Monday, October 28, 2013

Artisan Writers: The Indie Shake Up, Pt 1

This week Scott William Carter put up a post on his 5am Writer Blog with a very long title: "A Tsunami of Wonderful: How the Long Tail of Publishing Is Finally Overwhelming the Early Adopter eBook Bounce — and What This Means for Fiction Writers Going Forward"

He really struck a chord with what I've been thinking lately.  The landscape is changing again, it's not inherently a bad thing, but it is definitely causing disruption.  And Scott's thesis is that this isn't just a seasonal wobble -- we may be moving out of the period of relatively easy gains for Indie Writers.

The question rising in the back of a lot of people's minds right now might be "Were the nay sayers right?  Were those people correct when they said the ability of self-published authors to make a living is just a bubble and everything will crash soon?  Was Joe Konrath and other self-publishing gurus wrong when they explained why things were going to get better and better?"

No!  ... and yes.

The real truth is both sides are right.  The optimists are right that this fundamental change in publishing -- the rise of self-pubishing and the opportunities it brings -- that just isn't going to go away.  The world has changed; good, bad or indifferent, and it ain't gonna change back. Opportunities will continue... but so will change

And that's where the pessimists are right: Things will continue to change.  Stability is an illusion in a time like this, and even if there are some universal truths out there, odds are they aren't the ones we think they are.

An awful lot of indies over the past couple of years have patted themselves on the back for being the smart ones who adapted to the New World Order -- but that pat on the back is premature if they thought things have settled in and will stay put. There's a Newer World Order just around the bend.

Technically, it's not actually a different world order -- it's just that the change we've been going through has hardly begun.  Eventually things will settle down into something more stable, but it's hard to say when, and even when it does, I suspect it will be stable the way New York City is stable -- it never sleeps, never stands still.  Even the rate of change can't be counted on.  Only change itself.

Let's take a closer look at some of what prompted Scott's post and this one:

Reports of Lower Sales

Is it seasonal? Scott thinks that we've moved beyond the seasonal aspect of depressed sales.  I don't know that he's right.  The summer doldrums last year didn't start to recover until November.  But I've seen enough reports of record lows; people with good books who are publishing new works regularly whose sales are trending down over time -- not just per book, but over all.  People comparing numbers month to month over the past year, and shaking their heads.

There are also positive signs over the past year: more people around me than ever who are reporting they are making enough to quit their day jobs -- but at the same time, I've suddenly started hearing more and more concern from these same people that their income has taken unexpected hits.

And though these reports aren't scientific, they have one other advantage: they confirm my prejudices.  I've been expecting a wobbly correction -- not something serious to the indie publishing world as a whole but enough to hurt individuals and groups of writers, and to worry the rest of us.

So whether I'm just seeing my expectations reflected back at me or if it's real, I can't say for sure -- I can only say that it feels like there is a shift going on.  This fall feels darker and less optimistic than past falls. 

This may be more a matter of people lowering unrealistic expectations (which is a healthy sign) than it is actual depression of sales. I can't say.

Reports that Proven Strategies Are Failing

Over the past couple of years we've been burning through tactics.  Everybody got into "tagging" and Amazon cut off tagging.  Writers flooded into various online communities and then got kicked out for clogging the site with promotion. That one started long ago, and continues, but there were always other communities to run to.  Now (thank goodness) it seems like even the writer boards don't want to hear it.

Now folks are finding that Amazon's KDP Selects isn't what it was.  Offering books for free doesn't help nearly as much as it used to.  Bookbloggers are either saturated, shut down, or they have increased their standards for submission.  The prices of advertising and paid listings has gone up and up, and people report results have gone down and down.

And here's the place where Scott William Carter and I both disagree and agree.  I agree with him that we've reached a saturation point, and also with some of his ideas of solutions going forward -- but I disagree with the idea that the problem is competion.

Unsustainable Opportunities Cause Competition

All of those failing strategies I mentioned above -- they were competitive. They are all based on the idea that a writer needs leverage to boost himself above his fellows.  That worked in the "gold rush" of the first wave.

There were opportunities that were only there because everything was new so nobody thought to put up barriers.  The Amazon discussion communities, for a very short time, welcomed in all the lovely authors, until they realized that they couldn't hold a conversation without yet another new author interrupting to flog her book.  (As the Monty Python Sketch goes, "Well, if you don't want any Spam, you could order Spam, Spam, Spam, Egg, Bacon and Spam. That doesn't have much Spam in it.")  Even though most the authors learned quick, there were so many new authors who didn't know better that it utterly killed any love those readers had for authers.

And authors were soon banned.  And virulent anti-author gangs started roving the land.

But for that shining moment, before the bulk of writers knew about it, those few writers who "beat" the rest and got there first, got the attention of an interested group of readers.  And it worked!  Hey Mikey!

It wasn't that the rest of the authors came in and ruined something that was working -- it's that the first few got a unique, and unfair, opportunity that couldn't last.  Once the opportunity was equal, it broke the system.

This pattern happens over and over again as the new system starts to form:  a few first adopters discover a weakness in the system -- an unguarded crack. They mistake it for an ongoing opportunity (or an unlimited resource) and exploit the heck out of it, and tell all their friends that they've found this wonderful thing.

And then the system breaks or changes, and everybody is bewildered by how it doesn't work any more.

(This isn't just something writers do, it happens over and over again on the wild frontier that is the internet.)

It's not that anybody has done anything wrong.

It's just that we can't see the bigger system at work, or the power of so many of us all doing the same thing.  And there was no gate, no path, no lines or barriers to help the bulk of us see how it works.

And I honestly think this is a part of what is going on with the crisis facing the erotica writers right now.

But that, I think I'll talk about next week, along with some thoughts about the Pareto Principle and how it holds the seeds of its own destruction for those who adhere to it too vigorously.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Although I've noticed slow months sometimes, there never seems to be much of a pattern in them. Now my August sales for Amazon were very high, but that's because I had a self-pub release and the month before I'd had a trad pub release and I think they might have fed each other. So this month, the sales are still robust, but about 2/3 of what I made in August. But I do hear a lot of people talk about slumps and slow seasons and decreased sales.

I did think there was a bit of a bubble and that it was pure hubris for authors to think there wasn't. Our main competition is electronic entertainment and that's going to be our struggle moving forward.

The Daring Novelist said...

You're a great example of why I think it isn't just a matter of too many writers, but rather a matter of people rushing to exploit false opportunities.

It may be partly a matter of luck too: the cozy mystery audience has been adopting ebooks more slowly than some of the "gold rush" genres. So those unsustainable opportunities haven't been so thick on the ground.

All the same, I think you've really approached this with the kind of common sense flexibility that called for.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...


Although it's been rather uncharitable of me in the trad. cozy email loops that I'm in not to argue when the authors start putting down self-pub. I'm just politely silent. I've convinced myself that I'm simply showing admirable restraint and just being ladylike. The truth, though, is that I certainly don't want the field any more crowded with competent writers! :) At least, I suppose, I'm not *dissuading* them from going self-pub--that really would be dishonest of me.

Romance, on the other hand, was very quick to go digital (those are quite formidable businesspeople--great at networking, very good to keep informed). Consequently, that's one of those areas that's gotten very full--and the self-pub covers have got to be top-notch, you've got to have gobs of reviews, a loyal following, etc. to sell well in that genre.