Where Do We Go From Here?
2014 was a watershed year for the book biz. It was the year self-publishing finally stopped being about the outliers and was recognized by media outlets and the general public as a viable enterprise for thousands of writers. It was the year one major publisher renewed its fight with Amazon over the price of ebooks. And it was the year subscription models exploded onto the scene. A lot to look back on, and not an easy place to see where we go next. But I have a few bad ideas that will most likely be dead wrong. First, a long-winded retrospective.
The Year of AuthorEarnings.com
For me, the year 2014 began with an email from someone who created a software spider that could crawl and aggregate data on hundreds of thousands of Amazon ebooks. The end result of that email was AuthorEarnings.com, which revealed the startling fact that self-published authors were making as much as a cohort every single day as all the Big 5 authors combined. By the end of 2014, quarterly looks at this data showed that self-published authors had overtaken the Big 5 authors.
Not that it was a competition, but it showed that the success of self-publishing was more than a handful of lucky saps like me. The real story of self-publishing (as many of us have been saying for years) is the ability for people with a small and loyal readership to make a career with their craft without being a household name.
I don’t know how much AuthorEarnings.com contributed to this, but 2014 ended up being the year the stigma of self-publishing died. Prior to last January, you had people deriding self-publishing as the last resort of those rejected by agents and publishers. You had indie authors likened to third-rate cattle by some publishing executives. There were calls by other publishing executives to segregate ebooks on retail outlets based on the method of publication. And traditionally published authors not keen on the sudden increase in competition moaned about the flood of content while publishers who priced their digital books higher than their paperbacks agonized over the devaluing of literature.
Much of that dissipated this past year. What had been a sprinkling of anecdotes piled up into real data. Authors like Brenna Aubrey turned down lucrative publishing contracts and out-earned those offers within months of self-publishing. And a steady flow of unknown authors with no publishing history or established following climbed to the top of their categories and had success out of the gate based primarily on the strength of their storytelling.
The problem with this turn of events — if it can be thought of as a problem — is the idea that anyone could have this level of success. One thing not mentioned enough in 2014 is that making a career with writing requires working your tail off and a heaping dose of luck. I don’t think we give either of these facets enough credit. The people I see doing well with their writing are working incredible hours, often on top of their day jobs at first, and it isn’t reasonable to expect everyone to have the fortitude to do this for year after year until they develop a following.
Similarly, we don’t give the element of chance enough credit for those who do break out. Great books go ignored every single day. There’s nothing anyone can say to make that better for the authors who are watching their works not grab hold. Write more is the best advice, but it’s also the hardest to hear.
The Year of Hachette
2014 was the year the first of the major publishers was able to resume its squabble with Amazon over the price of ebooks. Hachette drew the short straw, and by the time they realized that ebook prices needed to come down, they’d already dug their trench and had little way to call a truce and save face. It took deals with other publishers and the looming holidays to end what was an ugly battle that caused needless harm.
While Hachette was fighting for expensive ebooks, other publishers were learning from self-published works and really competing with indies for the first time. Bestselling frontlist titles were discounted down to $4.99 and even lower and crowded indies off bestseller charts as a result. Backlist titles were given special promotions and pricing, allowing them to compete with publishers’ own frontlist works. Entire genres were discovered through self-publishing and embraced by major publishers. BookBub and other promotional tools were co-opted.
This made things more difficult for indie authors in some ways, but also legitimized the group and their decisions in other ways. We tend to forget that getting a BookBub slot was never a done deal. And lower prices from major publishers has helped indie titles blend in, which can be a great thing. With a nice cover and decent blurb an indie book is now, more than ever before, indistinguishable from any other work. The biggest difference between a $4.99 self-published title and a $4.99 ebook from Random House is that the author of the former gets 70% while the author of the latter gets 15%. The reader is none the wiser.
The Year of Subscriptions
2014 was the year subscription reading services finally gained attention. Two major publishers dabbled with Scribd and Oyster, with a third publisher recently announcing it would participate as well. Many of us have wondered how these companies make money, as they pay full tilt for every book read but charge less than $10 a month to their subscribers. The answer is some combination of gym membership and a steady inflow of venture capital. Scribd reports that the average subscriber reads just one book a month. So the plan here is to make money off people who forgot they joined a thing until they see a charge on their credit card sometime down the road and work up the energy to cancel.
If people do end up using subscriptions in a way that makes them cost-effective for the reader, it’ll either mean these companies will lose money or the payments to publishers and authors will have to go down. Just this week, news of another round of funding for Scribd.com comes in. $22 million more in venture capital raised. This, and a combination of low usage from subscribers, should keep them viable for quite some time without doing to authors what music subscription services have done to other artists, which is to severely reduce their pay.
Amazon was a relatively late entry into this sector, but of course when they move the ground trembles. Kindle Unlimited launched in 2014, and few programs have been so contentious. Those who are doing well by the program are doing it mostly quietly (though plenty have raised their hand and said KU has been great for them). More attention has been paid to those who have seen their income go down since the launch of KU. I blogged about KU several times, but the post that seems most apt is this one. It compares the disruptive force of subscription services to the disruptive force of self-publishing as a whole. Those who made out with the latter are now complaining about being disrupted themselves. Meanwhile, a new crop of authors are having success and using tools to gain market share. Personally, I applaud this, even as I have pointed out ways that I think KU can be improved for the reader.
One thing to understand about Amazon (and few seem to get how crucial this is) is that the customer comes first. This works to the advantage of indie authors, as Amazon has been thrilled to open its site to all comers. The freedom to publish alongside major New York houses comes from Amazon’s desire to provide as vast a selection as possible to its readers. The curation process has been democratized and crowdsourced. All books are welcome, and customers are the way by which they are discovered and promoted. We’ve already lost sight of how revolutionary customer reviews were as a leveling force. We take these things for granted now.
The same attitude that leveled the playing field for indies and allowed us to participate guides Amazon’s foray into subscription services. They are going to tinker, balancing the needs of the bottom line, publishers, authors, and readers. But the last of these comes first, make no mistake. I’ll have more to say about the effect this has on authors below.
The Year of Taking Things for Granted
2014 began with very little perceived legitimacy for the self-published author, and it ended with major media outlets shouting with glee over the consternation self-published authors are expressing over Amazon due to KU. To me, this is the great story of 2014. Two years ago, I couldn’t get anyone in the publishing world to listen or believe me when I relayed the stories I was hearing from the trenches, stories about unknown authors making thousands of dollars a month (and many making quite a bit more than that).
I spoke with reporters from Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, the New York Times, The Economist, NPR, and dozens of regional papers and magazines, and they only wanted to write about the outliers. No one wanted to do the heavy lifting of investigating the larger and more interesting story of a publishing landscape that was now open to anyone with the dream of being a writer and the willingness to put in the hard work.
A year later, the viability of indie publishing is taken for granted, but in strange ways. Media outlets like the New York Times have covered the rise of YouTube stars, self-produced musicians, Netflix originals, and the sharing and crowdsourced economy, but practically never report on the disruption in publishing. In fact, the Times’ Sunday Book Review stopped printing the ebook bestseller list right as that list was being peppered with self-published titles. The first news we get about indie publishing is the outcry from indies over KU. So we’ve arrived just in time to bolster existing agendas. I call that progress. Maybe we’re being used, but it takes being recognized to be used. That’s something.
The viability of self-publishing has been dangerous in other ways. For me, the importance of getting this story out (and the motivation behind AuthorEarnings.com) has been to make sure writers understand their options. We aren’t going to pressure publishers to pay higher royalty rates and offer fairer contracts by pleading with them (and we have yet to see any organized attempt from writers’ groups to effect these changes).
The way things will change will be from individual authors making the choices that make the most sense to them, whatever that choice is. Which is why striking down untruths and zombie memes is so important. Self-publishing, now more than ever, is the best way for the vast majority of writers to launch their writing careers, even if their goal is to end up with a major publisher. Understanding this and acting on it will pressure publishers to step up their game, which I believe they’ll do.
So how has the viability of self-publishing become dangerous? The expectations of those who had early success and those just starting out run the risk of becoming unreasonable. Very few people make a living in any kind of entertainment sector, and even if they do, it’s rarely for long. I remember hoping I’d have one or two solid months with the kind of sales I saw in early 2012. I’ve maintained that feeling for the last three years, forever waiting for the other shoe to drop. This will be the last month I have meaningful income from publishing. I’ve said that for 36 months in a row. I’m delighted to be wrong every time, but it won’t last forever. Eventually, I’ll get it right. And I won’t agonize over the return to reality.
For centuries, the impermanence of success in the entertainment industry has been learned by each generation. It’s not an enjoyable lesson. Superstar athletes assume every year will be better than the previous, that they’ll never lose a step, they’ll always be in demand, until a top draft pick is eating up their minutes on the court. Every year, another entertainer can’t understand why album sales or theater tickets weren’t as strong as the year before. Much is blamed for this. Critics are blamed, management is blamed, agents are blamed, the gods are blamed.
The fickle nature of the market is rarely given its due. It’s this fickle nature that gave each of us a chance. It’ll be that fickle nature that takes it all away. Enjoy it while it lasts. Remember that you once did this simply because you loved it. Remember that there was a time when no matter how good you felt you were, there was no place for you to even offer your wares. We have to appreciate every moment we have, every opportunity given, and cherish these things even as we expect more and demand more.
There’s a fine balance there between appreciation and subjugation. To be appreciative doesn’t mean to give up or to become complacent, it simply requires that we remember how far we’ve come and how fast. Self-published authors are complaining that Amazon is offering unlimited reading on the best ereader devices ever built on the best online marketplace ever devised and paying more for each borrow than a traditionally published author makes on every paperback they sell at Barnes & Noble, and many are outraged.
That’s awesome. It shows how far we’ve come, how much that seemed impossible five years ago is now taken for granted, and how far we hope to go in the future. But while we’re fighting for more progress, let’s not lose sight of the years that have passed and where we started. And if you see people losing hope, remember that we are a storytelling animal. We will always want to tell stories, and there will always be billions of people willing to pay to have great stories told to them. Nothing will change that. There will always be a viable market for this trade. It’s just that our opportunities for making a living at this will never be chiseled in stone. We will come and go. I not only expect this, I celebrate it.
Happy New Year. Tell awesome stories.