Today's Publishing Nightmare: Drowning in Indie e-Books... and The Way Out

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An article published on Forbes by David Vinjamuri with the arresting title "Publishing is Broken" (see here) that got over 200,000 views sums up the situation for readers, something I've rarely ever seen. Most articles debating on the good and bad aspects of self-publishing and what Amazon is doing to traditional publishing eschew the reader's point of view. So it is well worth quoting in extenso:

"Indeed, the problem for readers is that regardless of which side you agree with in theory, in practice you probably love the idea of buying books for under $5.00 but hate the idea of having to sort through quite so much junk to find good books at that price.   The question that divides Indie fans from the traditional publishing industry is whether a solid selection of good writing can ever be self-published for these low prices.

Consumer ratings should help sort out the mess, but they don’t.  It seems that every author has twenty or thirty friends who are willing to write glowing reviews of his or her book, no matter how awful.   And conversely, a mainstream author like Brad Thor finds himself targeted by scads of low ratings based solely on the high list price of his ebooks – which he does not control.  The net effect is to make the peer rating systems useless.

So the big question for publishing is which way this paradigm will evolve.  Will our future feature lots of small new interesting writers at low prices and a bunch of bestsellers for somewhat higher prices?  Or will the chaos eventually yield to a higher pricing model where only the most stubborn and talented Indie writer can ever break through?"

No question, Vinjamuri is right, customer reviews on Amazon don't help to discover good reads. And he argues convincingly "that traditional publishers set the stage for their current misfortunes years ago, when they developed the pricing model for printed books." The economics he uses are faultless: he argues that the price of hardcovers was always set too high (between $22 and $25) by traditional publishers in a bumbling attempt to cover the cost of "hunting" for the Next Big Author (i.e. paying advances they cannot recoup because most new authors don't sell). That's a "fixed cost fallacy", you don't sell as many books at $25 as at $5 - your revenues are higher at the lower price.

That error of course left open the famous window of opportunity for self-published authors willing to sell books at $5 and less.

Then Vinjuri singles out three advances that together explain where publishing is at today:

1. e-books are convenient and enable readers to read more than ever before; the famous "long tail" (of niche-interest books) is finally flourishing; the physical difference between self-published and traditionally published is erased by e-books, they all look the same;

2. social media (Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads...) have changed the way recommendations work, making it easier to spread the word about a good read - but, as Hugh Howey points out, it's the readers who are doing the work on Twitter and elsewhere rather than the author; and that's an important point, I've always felt that using Twitter to promote one's book was totally useless;

3. digital publishing has solved the once costly challenge of print runs, storage and distribution, equalizing the field for indies; again, as Hugh Howey puts it: "Now I have the advantage because I have low overhead. Where I once couldn’t compete with their physical price, they now can’t compete with my digital price."

Indeed, indies have low costs, though self-publishing can be very expensive on two counts, editing and marketing as so well explained in this UK Guardian article , aptly titled "You can try to be the next Hemingway for $6,000". Actually, it can cost much more, up to $15,000 to get a professionally edited book out and to market it in the right places, for example using NetGalley or the Kirkus Review to get reviews and obtain the needed attention for your book. That was the amount a friend of mine aimed for with a Kickstarter campaign - she got the money but I regret to say her book is not a best seller, or at least not yet...

The biggest problem is "discovery" - finding your next good read. In his article Vinjumari does an excellent summing up of the currently available options, from Kirkus to Goodreads, noting their shortcomings and concluding that perhaps Amazon, with its Vine program of selected reviewers, though still too "commercial" in form and spirit, would be however best placed, with a little tweaking, to come up with a viable solution that would (at last!) provide readers with reliable recommendations.

Because, as he puts it:

  "There is enormous pressure in the market to solve the “drowning in bad writing” issue with Indie publishing.  It’s hard to imagine that a solution won’t emerge in the next 12-18 months."

18 months? I think he is a little too optimistic, it's not likely to happen that soon. And on his second prediction - that most midlist authors will go indie - he is a little behind the times, my impression is that most of them already have done so.

His third prediction - that "legacy publishers will be hurt badly by Indie books until they find a business models that co-opts them" - is however spot on. And, as he says, it has already happened as traditional publishers scour the self-publishing scene looking for their next big selling author. That is the way Amanda Hocking and John Locked (partly) went, though many (like Hugh Howey) are choosing a "hybrid" model, with one foot in each camp. 

The article ends with an intriguing comparison with pamphleteering in the 17th and 18th century, when pamphleters were treated as hacks, "accused of vanity, incompetence and even sedition", much like indies today. Yet Thomas Paine and others like him are now considered literary masters...This is a nice concluding touch, do you feel like Thomas Paine?

Personally, I don't (!) 

But I do worry that too many good authors who have gone down the road of self-publishing are going to stay buried under the 3 million+ ebooks in the Kindle Store unless something truly innovative happens on the "book discovery" front. In a way, Amazon has brought on the digital revolution to publishing and I hope that Amazon can also bring the solution. It would be really important to improve the Vine Program and turn it into a book discovery instrument of choice! 

Your opinion? What do you think should be done?