February 7, 2015

It's the best of times and worst of times to be an indie author

I know the title sounds contradictory, but it's true (and similar wording worked for Charles Dickens). If you're an indie author or aspire to be one, then congratulations! Also, my condolences.

Why is now the worst of times to be an indie author? I wrote this post because for the first time since I started indie publishing my books, authors who used to make a good living wage from their books are reporting depressing sales. Some are so discouraged that they're calling it quits. I know it's happened to me. My sales fell off a cliff last summer, and although they recovered somewhat over the holidays, they're back down to the levels they were at last summer and fall. This is after releasing two new novels and a short story in 2014! Some blame the introduction of Kindle Unlimited for their woes, but I think the causes of the slump go way beyond KU. Publishing is getting more competitive than ever. Thousands of authors with millions of books have entered the market in the last four years. Additionally, traditional publishers are starting to catch on and offering e-books at lower prices. I believe that reader demand is growing, but not at the pace of supply. It's natural for all the titles available on retailer sites to drown out any individual author or book. Gone are the days of publishing a book, discounting it, and seeing a surge in sales. (Actually, I've never seen this myself, but I've heard it happen to other authors in the 2010 to 2012 time frame.) Unless you already have a fan base, it's going to be harder than ever for new readers to find you.

 So what makes this the best of times to be an indie author? For one thing, the trend is still moving upwards for indies as a whole. The latest Author Earnings Report shows that a third of all e-books sold on Amazon are indie published and indie authors earned 40% of all dollars earned by authors on e-books!

For me, the more important reasons why it's great to be an indie author now are freedom and control. Authors have the freedom to write the book they want to write, and they have more control than ever over the publishing process. No longer do we have to send out manuscripts and wait months for an agent or editor to reply. Under the traditional publishing system, if you were one of the lucky ones to get accepted, you'd still need to wait another year or two before your book saw the light of day, and you'd have little or no control over the appearance of the final product, including the cover and the jacket blurb. Nowadays, it's easy to publish your book and see it available at a wide variety of retailers as soon as its ready.

Amazon is still the gorilla of the industry, but Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google have all become viable channels for authors to make a living. Newcomers like Kobo and Scribd are also becoming popular among readers. A cottage industry has also sprung up to support indie authors. There are dozens of places to go now to find cover designers, editors, and advice. The biggest difference between now and two years ago is that a smaller percentage of authors will see financial success. Those who jumped in with the hopes of getting rich quick will be disappointed, but those who became indie authors because they love to write will be able to take advantage of everything that's available to them today.

What about slowing sales that are leading some authors to give up? That's typical after a gold rush. After an unsustainable increase in participants, many are getting weeded out, and a new generation of winners will emerge. A recent example from the high tech industry was the dot-com bubble and collapse between 2000 and 2003. I remember it vividly because I worked in Silicon Valley at the time. A sudden rise in all things related to the Internet created a glut of companies that were only interested in getting rich quick and had no business existing. (Anyone remember Webvan or the Pets.com sock puppet?) Although many dot-coms went away, some strong ones survived (e.g., Yahoo, eBay), others thrived (Google, Amazon), and new ones emerged (Facebook, Twitter). I think the same will happen with indie publishing. I don't know if I'll be an eBay or a Google or something else, but I still love to write and I still have lots of stories to tell, so I plan to weather the storm to see what's on the other side.

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