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.

Ebook sales just 7.9% of revenue for Hachette

Hachette, one of the “big five” publishers, reported that ebooks accounted for 7.9% of its global revenue in 2018:

Hachette reported that sales of digital audio rose 30% across its publishing operations and accounted for 2.7% of total revenue, up from 2.0% a year ago. Ebook sales fell in the United States and United Kingdom, but still represented 7.9% of revenue.

One would imagine that the other publishers experienced similar numbers.

Granted, 7.9% is not nothing, but it falls short of expectations..and previous hype. A few years ago, all the pundits were predicting the end of paper, and the triumph of the ebook…So far that hasn’t happened.

I see similar results in my own books. Since I released the paperback edition earlier this year, 12 Hours of Halloween has been selling almost as many copies in paperback as it does in Kindle.

 


Should authors narrate their own audiobooks?

This is a question that has been coming up frequently of late on the various indie author boards.

The question is only natural. Dedicated narrators charge around $250 per finished hour to narrate, edit, and master audio files.

That means $2,700 to $3,300 to convert a 100,000-word novel into an audiobook.

No, those numbers aren’t in Japanese yen. They’re in US dollars.

To be fair to the narrators: Although $250 per hour sounds like a lot, the narrators aren’t necessarily charging the same hourly rates as corporate attorneys, heart surgeons, and high-class call girls.

Notice that I said, per finished hour. That means not only reading the material, but also editing out obtrusive plosive sounds, loud breaths, and overly lengthy pauses. It means mastering the files to make sure they meet certain technical specifications.

According to some estimates, five to ten hours of work can be required to produce a finished hour of audio for an audiobook.

Audiobook production requires a material investment in both hardware and software. There is also something of a learning curve, as sound engineering is both an art and a science. To become competent in sound engineering isn’t quite as difficult as becoming an attorney or a heart surgeon (I won’t speculate about the difficulty of becoming a high-class call girl); but it isn’t exactly simple, either. There are many new concepts to absorb and understand. Unless you have worked with audio at the technical level in the past, all of these concepts will be completely unfamiliar to you.

So hopefully I’ve made clear: No one should be resentful of the narrators who charge $250 per finished hour to deliver store-ready audiobook files.

That said, $2,700~$3,300 represents a significant upfront investment for most indie authors. If you’ve got a backlist of ten books, that means that you could buy a new Toyota Corolla for what it would take to convert your entire library into audiobook format.

It is only natural, then, that some authors are asking the question: Why not just do this myself?

Why not, indeed? This brings us to the debate. There are plenty of reasons for doing it yourself…and for not doing it yourself. I don’t believe that there is an absolute, one-size-fits-all, right or wrong answer to this one. As is so often the case in this life, the only succinct answer is: It depends. 

To begin with, the writer who seeks to produce her own audiobooks will have to be comfortable reading her own work in a very public way. Many writers are painfully shy. I am amazed at the number of writers who are terrified to appear on YouTube or on podcasts. Many are too shy to even post their author photos on Facebook or their Amazon author pages. These authors almost certainly won’t feel comfortable reading their own fiction, and that will show in the results.

Narrating an audiobook is also a unique skill, above and beyond other forms of public speaking. I don’t believe that professional theater training is a prerequisite, but it would certainly help. At the very least, no author should attempt to read his own work for audio without first having listened to hundreds of hours of audiobooks as a consumer. If you don’t like audiobooks, if you aren’t a consumer of audiobooks, then you have no business narrating them. 

And then there’s the investment and technical side, which I’ve touched on above. Some writers embrace technology, others shrink from it. Can you learn about RMS, noise floors, and hard limits as eagerly as you learned about three-act structure? Are you willing to plunk down the money needed to purchase a computer with decent processing power, a high-quality mic, and other equipment? Are you willing to pay for Pro Tools or Adobe Audition software?…Oh, and are you also ready to ascend the learning curve that it takes to competently use them?

In regard to this last point, I would offer one piece of cautionary advice. On writer forums, I occasionally see writers state that they are overwhelmed by Scrivener (a popular non-linear word processing program designed for writers). If you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener, then you probably shouldn’t try to produce your own audiobooks.

(I don’t mean to imply that you’re an idiot, by the way, if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….But I do mean to imply that you aren’t very technically inclined if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. I can run a six-minute mile; but I can’t make simple free throw shots on the basketball court with any degree of reliability. Know thy strengths, know thy weaknesses.)

That all said, there are plenty of reasons for embarking on self-production…if you have the basic aptitudes and willingness.

One of the big arguments for self-production is this: The job that you hire out might not be any better than the job you could do yourself, with a bit of preparation.

There are few formal barriers to entry to the narrator field. Anyone can hang out a shingle as a narrator nowadays. Many of the narrators you encounter in the marketplace might be only a few steps ahead of you…or possibly a few steps behind you.

Let’s start with the quality of the narration itself. If you’re going to hire Scott Brick (the narrator of most of the Clive Cussler novels, among many other books) then Scott Brick is almost certainly going to do a better job than you. By all means, hire Scott Brick. Scott Brick is not only a consummate professional, he’s a “brand”. (I’m far more likely to consider an audiobook from an unknown author if Scott Brick is the narrator.)

I don’t know what Scott Brick charges per hour, but it’s probably more than $250; and his schedule is likely booked months or years in advance. I am therefore going to assume that you won’t be hiring Scott Brick. You’re going to hire some narrator from the online marketplace, whom you’ve never heard of before.

I’ve listened to many samples from lesser known narrators on the Audible site. Most of them meet a basic level of competence; but the indie author might honestly ask: Is that voice, that quality of narration, worth $250 per hour?

On the technical side, some of the independent narrators seem to be just as tech-averse as the average indie author. Many seem to have backgrounds in acting. When you think of someone who is technically proficient, is a drama major the first person who comes to mind?

It might therefore be easier to just bite the bullet, and learn about RMS, noise floors, etc.

Yes, it’s hard…but not heart surgery hard. It’s more like building-your-own-backyard-deck, or learning-conversational-Spanish hard.

You also have the option of recording and editing the audio files yourself, then hiring out the final mastering—which is not free, but which is far cheaper, in most cases, than $250 per finished hour.

The quandary of whether or not to narrate one’s own audiobooks, then, is a uniquely personal one that every author needs to carefully assess.

Whichever way you go, audiobook production isn’t going to be easy or cheap. Accept that from the get-go, or don’t even start.

The question is: Given your priorities, proclivities, and resources, are you better to sacrifice ease (self-production), or are you better to sacrifice cheapness (outsourcing)?

That’s the decision that you have to make; and whichever one you choose, you’re likely to encounter a bit of buyer’s remorse if your audiobook sales don’t meet your expectations.

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”

Will ebooks fall to $0?

I am a big fan of The Sell More Books Show, hosted by Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen. Whether you’re an indie or a traditionally published author, this is a great place to get a weekly update on the latest trends in publishing and book marketing.

One of the topics in this week’s episode was the devastation that streaming services have wrought on the music industry, and what that might presage for writers and publishers.

This segment of the show begins with a reference to several online social media posts and articles about the financial situation of musician Danny Michel.

Although Michel’s music is popular, he isn’t even earning beer money through the streaming services:

I’ve been a full-time musician for 25 years. It’s been nothing but hard work, but I love hard work. My songs bought my house, my studio, pay the bills and more. Through it all the conversations backstage with other musicians have always been about music, family, guitars, friends, art etc. But in 2018 that conversation changed. Everywhere I go musicians are quietly talking about one thing: how to survive. And I’ve never worried about it myself UNTIL 2018. What I can tell you is my album sales have held steady for the last decade until dropping by 95% this year due to music streaming services. Note my earnings for “Purgatory Cove”: this song has been in the TOP 20 charts (CBC Radio 2 & 3) for 10 weeks, climbed to #3. In 2018 that equals $44.99 in sales. (An artist earns $0.003 per play on Spotify)

Michel and other musicians who complain about Spotify (and similar services) are correct: The entire concept is a lousy deal. The streaming services arose as a cynical compromise with music piracy. No one in the music industry–from record label executives to the back-up drummer for the latest up-and-coming garage band–thought that this was a good idea.

But twenty years ago, too many musicians were afraid to say that music piracy wasn’t cool, wasn’t okay. Musicians at the time (circa 1999) were afraid of alienating the first generation to come of age with the Internet.

Members of that generation are now in their late thirties, and are no longer in the prime music-buying demographic, anyway. But as a result of the prevailing attitudes of that time, musicians are  stuck with the streaming paradigm–at least for now.

 

In his commentary on the Sell More Books Show, Jim Kukral suggests that Dan Michel is just whining, that musicians should simply “suck it up”.

Why? Because digital robbery is the wave of the future? With all due respect to Jim Kukral, I wonder if he would be so glib if Russian hackers were to penetrate his personal savings account. After all, you can’t fight the future.

Obviously, I don’t want to see Jim Kukral’s bank accounts get hacked by Russians. But to some people, Russian hackers helping themselves to your money via hacking is just part of the future.

 

 

No version of the future is “inevitable”. The future is always open to debate and influence.

I’m not a musician, so I don’t have a dog in the streaming music battle. But if I were a musician with any control over my content, I would remove my entire catalogue from Spotify, Pandora, and all similar venues of online digital servitude.

Then I’d release my music as a  CD. In fact, I might even release my music in vinyl, which produces a better listening experience, anyway, and is presently making a comeback among fans.

But what about the vast audience on Spotify? you might ask. I would submit that an audience from which the #2 song makes less than $50 in a year isn’t worth much.

 

How should we extrapolate all this to the publishing business? Authors are worried about the Spotify-ing of publishing, too. As Bryan Cohen (back to The Sell More Books Show) pointed out in his commentary, Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited is an incremental payment system–just like Spotify.

At present, participation in the Kindle Select program is voluntary; but suppose Amazon required it in the future? Further suppose that we eventually had a situation in which authors were getting paid $0.12 per each complete read, or something like that.

Then Jim Kukral laid out yet another really dire scenario–a bit more far-fetched, but by no means impossible. Suppose some hacker in China or Russia creates a device or app that allows anyone to read all the digital books presently on Amazon–for free?

Either of these dire outcomes would completely destroy the publishing industry, and prevent anyone from making any kind of a living writing books.

But I don’t think we have to worry about it too much.

Why? Because digital books (ebooks, Kindle books) are not inevitable.

 

If we ever reached a state in which ebooks went to $0, due either to widespread piracy or some version of “Spotify for books”, publishers would simply stop publishing ebooks.

Yes, that could happen.

Publishers are still selling hardcover and paperback books today, in 2018, after all. (And as Jim Kukral has noted in previous episodes of The Sell More Book Show, paperbacks are making a comeback with young readers in their teens.)

Some indie authors are so desperate to be read, at all costs, that they probably would agree to a “Spotify for books”; but there is no way that Michael Connelly, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and the companies that publish them are going to agree to such an arrangement. Why would they? Bestselling indie authors wouldn’t agree to that, either.

 

For further evidence that “the wave of the future” is always subject to debate and revision, note the widespread resistance to Kindle Select. Amazon launched the service in December 2011. But it hasn’t become “the wave of the future”. The New York publishers immediately said, “No thanks”. And seven years later, you still can’t read the latest Lee Child or James Patterson novel in Kindle Unlimited.

Many indie authors are also saying no to Kindle Unlimited. (Joanna Penn and Dean Wesley  Smith have both been prescient in detailing the drawbacks to the program.)

 

The  music industry was completely vulnerable to piracy (and the subsequent forced acquiescence to streaming) because in 1999–the year of Napster–everyone believed that vinyl was dead. At the time, all music was being sold in easily pirated CDs.

The publishing industry is not in a similar state. A few years ago it was considered trendy and futuristic to say that “paper books are a thing of the past”. But those dead tree books are proving to be rather persistent. (I’m reading the latest Michael Connelly novel in hardcover right now, in fact.)

 

Be careful about declaring any new setup “the wave of the future”, just because  a particular group of people has embraced it–often for self-serving purposes.

As an artist or creative type, you should be immediately skeptical of any “wave of the future” which has the net result of preventing you from making any money whatsoever from what you do.

Nor should you be overly concerned about “alienating” those who insist that you must work for free–or almost free.  Let that audience go elsewhere.

Finally, who are the real “whiners”? Are the musicians who complain about making less than $50 per year from a #2 hit “whiners”?

Or are the whiners those listeners who claim that $9.99 (the price of a few coffees at Starbucks) is a simply unacceptable price for an album, because in their preferred version of the future, all music is free?