Thoughts on Mark Coker’s 2018 Publishing Industry Predictions

January is a time for making forecasts and predictions, and Mark Coker of Smashwords certainly did not disappoint. I have a lot of respect for Mark Coker, not only for being one of the pioneers of indie publishing, but for continuing to share his data and insights with us over the years.

That said, I have many much opinions.

Mark gets a lot of flak from authors for his anti-Amazon stance, which is nowhere crystalized quite so perfectly as his 2018 publishing industry predictions. Seriously, half the post is a massive litany against Amazon’s publishing practices that systematically recounts just about everything he sees wrong. It’s quite impressive.

Perhaps the most inflammatory thing he says is this:

Authors who now derive 100% of their sales from Amazon are no longer indie authors.  They’re dependent authors.   I suppose we have indie authors and de-authors now.

Here’s the thing, though: he isn’t wrong.

Back in 2010, when self-publishing was still considered by many to be the “kiss of death,” I read a post on a writing blog (I think it was Writer Beware) that said, basically: “if you’re taking the indie publishing route instead of traditional publishing, that makes you self-published. So call yourself a self-published author, because you are one.”

At first, I was really pissed off at that blogger. Couldn’t she see that there was a huge gulf between indie publishing and self-publishing? A year or two later, though, I had to concede that she had a point. I was bringing my own baggage to the table by insisting that indie publishing was separate and distinct from the dreaded “self-published” label. Today, I don’t give a damn whether or not a book is self-published, and I don’t think most readers do either.

It’s the same thing with Mark Coker’s “indie authors” and “de-authors.”

The truth is, if you depend on only one publisher or publishing platform for all of your writing income, then by definition you are dependent. It doesn’t make a difference whether that’s a traditional publisher or Amazon. If you want to be independent, then you have to cultivate multiple income streams from multiple sources. It’s that simple.

You’re still a self-published author, whether you do savvy ebooks and print-on-demand editions. or whether you did a 5,000 book print run with a vanity press that sits in your basement from now to eternity. You’re still a dependent author, whether you’re making a killing on Kindle Unlimited or whether you sold your copyright to a Big 5 publisher for a mess of pottage.

However, while I agree with Mark on that much, I disagree quite strongly on his conclusion that the government needs to break Amazon up. Oh, no. Hell no. It’s not different this time, Mark. The Luddites are still wrong.

The biggest publishing story of 2017 was that Amazon’s biggest enemy is… Amazon. Because it turns out that when you stop paying authors for single-book sales and instead pay them shares out of a massive fixed pot, it incentivizes scammers to find all sorts of interesting ways to game your system. And if your business model depends on automating as much of your website backend and customer service as possible, you can’t fix the scamming problem without pissing off indie (and not-so-indie) writers everywhere.

It’s going to take a while for all this to shake out, but I do believe that indie writers will come out on top—so long as Amazon’s competitors in the publishing world step up and actually compete.

Stop whining about Amazon, Mark, and bring your damn website out of the late 90s.

With that out of the way, here are Mark’s predictions, with my thoughts.

1.  2018 will be another challenging year for the book industry

Has there ever been a year in which this hasn’t been the case? Long before KDP, Smashwords, or any other epublishing platform was invented, all of the best books have been up on the internet for free. Movies, TV, video games—we’ve always competed with these things for reader attention, and always will. I don’t see anything that makes 2018 different in that regard.

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the book industry will stabilize and grow—not as measured by traditional metrics like Nielsen Bookscan, but in non-traditional metrics like the Author Earnings Report. Why? Because books are counter-cyclical, and we’re already overdue for the next recession. The stock market is melting up, the yield curve is flattening, inflation is already hitting real estate, healthcare, and education, and the geopolitical situation is a nest of potential black swans.

I don’t think 2018 will be the year when shit hits the fan—I expect that will happen in Trump’s second term, sometime around 2021 or 2022. If nothing else, the tax cuts have applied palliative care to our economy. But the debt will continue to grow, the deficits will get worse, and inflation is going to hit the average consumer in a massive way this year.

All of this bodes well for books.

2.  The glut of high-quality low-cost ebooks will get worse

Please, Mark. The Tsunami of crap was never a problem to begin with. Like I said above, long before epublishing was a thing, the best books ever written in the history of the world were already available, for free, through sites like Project Gutenberg.

There’s still plenty of opportunity for new authors. The Childlike Empress still needs a new name. The Nothing is not going to swallow Fantastica. If you know how to swim, you can still swim just as well, whether the water’s ten or ten thousand feet deep.

3.  Barnes & Noble is sick and will get sicker

I can see this happening. I haven’t been following Barnes & Noble too closely, but they failed pretty hard with the Nook and their corporate troubles haven’t been good for the bottom line. At this point, though, Barnes & Noble is dead wood that needs to burn in order for something else to come up in its place.

4.  Kobo’s sales will falter

I don’t think they will. Kobo is much bigger in the international markets than Amazon, and the economic problems are worse overseas than they are here in the States (which means that conditions are better for books). I think Kobo will do just fine, though I’m not sure that Smashwords books on Kobo will do as well.

Kobo is still innovating, with things like Kobo Plus and the promotions tab on KWL. Mark Lefebvre had a good run, but I think it’s a good thing that they’ve got some new blood coming in. I predict that Kobo will do just fine.

5.  Devaluation pressures will persist

Again, I completely disagree with Mark Coker on this one. Ebook prices for indie books have actually stabilized over the past few years, and with increasing inflation, I predict they will tend to rise in 2018, though not in a dramatic way.

Once you get below a certain price point, competing on price really doesn’t make much of a difference, and I think a lot of successful indies understand this. Also, books are not fungible. When I make time to read, I don’t want just any book—I want that book. So long as it costs me less than a good meal, price be damned.

There is, of course, an argument to be made that all else being equal, power readers are drawn to lower-priced books. It’s probably an exaggeration to say that these power readers are king makers, but it’s not too far from the truth. That said, the way to get around this is to run periodic sales and promotions, just like any other industry.

Come on, Mark. Just because your book is $5.99 doesn’t mean you can’t mark it down to free or 99¢ every once and a while.

6.  Single-copy ebook sales will decline

On Smashwords, perhaps. I’m not convinced that they will generally.

For the entertainment value, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to buy a book (especially an indie book) than it is to buy a video game or a movie. Because of that, books tend to be counter-cyclical. The real economy is not doing as well as the official numbers say: households are still under massive pressure, with debt at unprecedented levels and wages shrinking as adjusted for price inflation. I predict that this trend will continue in 2018.

I haven’t seen the data on this, but if I had to speculate, I would say that power readers tend toward subscription models for books, whereas casual readers tend toward single-copy book sales. I would also speculate that power readers are less responsive to economic shocks than casual readers—they’re going to read whether or not their pocketbook is getting squeezed. Again, I haven’t seen the data for this, but if I had to plant a flag, that is where I’d plant it.

Are single-copy sales cannibalized by book subscriptions? To an extent, yes, but I think we’ve already hit something of a floor. If the economic pressures on the middle class worsen and we see an influx of casual readers into the market, I think single-copy sales will start to bounce back. As I see it, there’s a lot more room on the upside than the downside.

7.  Romance authors will feel the most pain from KU

Can’t speak to that, as I’m not a romance author. But based on Amazon’s missteps in 2017, I think KU will actually see a decline as authors continue to flee and scammers continue to dominate. Again, I don’t see much more room on the downside for things to fall.

8.  Large traditional publishers will reduce commitment to romance

And large traditional publishers will continue to shove their heads up their backsides, so no one in the indie publishing world will care. Kris Rusch wrote a much more lengthy analysis where she says as much.

9.  Email list fatigue

Totally disagree. The guys over at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast discussed this recently, and the conclusion they came to is that authors who claim that email lists don’t work as well as they used to are doing it wrong.

That said, I could see a bit of a shakeout as readers who have signed up for every author’s list go through and cull their inboxes. And I could also see a stabilization and/or decline in sites like InstaFreebie that offer free books in exchange for signing up for an author’s list. But I don’t think this will translate into declining effectiveness of email lists generally.

In contrast, I predict that email lists will continue to be the most effective marketing tool for the vast majority of authors, myself included. My list has never been larger, and never been more effective at selling books.

10.  Pressure will build to drop author royalties

I could see this happening. That said, the pessimists in the industry have been predicting this for years, and I don’t see why it would happen now. In fact, if it did happen now, it would create a great opportunity for competing publishing platforms.

Amazon may be the big dog in the publishing industry, but they don’t have their house in order. The KU scamming scandals of 2017 demonstrated this quite clearly. If Amazon were to cut author royalties, it would hurt KU authors the most, and really bite Amazon in the ass long-term.

It’s not a bad idea to have contingency plans in place, in case something like this happens. That said, I don’t think Amazon’s position is strong enough to pull it off.

11.  Audiobooks will be a big story in 2018

This, I can see happening. From what I can tell, audiobooks are experiencing explosive growth, which will continue as more competitors like Findaway Voices find a place in the market, and more indie books come out of their exclusivity agreements with Audible. I really need to figure out how to put out audiobook versions of all my books.

12.  Audible will face increased competition

This is already happening, and I believe it will continue. Perhaps we will see more pressure to raise author royalties for audiobooks than we will see pressure to lower author royalties for ebooks.

13.  Readers will still pay for books worth reading

Yes, indeed. In other news, the sun will continue to rise in the east, people will continue to grow old, and teenagers will continue to believe that they are the very first ones to discover human sexuality.

14.  New subscription services will be introduced

I’m very interested in this one. Mark is in a much better position to see these things coming than I am, and if he’s right, that would be very big news indeed.

Will it be a game changer? I don’t think so, but I half expect to be wrong. Right now, my books are on Scribd and Kobo Plus, and I haven’t seen much of an effect, but subscription services tend to shake up every industry where they take root, and ebooks aren’t an exception.

That said, I don’t think that any new book subscription services will dramatically change my own indie publishing business in 2018. I hope to be proven wrong.

15.  Calls will grow in the US for antitrust action against Amazon

Fat chance, Mark. If anything, Walmart and Home Depot are going to eat Amazon’s lunch. The “Amazon effect” has been greatly exaggerated: truth is, the retail sector is just full of dead wood after a decade of easy credit, stock buybacks, and government bailouts.

Trump is going to defy expectations and win a second term. The Republicans may lose the House in 2018, but I don’t think they will. As for the Senate, almost all of the seats up for election are currently held by Democrats. The Russiagate narrative is coming apart, the Clinton Foundation is once again under investigation, tax cuts are coming, and #MeToo is causing the Left to eat their own. I think the Republicans are going to have a good year.

If calls for anti-trust action against Amazon grow, they will fall on increasingly deaf ears. Thank goodness.

16.  Indies will reassert control over platform

More to the point, Twitter and Facebook will generally decline, while sites like Steemit and Weme will pick up the slack.

If indies do take control of their own platforms, it will be through things like blogs and email lists, which runs contrary to Mark’s prediction in #9. However, I half expect a shakeup in social media to lead to a mass migration of authors to some new site, once the first movers experience huge success.

I’m not sure of this one. It could go either way. Barring the rise of the next Facebook, I think Mark may be right. But I consider it just as likely that we see Facebook go the way of MySpace as something else takes over.

17.  Indie authors will take a closer look at podcasting to reach new readers

Not a bad idea. I doubt it will take off generally, but a few authors will certainly find new opportunities here—especially authors who are also invested in producing their own audiobooks. Could shake things up a bit.

Overall, while I tend to disagree with Mark’s 2018 predictions, he raises some interesting points to consider. Here are some predictions of my own:

  1. I will continue to write new books.
  2. I will continue to publish new books.
  3. A lot of new readers will discover my books.
  4. My email list will more than double.
  5. I will fall behind on this blog more than I should.
  6. I will continue to listen to Sabaton.

What I would do if I were starting out now

In a word, short stories.

Write a bunch of short stories. One or two a week if possible. Keep that up for a year or two, tapering off at the end to transition into novels. But keep writing short stories even after novels have become the main focus.

Make a serious effort while writing short stories to master both the craft and the art of storytelling. View it as an apprenticeship period. Experiment. Try out new things. Join a writing group, preferably of experienced professional writers, and have them rip your stories apart. Soak up as much constructive feedback as possible, and apply it to the next story.

At the same time, don’t spend so much time reworking old stories that you aren’t producing new ones. Learn how to keep a rigorous production schedule. If a story is totally broken, toss it out! Get to the point where you can hit 2k words consistently every day, and knock out a story at least every couple of weeks or so.

In a word, learn how to be prolific.

Experiment with standalones, but also build a couple of universes with recurring characters. Write a few series, both sequential and non-sequential. Focus especially on the non-sequential series, though—the ones where any story can be an entry point. Learn how to find the sweet spot between writing a satisfying ending and leaving a hook for the next one. That sweet spot is different for every genre.

Submit every story you write to the traditional short story markets. Start with the highest paying markets and work your way down. Pay close attention to average response times on sites like the Grinder and don’t submit to any market with an average response time of more than 30 days, no matter how high the pay rate. The goal is to get each story through all of the pro- and semi-pro markets in about a year. If a market can’t get back to you in a timely fashion, it’s not worth your time. Ideally, you want to be receiving multiple rejections every day.

Once you’ve got about twenty or so stories that have come off of submission, start self-publishing.

Use the first couple of stories to learn how the process works. Figure out how to format, do cover work, and write up all the metadata on your own, then do all you can to streamline that process until it becomes automatic. You can outsource some of the more difficult stuff, but learn to do as much as you can on your own. Don’t spend more than about $50 per story to publish it, preferably more like $30.

Once you’ve got a process down, set a rigorous release schedule of 2 stories per month. Keep to that schedule religiously. Don’t worry too much how the stories are selling: they probably won’t sell well until you’ve got a couple dozen or so out. Just focus on getting them out.

Keep an email list, with links to subscribe in the front and back of all your books. Build that list as much as you can. Most of your early marketing efforts should go to building that list, and cultivating a relationship with the people on it. Don’t rely on Facebook, because you don’t own that site and can’t control it. Same with any other social media. Do all you can to bring your readers to a place you control.

Start blogging. Build relationships with other bloggers. Strive to post something new every day. Make it the kind of site that your readers will want to come to. Be sure to have pages for all of your books, as well as a series page that lists every story in every series, in chronological and written order (side note: I really need to write up a series page).

Experiment with free pulsing and price pulsing. Experiment with price points. Experiment with bundles. Experiment with everything.

ORGANIZE YOUR DATA. Ohmygosh. You’re going to be drowning in data after just a few months. Keep all of your sales reports, and compile all that into spreadsheets showing how many sales you got of each title each month, how much you earned from each title each month, etc. Data, data, data! Learn how to thrive with data!

Write a formal business plan, and update it constantly as you go. Write down all the strategies that work, as well as the ones that don’t. Write down all the strategies you want to try out. In case it wasn’t obvious, write down your release schedule. Write down your to do list, organized by urgent / not urgent and important / not important quadrants. Write down everything. WRITE IT DOWN.

Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you’re releasing bundles alongside or even in place of your short stories. Don’t unpublish anything. Maybe update the covers, if you decide your early ones are really really bad. But don’t worry about it too much. Just focus on being as prolific as possible.

As long as you keep moving, you’re going to get somewhere. So always keep moving. Even when you have a disappointing sales month, or a spat of bad reviews, or whatever, just keep moving. Even if you’re moving in the wrong direction, that’s better than not moving at all.

At some point, you’re going to start to see some success. You may even have a breakthrough. At that point, you can start moving on to novels. Hopefully you’ve written a couple of them by now. Your first one is probably utter crap, so toss it out and focus on the good ones.

Hopefully, you’ve written it in the same universe as a bunch of your short stories. That will make the marketing easier, but its not strictly necessary so don’t worry about it too much if you haven’t. Also don’t worry too much if the novel isn’t in a series of its own. It’s better if it is, but standalones have their place too.

Try to write in trilogies, or to write standalones that can easily be turned into trilogies. The first book should stand on its own, the second should end on a low note and hook into the third book, and the third book should blow the reader’s mind away. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is a great example of this.

If your career hasn’t taken off by now, you aren’t experimenting enough. That, or you’re cutting too many corners. One way or another, you’re going to have to put in the work.

That’s pretty much it. Have fun!

Rethinking free

I recently read an interesting blog post on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, about how, how not, and whether to make your books free. The conclusion he comes to is this:

Free is short time, limited supply, and never on the major bookstore shelves.

In other words, no permafree, no free pulsing, and no publishing free online content on sites like InstaFreebie unless it’s for a limited time.

Three or four years ago, I probably would have pushed back pretty hard against this advice. There are still points of it that I disagree with, such as the idea that giving anything away for free devalues all your other work. Perhaps that’s true for physical product, but for digital content I think there’s a solid argument to be made that the rules have changed.

That said, a lot has happened in the last three or four years. Permafree worked really great until about the middle of 2014, at which point I noticed that it was a lot harder to generate any kind of interest in my free books. I switched to a free pulsing strategy in 2015, which was a lot more effective at giving away free books, but that didn’t always translate into more sales.

In fact, there’s a passage from Dean’s blog that sums it up real well:

A customer walks through your door and you have a wall of twenty pies in glass cases, all the smaller short story pies in a case in the center, and some specials near the cash register.

And there on your wall are three pies that say, “Free.”

And a bunch of short stories that are “Free.”

The customer can take an entire pie for free or buy one. As a customer, what would you do? Duh. You take the free pie and leave.

And pretty soon your customers start to change. The only people who come through the door are people who only want the free stuff. They would never buy something under any circumstances, but you are giving your pies away for free, so they take one.

Pretty soon there would be lines out the door to get your free pies and you would make nothing. The free takers would crowd out and devalue the pies you are trying to sell.

Now, I don’t entirely agree with Dean here. My 90-day sales chart on Amazon shows a predictable uptick in sales every time I set a book free and send out an email to my list. Most of my subscribers signed up through InstaFreebie, which means they’re probably not quite fans yet (and probably signed up for a bunch of authors’ lists).

But my long-term data tends to agree with Dean. Back in 2012 and 2013, there was a very clear correlation between free downloads and royalties / paid sales. Then, in 2014, that correlation started to become fuzzy. Over the next several months, it got progressively fuzzier (even though I was giving away more books), until today there’s really no correlation at all.

Obviously, YMMV and I can only speak for my own books. But there have been a lot of major shifts in the ebook market over the last five years. Kindle Unlimited has had a huge impact on the effectiveness of permafree, or any kind of free book strategy for that matter.

Point is, it may be personally useful to rethink my free strategy. I’m not going to stop doing the free book thing altogether, since I do think there’s still value to it (if for no other reason than that little sales bump, plus the handful of “thank you!” responses I get from my email subscribers each month). But instead of free pulsing two books each month, usually including a first-in-series novel, it may be better to do a 99¢ novel and a free short story.

The two biggest mistakes I’ve made so far in my writing career have been 1. underpricing my books, and 2. unpublishing books that were still selling. (I still can’t believe how stupid I was) Holding onto a free books strategy that isn’t working could easily become a close third. I’m not going to throw the bus into reverse while it’s barrelling down the highway at 70 mph, but some experimentation and a course correction may be in order.

Writing is not a business

I recently read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. It’s a fantastic book, not only because it gives you a basic education on financial literacy, but because it gives you a solid foundation for making money in general. It’s one of those books that really deserves its bestseller status.

About midway through reading it, I realized that I’ve been thinking all wrong about my writing. Everyone always says that if you want to write professionally, you should treat your writing as a business. But that’s not entirely correct.

Writing is not a business, it is an investment. Publishing is a business.

The basic argument of Rich Dad, Poor Dad goes like this: if you want to be wealthy, don’t work for money—make your money work for you. How? By owning more assets than liabilities. An asset is something that puts money in your pocket. A liability is something that takes it away.

When you write a book, you are creating an asset. A book is an intellectual property that generates money. Dean Wesley Smith compares it to a piece of pie in a magical bakery, where you can cut infinite pieces for your customers. With online publishing through ebooks and print-on-demand, that’s not a bad analogy.

If I were to cease all of my publishing activities right now, including all marketing and promotion whatsoever, my books would still generate income. It probably wouldn’t be a lot, but it would still be something. Even starting from zero, with a single book on Amazon under a totally unknown name, over time it will generate a small trickle of income.

A book is an asset. Writing is how you create that asset. Publishing is how you service that asset to make it more profitable.

As an indie writer, I am my own publisher. The business that I own is a publishing business, not a writing business. It’s a subtle but important distinction. I could still create books if I weren’t my own publisher, but at that point I’d be a contractor, not a small business owner.

Writers are not paid by the hour. As an indie, I’m still earning money on work I did ten years ago, and I fully expect to continue earning income on that work for the rest of my life. That’s because writing is an investment. Not a job. Not even a business. An investment.

Which is not to say that the publishing aspect—or in other words, the business aspect—is less important. Quite the contrary. A rental property is an asset, but it won’t make any money unless you find renters and take care of the upkeep. Similarly, a prime plot of farmland is an asset, but it won’t make any money unless you work it.

So how do you “work” your books? By publishing them, of course. Publishing is your business. This includes marketing, promotion, branding, and the like. Publishing is the business that makes your assets—your investments—profitable.

 

The implications of this are really interesting. For example, suppose you have a book that doesn’t sell very well, or that gets a bunch of negative reviews. Does that make you a failed writer? Does it spell doom for your career? It’s easy to think so if you think of writing as your business.

But when you think of writing as an investment, everyone changes. Got a book that tanked? That’s okay, it’s just that book. Every investor gets it wrong every once in a while. Learn from the mistake and pick a better investment next time.

If all your books are tanking, is that a sign that you’re just not cut out for this writing thing? Possibly… or it could just be that you need to work on your publishing. Even the richest farmland needs to be tilled, and fertilized, and watered properly. Perhaps you just need to learn how to market better, or brand your books better, or do a better job of finding and connecting with your readers.

On the flipside, suppose you have a book that used to do well, but now it isn’t selling as well as you would like. You’ve clearly done a good job of marketing it in the past, but what can you do now? Market it even harder? Or recognize that this is just a normal part of the investment cycle and go out to develop a new asset?

If writing is your business, then the success or failure of your books is a direct reflection of yourself as a writer. With that kind of mindset, it’s easy to fall into some traps. On the one extreme are those who believe that publishing well is secondary to writing a good book, and that therefore they should devote the bulk of their time and energy to writing. On the other extreme are those who seek validation so hard that they put all of their effort into the publishing aspect and neglect the writing. The truth is NOT somewhere in the middle, because both extremes grow out of a faulty premise: that writing is your business.

This is the Fugio cent. It was commissioned by the Continental Congress before the ratification of the Constitution, and designed by Benjamin Franklin. Fugio means “I fly,” referring to the sundial, which represents time. Taken with the inscription below, it is a reminder that we can all leave the world a better place by doing our best in whatever line of work we choose to pursue.

For many of us, writing is more than just a hobby, or a job, or even a career. It is a vocation. It is our calling. And yet, we live in a commercial world, where the price of a thing is often conflated with its value. How, then, can we best fulfill our calling as writers? By ignoring the demands of the market? By fancying that our books are simply unappreciated by those of inferior tastes? Or by losing sight of our calling for that lucre that will perish with us?

Benjamin Franklin’s message is that we can best fulfill our calling by pursuing excellence in every aspect of it. That includes the commercial aspect as well as the artistic, the practical as well as the spiritual. When we truly learn how to excel, we will see that there is no contradiction between the two sides.

Writing is our calling. Publishing is our business. Our books are investments, many of which may very well outlive us. By understanding this, I firmly believe that we can mind our business as well as Franklin admonished us, and truly fulfill our calling.