I have not read any of her novels, but I have long been a fan of Lindsay Buroker for her work as a commentator in the field of independent publishing. (I was sadly disappointed when she and her cohosts discontinued the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast earlier this year.)
In several episodes of the podcast, Buroker recounted her early discouragement with the literary choices that were incentivized by the traditional publishing industry in the 1990s and 2000s. Specifically, Buroker recalled how publishers’ submission guidelines were prejudiced against Tolkien-esque sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction.
Buroker wasn’t making this up. I recall seeing similar guidelines myself in the 1980s. (I’m about a decade older than Lindsay Buroker, I think.) I recall one science fiction and fantasy publisher stating that it was probably a waste of time to submit sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction over their transom. In the publisher’s words, “Extreme originality in this area will be required for consideration.”
This demonstrates how little traditional publishers knew about the tastes of actual readers in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Since the advent of self-publishing as a viable option in roughly 2010, scores of indie writers have made respectable incomes publishing Tolkien-esque sword-and-sorcery novels. (Buroker, of course, is one of these writers, based on her catalogue.)
While I’m sure that many of these books are well-written, with compelling plots and sympathetic characters, they don’t seem to manifest the “extreme originality” that the traditional publishers of pre-2010 were demanding. The tropes seem very similar from book to book, in fact. Nevertheless, readers are snapping them up. Based on what I’ve been able to discern, the indie sword-and-sorcery scene has become oversaturated in recent years. Clearly, though, traditional publishers were underestimating the demand in previous decades.
History, as they say, repeats itself. Ten years into the “indie publishing revolution”, both the honeymoon and the gold rush are over. Amazon, still the overwhelmingly dominant player in the book retailing space, has changed the game to suit its larger business priorities. As a result, the heady euphoria of indie publishing, circa 2013 or 2014, is now a thing of the past.
Specifically, Amazon’s algorithms strongly favor fiction titles that are enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. Since a “free” borrow counts as a sale in sales rank terms, a Kindle Unlimited title can theoretically reach the top of the Amazon charts without a single paid sale or a single page read.
Kindle Unlimited requires authors to a.) make their titles exclusive to Amazon and b.) forgo sales in exchange for Spotify-style payments for unitary page reads. This can cut into writers’ bottom lines. It also makes them more dependent on the Amazon platform.
Amazon has also learned that it can make more money charging low-selling authors for advertising than it can make from commissions on their book sales. In the past two years, Amazon has increasingly replaced “also-bought” sections of its website with paid advertising space. This accords with the company’s larger objective of vying with Google and Facebook for the multi-billion dollar, global online advertising market.
The net result is that Amazon is now a pay-to-play venue. If you want your books to sell on Amazon, you are going to have to allocate a significant advertising budget. Everyone—from the most successful authors, to the lowest-ranking indies who sell a few copies per month—agrees on this.
In a pay-to-play Amazon ecosystem based on progressive page reads in Kindle Unlimited, the formula for success is now more or less set in stone: Write a long series of books that appeals to the tastes of Kindle Unlimited readers (who are a relatively small subset of the Amazon customer base), and invest heavily in Amazon’s AMS (Amazon Marketing Services) platform.
More than a few indies have cried foul: This is not what they signed up for! The “indie publishing revolution” was supposed to be about spontaneous, organic, and wholly democratic success, not fitting into the turnkey formula of a large corporation.
The new Amazon paradigm has created winners and losers—just as the traditional publishing paradigm created winners and losers.
It has also provoked a fierce debate: Is Amazon good or evil? Is the Amazon publishing paradigm now a rigged game?
A decade ago, writers were divided between those who favored the traditional publishing paradigm (with its imperious “gatekeepers”), and those who embraced the new indie publishing “revolution”. Today, the division is between those writers who fully conform to the Amazon system, and those who sell “wide”—not just on Amazon, but also on AppleBooks, Google Play, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere.
Selling “wide” has benefits, but also costs. If you sell “wide”, you accept that your titles will face even more of an uphill fight within the Amazon site, because you won’t get the artificial sales-rank benefits of free Kindle Unlimited downloads.
Though many writers may be introverts, they are seldom prone to suffering in silence. On various online writer forums, the comparative losers in the new Amazon paradigm have been venting of late.
Most recently, an author on KBoards produced a list of 40-odd complaints against the new Amazon paradigm, under the leading heading, “If Amazon is not our enemy..”
I read through the list of complaints. Almost all of them had at least some basis in reality—and there were a few accurate ones that had not yet occurred to me. For example, the author pointed out that, “Amazon gets tens of millions of visits a year (and likely many hundreds of thousands of sales and uncounted billions in revenue) that we pay for.” This refers to traffic that authors (and many other Amazon sellers) send to the store via paid advertising on Facebook and other platforms.
The disgruntled author mentioned one issue in particular that has long bugged me:
“Indie authors have to write an entire series of full length novels to have any chance at profitability, which makes them unique among all authors throughout history.”
At present, indie authors are obsessed with writing in series. This has become a catechism in indie publishing, in fact: that one shouldn’t even bother to write standalone novels. The only way to succeed (thanks to the predominance of the Amazon Kindle Unlimited system) is to structure every story you write as part of a long series, preferably with the fantasy, science fiction, or romance tropes that Kindle Unlimited readers are known to prefer.
I have nothing against series, or authors who write in them, mind you. But the series structure isn’t suited to the types of stories I tend to prefer (and prefer to write)—suspenseful tales about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
A monolithic preference for series, moreover, pretty much discounts the bodies of work of Stephen King, John Grisham, Ken Follett, Joyce Carol Oates, Frederick Forsyth, and many, many others. Imagine trying to structure Stephen King’s Carrie as part of a series, or John Grisham’s The Firm. A lot of great stories are self-contained, and require self-containment. Are those off the table now?
No, of course they aren’t….Remember the old traditional publishers’ dismissal of sword-and-sorcery novels, which are now (more than a little ironically) thriving under the constraints of the new Amazon Kindle Unlimited paradigm.
Here’s the lesson: Just as the traditional publishing model didn’t work for every author, the Amazon Kindle Unlimited model isn’t going to work for every author, either.
Is there a conspiracy? The answer depends on what you call a conspiracy…how loose is your definition of that term. It is true to say that a.) Amazon wants to keep as much content as possible exclusive to its ecosystem, and b.) Amazon has decided to extract more money from sellers in the form of advertising fees. And it’s true to say that the best way to succeed in Kindle Unlimited is to write a ten-book series with science fiction or fantasy tropes.
Maybe it’s a conspiracy, and maybe its just the way things have evolved.
For roughly twenty years, the Internet has given us all so much at-our-fingertips choice and customization, that we often forget how many constraints there were in the pre-Internet era. (Or if you’re under 35, you probably don’t even remember.) There have always been institutional constraints, and market forces that created winners and losers. The individual has always been charged with the task of deciding how to make those constraints and market forces work to his or her advantage.
If you’re a creator nowadays, there are many online platforms that you can use. These include (but are not limited to): Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
They all have their quirks, and these need to be taken into account. For example, YouTube used to be a great forum for discussing controversial subject matter. Not so much anymore. Nowadays, a misinterpreted phrase or statement in a video can easily get your channel demonetized or banned. It is what it is. I’ve responded by putting only vanilla content on YouTube. If I want to discuss anything controversial at all, I do it here, on my own website—where I make the rules regarding acceptable speech and subject matter. (Discussing politics on any social media platform is a losing game for now—especially if your political views don’t lean fashionably leftwing.)
Likewise, Facebook has recently changed its algorithms to reduce organic discovery for creators on the site. They want everyone to buy ads for visibility—just like Amazon does. I’ve responded by putting very little content on Facebook, and I write zero original content for Facebook.
And Twitter? I can’t see where Twitter offers me anything at all. I’ve deactivated my Twitter account.
I still consider Amazon to be very much worth my time. But Amazon’s current policies incentivize a certain kind of writing, a very specific method of distribution, and heavy spending on the AMS ads.
That doesn’t wholly match my writing style and commercial preferences. So I’m making plans to sell books at other retailers (in addition to Amazon). I’m also taking efforts to turn Edward Trimnell Books into a more effective marketing platform.
There is nothing wrong (or whiny) about analyzing the impact of Amazon’s latest policies—which are subject to change at any moment, and without warning. No one who sells online can afford to ignore Amazon. That’s a fact.
But railing at Amazon because the retailer’s policies don’t conform to your own plans is futile.
At the end of the day, every writer (and every other Amazon seller) has to look at Amazon’s offerings and ask: How does what Amazon offers work for me? And where the Amazon system doesn’t work for me, what else can I do?
Don’t be shocked if you are occasionally frustrated in this process. Amazon’s dominant publishing model is not going to work for every writer. We should never forget, though, that the pre-Amazon publishing models didn’t work for every writer, either