It was 2009, and we all thought the “indie revolution” would be the death of the big publishers. Agents would be useless. Editors would all be freelancers. Small presses would take over the niches, offering better royalties, better contracts, and higher royalties. but “independent publishing” didn’t turn out to be what we thought it would.
Thanks to Hugh Howey and others, we saw Author Earnings reports that showed us this could be done. Without agents, without big publishers, their overworked editors, and with authors firmly in control of their creative works, the Indie Author would be the new standard.
It turned out when everyone could publish a book, a lot of people did. Then a lot more. The slush pile moved from the desk of acquisition editors to the digital backrooms of Amazon. Even a lot of the good stuff got caught in the slush pile.
Sound familiar? Good novels got passed up because an editor was having a bad day, or it was Friday, and in a rush for the weekend, the next potential J.K. Rawlings got a templated rejection letter. In fact, the Harry Potter author had that happen more than once.
Even once accepted, her books languished for almost a year before the book was discovered by the right person at the right time in the secondary slush pile: the bottom tier authors who got a contract, but never found favor with big execs or the marketing department.
So what happened to the Indie Revolution? Well, the truth is, independent publishing never has been truly independent. Self-publishing depends on a lot more than self, especially if you want success.
Publishing Platforms and Invisible Gatekeepers
Contrary to popular thought, the indie revolution actually took off with a company other than Amazon. iBooks was the first platform to pay 70% royalties, and Apple did so in an attempt to draw creatives to the platform. The only downside? You had to upload your books from an Apple device, and the process was, well, less than simple.
Seeing an opportunity, Amazon matched the 70% royalty, and with its proprietary Kindle devices and a solid footing in the book market, quickly took the lead. Remember when Amazon was about books and not toilet paper, vitamins, and knock-off electronics?
The books flooded in. Authors both good and bad, fed up with the traditional publishing scheme uploaded files and hit publish. Some did so well, with professional covers, great formatting, and well-edited files. Others didn’t. Telling the difference used to be easy. It isn’t anymore.
Over time, things shifted. First, the number and quality of reviews mattered a lot. Then authors and others found ways to abuse the system, and they didn’t play as much of a role, because Amazon and consumers found they couldn’t trust them.
Sales mattered to ranking and how often your books were shown on Amazon. More sales and more page visits equaled better ranking and better exposure. People found ways to game that system too, with click farms and paid downloaders that artificially inflated numbers.
The Amazon algorithm changed, and as it did, it became the gatekeeper to discoverability. Anyone could publish with the push of a button. Getting discovered turned into a changing nightmare, where what worked well once upon a time didn’t any longer.
Frustrated authors, good ones, professional ones, struggled to keep up. So did the scammers and skimmers. Kindle Unlimited was born and with it a whole host of other problems. Author incomes and profits plummeted, and all the while, the slush pile continued to grow.
What happened to iBooks, Nook, and others? While Kobo continues to gather strength in Europe and Canada, the biggest market for eBooks is still the US. Amazon still holds the keys. And that’s where a lot of the content being uploaded comes from too.
Some of these platforms are working on changes to attract authors and readers, but many have simply surrendered to being second, third, or even last place. Apple, despite all of its advances in other areas, has left iBooks largely languishing in comparison. They have data, tools, and devices to effectively challenge Amazon. But they don’t.
The Marketing Mush
The next big change that came to Amazon involved two parts, really, and there are case studies out there detailing how this all works. But once they offered Kindle Unlimited, Amazon started a debate: Amazon only vs. wide distribution.
You see, to be offered to the Kindle Unlimited community and get a share of the monthly funds from readers, authors had to offer their titles EXCLUSIVELY through Amazon. In trade, they get paid by the page for Kindle Unlimited users and have some exclusive marketing advantages Amazon extends to only those exclusive offers.
Nook tried to offer some similar things for authors who would use them exclusively to distribute their work. But without the market share of the giant ‘zon, the program folded quickly.
For those who are unfamiliar, Kindle Unlimited is like Netflix for books. You pay a monthly fee, and you can read all the books you can handle, as long as they are enrolled in the program. Other subscription services have popped up, but none have taken off like KU. They could with the right backing (I’m looking at you again, Apple).
The second big deal was Amazon opening up Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) to authors. Formerly for product advertising, now an author could advertise books. It was the wild west at first, with bidding wars, all kinds of questions about keywords, audience targeting, and more. Suddenly Indie Authors had also turned into Indie Marketers. You can pay someone to manage and set up your Amazon ads for you, but it’s harder to make a profit if you do.
You can still advertise your books on Amazon even if they are not in Kindle Unlimited, but studies have also shown that even when it comes to ads, KU books get preference, they get more impressions, clicks, and sales.
I’m not going to go into all those terms here, but I will say if you are going to market your books, you need to learn and understand them, analyze, and test, test, and test some more until you get the right ad mix.
Authors use ads elsewhere too—Facebook, Bookbub, and Kobo are all common. Other platforms are considering opening themselves up to ads, and it might be a good thing for authors, who often get most of their royalties from Amazon just due to the marketing options.
We’d love to boost our sales in other markets but doing so can be challenging.
Independent Publishing and Standing Out
The key is that authors must stand out. Book covers, book blurbs, and formatting must be professional and spot on. Reviews need to be good. Even though they don’t matter as much to rankings as they once did, they do impact conversion rates. Yet another term authors need to learn about.
Standing out also includes SEO, paid ads on other platforms, newsletter followings, followers on Amazon and BookBub, and more. There are a host of books published every single day, and if you are going to sell them and make more than peanuts from your sales, you need to set yourself apart from the crowd.
It also means a lot of work: measuring profit and loss, ROI, and deciding where to invest more in your books and marketing and where investing less makes more sense. It’s no longer a game for the shy or the faint of heart. Authors are entrepreneurs, and they must treat their writing careers as the business they are.
Your name is your brand. Your books are products you must sell. Those products must be marketed to the right audiences in the right places. You need to spend money, take risks, and align with the industry we are in.
Above all, quality products stand out, and that is true of books too. Your books need to be their best before they are released. Otherwise, you’re just throwing them on an already overcrowded slush pile.
The Arbitrary Advances
So why do some books go viral, while others don’t? Good question. Because we all know some of them aren’t that great.
The answer is convoluted, but it has a lot to do with luck of the draw, timing, and other factors, just like it used to be when everyone relied on the gatekeepers of large publishing houses. Sometimes it has a lot more to do with marketing than it does the quality of the work. There are plenty of mediocre authors out there making a living because they know how to sell, not because they are great writers.
With the big publishers, luck also often played a role. Get the right editor at the right time, or the right agent, or hit the right publishing house just as they are looking for your kind of book, and you might be one of the rare, big success stories. This lottery is a horrible way to make a living and was a big part of the rise of independent publishing in the first place.
That and better royalties, the death of ridiculous contracts, and simplest of all, access and control. In a similar way to traditional publishing, this has worked well for some, and not as well for others.
That’s because the state of publishing and selling books has never really been “independent.” Before the self-publishing revolution, authors depended on big publishers. Now, that dependence has switched to algorithms, ad spend and skill, and the whim of big companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Apple.
The Big Players vs. The Little Guy
Why does it work that way? Quite simply, the big companies have the money and resources to make the rules, change them when they want to, and use that leverage to bend both authors and readers to their will.
The other factor in the big player category? Those now Big 5 publishers who don’t want to be left behind. They’ve entered the book marketing game on Amazon too, and with a lot more money and resources than the little guy. They can outbid indie authors, and even lose money without going bankrupt. The little guy doesn’t have those margins, and if you are a rising Indie Star, they’ll actively work to limit their competition.
So what can be done about it? For Indie Publishers, there are a few steps we can take.
Playing the Game
So we’re not independent publishers? Not in the purest sense of the word. Yes, you can make choices about where and how you sell your books, and even for how much. You can choose how your books and what steps you take to market them.
Many of those things will be dependent on the big tech companies: the less than transparent Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Just because you are dependent though doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.
First, realize that when you publish, you are in the game. Whether you like it or not, if you’re going to make money at this, you’re now an entrepreneur with a product to sell. That takes work, business work, and there may be days when you wonder if you are a marketer or a writer.
Second, align with the game. Don’t fight it. A fight between you and Amazon can really only end one way: they hold all the cards, you don’t. The same is true with Facebook, Bookbub, and anywhere else you might market. You can argue that Amazon is not your friend (they’re not, or the friend of any indie bookstore) but if you pull all of your titles from Amazon, even if you are a huge player, the only person you’ll hurt is yourself. Think about the Amazon debate with Hachette and other big publishers. If they won’t win, neither will you.
Third, work with other Indie Publishers and Indie bookstores and others. Do you know who has the power to really impact Amazon? Your local bookstore, combined with other local bookstores. Indie bookstores can help lead a revolution in the distribution of books, and you can help by working with them the best way you know how.
And other Indie Publishers and authors? They are facing the exact same challenges you are. They aren’t your competition, even if they write in your genre. Instead, they are your comrades. Work together and you can help change the game, and more specifically the narrative about the game.
We’re dependent on big tech. We’re in competition with big publishers. We need teams around us to ensure our success. We’re in business, the business of selling books. And it’s a game, with changing rules and shifting players.
It’s our game. Our interdependent game. It’s one of the most awful and awesome careers you can engage in. But don’t expect publishing to get more independent anytime soon.