There’s no doubt that some things are changing in the self-publishing landscape. This year has marked things I never thought I’d see when I started publishing on Amazon and Smashwords back in 2009. Back then the big thing was setting up free or cheap ebooks in order to gain a readership. Ebooks were new, and people buying e-reading devices were looking for content. This led to a boom in self-publishing I never thought I’d see. I honestly expected self-publishing to remain the redheaded step-child of the publishing world. Then somewhere around 2012-2014, it became popular and took off.
Around 2015, I started hearing about self-publishing becoming less lucrative than it used to be. Granted, there were some breaking out and making a lot of money. Some were making much more than I ever did at my peak. Some authors are still flourishing in this landscape. It seems to be mostly KU authors who are writing to market and buying a lot of ads. So at the moment, it looks like KU and ads have afforded some authors a very nice living.
Deep in my gut, however, I feel like we’re in for another shift in the self-publishing landscape. I have no evidence to prove this statement. I’m merely posting a theory. If you’d like to play, “Guess what’s to come,” feel free to join me in the comments below. 🙂
Now, more than ever, it’s time to focus on the quality of our work.
This has always been true, of course, but in the hamster wheel game that has become popular at Amazon, I think genuine quality has fallen to the wayside. Amazon rewards authors for getting books out fast. They’re not rewarding authors for quality. They’re rewarding for quantity. This is a huge deal. For the short-term, authors can play this game. I went from publishing about every three months to two months, and last year, I was trying for one book a month. Long story short, I was unable to crank out a 50-60K story every single month. But I did push myself into burn-out by trying to do it.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had started to treat my books like a product on a widget line. This isn’t good. When we start looking at books as a cheap little widget to be shoved out the door as quickly as possible, we stop looking at good storytelling.
So really, there are three options I see open to authors right now: sacrifice quality to get books out as quickly as possible, hire ghostwriters, or slow down and focus on quality.
I think time is going to reward authors who focus on quality. If we want current fans to keep investing in our work, we need to keep writing good quality stories. If we want to acquire new fans, we need to make sure our next book is good quality, too. I have nothing against ghostwriters, but I don’t think two writers will write the same way. There’s something about your voice that no one else can master. A ghostwriter might come close, but there’s only one you in the entire world. I think readers can tell when we wrote the book or not. There’s something in our voice and style that is like a fingerprint. We are distinct. We are unique. So we’re not really producing a widget on an assembly line. We’re crafting a story. I think authors who focus on crafting good quality stories will have an advantage over those who don’t.
As a side note: I realize some readers don’t mind ghostwritten books. They just want a good story. Our most passionate fans, however, might feel betrayed if we don’t write our own stories. So weigh the pros and cons of this option. If you choose to hire a ghostwriter, I hope you pay that person fairly for their time.
Personally, I want to keep writing my own stories, so I’m picking that option. Which brings me to this thought…
Passion will trump writing to market in the long run.
This one is a wild prediction since it goes against most of the marketing advice I hear, but I think we tell our best stories when we’re passionate about them. I wrote to market for two years, and I crashed and burned. I never would have been able to keep writing if I had tried to keep going. I’ve since noticed other authors in forums mentioning being tired of what they’re writing. Some have even quit. I think you can only write to market for so long because eventually you box yourself in. That’s what happened to me. I eventually ran out of anything interesting enough to write about because I’d exhausted all of the angles that I believed the majority of historical romance readers wanted to read.
Writing to market is writing with the reader in mind. It is tailoring your story for the reader. From the outset, you have certain things you must do. There might be a few authors who can pull this off for years and years, but from my research on the topic, those authors who have been writing longterm write for passion first. To sustain a longterm career (or even hobby) as a writer, I think you have to enjoy what you’re doing.
Think about upping the price.
I think the time of free and $0.99 stories are about used up in effectiveness. I do think having a couple of series perma-free can still work for you, especially if you’re not exclusive to Amazon. If you’re wide, you have more leverage in this area. KU readers already get books for “free”, so this is a strategy I mostly suggest to wide authors.
Earlier this year, I stopped making every single series starter free. I cut that down to about half. I decided to go with $0.99 instead. Then I put a couple of the last books in my series at $3.99. I’m in romance, so that is within a good range for the romance genre. You need to price according to what your genre’s comfort zone is. I think at Amazon, cheaper books are probably still going to be popular. But I think if you’re looking for a strategy going forward in a wider market, then going a dollar or two more might be to your advantage.
I think there are so many free and cheap books out now that they don’t give us an advantage like they used to. If we’re focusing on good quality stories, then people who love our work will be willing to pay another dollar or two for a new book. The key is to focus on quality. Readers who prefer Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Google Play buy books. They don’t borrow them like KU readers do on Amazon. Their mindset is different. When people buy something, they’re using a different thinking process in making a decision.
Here’s my personal experience from just releasing a new book at $3.99. I’ve been doing $2.99 since 2011 or 2012. (It’s been so long I can’t even remember.) Anyway, I noticed that my sales did take a hit on Amazon. On the other retailers, though, they stayed the same. I thought that was interesting, and it is what I expected to happen based on what other authors have been telling me.
Yes, you want a good cover. Yes, you want a good description. Yes, you want it edited by someone who knows what they’re doing. Yes, you want a good quality story. You’d want all of that anyway regardless of whether you’re in KU or you’re wide. But I think we’re at the point in self-publishing where we’re going to have to up the price. Upping the price won’t mean anything to KU readers. They pay one price a month no matter what. Wide readers pay for the book. I used to think that a higher price point didn’t give authors much of an advantage, but I’m changing my tune. I think a higher price will help us, especially if we’re wide. BUT a higher price only helps if the book is great quality. I also think the pricing going up is best done slowly so you don’t shock your current fanbase. That’s why I’m starting with a $1 raise in the price. I’m not jumping to $2.
All that being said, the more books you have out, the more you can have prices all across the board, which can help you gain new readers who prefer different price points.
I know some of you aren’t in the United States (US), so you’re already thinking globally. The self-publishing market is ripe for explosion around the world. The US market has already exploded. While the US is still good, I think we have a wonderful opportunity to reach people worldwide. Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play are probably going to play a big factor in these markets. I know Amazon has a foothold there, too, but I think the other retailers have an edge in the international landscape. (This is based on things I’ve heard in podcasts over the past two years.)
What might be a small market today could be a tremendous source of income in the future. One thing I’ve learned over the past nine years is that every little bit counts. The more places you can be in, the better your chances are for exposure. Notice I said “the better your chances are”. There is no guarantee. There never was a guarantee. Whether you’re in KU or wide, there is no guarantee of sales. But you can increase your odds by reaching out in new territories.
You are the best marketing tool you have.
Free used to be the big marketing tool early on. I came in during this time of self-publishing. Shortly after I came on the scene, the big tool was $0.99. Remember John Locke and Amanda Hocking? That was that era. Then it was KDP Select. Then it was KU. Currently it’s ads. I see KU and ads declining in effectiveness. Authors who used to make good money in KU aren’t doing so anymore. As for ads… Well, when a lot of people are running ads, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. Some authors used to swear by email lists, too, and recently, I hear that’s on its way out the door because readers have gotten exhausted from being inundated with emails all to the time. Does that mean we shouldn’t do free books, $0.99 books, run ads, or do email lists? Of course not. What it means is that these aren’t as effective as they used to be. They don’t carry the same “punch” anymore. I’ve never been in KU, nor would I join. So the KU thing is up to you to figure out. I understand why authors go into KU. For some authors, this is still an effective strategy.
But ultimately, what do we have that can survive the trends? We have ourselves. We are our brand. I still think it’s important to have a physical presence on the web. There should be a blog or website where you list all of your books, the links to your books, and where people can find you. I think having one place where you are willing to meet with readers is a good thing, too. Choose whatever social media platform you want, but make sure it’s something you enjoy. If you pick blogging and you hate blogging, this is going to become a chore really fast. Maybe you’d rather share pictures, give short little tweets, do videos, or engage in conversations other people have started. Whatever you enjoy, that’s what you should do because this is something you’ll want to stick with. You can’t gain traction anywhere unless you commit to it.
I don’t think you need to have a “contact me” page on your website or blog if you have a Facebook or Twitter account that allows people to contact you. There were a few people in my past who harassed me through my personal email account, so I don’t set up “contact me” pages on my sites anymore. One person even let me know they did a background check on me and what they had found out. The world gets too scary sometimes to be that personal. But I’m comfortable with letting Facebook be the way people communicate with me, so I’m available for contact over there. You need to do what is comfortable for you.
For those of you who don’t have a big following, remember that an organic and slow growth of genuine fans is much better than people you gathered quickly who don’t remember who you are. This is a marathon. Quality in your fanbase is just as important as the quality of your stories. They’ll invest in you. Whatever you write, they’ll read it. And they will pay a higher price because you gained their trust. Even better, they’ll probably mention you to someone else.
Side note: I don’t have big numbers. I’m not a huge seller. I have a little over 200 people on my email list. I used to have almost 500 before the whole GDPR thing in May. I just got 117 members in my personal Facebook group. On Bookbub, I think I’m at 494 followers. So my numbers are not impressive at all, and I’ve been doing this since 2009. Other (newer) authors outdo me by miles. So if you’re disheartened by having low numbers, just remember, you’re not alone.
Back to topic: We’ve hit a saturated market. We have a lot of books out there. The one thing we can leverage is us. Like our writing, no one can replace us. Who we are when we engage with people is as unique as our storytelling.
What about you? What do you think is going to change in the self-publishing landscape? Was there anything that took you by surprise? Are things worse, better, the same? I’d love to know your thoughts!