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 of 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. 

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.

**Save at Amazon on standing desks**

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.

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”