AMSAdwerks and the inevitable reconsolidation of publishing

Warning: this post contains arcane details about indie publishing. If you aren’t interested in indie publishing, skip this post!

I happened by Russell Blake’s site the other day when I saw his post about his investment in AMSAdwerks, a new company whose mission statement is as follows:

We specialize in Amazon marketing. Our experts manage your campaigns from your KDP-AMS or AA dashboards following your budgetary and ROI requirements.

We offer a distinct value to independent authors and small publishers who would rather work on their product lines instead of attempt to figure out the intricacies of the Amazon platforms. 

AMS Adwerks

According to the graphic on the company’s homepage (see below), the fortunate author/client might hope to shovel $8,000 into the maw of the Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) machine, and net a profit of less than $2,000…minus the Adwerks commission, of course.

Source: AMS Adwerks

Russell Blake said in an earlier post that indie authors have little choice but to invest heavily in advertising nowadays. He’s right. Over the past year, Amazon has changed its algorithms to make its website a pay-for-play venue.

I’ve been listening to Bryan Cohen’s podcast, Relentless Authors Advertise. In the podcast, Cohen generously reveals the details of his extensive advertising activities throughout the week, including his final profit or loss.

Cohen, to be sure, is a smart guy who takes advertising seriously. And even he is barely making money at it.

The entrance of a company like Adwerks into an already overheated market will make advertising on Amazon even more expensive. I have no doubt that, with a cash infusion from Russell Blake, the company will hire a full staff of bright young things, and be very good at what it does….Certainly better than the typical indie author, tinkering away in her AMS dashboard, playing with ad spends of $10 or $20 at a time.

In 2019, the indie author who relies solely on the Amazon ecosystem must advertise. In 2020, the likely new imperative will be: The indie author who relies solely on the Amazon ecosystem must hire an outside consulting agency to tweak his ads constantly throughout the day.

This, of course, will require wheelbarrows full of cash. (Notice again, the sample numbers on the AMSAdwerks graphic. These are telling.)

I predict that by the middle of next year, or thereabouts, the requirements of advertising spending (for authors solely reliant on the Amazon ecosystem) will become prohibitive for most individual authors.

The likely result of this will be a reconsolidation of publishing.

Authors have always been technically free to self-publish. There has never been a law against it. Twenty years ago, though, indie publishing was prohibitively expensive, because of the economies-of-scale of printing and distribution.

That changed ..for a while. About ten years. But the speculative bubble of indie publishing has brought about a practical need to winnow down the number of books being published and thrown into the Amazon database.

Having observed the dotcom bubble of twenty years ago, I saw this coming. (Also, economics was my undergraduate major.)

But I was wrong about one thing: I predicted that Amazon would eventually charge authors and publishers to list their books on its site. A listing fee of $50~$300 per title would have met with some complaints, but many authors and publishers would have paid it.

But Amazon has opted for a much more profitable course (for Amazon): The company has convinced authors that they should engage in a bidding war for AMS ad clicks. Bids of over $1 per click are now common in competitive categories within the AMS system.

Very few authors will be able to make money at that game, long-term, selling $3.99 ebooks. The margins simply aren’t there.

Publishing will once again require deep pockets to shell out up-front costs…if you want to make any money at it, that is.

Economics is inexorable. Despite all the utopian pretensions of the indie publishing community, the future may end up looking very much like the past.

Nunn Bush

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.

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.

Writers and the laws of economics

I am a big fan of The Sell More Books Show. Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen are bottomless sources of pertinent news and worthwhile advice for indie writers and small publishers.

I must, however, take issue with one of Bryan Cohen’s consistent positions, regarding writers and the nature of competition.

In the most recent episode of The Sell More Books Show, Cohen repeatedly asserted that writers are “all in this together”, that they aren’t in competition with each other. He also stated that he doesn’t “like competition”.

Bryan Cohen is a smart guy. He is also one of the most genuinely nice people on the Internet nowadays. In an online world filled with snark and cynicism, Bryan Cohen is consistently upbeat and charitable.

Nevertheless, writers are not exempt from the laws of economics. The indie publishing boom has lowered the barriers to entry, such that anyone and everyone can publish a book. Indie writers have responded by flooding the market. In some genres (especially romance and urban fantasy), there are now more books than readers.

Cohen is also aware that advertising prices have been bid up for authors. Facebook advertising is no longer profitable for most authors. Amazon ads are now either a break-even proposition, or barely profitable, for most authors. (And many authors report losing money on them.)

This is all a result of too many authors competing for a relatively fixed pool of readers.  What the indie author space really needs right now is a vast shakeout, much like what occurred in the aftermath of the dotcom bust of 2001~2002.

The indie author space underwent a speculative boom after Amazon lowered the barriers to publishing in 2009. A bust, and a shakeout, are overdue.

Boom-and-bust cycles, and shakeouts, are normal…and inevitable. They aren’t about being mean, or wishing failure on any one particular individual. They are a market response to the limited demand for any good or service.

But they are competitive in nature. As it went with the dotcom entrepreneurs twenty years ago, so it will go with indie authors over the next few years.

Indie authors aren’t “all in this together”. They are ultimately competing for readers who will spend only so much disposable income on books and entertainment.


Competing by volume: the cancer of indie publishing

Kristine Kathryn Rusch almost never fails to hit the mark when she analyzes the publishing industry. (Her political pronouncements on Twitter are a different matter; but that’s another topic for another day.) In a recent blog post about a scandal involving ghostwriters in the romance genre, Rusch wrote: Continue reading “Competing by volume: the cancer of indie publishing”