Observations and (literary) eructations
This week I’d like to zero in on a few items that have crossed my desk and/or screen over the past month; things that made me think about our industry (writing and publishing), where it is, and where it (and we) are going.
Let’s begin with last month’s mammoth Author Earnings report. I note that the authors of the report are now selling their data to the industry, and are therefore “graying out” a number of things for which they’d now like to be paid. I can’t blame them for that, of course, but it does make their reports less useful to the rest of us. Nevertheless, they do provide an immense amount of food for thought, for which I’m duly grateful.
Key points (for me, at any rate) from their latest report include:
70% of online purchases of adult fiction & nonfiction are ebooks & audiobooks, and online consumer dollars skew mostly digital, too. In fact, most of the remaining online print share here is nonfiction; further narrowing the scope to just adult fiction, we see that online sales are even more digitally dominated … the answer to “which format(s) now make up the majority of sales” depends entirely on the genre … Even within the broader category of Adult fiction, we see wide variation. Romance readers are overwhelmingly buying digital now: 90% of all Romance purchases are ebooks. And we can see that Science Fiction & Fantasy, with roughly 75% of sales now ebooks & audio, is not that far behind. On the other hand, readers of Poetry are still buying 82% of those Poetry books as print, and 85% of Drama & Plays are bought in print, even online.
. . .
So how much does release timing matter for your next title? Less and less, nowadays. It seems to matter mostly for print, and even then, only for bookstore sales. For online and digital sales, it appears the “pool is open” year round.
. . .
Throughout 2017, a frequent meme circulating in indie author loops was that self-publishing was hitting headwinds, and that self-published sales had slowed dramatically for “everyone.” Even the biggest indie stars of yesteryear were no longer pulling down what they used to, so times must be even tougher for everyone else.
A quick glance at the pie charts above reveal a different story. The indie share of the entire US ebook market, comprising the various blue wedges in the pies above, now looks like what the indie share of Amazon alone used to be, in our quarterly snapshots from previous years. In other words, far from losing ground, the overall indie market share has grown.
There’s much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.
Although this isn’t explicitly stated in the latest Author Earnings report, my takeaway from their numbers is that the “slice of the pie” for each of us is getting more finite. We used to say that the old trope – that the pie is only so large, and that as more people enter the market, so the slice of pie available to each of them is getting smaller – wasn’t accurate. We argued that the pie wasn’t finite, but growing; that there was room in the market for as many people as wanted to enter it. I think that was true for some time, in the hectic e-book marketplace, as more and more readers switched to electronic devices for their books instead of paper, and enjoyed access to decent reading material at prices far lower than those charged by mainstream publishers. However, so many authors have now entered the market that a certain saturation point has been reached on the supply side. (For example, when I checked a few minutes ago, Amazon’s Kindle Store now offers more than six million titles, both free and paid. When I entered the market back in 2013, there were well under two million. I get the impression that the number of titles on offer in the Kindle Store is growing by between 50,000 and 80,000 each month.) However, new consumers have not entered the market in the same proportions. The pie is not growing anything like as fast as it seemed to in the past.
There’s also the factor that many of the books on offer from independent authors are significantly better (in terms of quality of writing, editing, layout and production) than their predecessors. We’ve all learned from past mistakes, watched who succeeded and why, and “raised our game” to match. Also, with so many new authors entering the market, there are more “quality” writers around than there were before. (There are far more “shoddy” writers, too, but the “quality” authors stand out even more against their turgid background.) This means that all of us must work much harder to improve our market presence and visibility, so that potential readers can find our work. Marketing is more important than ever. It’s now probably the single most important factor in our success, exceeding even our ability to craft a well-written, attractive, enticing story. Sadly, many of us aren’t doing a good job of marketing. That will have to change, if we hope for any sort of success. Remember the growth in the number of books on offer, to which I alluded in the previous paragraph? In terms of the signal-to-noise ratio, that’s a lot of noise through which to make our signal heard – and it’s getting worse, every month.
Our ability to make money is also being affected by changing levels of price consciousness among consumers. Consider this graph from the latest Author Earnings report (click the image for a larger view):
For the past couple of years, in genres such as SF, fantasy, etc., recommended price points used to be plus-or-minus $2.99 for short stories, $2.99-$3.99 for novellas, and $4.99 and upward for full-length novels. Now, those levels are dropping. The current “sweet spot” for full-length novels appears to be plus-or-minus $3.99. If we can sell more books at that price point, that’s great; but if we can’t, it means we’ll lose money by pricing at market level. We can try to hold our book prices higher if we choose, but unless we’re offering a premium product for which our fans are prepared to pay that sort of money, we’re unlikely to succeed. Subscription services such as Kindle Unlimited are also eating into author earnings. I earn less than $1 for every KU ‘loan’ – much less than half what I make per sale. That’s great for readers, but lousy for me! However, we can’t ignore the impact that KU and similar services are having. More and more readers are stretching their entertainment dollars by using streaming services for music, movies and TV. They want and expect the same flexibility from books – and they’re getting it. We can resist by withholding our titles from such services, but then we’ll get fewer readers and less income. In Africa, we used to say that resisting the inevitable was “farting against thunder”. That’s a good description for what holdouts against subscription services are doing.
Of great interest is a new competitor that’s just been announced. Walmart is tying up with Kobo to sell e-books and e-book readers, both in its stores and online. Ars Technica reports:
Customers will be able to shop for e-books and audiobooks on Walmart’s website, and the retailer will sell e-readers in its stores and online. Walmart also plans to sell “e-book cards” in its stores, which seem to be physical cards customers can buy while shopping at a Walmart store that contain a download code for access to an e-book or audiobook after they leave the store.
While digital book shopping will be done on Walmart’s platforms, customers will access purchased titles through Walmart/Kobo branded apps for desktop as well as Android and iOS. Kobo already has apps across these platforms, but it seems the two companies will make new apps for Walmart customers in the US to use. Customers with Kobo e-readers won’t have to worry about downloading new apps since all Kobo titles can be read on its own e-readers.
Partnering with Rakuten for access to Kobo is one of the quickest and easiest ways for Walmart to enter the e-book market. While Rakuten has the chance to grow Kobo’s relatively small US footprint, Walmart has a better chance of challenging Amazon with this partnership than if the retail giant had attempted to enter the digital book space on its own.
I wasn’t surprised by this news: rather, I’d been wondering why it was taking Walmart so long to get into the e-book market. Walmart’s executives aren’t dummies. They may be late to the digital game, but they’re making a very determined effort to catch up to Amazon, just as Amazon is doing to catch up to Walmart in the meatspace market (by, for example, buying Whole Foods to gain access to its supermarkets; there are rumors that Amazon may be interested in Target next, although that deal would also bring with it complications). Its e-commerce division is now headed up by a new and dynamic executive who’s making a serious impact (I’ve noticed it personally when buying online, and as a result am now buying more from Walmart and less from Amazon). Just look at Walmart’s deal with Kobo. Not only will Walmart now sell Kobo’s e-books, but Rakuten will now sell Walmart’s goods in Japan. Now that’s a switch! (There’s also Walmart’s allegedly more… er… militant approach, of course!)
The Walmart-Kobo tie-up means that those of us who are (at least at present) selling exclusively through Amazon will have to re-evaluate our marketing strategy. It’s early days yet, but if Walmart puts its full marketing muscle behind e-books, Amazon may have its first serious rival in that field. I’ll be watching that very carefully, and getting ready to “go wide” if that looks more promising than “staying narrow”. It would terminate my participation in Amazon’s KDP Select program (including Kindle Unlimited) if I did so, but if I can make more money that way, the decision will be a no-brainer.
Speaking of money, author Kameron Hurley gave details of her earnings from writing and related avenues during 2017.
She’s a relatively successful author by mid-list income standards, so those figures are (or should be) sobering to all of us. They’re not very high, are they? In fact, without the “add-on” earnings from Patreon subscriptions by her fans, she’d have earned less than 40% of that total last year.
I’ve considered setting up some sort of Patreon (or equivalent) account for my fans, because frankly, my writing income has been too low for comfort the past couple of years. Episodes of ill-health led to long gaps between books and a much reduced writing output, and it’s hurt my pocketbook. I’ve resisted the temptation so far, because I guess I’m old-fashioned about such things. I reckon, if I want your support, I should earn it by selling you material that you like – books and stories that give you a return on your investment. However, in today’s market, it may be that we’re going to have to consider some sort of “supplementary fan income” as a necessary sideline to writing. In Ms. Hurley’s case, that “supplementary” income is actually over 60% of her total income from writing! That’s definitely food for thought. She’s not alone in that, of course: more and more authors are setting up Patreon or similar accounts, and appealing to their fans for their subscription support. Some earn significant amounts that way (for example, N. K. Jemisin or John C. Wright).
I’d like to ask for readers’ feedback on that subject in Comments. Am I being too old-fashioned in resisting asking for that sort of support? Should it be more widely used by indie authors? Please let us know your thoughts.
Let’s close today’s column with a warning about your Web site or domain name, if you have one.
It all began when I received an email from some random company telling me my domain was up for renewal and offering to renew it for me. It had been purchased so long ago that I couldn’t remember who it had been set up with so I asked my techie, Carolyn to check into it. When she looked it up, the domain was registered with a company called eNom, which neither of us had heard of, and at an old address of mine where I’ve not lived for years. She suggested I call them.
The rep there told me that the domain name was listed under a reseller out of Toronto. They informed me that I could get it back for five years if I paid $249.00, seven years for $500+ or ten years for more than $700. By this time I was so upset I could not remember the exact figures. But I smelled a rat and sensed eNom, and/or the secondary reseller, were holding my domain for ransom.
More at the link – and very worthwhile reading, if you haven’t been keeping a careful eye on your Web “property”. I suspect indie authors are particularly vulnerable to this sort of scam, because few of us are sufficiently tech-savvy to avoid it.
This can affect you even if you haven’t yet registered your domain name. It hurt me a couple of years ago. I used the name “Fynbos Press” for my indie “publisher” imprint, intending to set it up as a formal company in due course if things went well. I didn’t think to register it as a Web site at the time, being a novice in such things. By the time I got around to doing so, an outfit in Serbia had already registered “fynbospress.com” in their own name, and were not-so-generously offering it for sale. Clearly, they’d searched the Web for company or organization names that did not yet have their own Web sites, and glommed onto as many domain names as they could, in the hope of extorting a lot of money out of those organizations to get them back. In my case, it wasn’t a problem; I simply changed my indie press name, and made sure to register the domain names I wanted before using the new name. However, if you have any investment (marketing as well as monetary) in a name for which you might one day need a Web site, you’ll do well to check on that. It may no longer be available, except at an exorbitant buy-back price.
That’s all for this week. Please react and respond in Comments, and let’s continue the discussion.