From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:
This post began being written a couple of weeks ago when I recalled some specific misplaced expectations I had for the self-publishing revolution and started to ponder why things happened the way they did in recent years. It turns out a big part of the answer I was looking for provides clarity that extends far beyond my original question.
For a period of a few years that probably ended two or three years ago, we saw individual authors regularly crashing bestseller lists with self-published works. Some, like Amanda Hocking, parlayed their bootstrap efforts into significant publishing contracts. Others, like Hugh Howey, focused on building their own little enterprise and tried to use the publishing establishment for what it could do that a self-publisher couldn’t. (In what was certainly a very rare arrangement of this kind with a major indie author, Howey made a print-only deal for his bestseller, “Wool”, with Simon & Schuster. And he made foreign territory and language deals and Hollywood deals as well.) And we know that there were, and are, a slew of indie authors who self-publish through Amazon and don’t even bother to buy ISBN numbers to get universal distribution under a single title identifier, effectively keeping them out of bookstores.
All of this was enabled by three big changes to the historical book publishing and distribution ecosystem. One was the rise of ebooks, which simplified the challenge of putting book content into distributable form and getting it into the hands of consumers. The second was the near-perfection of print on demand technology, which enabled even print books to be offered with neither a significant investment in inventory nor the need for a warehouse to store it. And the third was the increased concentration of sales at a single retailer, Amazon.Between print and digital editions, Amazon sells half or more of the units on many titles and, indeed, may be approaching half the retail sales overall for the US industry.
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What the rush of indie bestsellers told us a few years ago was that things had changed to the point that a single person with a computer could achieve sales numbers that would please a big corporation going after sales with the tools provided by tons of overhead: careful curation and development, sophisticated production capabilities, teams of marketers and publicists, legions of sales people, and acres of warehouse space. This had not been possible before ebooks. And the market reach of the amateur publisher was extended even further asAmazon’s share of print sales surged as a direct result of retail shelf space declining with Borders’s passing and Barnes & Noble’s shrinkage.
For a period of time that was relatively brief and which now has passed, agents and publishers worried that self-publishing could be appealing to authors they’d want in their ecosystem. The author’s share of the consumer dollar is much higher through self-publishing. And the idea of “control” is very appealing, even if the responsibility that goes with it is real and sometimes onerous.
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I’d suggest that the biggest reason this activity was so feverish 2-to-4 years ago and isn’t so much now was revealed first in a vitally important post by hybrid author and helper-of-indies Bob Mayer and then reiterated by the latest report from the Author Earnings website.
Mayer built an impressive business for himself by reissuing titles of his that had previously been successfully published and gone out of print. He spells out clearly what has changed since the days of big indie success and the plethora of entity-based publishing initiatives.
The marketplace has been flooded. An industry that used to produce one or two hundred thousand titles a year now produces over a million. Nothing ages out of availability anymore. Even without POD keeping books in print, ebooks and used books make sure that almost nothing ever disappears completely. And Mayer’s sales across a wide range of titles — his and other authors whom he has helped — reflect the mushrooming competition. They’re down sharply, as are the sales of just about everybody he knows.
What Mayer wrote tended to confirm that the breakthrough indie authors happened far more frequently before the market was flooded. Authors who struck it rich in 2010 and 2011 (like Hugh Howey) were lucky to get in before the glut. Recommending that somebody try to do the same thing in 2013 or 2014 was telling them to swim in a pool with water of a completely different temperature.
On the heels of Mayer’s piece, Author Earnings made discoveries that seemed to startle even them. For those who don’t know, AE is a data collection and analysis operation put together by indie author Hugh Howey teamed with the anonymous analyst “Data Guy”. The AE emphasis is on what the author gets, (“a site for authors by authors” is what they call themselves) with less interest in what publishers want to know: how topline ebook revenues are shifting.
According to the industry’s best analyst, Michael Cader, the most recent AE report shows, for the first time since they’ve been tracking it, a reduction in earnings for indie authors and an increase for published authors. (Cader may have a paywall; here’s another report from Publishing Perspectives.) But even more startling is the shift in revenue. Publishers have booked 65% of Kindle revenues and Amazon Publishing has 10%. They put self-published authors at 20%, which is down from 25% previously.
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What this is telling us is that, whatever deficiencies there are in the way publishers are organized for publishing today, they clearly are able to marshal their resources more effectively for book after book than indies can.
Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files
PG says it’s interesting that Mike and others associated with Big Publishing debunked Author Earnings for its methodology (which, in PG’s distressingly humble opinion, they took way, way too long to understand) and its results.
Beginning in October 2014, as AE released report after report showing indie authors capturing a larger and larger share of the ebook market, the same criticisms continued.
Now, when the latest AE report shows an interruption in this trend, AE has suddenly become a reliable basis for saying this self-publishing thing is just a fad and Big Publishing will be fine after all.
While he doesn’t have any inside information or amazing predictive powers, PG says market data, particularly sales data, flucutuate.
While AE is a brilliant idea, it is a snapshot based on one day’s sales ranks on Amazon. A series of eight AE reports from October 2014 to May 2016 showed that indie authors were capturing a larger and larger portion of ebook sales. With each report after the first, a trend emerged and its reliability strengthened. The first AE snapshot was not a fluke, created by a single day’s fluctuation. Neither was the second, etc.
While PG was as surprised as anyone that the latest AE report showed a reversal of the previous trend, sales data fluctuate. We’ll have to see several more AE snapshots to understand what, if anything, is changing.
However, the economics and technology that underlie indie authors and their success with self-publishing haven’t changed.
- Large numbers of people who become more and more accustomed to spending their days and nights reading emails, texts, news, etc., etc., etc. from their phones and tablets are unlikely to suddenly decide they really want to read a physical book.
- The aggressive pricing of ebooks practiced by indie authors is not going to lose its power to attract new readers and retain existing ones.
- We are not going to see a larger number of physical bookstores opening than are closing. A bookstore is a lousy financial proposition.
- It’s not going to become easier for traditional authors to support expensive traditional publishers operating in high-cost cities.
- As time goes by, readers will continue to discover that indie authors produce books that equal or exceed the quality of those created by legacy publishing. Once that discovery is made, it is not forgotten.