Indie Author Landscape Shifts in 2017? Well, not really.

So, is it all over for indie authors? Exactly the opposite, says Cate Baum of Self-Publishing Review.

It has been a year for indie book companies to draw to a close. Galley Cat, Booktrope, AllRomance, and IndieReader are just some indie book businesses who have declared “a shift in the indie author landscape” to be the cause of their indie book business closures, while many others seem to be in decline with much less activity and showcasing. On the other hand, Self-Publishing Review, a business that was started before most of these companies opened shop, has seen massive growth in 2016. I think because we kept our ear to the ground in terms of what authors want in terms of exposure and value.

What didn’t change 

Books sell, books don’t sell, mostly for incoherent reasons

That’s it, like the sea ebbs and the sun rises, good books sell with good marketing. Bad books don’t, mostly even with good marketing. Always the same. Despite how idiotic we writers may think all those critics out there, the cream always rises somehow – how many movies on IMDB do you watch with a rating under 6? Check it out. Despite our vast taste, class, educational, social, and cultural differences, as human beings, we inherently know what speaks to us. We “tribe up” on what’s “good.” Take a look at The Guardian’s list here of the top-selling 25 books in the UK.

Reader numbers are finite

As only an estimated 30% of the US population reads an average of only 1- 5 books a year, there’s always a smaller market than you may imagine there to be. In fact, around 950 titles per million people are published every year in the US. So you have a 1 in 950 chance of reaching 1 in a million readers every time you try to sell your book to someone. That’s pretty stinky – always has been, always will be. If you look at the lists of bestselling books that sell more than a million copies, you’ll see what happens: the same ten or twelve books sell to the same estimated hardcore of 200 million book readers worldwide, and that means generally, readers don’t even acknowledge other books until they catch on. Given 70% of all adults say they haven’t been in a bookshop in half a decade, you’ve got to catch on to Amazon.

Amazon is still number one

Amazon has been the first port of call for book search over Google, and GoodReads has never been a direct sales portal, so it’s been necessary to concentrate efforts on Amazon marketing and exposure, and getting those Amazon book pages in good order. This has been the same for the last few years. Maybe it’s just become clearer to authors that this is the way forward, and services that don’t cater for these immediate needs are not cutting it.

Amazon Categories and Genres

The landscape for indie books is still the same in terms of what genres do well on Amazon.

  • From our own research over 400 client promotions in 2016, we’ve found romance and science fiction/fantasy categories are still the most competitive to rank in, mainly because many people choose to write in these genres and therefore there is always a glut of indie titles with these themes that push the algorithms. It needs a lot of fight to market your book in these categories.
  • We also know kids’ books are the hardest to sell in e-book form from indie authors, again because people think that kids’ books are easier to write, but parents are increasingly fussy about reading material for their children, and these books tend to sink if they have not considered the special issues that writing for children bring to the table.
  • We also know that at least 90% of all indie book sales will be in ebook format, and that print books still do not sell well if an e-book did not sell well (around 2000 ebook sales are necessary to see anything more than a handful of print sales direct from Amazon).

We have developed many techniques to deal with these issues when we promote on Amazon for our authors, and will be developing more in 2017.

What did change?

Author mentality

Many authors learned more about what they services being offered mean, and the provable outcomes are of those packages – so they demand transparency. They demand services that help them improve their chances of selling their book, and show off their work.

Authors need to know the value of a book review offering, and how to use it to gain exposure. Book reviews must have a meaningful purpose for an author, and must be in some way dynamic and usable. It’s hard work to share a book review online. Many book review services don’t even use Facebook shares to showcase their authors’ book reviews because it takes a full-time manager to schedule this sort of marketing in any intelligent way. This has to be clear when an author looks for a review service, as does the use of the review. Of course, the author may want the review for back copy purposes. And that’s fine too.

Authors got serious

It seems that authors used to spend maybe $50-$200 on their book promotions. If they were serious. Now, it’s not unusual for an author to spend upwards of $10,000. Indie career writers want to be taken seriously, and they became rightly more demanding, and got more savvy this year. Marketing really has to be professional now. Book covers really have to be professional now. Editing really has to be professional now. What does “professional” mean? It means someone qualified and experienced who understands the indie book market for sales, and can produce results as if the book is a published book with a big company. Otherwise, it’s just going to be another book drowning in the glut of books released every day.

Book reviews got re-purposed

While readers may have looked at book review sites a few years back for advice on what to read, editorial reviews count the most on Amazon and actually, GoodReads. If a review is going to help sales, it needs to be on social media and on Amazon itself as an Editorial Review. If review sites don’t offer these shares, then it’s not likely anyone would find the review. This is why we upped our social media in 2016, and why we write Editorial Review copy for Amazon as part of our offering. (In case you were asleep in a cave for the last decade, yes, this is in line with Amazon – in fact it was their idea to have a section for expert reviewers.)

Hobbyists got serious

Hobbyists have long been the outcasts of self-publishing. In the same way many people enjoy serious money spent on drone flying, train sets, cosplay, and scrapbooking, so do hobbyist authors. They are an important sector of indie writing, and have been long pushed out into the cold, even though they have much to offer in terms of the process of writing, and their enjoyment of the process. We’ve helped many authors in the last years reach their goals, even if that means spending $10,000 on a memoir that only sells to their small family. There’s a joy in writing that’s been lost by cynical pushing of the three commandments of indie publishing, “sell, sell, sell!” Hobbyists are now emboldened. They want what’s theirs: a beautiful product they can be proud of. And they are reaching out and taking it.

The industry grew up

If self-publishing companies don’t grow with their clients, don’t show results, don’t start employing truly qualified indie book professionals, and continue to cling to the crumbling unproven self-publishing myths of the last decade and do not embrace what authors really want, we’ll see more closures in 2017. It used to be incredibly difficult to find indie book experts, because none of us had enough experience to declare expertise even ten years back – although many convinced some they were somehow versed in an industry none of us yet knew.

It’s taken the SPR team a decade to grow and develop with other experts. We’ve blended skills and re-purposed others. A decade ago, a book designer could easily design something sufficient as a cover. Now with the advent of e-books, there’s a whole other set of design boundaries involved in e-book design. None of us could see it coming, and the design industry has had to catch up. Nobody would have imagined that Amazon search would be the number one search tool over Google. SEO and PPC experts have had to learn algorithms and Amazon’s motivations in an entirely different way to see any results with keywords or ranking. We now face a private, for-profit company with closely-guarded algorithm planning as our tool for sales, instead of Google’s transparent ad-based policies that anyone could pick up. Book formatting, marketing, and editing are just some of the other disciplines have shifted in both quality and approach in the last years.

Non-indie book experts outed

One of the main issues with several indie author service providers in recent times has been that some were set up by publishing experts who thought they might cash in on this new industry. This mainstream experience assumes a few things that cannot be assumed in the case of an indie book cycle. Mainstream publishers have advanced subscriptions to book shops and reader lists that inform the possible sales numbers before any production has started. They will have ways into promotion and media that indie books don’t have, with newspapers and press outlets. Many indie authors have therefore felt that there is a sheer drop from releasing a book and marketing it, let alone selling it, because mainstream techniques such as press releases and tear sheets just don’t work for unknown authors. When these sorts of services don’t understand indie publishing, and try to apply mainstream techniques and prices, it becomes disappointing to find it was all for nothing.

Most companies assumed it was enough to have “book experts” on hand, but what writers want is to sell books at all, not yet more advice on how they might sell more books. It’s definitely taken SPR several years to figure out how to promote any book, however different or unusual. We can do it now. 100%. But it took most of decade to research and collate this service successfully. Man, you gotta love this industry to love it. But it’s not the same industry as the mainstream book industry, because the cycle is completely different.

Amateur advice and forums shriveled

Mostly it seemed, like Livejournal and MySpace, author forums on amateur writing groups across the board seem to have imploded with only the last talent-impoverished few hanging onto the tattered sails of procrastination. Trolled, flamed, and ripped apart by dogs, most authors realized posting to forums and Facebook groups does not sell books, nor help them feel like a writer. Many groups, especially those that make you pay to participate in the bun fight, seem to have paled in the discussion. Professional services have replaced disinformation and scaremongering. A new breed of authors is emerging – ones that write rather than bitch over how much other authors were earning, and whether it’s necessary to have this association badge to be ethical etc. As Stephen King said once, and I paraphrase, any time not spent writing your book is time not spent writing your book.

Amazon rules changed

One issue for book sharers in 2016 was affiliate links. Many indie book promotion sites promoting books “for free” used Amazon book links that when clicked and the book was bought, a small commission would be given to the website. This model was shot down in flames by Amazon’s stricter rules and closure of affiliate accounts in 2016, shutting down many free promotion sites who simply could not make money anymore.

The bigger changes with Amazon’s Terms and Conditions with product reviews were a scaremonger’s dream, even though anyone who looked closer would find little changed in respect to indie author book reviews – that is, if you had been following the rules already. Many authors still believed, despite the many, many times those in the know had spelled it out, that free author swaps and reviews in exchange for a free copy were OK. They are not, never were. Maybe with Amazon’s even clearer review terms, more authors have finally got the message.

And by the way, it seems some Amazon terms can only be broken by a zombie apocalypse.

As for SPR, we’ll be here listening to authors, providing reviews in line with Amazon, and growing with the online marketing industry for promotions.  If the landscape shifts, then shift with it. It’s time to give authors a platform they’ve been asking for all along. Indie authors are getting better, stronger, and more able. Services need to get as serious as the authors they serve, or lose out.

  • Tony Lavely

    “Many authors still believed, despite the many, many times those in the
    know had spelled it out, that free author swaps and *reviews in exchange
    for a free copy* were OK.” (emphasis added)
    seems to contradict the relevant line in the linked T&C:
    “Reviews written for any form of compensation *other than a free copy* of the product” (emphasis again added)

    What have I missed in this?

    Thanks for the review, I appreciated it.

    • Yes, what you are missing is that I’m talking about reciprocal author
      swaps, not free books given in general, i.e. specifically an arrangement
      between two authors. This is because Amazon T and Cs also state that an
      author is not allowed to expect a review in exchange for a free copy, and reviews must be unbiased.
      If you swapped books with another author, it would be expected that you
      definitely leave a review, and you would be also expected to be nice
      about the book! So that’s against the policy.

      • Tony Lavely

        Thanks for clearing that up for me.
        ANd thanks for sharing, as well.

        • I’m glad you asked. Wasn’t so clear in my article! Good luck with your book endeavors!