The Times in Self-Publishing Are Changing

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. 🙂

ID 121881135 © Artur Szczybylo | Dreamstime.com

 

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.

Think global.

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!

I Had to Give Up Writing to Market in Order to Find My Passion Again

It’s been ages since I posted anything on this blog. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas. I had a lot of them. But as soon as I sat down and wrote a paragraph or two, my mind came to a screeching halt. I waited and waited…and waited some more for inspiration to come so I could finish the blog post. But inspiration never came. I deleted most of those drafts. Why? Because my heart wasn’t “in” writing anymore, much less trying to figure out how to tell other authors how they might sell more books.

I had lost my creative edge, and the scary part is that I didn’t even know it. Writing had started to become a chore. I was doing good to chug along and write my books. It’s like I was running on a gas tank that was almost empty. All of the gas left in my tank was going to my books. I had nothing left to give to a blog post.

feeling trapped
ID 40361529 © Artistashmita | Dreamstime.com

I got some criticism for writing a blog post on here about losing income. But it’s true. I did lose income. I lost about 1/3 of my income from 2015 to 2016. I barely remained steady in 2017. I was even tempted to go exclusive with Amazon by putting new books in KDP Select so I could take advantage of page reads in Kindle Unlimited. I had to spend serious time in prayer and talking with a couple of friends in order to make the best decision for me longterm. (KU is not a good longterm plan.) I knew this, but I had started to focus on short-term plans.

Which is why I was writing to market when 2016 came around.

I wrote to market for two years. Fortunately for me, I happen to love historical western and Regency romances, which happen to be popular genres anyway. But what I did was pick heroine types, hero types, and plot types that I felt had the best chance of selling well. I broke this rule with one book (which is now one of my all-time favorites). That book didn’t do as well as the others. The thing is, I know what is popular in my corner of the romance market. I know what pleases the most readers. How? Because of all the feedback I’ve gotten over the years and watching what other (very successful) romance authors were doing.

I always picked plots I was interested in doing. I could never bring myself to write something I didn’t like. But after two years of writing as fast as I could on projects that I felt would sell, I realized I had used up all of those ideas. I was exhausted. I knew I was burning out. Still, in January, I wrote another romance to market. Then February came. By this time, I was wiped out, but I already had a pre-order set for an April release, so I went through that month and pushed myself to finish that book. Thankfully, this book wasn’t a “write to market” book. It was a passion project. I was venturing into new territory I was excited about. If it had been a “write to market” book, I don’t think I would have survived the month as well as I did. Because even though it was a passion project, my joy for writing had already been hit hard.

And yet, as I write this, my income is still dropping. Writing to market was not a long-term solution to my problem. It was a temporary one. I don’t know if it’s because the market is saturated, or if my readers from early on were tired of the new stuff I was doing (since it was not longer my passion projects), or if it’s because I never went into KU, but my income never did return to what I made in 2015. Ads had minimal effect, and quite frankly, with tax payments based on last year’s income, I don’t have the luxury of spending a lot of money on ads, which are the latest promotional tool. (I’m sure the effectiveness of ads will run out in due time, just like the effectiveness of free, $0.99, and other tactics have diminished over the years I’ve been indie publishing.)

Anyway, when I saw my efforts were not paying off, I asked myself, “Why am I pushing myself so hard?” And it all came down to money. I wanted to make more money writing books. But the thing was, I wasn’t making more money. I was making less.

Early this month, I caught myself thinking, “I hate writing. I wish I could leave the computer and never write another word for as long as I live.”

And that scared me. When I was in the 6th grade, I first discovered how fun reading was, and from there, I started writing. I had always loved writing. Up until 2015, I couldn’t imagine never writing because I loved it so much. When I died, I was hoping I could continue writing in Heaven. So when did it all stop? Looking back, I realized it became “work” in 2016 when I started to seriously write to market. I stopped taking story ideas I felt was risky. I was no longer putting myself into every story. I was playing it safe.

My stress level went through the roof. Whenever I wrote, I was asking myself, “Will someone object to this? Will someone give me a 1-star over that? Will someone stop buying my books because I put this in it?” Everything I wrote (with the exception of two books) revolved around what I thought the market wanted.

I didn’t realize I was paying attention to something Dean Wesley Smith calls “critical voice”. I just got through reading his book Writing into the Dark last week (scroll down the page to find it). Anyway, the book mainly tells writers how to write without plotting, but in it he mentions how harmful critical voice is to writing. And he’s right. Critical voice was in full control when I was writing to market. Critical voice stepped in and stopped me from pursuing books I really, really, really wanted to write because, “No one is going to buy it because of (insert reason here).”

I had a good list of things I had to avoid writing while I was focused on the market, and because of this, I ended up having to work within a narrow parameter of what my critical voice had told me was acceptable. I still picked things I was interested in, but I wasn’t able to go beyond the box I had put myself in. And that was slowly killing my creative voice. I didn’t even know this was happening. That was the scary part. It’s only now as I’m looking back that I can see what was going on. I shake my head and wonder, “How could I not see it?”

This is something all authors are probably going to have to come to terms with at some point. Yes, writing to market can yield high income. (I’ve seen writers do it.) But is it possible to do this for the long term? Can they keep producing these books in a way that is fresh and new? Can they keep doing this at breakneck speed?

This is a bit of a side note, but I’ve noticed that (at least on Amazon), in order to stay relevant, I had to get more books out. Romance authors are now putting out two or more books a month. I’ve seen a couple of authors doing one book a week. Yes, they’re novellas, but still…  And the other day, one author was going from one book a week to two books a week. How long can this momentum stay up? I’m a firm believer that it’s possible to write fast and write quality, but even I can’t see how going that fast is a manageable long-term strategy.  But I’m not the only one who noticed this trend on Amazon. Cait Reynolds did a post on Kristen Lamb’s blog called “Kindle Unlimited: Good Plan or KU Hamster Wheel of Death?” (The post is hilarious, especially with the hamster pictures.) I have this article on my desk and read it at least once a month to remind myself that KU (and Amazon) is built for speed. You must constantly have new books out to keep income up. And there’s a point where I can’t write any more books that I currently do each year.

So I need a long-term strategy because I want to love writing. I want to keep writing. And more importantly, I want to love what I’m writing. I want my passion back. I want my creative voice to flourish again. Just recently, I finally decided I’m going to stop writing to market. I have officially dropped out of the rat race. I’m going to start embracing projects that I can give my whole heart into. If it fits the market, fine. If not, fine. But I’m not going to let that critical voice rule over me anymore.

It was amazing how quickly this single decision changed things around for me. I took a few days to decompress and re-evaluate my life. I did a lot of self-reflection.  But within a week, something magical happened. I got the joy back. I got my passion back. Finally, I have fresh and new story ideas again. I have characters who are exciting to write about. I didn’t expect this to happen so fast, but it did.

And last week, for the first time since 2015, I wrote because I “wanted” to. I had no idea there was such a huge difference between writing because I “had” to and writing because I “want” to, but it’s a huge difference.

What about you? Have you had any revelations about your own writing lately?