The Author-Reader Amazon Revolution:Mirage or Reality?

Indie writers, and that means "self-published authors", are up in arms over the Amazon-Hachette spat, all rushing in the defense of Amazon. For a perfect example of the sort of blog post siding for Amazon, see here (or link to it here):

Yes, the Big Publishers, once upon a time six big publishing houses and now down to five (but for how long?), "controlled the book industry." As explained in that blog, "They decided which stories you were allowed to read. They decided which authors were allowed to publish. They charged high prices while withholding less expensive formats. They paid authors as little as possible, usually between 2% and 12.5% of the list price of a book".

Amazon, on the other hand, "trusts you to decide what to read, and they strive to keep the price you pay low. They allow all writers to publish on their platform, and they pay authors between 35% and 70% of the list price of the book."

Then, at the end of the post, there's a petition to sign, open to readers and writers alike, see here.

PLEASE NOTE THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE who have signed that petition.

Notice something strange? So far, very few people have signed - at the time of writing (July 6), only 4, 804.

Surprised? I must admit I am - I thought more self-published authors would have joined in by now. If you drift down to the comments, you get a sense of who signed - mostly self-published authors.

You first come across David Gaughan's strong statement (trust him, he's a fighter!):
"Amazon has done more than any other company to create a level playing field where hundreds (and probably thousands) of independent authors like me can make a living from book sales for the very first time. As a reader, I recognize that Amazon has done more than any other company to create the digital market, and to lower prices for readers. Publishers are fighting to increase those prices and to prevent Amazon from discounting. As a writer and a reader I think this would be an awful, regressive move - probably designed to protect the status quo and the millionaire status of a small group of bestselling authors. Don't believe the anti-Amazon hype!"

David Gaughan is certainly one of self-publishing's major success stories - as are the next commentators down the line, Hugh Howey, Theresa Ragan, John A. A. Logan, all leaving testimony to their success thanks to Amazon.

And to think that this is a website - the blog title says it all: ebooksuccess4free -  with over 2,000 followers, to be exact: 2,612 at the time of writing! I'm just saying that to point out the extent of the Indie "revolution", the number of people who are taken in by this kind of language and are no doubt already self-published or thinking of it.

If one goes by the number of signatories to that petition, then it becomes obvious that at least 4,500 self-pubbed authors feel strongly loyal to Amazon. Not a big number but certainly a vocal core group!

Because, quite clearly, these are all people who have bought into the Indie ideology, people who overlook or want to ignore the simple economic fact that "New York Publishing" that once "controlled" the book industry was in that "control" position merely because, following American Capitalism tenets, the Big Publishers in New York were better able to produce a good product (read: best selling book) than all the others - than small presses, and of course, vanity presses (that's where self-publishing authors used to be found).

It's not a matter of "control" but a matter of excellence. 

And, contrary to what is written in that blog, Big Publishers never decided which stories readers were "allowed to read" or which authors were "allowed to publish". Allowed by whom? Book publishing is not a terroristic industry!

Book publishing is subject to the laws of the market like any other industry. What people want to read sells, what they don't want to read, doesn't sell.

It's not the Big Publishers who "decide" but the readers.
Self-publishing is the way to go if you can't wait (at least) three years before seeing your book in print - and three years is probably on the optimistic side.

Consider: you need to send queries to literary agent and hope that you will land one. Recent data shows that agents receive on average over 3,000 queries per year and take on...2 new clients a year! Do the math, or rather, don't do it, it will get you depressed. Once you've signed a contract with an agent, it doesn't mean your book will be grabbed by a publisher, that could take another six months or more (if it works - if not, back to square one with a new book). And once a publisher has taken you on, it's another 18 months at least before your book hits a shelf in a bookstore.

Self-publishing is incredibly fast, on average three weeks rather than three years.

Consider: from the moment your draft has been finalized and fully edited, you might spend another week or two on the book cover (either do it yourself or get a book designer to do it for you, the safer way to get a professional looking cover) and three or four days to upload your book on the various e-platforms, mainly KDP, Smashwords for onward distribution to all the others and Google Books. None of it is technically challenging, all you need is a regular word document, a good quality jpeg image for your cover, and you're done. Super easy.

Self-publishing is for control freaks and Amazon lovers (that's where it works best for all authors, including new ones). It makes sense for anyone with the daring spirit of an entrepreneur, but - and it's a very big "but"! - once your book is up there, on Amazon's virtual shelves, the real work starts.
Flower Child ~ Published Book Cover
Flower Child ~ Published Book Cover (Photo credit: LadyDragonflyCC - >;<)


You need to reach out to your readers, your market.  And let's face it, for an author who loves to write and let his/her imagination fly, marketing is devastating. It's not in his/her genes. And even if it happens to be in those damn genes, it's a time and energy suck.

True, marketing is not something only self-published authors have to do. Even traditionally published authors have to engage in a lot of book promotion, go on book tours, sign copies etc but a whole lot more is needed if you are self-published... unless you're one of those savvy professional authors who's been traditionally published before and you have a fan base you can count on to get your book started on all those Amazon best-seller lists.

Don't kid yourself, Amazon's best seller lists remain the best way to sell books in the digital world.

And, depending on the kind of book you've written, there are many kinds of lists you can be on. Metadata, hello!

Make sure you've got your metadata - your book description and keywords -  right for your book so that it goes into the "right" slot where readers can find it. Because Amazon has been incredibly kind to authors (and publishers!): they've multiplied the lists to fit an eye-popping range of genres, from recondite stuff like "aging" to "space opera" - the idea of course is to help readers find the most popular (read best-selling) books in their particular area of interest.

If you're a midlist author and already have fans looking for your books, they'll be happy to read one of the titles you've pulled out of your back list - books they may have missed or that they'll want to buy in digital version to read again because it was one of their favorites, they've read it many years ago and have now half-forgotten it. And if the price is very low, why not, stick in the Kindle and read it on the plane or while waiting at the dentist's.

And the more you sell on Amazon, the more you sell. It's like a stone gathering moss. The famous section "other customers also bought" gets filled with books in similar genres and people will click on all those other titles...and get to yours! Neat!

Sales propel more sales.

If you have any doubts about the importance of cracking the Amazon sales rankings, Smashwords most recent survey leaves no doubts about it whatsoever, see here:

The trouble is to get that damn ball rolling.

For a long time - roughly from 2009 to 2013- self-publishing was a manna from Heaven for traditionally-published authors with a recognizable name in their genre; at least for all those able to get back the rights to their back list.

But now, most of them have gone through their back list and have no new title to offer...unless they quickly write a new book. So, it should come as no surprise that sales in the Kindle store (and on other e-platforms) have hit a plateau. Midlist authors have run their course.

The digital gold rush is over.

There are other reasons too:
  1. Existing ereaders are filled to the brim with low-priced and free books. The market for ereaders is still expanding but at a lower rate. The fast pace of growth of early days is gone - this is normal for a gadget reaching maturity.
  2. Add to that the huge number of titles available in the Kindle store and elsewhere. Because it was so easy to self-publish, there's been a tsunami of self-published authors since the Kindle was launched six years ago. Amazon won't reveal the number of titles in the Kindle Store, but it's likely to be around 4 million, and probably half of that is self-published. Anyone with numbers is welcome to comment below, nothing would be more desirable than having some solid data.
  3. In spite of this vast number of available titles, few authors manage to sell over 100,000 copies of their books. In Amazon's year end report for 2013, you find that, yes, 25% of their book sales came from self-published authors but also only "150 Kindle Direct Publishing authors each sold more than 100,000 copies of their books in 2013". Top sellers, we are informed, included "Hopeless" by Colleen Hoover and "Wait for Me" by Elizabeth Naughton.
One hundred and fifty authors! Out of how many hundreds of thousands of self-published authors (perhaps even a million or two)?

"Hopeless" was traditionally published, by Simon & Shuster UK in July 2013, and in just one year got 7,322 reviews. Elizabeth Naughton, the author of "Wait for Me", has a more interesting experience to offer. As she told Galley Cat (see here), she launched her book by giving away 500,000 copies between the end of 2012 and the middle of January 2013, and, as she proudly noted, "now that book is the #2 overall bestseller at Amazon and has been ranked in the top 100 for more than two weeks.” She is indeed a very savvy and active marketer; to understand this, take a look at her blog here. "Wait for Me" gathered 2,661 reviews since it was published in 2011. Now, selling at a 66 percent discount, it maintains a remarkably high level in Amazon's best seller ranks, though no longer #2 but around #5000, pretty good considering it's not "new". For her, an author of dark, romantic, paranormal noir novels, one of the best selling genres on Amazon, the gold rush is surely not over.

In an ocean of books, how can your poor little one float to the top? Who says it's good and worth reading? Nobody in the mainstream press (the New York Times, the UK Guardian, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal etc etc): articles there are reserved for traditionally published authors. Self-published authors cannot expect to get critique from literary gurus - all they get are Amazon "customer reviews" - better than nothing but rarely professional, though Amazon has tried to create a "professional" group of critics through its Vine Program that selects the most popular reviewers.

Self-published authors can't even expect to get attention from presenters on any of the major TV or radio shows. At best, they get attention from literary bloggers who have reasonable traffic on their blogs, though, as a recent Gallup survey indicated, nobody buys following advice on social networks (only 5% do).

What recently happened to Edan Lepucki's debut novel "California" published by one of the Hachette Group imprints, could never have happened to a self-published author. That kind of fairy tale is reserved to traditionally published authors. Indies, not unsurprisingly, are very angry at Stephen Colbert who got the ball rolling on his TV show by brandishing the "California" book and urging viewers to buy it, as a way to counter Amazon.

For more about this, here is the New York Times article (click here), calling Edan Lepucki a "winner in the Amazon war" when she got an unexpected "boost from Colbert". No less than the New York Times paid attention to this minor event!

Yes, major writers, TV personalities, mainstream journalists and celebrities of all sorts are siding with Hachette and the traditional publishing industry against Amazon, and hence, self-published authors. Just to quote one major author, a Pulitzer Prize winner: "In her arresting debut novel, Edan Lepucki conjures a lush, intricate, deeply disturbing vision of the future, then masterfully exploits its dramatic possibilities." ---Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.

And, needless to add, self-published authors do not have access to the more prestigious literary prizes of the calibre of the Pulitzer or Man Booker. That's an out-of-bound area for all indies. For how long? Who knows, but one thing is certain, it's not a situation that is about to change anytime soon.

In other words, anyone considering self-publishing should realize that the road ahead is very short. No important prize will come your way, no major literary critic will ever pay attention. Even someone like Hugh Howey who was an outstanding success with his famous WOOL is still waiting for recognition from the "publishing establishment" - even though he got a deal with Simon and Shuster as well as a film contract.

When Amanda Hocking, historically the first self-published author to achieve success, accepted the contract offered by St Martin's Press, a prestigious traditional publisher, she knew what she was doing. She explained it quite clearly, saying something like "I want to become a household word across America" (that's what I remember reading at the time).

Indeed, no self-publisher can ever hope to achieve that. For many reasons, that I plan to explore in various blog posts over the next few weeks. My goal is very simple: based on my own experience as an author and observations as an economist, I want to cut through all the hype surrounding self-publishing and get  to the truth - nothing less can help my fellow writers, and in particular any aspiring writer wondering whether to go the traditional road or attempt self-publishing.

And the truth is that if you are an ambitious author looking to be read by as many people as possible (in my view, a legitimate goal), you will never become, as Amanda Hocking pointed out, a "household word" unless you are traditionally published.

True, a number of self-published authors manage to sell over 100,000 copies per year and make a decent living out of it. Good for them! But they are very, very few, an absolute minority - something akin to the percentages that get picked up by literary agents; we are talking of 0,002 percent and less.

We are talking about black swans - the kind of high improbability that Nassim Taleb wrote about in his 2007 best seller.

Yet we read in all the blogs of self-published authors that have made a success of their publishing venture, from J.A. Konrath's Publishing Guide for Newbies to sites like the one mentioned above, that self-publishing is the way to go. It pays for itself, it's rational, it puts you in charge of your books and your earnings. And, cherry on the cake, the stigma that used to be attached to vanity presses and self-publishing, is gone.

The digital revolution has miraculously done away with that stigma!

Do you believe in miracles? If you're a writer seeking to publish your books, don't believe in miracles, you could be deeply disappointed...

Look for more about the stigma attached to self-publishing in a future post about my "lessons learned" in self-publishing, and in the meantime, I've collected a few articles for you below.

Related articles:
Now, my question to you. It concerns the "Hachazon War".

Considering that Amazon is trying to change in its favor the terms with a Big Publisher (Hachette), down to 50%, and considering that there is nothing to encourage Amazon to continue to pay 70% to self-published authors, are you going to sign that petition?

What are your reasons for signing (or not signing)? Please share.  

My opinion? I have a confession to make: the Hachazon War could be the handwriting on the wall. If Amazon is standing up to Hachette, why should it give a better deal to self-published authors? It looks like the time has come, in Amazon's view, to tighten the screws and start making money - pulling 50% in rather than the 30% it has accepted so far. And if they do decide to go down that road, what can self-published authors do to stop them? Sign another petition?