Indie author culture is dying (and that’s a good thing)

I happened by KBoards the other day as a lurker. (I never post there anymore.) I saw several threads in which indie authors were bemoaning the state of the industry (the market saturation, the rising cost of ads, etc.)

KBoards isn’t the only place in the indie author space where there are more frowns than smiles nowadays. I was on a popular Facebook group for indie authors a few hours ago, and I saw more doom and gloom there.

I’ve also noticed that the indie author boards are less vibrant and useful than they used to be. Fewer people are posting. Some boards that were very active as recently as a year ago are now virtual ghost towns. The message boards have been taken over by newbie questions that would be better answered by Googling, and sundry conspiracy rants.

 

Meanwhile, the indie author podcast is fading as a genre. A few of the gurus who are peddling expensive courses are still plugging along. But the podcasts that were mere labors of love are being shuttered faster than beer joints during the Prohibition years.

 

Even the bestselling indies are grumpy nowadays. Russell Blake, an indie author who was feted by the Wall Street Journal in 2014 , closed out 2018 with a somewhat gloomy prognosis on his blog.

 

So what the heck is going on?

 

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Kindle indie author market is in a state of saturation and oversupply, and a shakeout is more or less inevitable.

And the fading of the Kindle indie author culture is a further harbinger of that.

 

Let’s pay attention to the terminology here. I make the distinction of the Kindle indie author culture, because there was another one that came before that: the POD indie author culture.

The POD indie author culture peaked between 2002 and 2007, roughly speaking.  The POD indie author culture was mostly based on nonfiction, whereas the Kindle indie author culture is primarily fiction.

During the POD period, I published foreign language-related titles. Like most nonfiction authors of that time, I was focusing on a topic that I was interested in long before I’d heard of Amazon or indie publishing. I wasn’t “writing to market”, or “following hot trends”.

I was writing to my lifelong interests.

I made a solid five-figure supplemental income doing that. (I was working full-time in the corporate world at the time.) And I was accomplishing that with zero advertising, other than a website.

 

The POD indie author culture had its gurus. But there were fewer of them. Most weren’t selling $700 courses, though a few were selling modestly priced books.

Since POD indie publishing was mostly limited to nonfiction, there were practical barriers to entry. It wasn’t everybody and his or her brother, trying to become the next hot new thing overnight.

(No one believed they were going to get rich selling niche nonfiction. A modest supplemental income was the goal, for most of us.)

People were only doing it if they already had a clear direction. Consequently, they had a limited need for publishing gurus, podcasts, and message boards.

A bit of basic information was all it took: How do you get your book uploaded onto Amazon?

 

Then Kindle indie publishing took off and everything changed. Almost overnight, there was a new batch of wild-eyed, chirpy gurus proclaiming, “everyone should write a book!” “Come shake the Kindle tree…and the dollars will fall!”

The Kindle indie author culture also strongly encouraged certain kinds of writing. Visit the various indie author forums, and you’ll find that most of the authors are talking about writing romance/erotica or urban fantasy, or another Harry Potter ripoff, or LitRPG, etc.

Almost no one, by contrast, is writing legal thrillers, or Westerns, or literary fiction, or police procedurals. It’s all either romance, or something involving spaceships, dragons, or teenagers performing magic. (Harry Potter casts a very long shadow, apparently.)

 

The Kindle indie author culture also enforces a forced-march esprit de corps. Just yesterday, the moderator of one of the popular Facebook groups for indie authors was lecturing his followers: “We’re all in this together!”  This same guru (who now speaks at the various indie author conventions) is fond of saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats!”

Bleh.

The facts don’t match that narrative. When Amazon has become a pay-to-play market, when (quoting Russell Blake) “authors who have been making decent livings over the last five years are going to find their earnings shrinking substantially unless they pony up cash to buy placement,” we aren’t “all in this together”.

We’re all competing for ad space.

 

Please excuse the superficial pessimism. This isn’t, ultimately, a pessimistic message. The end of that vast, chirpy online indie publishing seminar will be a net positive thing for the market, and for those authors who are truly dedicated.

If you’re brand new to this, take heart. There will still be opportunities for newcomers. There always are, in the arts.

But no longer will droves of 21-year-old aspiring writers be led to believe that they should drop out of college and try their hands at indie publishing instead.

The dominant message will be: Financial success in the arts is difficult.

And that is what the message should be. That was the message before Kindle indie author culture existed, after all. Before the Kindle came along, no one ever told anyone that writing fiction was a path to quick riches.

Because it isn’t. It never has been. The gurus (most of whom honestly believed what they were saying) were foolish to believe that just because the hated “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing were pushed aside, the fundamentals of artistic economics had changed. The arts will always be characterized by a certain manifestation of Pareto distribution, in which which a small number of participants reap a disproportionate percentage of the rewards.

 

I also predict that after the shakeout, there will be more diversity in the kinds of books that indie authors are writing and publishing.

I have nothing against either romance, or the various flavors of fantasy/science fiction…But jeez, is that all anyone who calls himself an indie author is capable of writing? Is there no one in the indie space who wants to be the next John Grisham, the next Ken Follett, the next Gillian Flynn, or the next Michael Connelly?

And no (to dispel another bit of indie author mythology)…it is not necessary to “write in a series” in order to sell books. The aforementioned bestsellers–Grisham, Follett, Flynn, and Connelly (not to mention Stephen King), write bestselling standalones. “You must write in a series” is one other bit of groupthink that has become part of Kindle indie author culture.

(Writing in a series is not necessarily bad, mind you; but it works with some genres better than others. And if you’re only open to writing in a series, you will automatically drift toward certain kinds of characters, certain kinds of stories. That ultimately leads to everyone doing the same thing…more market saturation!)

 

As Kindle indie author culture implodes, newcomers will have fewer sources of online encouragement. Fewer podcasts to listen to…fewer discussion groups.

That’s a good thing. Most of the basic information you really need is available on the Amazon KDP publishing help page, anyway.

On the other hand, if you need an online “community” in order to stay motivated..if you need to be part of a nonstop virtual writing seminar, then you’re simply not ready yet.

And maybe you never will be. There’s no shame in that. For about two years during my teenage years, I took guitar lessons. I quit, because I realized that I wasn’t cut out to be a musician.

(“You must not quit!” is another mantra of the indie author space. The fact of the matter is: Some people should quit, and focus their creative energies elsewhere. Many others should publish only one labor-of-love book, and then move on to something else.)

 

When you’re ready to do this by yourself, without the constant high-fives and second-guessing of an online tribe, then you’re ready.

And the odds of failure will still be pretty high.

So let indie author culture implode…and the sooner the better. Let the discussion forums and the podcasts whither away. Let the gurus stop selling courses.

It will be better for the over-saturated book market…and better for writers, too.

Writing was never meant to be a collective endeavor. Writing was always meant to be a lone, individual pursuit, practiced by people who would do it in the absence of all external encouragement.

We are not “all in this together”. Each of us is following his or her unique path to success (or failure).

That is the way it always was. And that is the way it should be.