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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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Reviews are important to the author. Here’s why:

saber tooth skull
Review of Heart of Fire  Time of Ice on UK Amazon.

By Lewlew on 3 Mar. 2016

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

This is my first book by this author and I found the premise interesting and, unlike a recent reviewer, the physics lessons very much needed if you are to understand Kathleen’s predicament! She must master control over the positive and negative aspects of her discovery from years of research. Her life, and Cadeyrin’s depend upon it. I am not sure that the author is done with one book. When you finally reach the end of the book, you are wondering, how will the future be for her? Can she carry on functioning this way and be safe from further problems in the present and past?

I don’t want to give away anything as it is a book for discovering the characters as well as the plot. But I do hope the author is going to bring us another one. I would like to follow along as Kathleen follows her dreams!

More please!

   Beginning authors often have an unreasonable expectation that they will receive lots of positive feedback from admiring readers. While this may happen, it’s more usual for readers who enjoy the story to simply look for another from the same author. Giving feedback, despite being as easy as Amazon can make it, is still a task that few people have the time or inclination to tackle.

   The number of feedback responses to a book has an impact on its success. Most people will base their decision to purchase or not at least partially on the feedback count and the average number of rating stars. Popular books often get thousands of ratings. Of course, books become popular through marketing. It’s only after the prospective reader searches out the book on the internet that feedback becomes a part of the equation.

   Amazon’s sales rankings are one of the most important contributors to popularity. Once a book has moved into the top tier on Amazon, their algorithms ensure that it pops up on the computer screens of people who have shown interest in similar stories. This helps get eyes on the book, then the book’s description and the ratings take over.

   I’m not able to speak with authority for anyone else, but my purchasing decision tree goes through these steps:

  1. Become aware of the title by browsing Amazon’s categories, seeing it in a list of recommended books on Kindle, or through some internet marketing on other sites such as Twitter or Facebook.
  2. Search for the book’s page on Amazon.
  3. Read the author’s description of the story.
  4. Check the average number of stars given by readers
  5. Read some of the text reviews – both positive and negative
  6. Download a free sample to read.
  7. If the author hasn’t captured me by the time I finish the free sample it’s Sayonara.
  8. If I can’t wait to find out what happens next, it’s purchase time.
  9. Read the story.
  10. Assign a ranking, and if it’s a book I really enjoyed, write a brief review.

   So, that’s how I choose books. In my imagination, at least, that’s probably how many other readers act, too.

   The importance of sales and making money is one thing for an author, but there is a certain intense satisfaction from learning that a reader really liked the story and characters that is perhaps more important. I’ve had readers tell me they stayed home from work to finish Heart of Fire Time of Ice. I find that incredibly flattering. I only hope their boss was understanding.

   To my disappointment, the above review doesn’t show in the US Kindle site. Amazon shows US reviews on all of the other country sites, but not the reverse. Why, I don’t know.

   I’ve had some readers ask what happens next for Kathleen and Cadeyrin and have put some thought into their story after the events in Heart. I checked the UK page for the book just by chance and discovered the above review. That final sentence, “More please,” convinced me. There will be a follow-up story.

   I’ve already come up with part of the plot and the rest is bubbling around out there in the quantum plenum, just waiting for the two characters to lead me on the journey of writing their next story. My main problem is that I’m in the middle of another book with different characters. It makes it difficult to write when I’d like to be working on another project. As an aside, I like to finish one writing project before I start on the next. Now I’ve got to make a decision as to which way to go.

   Here’s the take-away: If you like a book and want more, you’d be well advised to leave feedback and ask for a sequel. The author will almost certainly see your request.



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Someone told me, “Being an Indie author gives one a lot of freedom. I can write what I like and publish it when I believe it’s ready to be read.”

There is a lot of truth in this statement, but my main problem is that I, personally, often get too anxious to publish and sometimes release my baby (work in progress) prior to its being actually ready. Needless to say, this happened with my first science fiction book, “The Time of the Cat”. I’ve been playing catch up on editing (more on that in a second) and am now on the 4th edition.

Regarding editing: There are a lot of great, free-lance editors available, but they all have one thing in common. They want to be paid for their work! Who knew! Seriously, I’m of the opinion that they certainly earn their money the hard way. Unfortunately for me, as a starting author, I’m still in the red. I made the decision to provide professional quality covers and art work isn’t free. As much as I’d like an editor, I’m really not ready to spend the money until I’ve become more established. This means that you, Dear Reader, will sometimes be faced with mistakes. Ugh!

My writing process is sporadic. I sit down and begin writing and sometimes I only write a few hundred words; other times the story flows and I do five or six thousand. If I could only keep up that rate, I’d do a novel a month, but all that sitting is hard on the body. Anyway, when I really get going, I’m more concentrated on getting the story line out than on being precise about spelling or grammar. Before I started self-publishing, I thought that I was a good writer. Now I’m not so sure. BUT, I’m getting better.

Using spell check is a no brainer in terms of finding misspelled words, but the secondary question that spell check doesn’t address is: Are they the right words? They’re – There – Their – You’re – Your, etc. I have one review that mentions that my story consistently confuses loose with lose. That’s a valid and appreciated criticism. It’s being fixed in edition 4. It was something that I didn’t notice that probably slipped in via spell-check or search and replace.

The point is, I really want to deliver the best reading experience possible to my readers. I’ve read (as I’m sure you have also) lots of ebooks that are filled with mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes can be so disruptive that the story suffers. I’d like to avoid that, so your comments pointing out mistakes are very welcome.

My offer to you is if you find a serious mistake or a section of writing that doesn’t flow, let me know. If you want, I’ll give you credit at the end of the book or maybe name a minor character after you.