Rise of the Indie Author

Now is the time to be a self-publishing entrepreneur in the industry because of the rise of independent publishing companies, the low cost of starting a publishing company to publish works, and the ability to have greater control in the industry than ever before. The path to publishing success is accessible to those with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to learn to become savvy about the ever-changing market that is the book publishing world.

The publishing industry has undergone some drastic changes, most notably with the advent of the Kindle. When e-Books first hit the market, they were more often than not a last resort for writers who wanted to get their material out into the world. A majority of the first self-published e-Books were the works of those rejected by countless agents and publishing houses or those who delved into vanity publishing, where presses would charge writers to publish with them. Yet, while the e-Book market was struggling, so were the authors from traditional publishing houses.

“You ever wonder why people just assume that a published author is rich?” Kristen Lamb, the leader of the We Are Not Alone (WANA) movement in the self-publishing world asks in her book Rise of the Machines (Lamb, 14). It’s because the profession used to do well until other markets and the advent of the internet saturated the scene. When megastores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders came onto the scene, they were going to be “cultural centers” and “bookish hubs” and give writers more exposure. While household names received whole displays, newer authors that needed the exposure the most had their novels placed spine-out on the shelves where they lived for an average of six weeks before being pulped and recycled into other paper products, such as toilet paper (Lamb, 42). As a result, the mid-list authors were being wiped out and in their absence, the publishing world was becoming a Third World Economy, where almost all the wealth was concentrated on the top (Lamb, Warrior Writers).

rise of the indie author

As mid-list authors began to search for other markets or give up entirely, others, like Amanda Hocking, ventured out into the unknown: the world of e-publishing. In 2010, the-then 26-year-old Hocking had 17 unpublished books amassing digital dust on her laptop. With rejections nearing the thousands, Hocking decided that she had no choice other than to publish on Kindle to get her books out there. She published her first novel in April 2010, by August she made enough to quit her day job and by January 2011, she was selling more than 100,000 copies of her works per month (Pilkington).

While Hocking’s story resembles that of a writer’s fairytale fantasy, her tale was one of many that inspired both publishing and aspiring authors to flock toward the self-publishing markets. Aspiring authors got their first taste of what it was like to have their works out there, while published authors found that they were able to make more selling books independently than they were while working with a publishing house.

In 2011, authors with traditional publishing houses received about 17% of the profits from an e-book. Independently published authors received a 35% commission on Amazon Kindle if their book was priced between $.99-$2.98 or $10+, and a 70% commission from books between the price-points of $2.99-$9.99 and gave the author the freedom to set and alter their own price to gauge their results. According to J.A. Konrath, another pioneer of the self-publishing industry, the 53% difference does not justify the added quality of professional editing and a well-designed book cover (Wilhelm).

And many others agree with him.

rise of the indie author

Between 2009-2011, the ratio of traditionally published books and independently publishing eBooks tipped in the favor of the self-publishers who, in the year 2010, were responsible for 76% of the books published nationwide. The term “self-published” has slowly become altered to “independently published” (though for the sake of this paper, the two are interchanged). What many first saw as a foolhardy idea became the publishing equivalent of the California gold rush, and all authors needed were the right tools to go digging for nuggets.

Arguably the biggest goldmine of all is Amazon.com, which saw the potential for e-book sales and has dominated the market ever since. Attractive royalties, an easy to use e-book formatting system, and Create Space, and a print-on-demand option that allows for authors to distribute hard copies of their books at no added cost, Amazon remains the front-runner of the e-publishing world. The Amazon “Kindle” product line is competitive with tablets, and their publishing division is constantly finding new and improved ways to attract authors and readers alike. Most notably are two different programs that have done well in the recent years.

The first program is Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP. KDP is an optional form of publishing that allows an author to enroll a published work in for 90 days. During that period, the author one of two specialty discounts to further promotion that book. The first is up to five days of having the book available for “free.” The days can be used consecutively or individually, allowing authors to decide what days of the week and how many in succession they wish to use this promotion for. This promotion allows for new readers to buy a book for free and, potentially, they might become an added number to an author’s fan base. Many “genre” writers find this promotion useful if they have a series and use the free days to advertise the first novel in that series.

The other discount that can be used during the 90 days KDP period is the “Kindle Countdown” where, for 1-7 days, a book will be discounted and progressively made cheaper or more expensive as the countdown continues on. During the Kindle Countdown, a timer will appear on the screen of a book’s page and description, stating how much longer the book will stay at that price and attract the reader to buy the book while at its discounted price. While you can only choose one promotion at a time during this 90-day period, you can alternate which promotion you wish to choose during this period, which rolls over every 90 days until the author removes the book from the KDP promotion. The downside of this program in its current state is that Amazon stipulates that, while an e-book is enrolled in the 90 day KDP period, Amazon must be the only place that someone can purchase that e-book. However, as the dominating force in the market, most authors who take advantage of the KDP promotion accept this condition.

The second program that has been successful with Amazon Kindle authors and readers is KDP Select. Like the 90 day KDP period, KDP Select is a free tool for authors who, but joining the program, make their e-book available to the program’s subscribers, who pay $9.99 a month to read as few or as many e-books enrolled in the program as they would like. While a reader enrolled in the program doesn’t pay the price the author is selling their book for, Amazon takes the subscriber’s money and pools it into the Kindle Select Monthly Fund, which is distributed among all enrolled KDP Select authors based on the number of pages read by the subscribers. For March 2018, that fund consisted of $21 million dollars.

These are promotions on one site alone. Others, such as Smashwords and Goodreads, have promotional options of their own.

To coincide with these promotions, hundreds of blogs, Twitter handles, forums, and other websites will promote a book that is undergoing a KDP promotion, though many for a small fee.

These are only some of the opportunities available for independent writers and publishers in this brave new world. How much an author wishes to spend and where is up to them, and this is where marketing research and savvy comes in handy.

Ultimately, the independent author is the one who is truly in control of their own destiny. According to Jane Friedman, a long-time writer for the Writer’s Digest, there are 3 critical factors an author must consider when it comes to what they are spending money on for marketing and advertising, where, and how much. She suggests that an author shouldn’t spend a dime until they know who their target audience is. They must know how much of the audience they “own” either through the author’s website, newsletters, Facebook or other facets of social media and what an author’s weaknesses may be so that they can put money towards improving upon them (Friedman).

Friedman also suggests that an author’s marketing presence is more critical than ever for an author’s long-term marketing strategy. Many authors don’t take into account the importance of having a presence in social media, and this is where they fall flat. A writer can craft amazing prose and a plot worthy of a traditional six-figure book deal, but if all they do is publish it on Amazon and wait for readers to come, the odds are overwhelming against them that they will be successful. The key to success for an author is to find where their readers are, how to speak their language and reach out to them. There have been countless overnight successes and stories of authors who tried and tried for years only to go viral and gross an income great enough to live off of, but it doesn’t happen overnight or with little effort. It took Hocking nine years and 17 unpublished manuscripts’ worth of rejection. Andy Weir started with a blog slowly accumulated a fan base and then took chapters of a story he wrote on that blog and self-published The Martian (Dickerson).

An author’s marketing budget varies based on their needs, skill set, and connections. Developmental Editors, Copyeditors, Book Designers, Professional Digital Formatters, Distributors all cost money, and some authors can find themselves spending upwards of $5,000 before even publishing their book (Sattar)! Authors who wish to outsource their marketing could be spending an added costly fee for PR, which is why it’s important for authors to do research and find cheap, more efficient ways to publish an affordable but quality self-published work.

The keyword there is quality. The independent publishing business is growing more rapidly and getting more saturated by the day and offering readers a wider selection of books to read from, and they really will judge a book by its cover. If Book A and Book B are the same genre and price but Book A’s cover looks like it was created by a professional designer while Book B looks like poorly assembled clip art, readers will overwhelmingly look at Book A first. Readers will also judge a book based on reviews which will tell them how many people have reviewed it (with higher numbers indicating that it was marketed well) and the star rating, which tells about what lies between the digital pages. Reviewers will deduct stars for poor copyediting or developmental editing, and those reviews could detract a potential reader from purchasing your book. If self-published authors aren’t careful, their works could be passed over because it’s perceived as being of poor quality.

“The quality of indie books has improved enormously, and will continue to improve… unlike five years ago, it is impossible to tell the difference in quality between a good Indie published book and a traditionally published book” (Haines).

Lamb’s WANA movement, MyWANA, and WANAtribe have been helping build writing communities so that self-published authors and people with editing and designing skill sets can work together. Others, like Kristen Joy Eckstein, the self-proclaimed “book ninja,” offers a 30-day Kindle challenge through Facebook once a quarter. There, Eckstein teaches independent authors how to publish on Amazon Kindle, discusses marketing strategies, and how to prepare a successful book launch (Eckstein). Lamb and Eckstein are among many of the members of the independent publishing community that are helping authors connect with their readers.

According to an article in Publisher’s Weekly back in 2014, self-published books represent 31% of sales in the Amazon store, and only 16% of Amazon’s bestsellers come from the Big 5 Traditional Publishers. Independent authors earned nearly 40% of e-book sales and dominate the “genre novel” world (Sargent).

Helping contribute to these statistics are people who make it their life’s work to help author’s build and market their brands. One of the most notable leaders in this field is Fauzia Burke, the author of Online Marketing for Busy Authors, and the founder of FSB Associates, one of the first firms specializing in internet publicity for writers. “Once you build your brand, no one can take it away from you,” Burke says (Burke). She, among others, offer services to help authors become their own marketers so that they can become more effective in promoting their works, but also helps them discover the target markets within their genres so that they can reduce the amount of time spent marketing, thus allowing for more time to write.

Burke, among others, inform authors to always be aware of their stats. For example, in that same Publisher’s Weekly article, Sargent found that $2.99-$3.99 is the “sweet spot” when it comes to pricing most e-book bestsellers and that non-fiction books are more sought after if they are priced higher. It also states that, in 2014, readers were more apt to buy a book of over 100,000 words than that of 50,000 (Sargent). While these were the statistics from two years ago, they change about as frequently as the market, which is quite often. In Friedman’s blog, she often mentions where the market is at various points in time. For example, she spoke of the rise in audio books and, in 2015, the slow decline of children and young adult book sales since there were no significant motion pictures of those genres (Friedman).

Knowing the statistics of the genre an author delves into is important as they control their fate in the “wild, wild west” era of the publishing industry (Lamb). So is knowing what sites work for an author’s benefits with regard to promoting books. As mentioned earlier, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of e-book promoting sites out there, but not all of them bring a profitable return or added clients to an e-mail list.

Sometimes a high price yields a high return, and often discovered with BookBub.com. With an e-mail list in the millions, BookBub is one of the most popular sites for authors to get their books on. More than 80% of book promotion requests are rejected from this site, largely because BookBub has algorithmic requirements such as the number of reviews, the rating of the reviews, and other key factors that imply market potential and the potential for growth. When authors and readers sign up for the site, they select the genre(s) that they are interested in and then received a daily e-mail with the promotions going on for the book in their genres that they might be interested. Campaigns can last from one day to several, and the price varies from a couple to a couple thousand dollars, all based on the promotion’s length, genre, and price.

Buckbooks.com also does e-mail promotions, but for a much lower cost. Buckbooks offers other services through their sister website, Archangel Inc., and has an affiliate program where authors will also earn commission for advertising Buckbooks on their various web pages (Flogging). They strive to be a contender for BookBub given its variety of promotional costs ranging from free to thousands of dollars.

There are many options out there for independent entrepreneurial authors who want to enter the publishing industry in its current state, but it’s not for everyone. Many faces of the industry like Friedman, Burke, and Konrath will emphasize the importance of being a savvy marketer and building a brand to make a household name for oneself. While independently published authors have to struggle through both creating a masterpiece and then market it well enough to attract a readership, traditionally published authors get a lot of help from the companies in which they are publishing with, or so it would be assumed. Authors can also reach a larger fan base through said company.

As it turns out, that isn’t entirely true. The amount of exposure an author will receive is actually based on the faith that the publishing company has for the author, and an established platform and brand play a significant role in said faith. Countless authors have been published, only to receive a low print run (the number of books that were to be distributed to vendors) or a high print run that didn’t sell. The rest of their careers could be determined by how well or poorly their books sell, and not everyone can be a John Grisham or Stephen King. Newer traditionally published authors have to work just as hard to get noticed because the vast majority of the attention given to writers are all based on their previous successes. They are the ones that receive displays at Barnes and Noble and get to go on paid book tours. Traditionally published authors not only have to do all the work of an independent author, but also have to fulfill their contractual obligations, and bring in a significantly lower commission.

This is a terrible time for a new author to sign with a traditional publisher, Lamb paraphrases (Lamb). No matter who they are or what they are writing, an author without a brand or a household name is in for a difficult career ride. The days of everyone purchasing a book because of a review in the newspaper are over. The current state of the print journalism industry can attest to that! For better or worse, authors are more in charge of their own fate now more than ever before.

The classic phrase goes “the hardest part about writing is rewriting,” but today the hardest part about writing is knowing a target audience, how to reach them, and finding the entrepreneurial drive within oneself to get them to read a personal masterpiece. If an independent author is willing to put in the effort to become knowledgeable within their field and put in the work necessary, then they can achieve more than ever before.

References

BookBub: Free Ebooks – Great deals on bestsellers you’ll love. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bookbub.com/home/

Burke, F. (n.d.). Fauzia Burke – Author. Online Marketer. Speaker. Retrieved from http://www.fauziaburke.com/online-marketing-for-busy-authors/

Dickerson, K. (2015, June 22). Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-andy-weirs-the-martian-became-so-successful-2015-6

Eckstein, K. J. (n.d.). The Book Ninja® – Create Books that Bring You Business! Retrieved from http://thebookninja.com/

Flogging, B. (n.d.). Buck Books Daily Deals. Retrieved from http://buckbooks.net/

Friedman, J. (2016, March 16). Jane Friedman | Writing and Publishing in the Digital Age. Retrieved from https://janefriedman.com/

Haines, D. (n.d.). How to Self-Publish Books – Ebook Selling and Marketing. Retrieved from http://www.justpublishingadvice.com/the-indie-book-publishing-industry/

Lamb, K. (2013). Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. Austin, TX: Amazon Digital Services.

Lamb, K. (2015, October 19). Kristen Lamb’s Blog. Retrieved from https://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/tag/rise-of-the-machines/

Pilkington, E. (2012, January 12). News, sport, and opinion from the Guardian’s US edition | The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/12/amanda-hocking-self-publishing

Sargent, B. K. (2014, June 28). Book Reviews, Bestselling Books & Publishing Business News | Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/63455-surprising-self-publishing-statistics.html

Sattar, M. (2013, May 15). MediaShift – Your Guide to the Digital Media Revolution. Retrieved from http://mediashift.org/2013/05/the-real-costs-of-self-publishing-book/

Wilhelm, A. (2011, April 17). The Next Web – International technology news, business, and culture. Retrieved from http://thenextweb.com/media/2011/04/18/the-great-rise-of-indie-publishing/#gref

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