Diminishing returns dawn for self-publishing?

self-publishing

This is as much a thought piece and a kickoff for discussion as a fully fleshed-out article, but it goes like this: Is the end of the golden age of self-publishing already in sight?

Part of the reasoning behind this comes from the dawn of the dot-com era just over a decade ago, when Internet companies were racing to build their public profile prior to going public. I used to do a lot of this stuff in Hong Kong, back in the day when page views rather than “friends” or retweets were the key metric; and with the prospect of high-rolling quick flips on the Hang Seng, serious money was involved. Then too, the received wisdom was that the Internet had leveled the playing field for branding and visibility, and any crazy kid with a dream and a neat Web address could instantly build recognition parallel to Yahoo!, or Pets.com .

As we all know, things didn’t quite work out that way. Once traditional branding and marketing operators had got to grips with the new tool kit, they were able to lever the old-style advantages of man-hours, resources, networks and big promotional budgets to bag the eyeballs in the new media as well as the old. Yes, some big old outfits died in the process, but others grew up in the spaces they vacated to eventually block out the light from the ground cover of little guys.

self-publishingFast-forward fourteen years, and the current equivalents to the then Internet are of course the social media platforms and, for e-books, Amazon’s own virtual book chain. Both have left established marketing and promotional muscle temporarily disadvantaged, but I do not expect that situation to last. As if the Facebook IPO itself wasn’t enough of a signal, the plethora of Twitter academies and corporate branding “Like” campaigns ought to show everyone that the age of innocence in the social media global village is long past, and large tracts of it are being paved over with strip malls and billboards.

Word of mouth and viral marketing may still work well in social media, but buzz of that kind is just what old-style agencies were always looking to build anyway. I see no reason to believe the new media labs will not be just as successful in breeding the perfect social media virus. As elsewhere, the generational development of evolutionary cycles in new media is being compressed, and self-publishing may already be past its first growth and into early maturity.

The real issue for me in that lies exactly in self-publishing’s advantage: the ability to get inside the distribution and exposure system and game it for your own benefit. Beyond marketing, nothing builds presence like a good platform, and Amazon has the best. But its omnipresence means that everyone is studying it, learning it, tweaking their offerings and strategies to take advantage of its quirks. Now what if all the self-publishers apply that same knowledge at the same time?  Online, they can do that. Then Amazon changes its systems, and the self-publishers move on to the next trick, which burns across the Kindle Boards like wildfire, and the same thing happens again. This is apparently what happened when Amazon’s changed its popularity algorithms in March 2012 after the initial launch of KDP Select. The ecosystem reacts on itself so fast that differential advantage is eaten away in no time. And an arms race like that will ultimately be won by the biggest guns.

The problem is oddly typified by the runaway success of David Gaughran’s new book, Let’s Get Visible: How To Get Noticed And Sell More Books, already lauded on Amazon. “Will recommend to every indie author I know,” writes one breathless reviewer. Here, I’m not criticizing that book or its approach: Every self-publisher should buy it, read it, and go out and do exactly what it says. All the same, that book’s popularity practically guarantees that its advice comes date-stamped, and that advice equips self-publishers very well to compete against each other. In the other leading platforms, Barnes & Noble and Kobo especially, this isn’t such an issue because they simply sell the exposure.

The established publishing players have been extraordinarily slow to learn how to avoid becoming extinct, and that may extend self-publishers’ lead for a little while longer. But in this analysis, publishers and agents can breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t necessarily see a problem with that: If you can grow my pie, you’re welcome to your slice. And many writers may simply decide their time is better spent writing than marketing. Now that publishers are no longer compulsory, they might actually start to appear desirable.

For now, the market dynamics still give some advantage to the little guy. So make Hay (-on-Wye?) while the sun shines. Party like it’s 1999. Because if my reasoning is accurate, the big bust might be just around the corner.

Please, any responses or observations you have on this, go ahead and make them.

16 Comments on Diminishing returns dawn for self-publishing?

  1. Paul I think that you are absolutely right to remind readers of a possible inflection point when it comes to emerging markets. The authors, however, that are making money are not the small guys, but rather the guys who have old back-listed, and edited books that they can sell via self-marketing. There are self-published authors who have made a ton of money with their own thoroughly processed books, but for every one of the latter, there are five who fall into the former. Curious to see what top earning authors make in the next couple of years, as e-reading becomes more ubiquitous.

  2. “The ecosystem reacts on itself so fast that differential advantage is eaten away in no time. And an arms race like that will ultimately be won by the biggest guns.”

    I din’t think the biggest guns will be the one winning. As you point out in the first sentence, the key to winning is reactivity, and biggest guns are usually reluctant to fast pointing changes, unless they really are ready to carpet-bomb the territory, and Amazon will make sure that doesn’t happen.

    Big pockets will probably make a bigger difference than big guns IMHO. It’ll get big guns time to roll and evolve, but not much more than that.

  3. I think it’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I fully agree. While it’s certainly possible that publishers will suddenly stop being afraid of change and hire some people who understand the internet, I think we are a good bit away from that yet. When it comes to Amazon, they often struggle with basic concepts like correct categorization of books when uploading, to say nothing of having a handle on things like dynamic pricing, free pulsing, or the popularity lists.

    You make an interesting point about my book, which made me pause for a moment. But I suppose it’s like any advice in that if everyone adopts it to the same level, no-one gets an advantage. For example, if we all used top-level cover designers for our books, we would all have nice-looking books but no-one would gain an advantage. But that’s not what happens. Even though there are plenty of amazingly talented cover designers out there, not everyone uses them. I know one brilliant designer who sells pre-mades for $30 – a price everyone could afford – and yet some won’t invest that in their book.

    So while my bank manager would be very pleased if every single self-publisher bought a copy of my book, I think it’s safe to assume that’s not going to happen. And even if every publisher bought a copy of my book, and agreed with its contentions, and won the internal argument to apply its theories – they aren’t scalable. They simply couldn’t implement its strategies across all their lists. It would be impossible. It’s just not scalable.

    That’s not to say they won’t get smarter about this stuff. They will, but I don’t expect it to happen tomorrow. They are still several steps behind savvy self-publishers. And when they catch up to where we are today, we won’t just be onto the next thing, but the thing after that.

    I’ll only really fear the publishers when things start to settle down, but again I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Publishing is undergoing a greater disruption than we saw in music. It’s like we’ve gone from vinyl to MP3 in one step. Publishers (as well as many authors sitting on the sidelines) are waiting for things to normalize, but I think chaos is the new normal.

  4. Thanks for your input, David – interesting and valid points.

  5. Jakob Larsen // May 22, 2013 at 7:12 am //

    Interesting thoughts, David! I agree that self-publishing in it’s pure form is probably not a viable model when everybody learn how to market their own books with their – after all – limited resources available. However, there is no doubt that self-publishing has helped(!) pushing the bargaining power between traditional publishers and authors, which, in my mind, is the core change of the business. In a world where shelf space – and thereby offerings – basically is unlimited you need to know the readers very well in order to target them precisely when you market your products. Unfortunately I see very few traditional publishers mastering these skills – and at the same time authors have lots of alternatives from new players as the physical roadblocks on the way to the market disappeared with digitization. So, self-publishing is, in my mind, a picture of the extreme effects of digitization. And I truly hope – and think – that traditional publishers will learn from this and redefine their individual roles in the publishing life cycle.

  6. @Jakob

    I think traditional publishers also face a threat from other non-traditional sources. Organizations like the Guardian, the New York Times, and Vanity Fair are now publishing e-books. Some of that content (like long-form journalism) is material that wouldn’t have been published in the past due to print constraints, but much of it is stuff that would have gone via a traditional publisher (such as a book on the 2012 election or the capture of Bin Laden). So it’s not just authors. Any entity in the business of content creation (such as blogs, magazine, newspapers, review sites etc.) can now publish their own work and reach readers without the help of a publisher.

    I’m not saying that publishers can’t provide value anymore. They can (and do, when they really wish to back a book). They just aren’t a *necessary* part of the path to readers anymore.

    I can’t see that changing. Once the Pandora’s box of distribution is open, you can’t build walls around it again. I don’t see publishers pushing ahead in the areas of marketing or discovery either – they aren’t even on the same planet as someone like Amazon.

    All of that makes me reasonably confident about the future viability of self-publishing. The only threat I see is if books suddenly become much more expensive to produce. If interactive e-books with strong audio/visual/gaming elements become the norm, most self-publishers simply won’t have the capital to bring their projects to market. But I can’t see readers going for interactive e-books when they can just switch on their Xbox.

  7. I’m sure individuals will continue to self-publish, cheaply, and get their books read. But I believe that in the long run, the marketing and promotional muscle of established operations, whether traditional publishers *or* new entrants, will reduce the indie self-publisher to the same status as a market gardener selling his veggies from a stall. Yes, he can turn an honest penny for himself and get people to buy his fine produce. But by himself, he’s unlikely to be able to master the distribution, sales and marketing channels to take them further, once serious money and promotional expertise begins to flood those channels. Everyone can now be his or her own Caxton or Gutenberg, but people don’t buy their books straight from the printer any more.

  8. Jakob Larsen // May 22, 2013 at 10:24 am //

    I think we more or less agree here – sounds like it’s only a matter of how we define self-publishing and new entrants. Anyway, interesting to watch how we often get carried away when things change so radically as they have in publishing. We tend to focus solely on what is changing and not what is constant – lots of old conventional “business forces” still apply to publishing even though the individual roles are shifting and the content being digitized.

  9. @Paul
    I think that you may be attributing too great an advantage to the traditional publishers. While they certainly can muster a vastly greater amount of effort on behalf of their books, they usually do not do so for the majority of books in any given month. While they put that effort and marketing dollars into their lead book of the month and a lesser effort in another 10 or so, they leave the majority of their “catalog” books with little or no marketing support other than putting it into their release catalog. With their current staffing (and I certainly don’t expect this to change for the positive), that won’t change. In fact, with the drive for a more “blockbuster” model, I can see traditional publishers “putting more wood behind fewer arrows” in an effort to create those blockbusters and leaving a greater proportion of their publications to fend for themselves.

    I also want to address the unspoken assumption that these blockbusters are what everyone needs. Previously published writers who are converting their backlist to ebooks are certainly not expecting an old book to become the next blockbuster release. Rather they are taking the long view that more books generating even relatively small amounts will collectively make a good income. To denigrate this as an “honest penny” is not a worthy criticism. This is the long tail model that allows a broad population to profit albeit at a smaller level compared to a very few who profit hugely. Both can be successful in supporting their livelihood, but the scale is merely different. That everyone can’t be a James Patterson scale success is obviously true, but that a much larger number can support themselves with the smaller though much more profitable sales of self-publishing than via the earnings of traditional publishing is also true as well.

  10. Great point by David Gaughan.

    “You make an interesting point about my book, which made me pause for a moment. But I suppose it’s like any advice in that if everyone adopts it to the same level, no-one gets an advantage. For example, if we all used top-level cover designers for our books, we would all have nice-looking books but no-one would gain an advantage. But that’s not what happens. Even though there are plenty of amazingly talented cover designers out there, not everyone uses them. I know one brilliant designer who sells pre-mades for $30 – a price everyone could afford – and yet some won’t invest that in their book.”

    Just because resources are available, doesn’t mean everyone will take advantage of them. Personally I am stunned that anyone would publish a book without an editorial pass or a professionally designed cover—even if it’s just a pre-designed template, as David points out.

    Also, just because traditional publishers are making strides in internet marketing doesn’t mean the “Golden Age” of self-publishing is ending. Self-publishing shouldn’t be viewed through the same lens as corporate publishing, because the success metrics are different. Millions of people are now able to publish books who couldn’t a decade ago. These authors may not break into best-seller lists, make a million bucks, or become household names, but they are able to share their message, make a little (or maybe a lot of) money on the side, and advance their personal & professional standing. If that’s not golden, I don’t know what is.

  11. First off I think you have a crucial point about traditional marketing apparati coming to grips with new tools. We saw it happen with podcasting. It started out very DIY, very indie, but now the top shows are all products of traditional media outlets. The little guy revolutionizing media through podcasting was a dream that failed to materialize, so I think you have made some very valid points.

    However I’d like to take issue with a couple things that I think are false premises.

    1 – “The real issue for me in that lies exactly in self-publishing’s advantage: the ability to get inside the distribution and exposure system and game it for your own benefit.”

    That is not, as I see it, the advantage in self-publishing. The advantage is about control of the product and rate of return, the key being one doesn’t need as much distribution or exposure to make the same kind of rate of return. When you’re making 30% royalty at Amazon vs. 12.5% traditional, your necessary exposure rate is cut by more than half. Plus you’re no longer slave to any publisher’s poor editing or poor cover choices, both of which happen more than they’d like to admit. The other advantage of self-publishing is evergreen shelf-space. You’re no longer operating on the archaic produce model, where you have to hit good numbers inside of a month or you’re out of luck.

    2 – “And many writers may simply decide their time is better spent writing than marketing.”

    You seem to have bought the lie that traditional publishers are paragons of marketing. Sure they are, if you’re at the top of their catalog. No publisher engages in a big marketing push for an unknown newbie author fresh to their house. Authors like that still have to do their own marketing! They are the ones that have to harness the power of social media, or blogging, or author appearances, in order to build that word of mouth. They just don’t have to handle the distribution chain. That brings us back to all the failings of publishers, such as royalty statements that may or may not be accurate, and reflect what happened six months ago, well after said book may be viewed as a flop.

    Besides that, as David Gaughran himself–and Dean Wesley Smith for another–have pointed out, it’s not your skill at doing anything special in marketing that gets you noticed. It’s volume and quality. So for the writer whose time is “better spent writing than marketing,” then it has borne out that the self-publisher who consistently puts out more product gets more entries into the algorithms and in turn gets more eyeballs on the book.

    3 – “Now that publishers are no longer compulsory, they might actually start to appear desirable.”

    It’s not about being compulsory. It’s about whether or not publishers can pay authors what they think they’re worth. Until New York determines that they need to lower their overhead and become leaner machines paying authors more fairly, self-publishing will continue to be an attractive and increasingly more viable option.

  12. Jim and Renee, I agree that personal control of production and potentially marketing is good to have, and that the new landscape has definitely tilted towards writers, not least through giving them more bargaining power for better terms. I also do agree that even with big publishing muscle pushing new books, the long tail and direct access can create a tidy and sustainable platform for independent authors. And having worked in many publishing and book packaging houses, I know what inefficient and self-indulgent businesses they are. That said, you only have to read the Kindle Boards to know that there are many self-publishers out there chasing the bestseller dream, who are likely to waste good writing time on boosting themselves in hopes of being the next Dan Brown. Publishers happened to have a business model that could support their nonsense – now that they are being forced to change, some will improve themselves to a point where they become both an attractive alternative and serious competition for self-publishing authors.

    My tack on all this is that writers have to write. That’s what we’re for. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t insist on fair treatment and getting the just share of the money our work brings in. But we are not here to market ourselves. Sorry if that goes against much conventional wisdom, including the publishing publicity machines that need self-promoting writers as grist to their mills, but *all* time spent not writing is *potentially* time taken away from a writer’s fundamental value creation. Family, friends, sitting around in receptions with a cigarette and a glass of champagne, autograph tours – and bashing out endless Twitter messages promoting your work. If you’re doing this to make money, are you really in the right game? You deserve your money, yes: but should your real measure of success be on your written pages or your bank statement?

  13. Your point is unclear. It confuses large scale marketing of books (viral campaigns, using social media and so on) with publishing. That is marketing. Of course they will come to dominate that, but repeated surveys show that less that 22% of sales come from marketing and advertising and the rest is word of mouth and author reputation. In short–due to good books, not well-marketed books.

    Self publishing is not fading, nor does it even necessarily compete with traditional publishing. Readers, if not you, might be willing for them to coexist, each with its adherents. Readers don’t buy books by some specific publisher or ad agency, but develop loyalties to authors. Self publishing was viable for a small number of people long before it was easy, although it posed no threat to traditional publishers. Now it is accessible to all and it does.

    Your sense of history is inaccurate. The end of the dot.com was not at all the end of small entrepreneurs making fortunes but of overhyped ideas being sold to financial people. Although you make it sound like it was an apocalypse for the individual, it was only the ones who relied excessively on venture capital and who hadn’t paid attention to the pragmatic lessons of startups gone by who failed. The ones who didn’t try to make their fortunes between Wed and Friday of a given week managed to hang in there.

    Regardless of what traditional publishers do from a marketing POV, they couldn’t win a price war with indies who have almost zero overhead and no stockholders to appease. I’ve published with Traditional publishers, but unless they find a legal way to prevent me from publishing myself, I see no reason to go that route again.

  14. You’re absolutely right, there are writers out there who write one book and think if they push the heck out of it they can sell a million copies. They are the ones who fail to learn the lesson I mentioned above, that it’s about volume and quality, not marketing.

    “If you’re doing this to make money, are you really in the right game?”

    Well that’ s the game Publishers are in, isn’t it? They aren’t in it for the craft, or any other romantic notion. You say that as though earning a pittance for your writing is a privilege for some company putting your name on a book. The fact remains that an author IS to market themselves, and the best way to do that is write a lot of really good books. And earning crappy royalties writing a book a year isn’t the most logical way to do that any more.

  15. All this talk about people who *won’t* take advantage of all the offerings out there, such as the much-mentioned $30 professional book cover. What about the people who *can’t* take advantage of them? What about the people who have to choose between a $30 professional book cover and this month’s electric bill? Or feeding their families for the next few days? Don’t those people deserve to have their work read, too?

    I realize that this is turning into a big woe-is-me whinge-fest, but volume and quality are also mentioned in the above comments. How do you get your book into people’s hands if you cannot afford to pay others to do it, and if you cannot afford the time it takes to do it yourself?

    I’d really love to hear some thoughts on this, ‘cos I just spent my last $10 on food for my kids. I don’t have anything left to pay someone to market my books.

  16. Hi Fiona, the reality is that without a good-looking cover (i.e. one designed by a professional, unless you have the skills yourself) you will be impairing your chances of doing well.

    A good cover serves several purposes:

    1. It helps your book stand out from a line-up of several other thumbnail-sized book covers.

    2. It tells the reader exactly what genre the book is right away.

    3. It serves as an indication that the writer has taken as much care with the inside of the book.

    4. It makes a book more shareable (a good book with a crappy cover is a tough one to recommend).

    As for affording a cover in tough times, that $30 offer is about the best I’ve seen for professional work. A new cover from scratch could cost $500 (or more) from a top professional. This guy does killer work at very cheap prices.

    If you can’t afford $30, then the options are to either learn the skills yourself (which could take up a lot of time, which you may not have), or barter. Many self-publishers (myself include) keep costs down by trading services with providers.

    And if that’s not an option, I guess you need a more creative solution. Others in the same boat have tried crowdfunding, barter, payment plans with providers, business start-up grants, or have just designed their own basic cover until they made a few sales and then rolled that money back into a more professional cover.

    Good luck!

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