thanks for the shout-out, Lexi!

    Some interesting points by Stephen, but must disagree by and large.

    “But the simple fact of publishing remains the same - very very few writers make a living from their writing. It has always been that way and just because companies like Amazon make it easy for anyone to publish their work doesn't change that fact.”

    But we can see daily that writers are deserting the publishers in their droves because they can, are, and will make far more as indies.

    For the lucky few who have a well-established career and a huge backlist selling internationally, like Stephen himself, clearly there is no reason to jump ship.

    But Stephen has a foot in both camps. His self-published works benefit tremendously from the links to his trad-published works, and vice versa.

    However the number of authors making a living writing, by taking their backlist and going indie, is growing by the day. As the paper market continues to implode that can only increase. Unless and until the trad publishers seriously re-think their strategy they are never going to attract these lost authors back.

    Meanwhile the trad-publisher’s appeal to new writers diminishes by the day. Low royalties, lousy advances, total lack of control and the ridiculous amount of time to get to market, only to be priced into oblivion for all but the lucky 10%, make all but the most deluded newbies think twice.

    As my guests show time and again over at MWI, new writers are regularly out-earning the average advance in a matter of months by going indie. Some are making far, far more. No, they’re not earning a living yet, but they’re earning far more than they would have had they gone the trad route.

  11. (Blogger made me split my response!)

    Just because something has always been that way doesn’t mean it always will be that way, as the trad publishers are finding to their cost.

    Their complacency, and often arrogance with their “we know best what readers want” attitude, combined with their ludicrous casino-like business practices (what other industry would take three years to get a simple product to market and run a 90% failure rate?) have left them scrambling to catch up.

    I agree with Stephen that anyone who thinks anything guaranteed is living in a dream-world.

    But that’s far more true for the trad published author than the indie.

    As indies we can respond and move on when conditions change. Most trad authors are locked into their genre, bound by non-compete contracts, and tied up with red tape from agents, that stops them adapting.

    Stephen predicts that “once everything has settled the eBook bestseller lists will be dominated by the same names that top the print lists."

    To the extent that the trad publishers have the financial muscle to ensure that happens, by buying reviews in the mass media, splashing out on advertising, etc, as they have always done, this is true. But does that matter?

    There are plenty of writers now making a very comfortable living without reaching the top 100, and that number will grow. Most full-time “successful” authors do not have chart best-sellers. They still do very well nonetheless. Being a “best-seller” is a bonus. It’s not the be all and end all.

    The problem for the start-up indies is they are new and have no backlist. That will come with time.

    What they do have is freedom. Freedom to write what they want, to innovate, and to give the reader what they want to read. Stephen knows that. That’s why he self-publishes so many titles.

    On the algorithm changes, interesting to note these come each time at the end of the Amazon sales, so perhaps more a readjustment to reality than a sweeping change in favour of trad publishers?

    The reality is trad publishers are dropping ebook prices and realising they can make money for selling for less, as I said they would on MWi way back in April.

    The competition will get stiffer for the top chart places, no question. But the pie is expanding exponentially. E-reader numbers are about to take off as we run up to Xmas. There’s plenty of room for everybody, if the product is right.

    Scott, as you say, “Amazon could alter the entire landscape with one swipe of its magic wand.”

    Which is why any sensible author will be spreading their bets.

    Btw, Scott, love the “old money vs new money” analogy. Reminds me of a film I once saw.

    The Titanic.

  12. Great post Lexi, and great comments, too! I'm like Mesmered. I didn't start publishing until this year, and for the most part have been watching my sales grow slowly, month over month. It took me until April to get my backlist pubbed. Including my pseudonym Jordan Marshall, I've pubbed 10 titles this year. These are titles I could NOT sell to legacy publishers, because agents wouldn't even look at them. Now, I'm selling copies every single day, and I'm getting lots of positive feedback.

    Cynics will point out that Amazon has a ranking system, and my rank ain't that great. So what? I'm getting paid to write, I'm building a fan base, and I'm increasing sales consistently. That's validation. I'm building a career here, and as everyone knows, 'overnight success' takes years.

    I believe that as I continue to publish, Amazon will continue to help me sell books. We have a mutually beneficial relationship. At the same time I see Legacy publishers giving deals to Indies. I see them lowering prices on e-books (gradually). I also see them trying to force contracted writers to pull their Indie work. These are mixed signals at best, and it's tough to spin them as signs that the industry is in good shape. I'm not saying legacy publishing will die. I hope it won't. I'd like to see my books in the bookstore someday.

    But anyone who throws up their hands and walks away because they didn't sell a million copies right out of the gate isn't a writer anyway. They can move on to the next get-rich-quick scheme and the rest of us will continue living our dreams (humble as they may be).

  13. These are both excellent quotes and both true in their own ways. I am RTing it :)

    Meanwhile, I am downloading Remix just as soon as I publish this comment!

  14. Karen, thank you, and I hope you enjoy Remix :o)

  15. As someone who is still going the trad route, I'm watching all this with fascination. I'm not ready to go the indie route, but it's not something I amd totally discounting. I wouldn't have said that a year ago.

  16. Oh and Lexi, 44,000 is amazing!

  17. Justine, as you write for the younger reader, you'd be wise anyway to wait till post-Pottermore and post-Christmas, when LOADS of children will be getting e-readers...

  18. When Kindle's hit it big 2 years ago, there wasn't a whole lot of backlist. It was expensive NY Times Best Sellers or cheap Indie books.

    It isn't surprising sales for Indies would change as backlist became common.

    That doesn't mean the game is over for the Indies. It just means the play field is getting crowded with higher quality players.

    If this summer was the market's first shakedown - no problem. The next wave of readers are at the gate, waiting for their chance.

    It is possible that every summer there will be a lull that results in a shakedown. I don't know of any industry that doesn't have slow times.

    When people bought all those books last winter, they needed time to read them. It is likely this winter will see another surge - though not of the same authors.

    This is the time for us, as writers, to make sure we have our quality as high as possible. Because with all the reviews out there, things are going to be different.

    Goodreads has just launched their recommendation software. It has more data than Amazon - can you imagine that?

    I predict that Goodreads is going to be much more of a factor this year than last year. It is quite possible that sales are going to come from long term marketing and high-quality story-telling from this point forward.

    Most of us are ready to play in this new market. Most of us have 2 or more high-quality books out.

    It's just going to be a heck of a lot slower.

  19. That all sounds very plausible, Ms Kitty. And there are still a lot of popular titles unavailable on Kindle, which will no doubt be released in due course.

    I must remember to revisit the subject in a year's time, and assess which of the commenters on this post got it the most right.

  20. What a great overview of the current indie/trad debate you provide with just those two quotes! Thanks, Lexi.

    Mr. Leather's "bubble" may exist for the indies with one book who were making money at first but now aren't, but most of the indies I know--like most of the commenters here--are seeing their sales go up. The secret, as Mark says, is backlist. You need inventory. No writer should go out there with only one book.

    It's true that summer is the slowest sales season for books, so we need to make seasonal adjustments for those figures. Soon, I think sales will start to climb for the Christmas season. Pottermore is going to make a huge difference. And in the US at least, ebook prices are going UP for the Big Six books. Amazon kept them artificially priced at 9.99, but it's no longer subsidizing them, so many now cost the same as the hardcover. It's making customers take another look at indies.

    Thanks for letting us see both sides here. And congrats on selling 44,000 books! Seriously. Wow.

  21. A lot in what you say, Anne. I haven't studied Big Six prices in the UK, but my impression is that perhaps overall, with special offers, if anything they are going down. But the US is usually one step ahead of us!

    I'd take issue with "No one should go out there with only one book" on two counts.

    1. I did that myself, and I'm glad I didn't wait till I'd got two books.

    2. I'd argue the sooner one self-publishes the better, just in case conditions become less favourable in the future.

  22. Lexi,

    Thanks for the post. A great summary of an issue preoccupying many of us at the moment.

    What I think should be emphasized is the fact that we're in very new terrain here, at a very early stage of the epub revolution. Some are looking at this algorithm issue and saying, “Oh, well, it was all too good to be true. I guess it’s all over now.” But the evidence doesn’t support this.

    It isn’t the end of anything — it’s just another challenge among many to come. But it’s an important one because it will likely spur indie publishers to innovate, to become less dependent on the algorithms of Amazon (or any one retail platform). Getting better at promotion through Goodreads may be one solution, but there will be others. We now have a reason to look for them.

  23. Hi Robert, thanks for dropping by.

    You're quite right, it's very early days in the epub revolution. But I do think that Amazon stands alone. Before the Kindle, there were zero opportunities for self-publishers. I hope that we won't go back there. The past year or two makes that less likely. But I fear it could happen...

  24. It's going to be an interesting year or two, but I'm pretty sure I'm right about what the future holds. But Mark's off the mark (ha ha) when he says I have a foot in both camps - traditional and Indie - because I actually have a nice little tripod going.

    Yes I have my thrillers published by Hodder and Stoughton (three million and counting) and my independently-published eBooks (half a million and counting) but as of November Amazon will be taking over two of my bestselling eBooks - The Basement and Once Bitten - for their Amazon Encore imprint. I lose control of the books but I benefit from Amazon's marketing and publicity.

    So I enter the next stage of the game in a similar position to the roulette player who has his money on red, black and zero. Yes, it's a gamble but I'm pretty sure that whatever happens I end up a winner. Indies aren't in the same position - they will only win if the bubble continues to expand. As I said, interesting times ahead!

  25. Ah, Stephen, I wish I were in a position to be as - now what's a nice word for smug? as you :o) Well may you say ha ha.

    Amazon would be my dream publisher.

  26. Ha ha. I don't think I'm half as smug as the Indies who keep telling me that traditional publishing is dead! If you want smugness, take a look at the new wave of Indies who were being interviewed over the summer about how well they were doing - then look at their rankings now. If you want to see the future, have a look at what Amazon have done this week with Barry Eisler's book The Detachment. By emailing aggressively they shot the book into the UK Top 10 within days at £1.99. No Indie can compete with that.

  27. Well, no we can't; but I think it's amazing what indies have achieved all on their own without the power of a big publisher behind them.

    Let's not forget it's all about readers getting the books they want to read - and lately publishers haven't been helping them to do this as well as they might.