As 2012 is done and dusted, I thought it would be an opportune time to reflect on some of the challenges independently published authors faced in the year just past, and to make some basic predictions about how things might continue to change in 2013 and how indie authors might capitalise on opportunities that arise.
Bear in mind that I first self-published via Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing in mid-2011, and short stories and kids’ books rather than full-length novels, so compared to some other indies, I don’t have a lot of personal results to draw on. I can say that in the year and a half I’ve been indie published, the playing field has changed considerably. In the heady days of July 2011, sales were a lot healthier, Amazon’s Select program was a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’s eyes, and indies were alive with enthusiasm. Since then, things have calmed considerably.
Sales have largely plateaued, and not just for me it seems, but for a lot of authors I know. Word of mouth is still vital. Free runs still shift books, although questions are being asked about for how much longer and about plummeting ranks post free runs. Reviews are useful (although some are questionable in the light of the Ellory and Locke scandal and Amazon’s subsequent author review witch-hunt). Some reviewers have turned their backs on indies, claiming rudeness, aggression or the oft-repeated lack of professional presentation. Some paid advertisers have become “must-have” elements in any indies promotional strategy, and other promotional activities, such as blog tours, now seem to flag in comparison when it comes to shifting copies, even if they’re great for exposure.
Few of the main players have changed, although, like indie authors, each is trying to shore up their business by diversifying, trying new things and still testing what remains rather an uncertain and changing marketplace.
Select: still worth it?
Amazon, with around 60% of the book marketshare, is still far and away the Big Daddy of eBook sales. Its exclusive Select program, which was
introduced in 2012, offers authors lucrative per copy dollars on borrows and enables authors to easily price their book free to increase exposure for five days out of a 90-day period. Select saw many indie authors flock exclusively to Amazon, myself among them. However, some of the gloss seems to have worn off Select in recent months. Amazon’s own algorithms, which at first rewarded books for “going free” by counting downloads as sales, have increasingly minimised the percent at which downloads count towards sales rank. There has also been talk that Amazon is trying to limit the number of free books advertised on sites such as Digital Book Today and Ereader News Daily, and that the Popularity charts are rated to favour higher-priced books (which casts doubt on the 99c price-point strategy now too).I have found that Select gave my sales a real bump in the early days, but even free runs now seem to give my books little lasting propulsion. With several other companies attempting to branch out and expand their marketplace into other areas of the globe, following an initial Select run, diversity has become my goal for 2013 for my newly released novel Cruxim.
Kobo: making friends and influencing peopleMany predicted that Japanese-owned company Kobo might be the international ereader company to break Amazon’s stranglehold on the market, particularly after July 2012 when Kobo Writing Life provided a means for authors to upload directly to Kobo, and to make their books free whenever they want. The jury is still out on whether Kobo Writing Life is worth the added hassle of dealing with yet another upload program and reporting system, but many authors on Kindleboards have lauded the interface while complaining about the ranking and reporting. In December, news was
released that Kobo was partnering with a popular German IT company to make Kobo ereaders available to a German market, and Kobo has also capitalised on the library ebook market in the UK. Earlier in 2012, Kobo also set up deals with the American Booksellers Association and the UK Booksellers Association, and announced that Kobo ereaders would be distributed by Ingram in the US. It seems Kobo is the one to watch in terms of ereader marketshare in 2013.
A cash injection for Barnes & Noble
The clunky interface and poor search functionality of the Barnes and Noble bookstore, coupled with B&N’s poor customer service and diminishing consumer interest in the Nook eReader, has seen some indies suggest the B&N will struggle to maintain its reputation as one of the world’s largest
distributors. Indeed, B&N reported a 10.9% decrease in Nook sales this holiday season compared to the last. However, in late December 2012, Pearson, one of the world’s largest publishers agreed to invest more than 900 million in NOOK media to improve “discovery of available digital content and services” and to (hopefully) provide Nook customers with better and more seamless access to content. Will this make a difference to Barnes & Noble? That remains to be seen, but like most indies, I have done my best to ignore B&N (publishing with them via Smashwords) even when I’m not in the Select program, and I can’t quite think why that shouldn’t continue unless something changes dramatically, but I will keep an eye on how Pearson’s cash injection affects B&N.
Do we still need our words “smashed”?
Ah, smashwords. What to say about Smashwords? For indie authors who are just starting out or don’t have or the know-how to the time to go direct to other channels, Smashwords is an excellent alternative to having to go through the palaver of uploading to all of the other sites individually.I believe Mark Coker is one of the good guys and that Smashwords is a very useful site for indie authors who are just starting out, and for me, it worked just fine until I decided to go Select. However, it is also the publisher of a ton of rather eye-popping smut and some very poorly produced books, and even though Smashwords has expanded on its upload options, so you can “potentially” avoid the “meatgrinder” this time around by uploading an ePub, there are still issues. Reporting is slow, uploading is often slow too, and the time taken to remove books from the extended distribution channels after the author has unpublished (and to report sales) is woefully inadequate, and it is annoying plenty of indies at present who are trying to price free the “hard” way or to leave Smashwords entirely. Short of getting you into that tricksy Applestore and not having to deal direct with B&N, as well as the nifty coupon functionality, Smashwords offers little in the way of professional-looking online bookstores or even exposure. But, under the leadership of Mark Coker, Smashwords continues to grow. Profits were up, employees increased, the number of authors using Smashwords increased and they signed deals for distribution with Baker & Taylor, 3M Cloud Library, and another “yet to be announced” major player. I wouldn’t rule Smashwords out just yet, although it is clear that there is still some work to be done until its as smooth an operation as some of the other distributors on offer.
Take a bite of the Apple in 2013
Despite Apple’s enormous success with the digital music revolution, the clunky Apple iStore is still struggling to be a major player in the movement of ebooks. Part of this is no doubt due to the sheer single-mindedness of Apple as a brand and a platform—it seems almost determined to weed out those who don’t buy those cunningly packaged little devices (said the girl who was thrilled with her iPad Christmas gift and is typing this on her Macbook). Unlike Amazon, whose Kindle app is almost universally available on Android, Apple, PC , Kobo and Sony devices, publishing direct to Apple involves jumping through several extra hoops, and even the release of Apple iBooks Author in January 2012 hasn’t made things too much easier. You need an Apple to publish, and even my Mac with Snow Leopard installed needs an operating system upgrade to use it. Nevertheless, it is on my lists of things to do for 2013, and I have heard that the ease of adding interactive features is worth the effort. Considering that Digital Book World’s predictions suggest that 2013 will be the year of the enhanced eBook, with “an increased appetite for illustrated and nonfiction books that did not sit well on e-readers,” it just might be worth exploring.Perhaps an even greater incentive for taking a munch of the Apple in 2013 is that Apple, too, is aggressively pushing into the Japanese eBook market. For ages, Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, David Gaughran, Ed Robertson, Digital Book World and the other big thinkers in indie ebook publishing have been suggesting that the real money will come when densely populated nations such as India, China, Russia and Japan really embrace e-reader technology, but Japan already has an extremely healthy technology sector and Japanese routinely read on smart phones and tablets, so Apple’s move might introduce authors to wide audience (especially for those who are able to negotiate a Japanese edition) and rival Kobo’s Japanese dominance.
Big publishers come to the party (and then sit in the corner)2012 can be said to be the year that most of the big publishers finally sat up and began to take real notice of e-publishing. They started to convert their backlists, they examined their pricing strategy (largely as a result of the DoJ’s case against price-fixing and anti-consumerism policies instigated b
y the Agency Model), and, toward the end of year, some even began to price on par with indies, causing some indies to go into a tailspin and others to argue that a level playing field on price would make indie books even less distinguishable from legacy-published titles. Some even began to streamline their warehouses and printing costs, looking towards PoD or eBook only editions as a viable option, and to cut book lines and strictly control new authors’ digital rights. Two of the biggest, Penguin and Random House, have even merged, although such conglomerations are no surprise in the history of publishing.Have they got a way to go? Sure. And I think the cogs of change grind so slowly inhouse that it will be some time before they can rival the agile
ubiquity of an entrepreneurial indie author … so make the most of the knowledge that you’re light on your feet. You can change the price and you can promote yourself. Seize any opportunity to get the word out.
Indies vs big-publishing: the gap closes somewhat
In December 2012, Forbes reported that the New York Times published a glowing review of an indie title. Gasp! Had the last bastion of publishing been breached? Sadly, other statistics don’t suggest that the playing field is quite yet that “level.” On 26 December, Digital Book World reported that
the best-selling ebooks of 2012 were all in the Hunger Games or Fifty Shades series and that close to two-thirds of the bestselling titles of 2012—comprising 17 out of the 25 titles—fell under the Random House or Penguin stables. Clearly, indies still have a way to go to rival the blockbuster legacy authors when it comes to promotion, publicity and shifting billions of books (especially in light of the news of Random House and Penguin’s merger). Having said that, hundreds of indies are reporting great sales and I know of at least four indies I interact with online who were able to quit their day job in 2012 to write fulltime. I think that number will continue to increase in 2013 as we all keep on publishing ever more titles.And remember, the ereader market is far from saturated. Ereader use continues to increase, especially on tablets. A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that as many as 33% of Americans own an ereader or tablet (and the US is easily the biggest ebook market, with Britain, Europe, Australia, Canada and Asia still lagging behind). Library borrowing of eBooks was also up 2% on last year in the US. There are still plenty more eager minds of all ages who are yet to pick up an ereader and realize its benefits.
Some early adopters of indie publishing, at first buoyed by the seemingly easy cash to be made and now disappointed with how things have turned out, will have turned their back on indie ebook publishing now that the game is a little harder to fix. Those who are in it for the long haul look set to reap the rewards of increasing numbers of foreigners going digital.
Where will the big sales come from?
As always, it’s a mug’s game trying to guess that! However, many are suggesting that children’s ebooks and illustrated books will be the next big thing in the eBook market. A study by PlayScience and Digital Book World suggests that a staggering number of US children between two to thirteen read ebooks and that 40% of the parents of children who do, planned to buy them a new ereader over the holiday season.My feeling is that the young adult and tween market is where it is really at right now, as youngsters snap up increasingly more affordable ereaders, and I can’t see why that shouldn’t continue throughout 2013. Illustrated picture books, non-fiction and enhanced ebooks will definitely follow the technology, but I still think fiction will continue to shine, and kids’ fiction especially in 2013. Some have also suggested that 2013 will se
e the world’s first $0 ereader—a lure to sell product. If that is the case, watch out for India, China and Africa to suddenly enter the market in a big way.It seems clear, too, that several advertising sites are still driving big sales for indie authors. Among them are Bookbub, Kindle Nation Daily, Ereader News Today, Pixel of Ink and (for free books) Freebooksy and Free Kindle Books and Tips. But don’t rule out courting the help of rising newcomers to the world of promoting to reader lists, such as Today’s Ereader Buzz and Bookblast. I predict that plenty more of these advertising sites will be needed to meet readers’ demand for deals, and authors demand for advertising that results in a direct climb up the ranks.
So, what does all this mean for the average indie author?
Ways to capitalise
- Consider diversifying. Many authors are doing an initial 3-month KDP Select run and then branching out into the other sales channels with aggressive promotion to increase exposure in those other channels as well as on Amazon. My strategy for the release of my new novel Cruximis to trial a 3-month stint in Select, followed by making Cruxim available directly to as many platforms as possible and using Smashwords only for distributors such as Sony, Diesel, and Barnes and Noble, which make it difficult for Australian or international authors to go direct. I also plan to check out AllRomance and Omnilit, two other sales channels I’ve heard good reports about but haven’t yet used.
- Create a print edition. Only 25% of the books sold worldwide are ebooks. The remaining 75% are print books.Even if you shift few copies, having a tangible printed book in your hands is something to be proud of. Whether you use Lightning Source, Lulu or CreateSpace, a print edition doesn’t have to cost the bank.
- Sell direct from your website, but remember that while this increases your take-home $$$ it does nothing for your sales rank for online distributors.
- Write for kids, YA and teen markets if that interests you, and consider enhanced ebook formats for markets that might support more bells and whistles.
- Rethink your promotional strategies. Rather than target each new release and then move on, try to focus on the market and peddle all of your books appropriate to a single market in groups or on sites that market frequents. I’m currently in the process of updating my other books to include an excerpt of my new novel and link to it on Amazon. It’s a big job, but every little sale helps. And if you have the money to advertise, then check out those listed above as well as doing smaller promotions on book blogs and reader sites such as Goodreads, or targeted advertising on Facebook.
- And keep on keep on with getting reviews. It’s time consuming and sometimes heart-breaking, but it will help sell your book to readers who might have no clue yet who you are, and they just might become permanent fans.
Most of all, keep on writing, reading and growing as an indie author and I wish you success and sales in 2013.