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.