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The Demise of the Indie Author

book-launchLike many Indie authors, I started writing books because I had a burning desire to tell stories; to touch readers’ lives in the same way that my favorite books had touched mine. Writing a book is both easier and far harder than one might expect. Finding readers for that novel is rapidly becoming increasingly difficult. Here’s why and here’s what may be done about it:

When I started writing, I had the idealistic impression that the new, online book market was a truly free market. The rise of online booksellers had taken the traditional publishing houses by surprise. It wasn’t that they didn’t know about the new market, it was that they were simply too invested in the old model of publishing to be responsive to competitors from outside their rigidly defined way of doing business.

The online model offered Indie authors another way to work. Write your novel, put it out there, and, if it’s good, people will find and read it. Pure capitalism; everybody is theoretically happy.

The problems with this approach are many. There are much more authors who are unskilled than there are authors who craft compelling, well-written stories. It’s said that everyone has at least one book in them. The rise of open hosting platforms was the key that unlocked many of these books. Unfortunately, many of them are only passingly readable, and there hasn’t been any reliable way to separate the desirable ones from the mass of text. This problem inevitably led to the online market’s migration away from a pure free-market status.

Allowing the readers to rate books was an obvious step. Theoretically, one could select a good book based on the ratings. The desire to have a viable selection tool led the online sellers to adjust their presentation algorithms to feature books with higher ratings or more reviews.

This step caused other problems. The first was that there is a trade-off between usefulness of a rating and how much work the reader will voluntarily put into the rating. The resulting rating system was so minimal that it ended up not saying much about the book. The second was that many readers didn’t participate. The third and major problem was that the rating system was subject to gaming.

Once the authors realized that books with more reviews were more likely to be featured and sold, the obvious step was to purchase reviews. Some early authors sold a lot of books in this way. The online booksellers realized what was happening and tried to correct it. Purchased reviews and, in fact, any that could be traced to any linkage with the author, no matter how tenuous, were banned.

The online sellers recognized the demand and set out to implement ways to supply the authors with better placement. Getting premium placement for a book suddenly relied on advertising. The Internet is theoretically a free information repository, and ads are effective when exposed to enough views. However, point-of-sales ads, in the online bookstore itself are the most effective. The public is already there to buy a book; determining which book is the critical step.

With the inevitable evolution of online Giants, large enterprises that can generate billions of views, monetizing those views has become a competitive science. The Giant must design its system to optimize ad revenue. This requirement has come to mean providing favorable placement to proprietary ads, leading to the gradual demise of third-party advertising. All things being equal, third-party ads will generate results, but in an environment where the framework provider’s ads have preference, third-party ads fade away.

Because they are intensely interested in the sales of their books, authors suddenly became aware that they not only had to provide a well-written novel, they also had to advertise it with the bookseller’s ad system.

The natural next step in this evolution is that the Giants will begin to show their corporate products ahead of the rank and file. Online booksellers can acquire product by signing authors and taking over the role of traditional publishers.

Since the original model of online book sales requires authors to place their work voluntarily on the site and this somewhat mythical free-market of millions of books draws views based on its size alone, it is important to maintain that mass of books. New authors find it ridiculously easy to publish their works as a result. Generating significant sales numbers, however, is far more difficult.

The online booksellers now have their own imprints and can be expected to give books published by these imprints preferential placement. The proprietary imprints have become little publishing houses, taking on all of the aspects and techniques of the traditional publishing houses. This forces want-to-be Indie authors to find an agent and go through all of the same steps necessary to get traditionally published. The only advantage for the author is that the business costs of setting up a mini-imprint online are less expensive than starting a traditional publisher, so there can be many more mini-imprints, offering more opportunities to find a publisher.

One might think this is a natural and a fair evolution and it is. Unfortunately, the next step is to move into an entirely Fake Market. This is happening now in some of the online vendors’ systems.

In the world of book sales, the trend is to give the online bookstore’s mini-imprints’ books premium placement. This is not a free market in the traditional sense. Consumers can’t trust the biased information they’re getting, and so their purchasing decision may be made for reasons other than the quality of the product. The algorithms that define which products appear to which buyers are not visible to the consumers, and they won’t usually realize that their choices are subtly directed. Authors have only limited control over their prices and profit margins. Consumers have even less control over the prices. No price discovery mechanism exists, since there is little competition for the sale. There are no third-party regulators (expecting government to help here amounts to a contradiction in terms) and little competition to help keep the market more open and free.

So, what’s an Indie author to do? The most obvious step for every author to take is to spread their efforts over many online vendors. Indie authors must keep the online booksellers honest by making them compete against each other.

Online booksellers will fight that effort by adopting different standards for manuscripts. Publishing on one platform will be different from publishing on another. The Giant may offer better placement to a book which is not published anywhere else on the Internet. This exclusivity is intended to force the Indie author to invest considerable time and effort into specific publishing platforms. This increases costs and will lead to the Indie giving up on the less favorable platforms. Limiting the placement of one’s book is a self-defeating step for the Indie author.

The best strategy for the Indie author community is to make every effort to keep their vendors, the online bookstores, competitive with each other. Keeping the market competitive may only be done by ensuring that a book is available in absolutely every online store possible. This tactic includes setting up personally-owned stores which host books and sell them on individual author blogs.

The alternative will inexorably lead to a few dominant online vendors who will then be in the position to force Indie authors to accept continuously diminishing royalties. Would you accept a 10% royalty or less in exchange for premium placement? Some authors might.

A market dominated by one or a few Giants will also lead to fewer opportunities for authors, just as occurred in the traditional publishing market. There is little economic sense in having a bookshelf with thousands of novels in a single category. How many will the average reader purchase over one lifetime? Limiting the selection to the best novels, or (even worse) to those that sell best, is in the best interest of the bookseller. (That is not to say that such a situation is in the consumer’s or the author’s best interest.)

The choice is to spread your work around and make it easy to find everywhere, or have faith that the Giants will recognize quality work and reward it. The second alternative is not a given, considering the abysmal quality of some recent best sellers.

Does this post predict the end state of online book sales? In short: No. Look at the example afforded by the traditional publishers. The lesson is that markets are always susceptible to competition and that constant innovation is required for survival.

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