The other day I read an article on Vox that talked about the eBook revolution that never happened. The focus was on the Big 5 traditional publishing houses, which a decade ago were the Big 6. If you had asked them when the Amazon Kindle first appeared followed shortly by the Apple iPad and the rise of the eBook, they would have told you it would be the number one disrupter of the publishing industry.
That isn’t the way things have gone. Sales of eBooks for traditional publishers have stabilized at around 20% of books sold overall. The problem is that Millennials and Generation Z have not become the eBook addicts analysts assumed they would be. Most, although on their phones often for other reasons, prefer to read books in physical format rather than digital.
Those opting most for digital books are those of my generation and older. We can use the backlit screens of a Kindle, along with the ability to control the font size. It’s really about ease of reading, not about being connected and reading on various devices.
When it comes to indie publishers and self-published authors though, the eBook still rules. The simple reason is that the distribution network still largely favors big publishing houses, although more and more independent authors are finding success through various programs.
The other good news is that independent bookstores, once thought to be on the verge of extinction and the victims of the Amazon beast, have, after some hard lessons, learned to adapt and survive, attracting young people with events and experiences rather than just shelves of books and a cash register.
What does the revolution, or lack of it, actually mean to the average author though?
Amazon is Still a Beast
While we don’t always love them, most authors understand that a huge percentage of our income comes from the beast in the room of Amazon. It’s hard to be too critical of the avenue that sells most of your work.
Despite the efforts of Apple and other publishers in collusion to unseat the giant from the throne, Bezos behemoth still dominates the marketplace in the United States at least. That is also while many authors are going international with their promotion efforts everywhere from the emerging market in China to Europe where Kobo is more common.
Unfortunately, Nook and Barnes and Noble are still struggling. There are niche groups on that platform that can be reached, but the future of the digital arm of the last chain bookstore standing in the US bookstore battles is uncertain. The hope is that the physical brand experiences a Waterstone-like recovery under new leadership and the digital arm finds some new traction as well.
The Big 5 Are Still the Print Gatekeepers
While it is possible to make a splash as an indie publisher or self-published author in the way of print, the Big 5 still have the biggest stronghold, the biggest control and influence over physical book pricing, and they still dominate distribution and delivery. The reason is simply volume. There are solutions where indie publishers of all types unite in various ways, but overall the control still lies in the hands of a few mighty companies.
It’s not that this is not shifting. Smaller publishing houses are getting larger, and algorithms and search engines are somewhat of an equalizer. The problem is that indie publishers can’t possibly match the ad bids set forth by the Big 5, and many feel they should be treated differently in some way, although no one seems to know how such a structure would be created or managed.
No matter how you look at it, with traditional publishing, there is still a monopoly of control in the print world in the hands of just a few companies. That monopoly includes Ingram, who also controls the majority of print distribution even through Amazon.
Digital Monopolies and Advertising
If you’ve been an author for a while, you remember the Battle of $9.99, and the showdown between Apple and the Big 5 and Amazon over physical book pricing. They lost, much to Amazon’s delight, and subsequent attempts to break the stronghold of Amazon have similarly failed.
The reason is that the target is entirely wrong, and the solution will not be found in a courtroom.
First, the target: Amazon is not the only giant in the room, although they represent the overall digital monster. That monster really consists of Amazon, Apple, The Big 5, and even to an extent, Google and social media giants like Facebook. This is because the key to discoverability is advertising, and advertising costs money.
Let’s look really quickly at a Pay-Per-Click ad campaign on any digital platform. The way it works is this: the advertiser pays only when an ad is delivered to an individual and that individual clicks on their ad. A click does not mean a sale necessarily, but let’s argue for this example that it does.
To get ad placement, an ad must win a bid, which the advertiser sets. If another advertiser in the same category bids more that advertiser #1, their ad is placed instead. This means the ads are about good ad content, the right category choices, and the right bid.
Let’s takes the average indie author for example. Say they are selling a novel as an eBook for $4.99 that falls into the thriller category. Sounds better than the latest thriller from Penguin priced at $11.99, right? The problem comes when it is time to bid for Amazon or Google or even social media ads. The indie author may be making $3.49 per book, so bidding half of that to get their book on the top of the ad list for a particular genre leaves them with more sales but much lower profits.
Take the traditionally published thriller, and the publisher is making closer to $7.00 per book depending on their deal with Amazon, Apple, or another e-retailer. If they bid half of that profit to have an ad for that book on top of the ad queue, the indie author would be losing money to even compete. Any competitive edge of a lower price is lost in the ability to run effective ads and win bids.
Sounds confusing, huh? That’s because it is. There are tons of manipulations of keywords to rank higher than the next guy even with a lower bid. And there are a ton of bidding strategies and ways to optimize your bids.
The Bottom Line
What it boils down to is that for indie publishers, small presses, and self-published authors, the game has gotten harder rather than easier. The revolution is that anyone can publish, but not just anyone can sell books. There are mediocre authors out there who are really good at selling books and make a good living doing so. There are some great authors out there who struggle to stand out from the crowd.
The issues are the same as they were a decade ago, just in a playing field where authors have more choices about their path to publication and their method for standing out and at least making a modest living from selling books.
Today’s author, if they wish to make a living from their craft, must be as good in business as they are at craft. They must apply their creativity to more than just characters, plots, and stories, but also to marketing, advertising, and their digital presence.
It’s time for us, as authors, to treat writing as a business. Because whether we like it or not, it is one. It is the rare author who will be discovered by New York and Hollywood and propelled to stardom. Remember, authors do not succeed because they were destined to, but because they are determined to.
Join us in the business of writing. It’s an exciting time, and it’s time to roll up our sleeves and find new ways to fight the digital monopoly around us.