The ossification of indie publishing, ten years on

I was lurking in a closed Facebook group for authors the other day, when I came across a post from a youngish (early 30s) writer who was lamenting the difficulty of breaking even under the Kindle Unlimited publishing model, as it has evolved:

“I’m a new author. I published my first book on April 14th and my third yesterday. I’ve been running Amazon ads with limited success in sales. I have no idea how they’ve done with KU. I’ve sold almost 570 books (most on a free promotion of book one) and am over 30,000 pages read on KU. Advertising costs are killing me. I have one ad that’s brought me 49 sales. Another that got me 11, the rest aren’t near double digits added together. I’ve read books on advertising, watched videos, researched, used KDP rocket, everything I can think of. I’m living on a teacher’s salary with a wife and 3 kids. I just don’t know if advertising is really worth it at this point. Any ideas?”

Then other authors chimed in with advice. (That’s what such forums are for, after all.) They all gave him the same advice, more or less:

1. Write a really long series! Eight to ten books! 

2. Spend $749 dollars on Mark Dawson’s “Advertising for Authors” course!

3. Invest even more in Facebook and Amazon Marketing Services ads. Maybe spend $800 to $1,000 on a Bookbub promotion!

4. Hope and pray that you “earn out”. (I.e., hope and pray that your combined sales and Kindle Unlimited page reads exceed your high advertising costs.)

Then I noticed a post from yet another author:

“Interestingly, I think I would do better to dump writing novels or short stories and concentrate on my blog, because several [companies] have approached me to advertise on it….”

I looked up the other author online. Like me, she writes across several genres, including nonfiction. She blogs about current events (as I have been known to do). Her politics are pretty much the opposite mine, but that’s an irrelevant point for our purposes here.

This blogging author’s posts received crickets from the other authors in the group. They didn’t know what to do with it. 

Write on a blog? Do actual…online content marketing? What the heck is that?

Roughly ten years ago, when the “indie publishing revolution” began, it was greeted by loud voices of denial in the traditional, New York-based publishing establishment. I remember, circa 2010, actually reading claims that publishing oneself on Amazon amounted to “cheating”.

Now that independent publishing has become such a fixed part of the book ecosystem, that charge sounds ridiculous, of course. But remember the mindset of 2010: There was very rigid, collective mindset regarding “how things are done”. Back then, anyone who wanted to succeed as a writer had a narrow focus on the world of New York publishers and literary agents. 

I’ve found an interesting paradox where writers are concerned: Most of them are “progressive” on political and social issues. Those writers who do make their politics known online almost invariably engage in public hissy fits about Trump and the GOP. They gush about Obama and Elizabeth Warren. 

But when it comes to publishing itself, these same writers are more conservative and hidebound than the evangelical wing of the Alabama Republican Party. 

A mere ten years after indie publishing became a thing, it has become as ossified as traditional publishing was fifteen years ago. Just as aspiring authors were once obsessed with “landing an agent” and “getting a contract”, they are now obsessed with their “Amazon sales rank”. 

This leads them to ignore other writing channels that could be advantageous (like a blog, distribution on other online retailers, etc.) It also leads them to spend irrationally on AMS and Facebook ads, because they don’t want to let their Amazon sales ranks slip. The Amazon system encourages this, of course, because Kindle Unlimited borrows are counted as sales for ranking purposes, and the Kindle Unlimited program stipulates exclusive distribution. 

The result is an overheated ad market, and a Kindle Unlimited catalog stuffed with hastily written books. Many authors are now losing money on AMS ads, so that they are effectively paying to publish. 

That isn’t independent publishing, that’s vanity publishing. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The problem isn’t a sinister plot at Amazon, per se, but the one-size-fits-all mindset that has taken root in the indie author community. Roughly a dozen indie author gurus (most of whom sell books and expensive courses) have now become the sole voices for how independent publishing should be done.

But there is, in fact, more than one way to do it. Let’s not forget that a mere decade ago, the very idea of independent publishing was considered radical and fly-by-night. There are still a few New York literary agents out there, who are convinced that this whole indie publishing thing is a brief flash in the pan. They’re waiting for it all to end, any day now.

No, indie publishing isn’t going to go away. Indie publishing is here to stay. 

It is too early, however, in the indie publishing movement, to declare that there is only one path to success…only one way to do things. It is too early for indie publishing to become hidebound and ossified. 

The undeniable dark side of indie publishing

One can generally expect mainstream journalists to be hostile toward indie publishing. This is a matter of self-preservation as much as anything else.

Both traditional publishing and traditional journalism have been battered by the Internet in recent years. Mainstream journalists long for the days when anyone who wrote articles that people actually read was employed by a major media outlet.

Likewise, back then a small coterie of New York agents and editors decided what the rest of the world would read in book form.

The bloggers started it all…and then the indie authors turned the applecart over, too.

Damn them all!

But this doesn’t mean that indie publishing–whether on blogs or on Amazon–is a perfect environment. Fifteen years ago, the advent of monetization schemes for blogging (Adsense, affiliate programs, etc.) gave birth to click farms and keyword stuffing.

And–surprise, surprise–indie publishing on Amazon has created incentives for scamming, too. A a recent article in The Guardian describes what is going on, with particular emphasis on Brazilian romance author and accused serial plagiarist Cristian Serruya:

 Serruya is just one example of the dark side of the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap, flood-the-market culture which has come to dominate self-publishing – particularly in the lucrative romance genre and on Kindle Unlimited, an Amazon service which gives readers access to more than 1m books for £7.99 a month, many of which are self-published and unvetted for plagiarism.

Alison Flood, writing in The Guardian

Let’s be clear about one thing: Indie publishing is not going away. It will continue….just as blogging has continued.

But this doesn’t mean that the incentives built into the system can’t be changed, to make various forms of scamming less attractive.

More than a decade go, Google discovered that its search engine results were dominated by click farms and keyword stuffers. Google responded by changing its algorithms. There are still click farms out there, of course; but they are less of a factor than they used to be.

Why? Google’s algorithms no longer incentivize click-farming.

Amazon needs to make similar changes. It has been possible to self-publish on Amazon for at least 15 years. It has been possible to self-publish on the Amazon Kindle for approximately a decade. Self-publishing, in and of itself, isn’t the problem.

Kindle Unlimited–which pays according to page reads, not purchases–incentivized all manner of bad behavior. (This has been documented by David Gaughran and many others.)

Take away Kindle Unlimited, and there is suddenly no incentive to publish a book on Amazon that customers won’t be willing to buy.

This will reduce the incentive to publish page-stuffed, junk books…as well as plagiarized titles that can presently be read for free in Kindle Unlimited.

‘Revolutionary Ghosts’ in Kindle Unlimited…for a while, at least!

I’ve enrolled Revolutionary Ghosts in Kindle Unlimited for the next 90 days.

Eventually, it will probably be going out to other stores and platforms. For now, though, you can read it for free if you have a Kindle Unlimited membership! I hope you enjoy it.


About Revolutionary Ghosts:

The year is 1976, and the Headless Horseman rides again!

Steve Wagner is an ordinary Ohio teenager in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976.

As that summer begins, his thoughts are mostly about girls, finishing high school, and driving his 1968 Pontiac Bonneville.

But this will be no ordinary summer. Steve sees evidence of supernatural activity in the area near his home: mysterious hoof prints and missing persons reports, and unusual, violently inclined men with British accents.

There is a also a hideous woman—the vengeful ghost of a condemned Loyalist spy—who appears in the doorway of Steve’s bedroom.

Filled with angry spirits, historical figures, and the Headless Horseman of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Revolutionary Ghosts is a terrifying coming-of-age story with a groovy 1970s vibe.