Quiet Qualms, Important Inquiries
Most major ebook retailers have suffered anemic or declining sales over the last 12-18 months. The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over. Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it.
In a way, Mark Coker of Smashwords may be saying what we need most to hear. Here’s some more:
In recent weeks…I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon dropped significantly since July when Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited…Some authors are considering quitting. It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either. When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on. Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all.
Actually, these voices are coming from farther afield than our friends and families. Earlier this month, I moderated a panel on self-publishing and the marketplace in London. A very distinquished and beautifully spoken man — I’d say he’s about 50 — spoke up from halfway back in the room.
He started by saying, “This is not meant to subvert the entire occasion here today.” The nervous titters in the room at that indicated that everyone realized something perhaps unpleasant was coming:
It does seem to me, ultimately, whether you’re talking about traditional publishing or self-publishing, you have two irreducible facts. One is that there is a limited number of readers. And two, there’s a limited number of potentially readable authors. I can see that self-publishing has improved things. And that has created a bit of a power shift from the publishers to the authors. But I don’t think it has changed this fundamental equation. So are we wasting our time?
The room had become very quiet. The excellent rationality of this comment alone had everyone’s rapt attention. The gentleman went on:
Let’s assume that we’re all aspiring authors here today. This number of aspiring authors has always been here. And most of them have never got anywhere. Because they’ve come up against traditional publishers or agents…How has that changed with self-publishing? How many in this group here today can reasonably expect to become successful writers? How will it all get read?
In all the many (many) workshops and conference sessions and tutorials and seminars in which I’ve had a chance to meet and talk with authors, both traditionally and self-published, this was the first time — the very first time — that someone actually called the question, if you will.
Here was this well-dressed, intensely articulate, thoughtful, cool-headed man asking what may be the most important question a prospective writer might need to ask. And yet those of us who speak to and work with writers and would-be authors for a living almost never hear that question: Can I reasonably expect to succeed?
Remember, this guy wasn’t asking, “Can I expect to succeed as a self-publishing author?” Nor , “Can I expect to succeed as a traditionally publishing author?” He was asking about both. He was asking whether any path at all could pan out.
And while we can easily become sidetracked in how the question is raised — “Well, what is success to you?” is one good way to lose the rest of your afternoon — we all know, generally, what he means. He’s asking what are the odds. He’s asking what are the chances of finding an audience in a generally, deeply glutted marketplace.
‘A Glut Of High-Quality eBooks’
Back to Coker at Smashwords; his article is headlined Ebook Publishing Gets More Difficult from Here – Here’s How to Succeed. Keep in mind, of course, that Coker needs self-publishing authors to succeed. There’s not a thing wrong with that. He’s in business as a publishing and distribution outlet for self-publishers.
The only reason to keep it in mind is that this represents a (perfectly appropriate) bias in what he’s telling you. Coker needs you to feel that self -publishing is worthwhile. He might kill the golden goose if he’s not careful to hand out some encouragement. So he does couple his analysis of the hard times at hand with 20 tips for authors, including “Pinch your pennies” and “Take risks, experiment, and fail often.”
In fact, Coker rides in on a brave, high note, starting with the frequently chanted “For indie (self-published) authors, there’s never been a better time to publish an ebook.”
He goes on:
Thanks to an ever-growing global market for your ebooks, your books are a couple clicks away from over one billion potential readers on smart phones, tablets and e-readers…In the world of ebooks, the playing field is tilted to the indie author’s advantage.
But then he immediate turns to what he names”the bad news”:
Back in December …I speculated that growth in the ebook market would stall out in 2014. I wrote that after a decade of exponential growth in ebooks with indies partying like it was 1999, growth was slowing. I wrote that the hazard of fast-growing markets – the hazard of the rapid rise of ebooks – is that rapid growth can mask flaws in business models. It can cause players to misinterpret the reasons for their success, and the assumptions upon which they build and execute their publishing strategy. Who are these players? I’m talking about authors, publishers, retailers, distributors and service providers – all of us. It’s easy to succeed when everything’s growing like gangbusters. It’s when things slow down that your beliefs and underlying assumptions are tested.
Coker’s list of factors behind these hard times is short but specific. He fleshes out each of his three points. I’ll just give you the top lines, emphasis mine:
(1) There’s a glut of high-quality ebooks.
This is an interesting flip on the usual assertion that there’s too much low-quality work out there. Coker writes, emphasis mine:
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by self-publishing naysayers who criticize the indie publishing movement for causing the release of a “tsunami of drek” (actually, they use a more profane word than “drek”) that makes it difficult for readers to find the good books. Yes, indie publishing is enabling a tsunami of poor-quality books, but critics who fixate on drek are blinded to the bigger picture…The biggest threat to every indie or traditionally-published author is the glut of high-quality low-cost works. The quality and potency of your competition has increased dramatically thanks to self-publishing, and the competition will grow stiffer from this day forward.
And Coker brings along two more points:
(2) The rate of growth in the supply of ebooks is outstripping the growth in demand for ebooks.
Like cobwebs constructed of stainless steel, [ebooks] will forever occupy the virtual shelves of ebook retailers, forever discoverable. This is both good and bad. It’s good your book is immortal, because it means you can look forward to harvesting an annuity stream of income for many years to come, especially for great fiction because fiction is timeless. But it means that every year there will be more and more books for readers to choose from. Unless the number of readers and the number of books read by readers grows faster than the number of titles released and ever-present, there will be fewer eyeballs split across more books. This means the average number of book sales for each new release will decline over time unless readership dramatically increases, or unless we see an accelerating pace of transition from print reading to screen reading.
(3) The rate of transition from print books to ebooks is slowing.
The early adopters for ebooks have adopted…the rate of transition from print to ebooks is slowing. We’ve reached a state that might best be described as a temporary equilibrium. I think reading will continue to transition to screens, but at a much slower rate of transition than during the last six years. The slower rate of growth will therefore limit the number of new eyeballs available for the ever-growing supply of ebooks.
‘The Financial Value Of Words Is Averaging Down’
None of this is meant to run you off from trying a publishing career. And, as mentioned, Coker has a vested interest in not doing that — the frankness of some of his explication of the situation, in fact, is commendable in light of the fact that he’s basically giving his clients the kind of medicine nobody wants to take.
A last voice from London, however, echos some of what he’s saying.
Adam Singer, chairman of the UK’s ALCS, or Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, in his letter on the organization’s annual report, writes:
The underlying force is that in a digital world the financial value of words is averaging down.
Sobering and important words, and ones that need to be heard — from authors to authors.
The ALCS is an 85,000-member agency joined by authors for a one-time lifetime fee of £25 (about US$40). As Adams helpfully distills the organization’s work in his essay, “The ALCS is founded on the exploitation of secondary rights, i.e. photocopying and scanning, and in a digitized world where the nature of a clearly defined secondary right is fading, everything becomes a variation on a primary sale either by the book or by the page.”
When somebody copies a writer’s work, in other words, it’s ALCS that makes the collection of the proper royalty fees and transfers them to that writer.
Like Coker, but from a completely different perspective, Singer sees a similar tide rising:
The digital world rebases the costs of all it touches, and of course one person’s costs are another person’s wages. Over the last year ALCS has carried out two surveys that illustrate the changing nature of earnings, one regarding freelance journalists and their ability to make a living from the contracts they are given entitled A Free For All?, and the second looking at the trends in authors’ earnings following on from a similar piece of research ALCS undertook in 2005, entitled What Are Words Worth Now? Both surveys confirmed that authors’ average earnings are falling.
Remember, we’re looking now at the UK perspective. And what Singer has to say is sobering, to say the least:
Between 2005 and 2013 the proportion of professional authors who earn a living solely from writing has fallen from 40% to just 11.5% and the typical income of professional authors has dropped a jaw-dropping 29% in that same timespan.
Note that methodology and scope of the ALCS studies have been sources of controversy. But if even the trend lines suggested are correct, there is, indeed, a difficult slowdown of sorts in progress.
What surely becomes the imperative next — for the entire industry — is the expansion of the audience.
- For example, we have to ask why the industry doesn’t make more concerted, serious efforts to raise male readership, for example, and in all age brackets, not just in younger demographics.
- We may also have to look at how focused so much of the industry tends to become on popular genres — maybe instead of utterly saturating the audience for a few large fanbases, we need to think about opening wider readerships for currently smaller, quieter genres.
- It could be time to reconsider certain longtime and honored awareness campaigns. Does a tote-bag campaign, for example, really make people want to read more? Are there elements of awareness that might operate more closely to the actual needs of both industry and readership? — that might be more about reading than about slogans?
For authors, for now, the point is caution, professionalism, quality above all, and realistic, thoughtful expectations.
We’re nowhere near “The End” of the digital disruption of publishing. And, as Coker tells us, this may well be where the plot really starts to thicken.