This question came up recently in comments – why should we, on MGC, report on what The Big 5 (4?) are doing, or on B&N?
1. There’s scope and scale. What business are we in? We’re in the entertainment business. We’re competing with every other entertainer out there for Joe Sixpack’s beer money – and for Jane Doe’s attention span when she wants something to take her mind off the fact that she’s in a waiting room.
Therefore, it’s good to pay some attention to the entire industry, and recognize how people want to be entertained, and what they like. The rise of Netflix brought Binge-watching to our vocabulary as a standard behaviour, which reinforced that many people like to devour everything an entertainer puts out, and then move on to the next thing – whether entire seasons of Dirty Jobs or Grey’s Anatomy, or every book in the Mercy Thompson series. This reinforced what’s now common wisdom to have all of your backlist out there and easily linked, so readers can work their way through the series and find the rest of your books.
The Martian, meanwhile, proved that there’s a huge market for hard scifi – normally considered a niche of the SF niche, which in turn is dwarfed by fantasy in the SF/F section.
Publishing – not counting movies or music, just books – is a multi-billion dollar industry. Yes, billion with a b, and not just one. And as an indie publisher, you are not “just” an indie author, you are a one-person publishing business (two person, in our house, three in the Hoyt’s house). It’s wise to know what’s going on with the other businesses, even if it’s just knowing what the trend and direction is going. If you were, instead, a one-person shop customizing trucks for off-road use, it’s still useful to keep an eye on what the auto industry is doing in general. If the manufacturers are suddenly unable to move new trucks, you know that either trucks aren’t selling (so there aren’t going to be many new ones to modify, which is one problem – you may want to branch into modifying cars), or that people are hanging onto their old ones (so you may want to market your shop as “Worn out suspension? Replace it with a 2″ lift kit for only $XX!”)
2. Markets may open. When Amazon first broke open the floodgates with the indie epub revolution, resistance to one-person presses getting into bookstores or on library shelves was near-total. There were ways around it, but they required massive amounts of time and energy. Over 10 years later, you can get onto Overdrive, and Expanded Distribution is an option. Getting into small indie bookstores is a lot easier – if you’re willing to put in the work that makes it easy for the bookstores to carry you. B&N has, like Borders before it, been staunchly against putting indies on shelves or letting smaller presses bid for co-op… and as they’re going away, it’s good to track the rise of smaller indie bookstores and the new distribution models that do not rely on reserve against returns or the old consignment system with a 6-week shelf life. Print dollars still way outnumber ebook dollars spent, and there are still many people who like print books – so that’s a market you may want to learn about and enter.
3. Markets may close. On the other hand, B&N isn’t just a physical bookstore. If you’re wide, Nook may or may not be one of the outlets that’s selling your books. (It is, for some indies, and some are making a healthy income stream on it.) So keeping an eye on what’s happening to one of your income streams is a very good idea… as is preparing to be able to tell your readers what to do when they write you, distraught because they can’t access your books anymore (because bankruptcy).
Even as indie, there’s no guarantee a distribution channel won’t run out of money and fold without warning, leaving you out royalties owed and customers without their books – like All RomanceEbooks did. So it’s good to know the state of the industry and the health of the players, and to be wise and wary… and if you’re in Nook, I wouldn’t count the royalties they say are incoming until they’re actually in the bank. (And be aware that bankruptcy court can claw back payments made just prior to filing bankruptcy.)
All our income comes from readers who buy our books. Have a plan to be sympathetic and how you will deal with your readers when the crash happens, because not being plugged into publishing, they may have no idea this is coming, and may have no backups of the books they love. And it doean’t matter whose fault it is – the publisher is invisible to the reader (as many a trad pub author who’s gotten complaints about covers or copyediting can attest.)
4. Indie now doesn’t mean indie always and indie alone. Sarah Hoyt, Dave Freer, and Margaret Ball on this site alone, started Trad Pub. They have books with the Big 5, Books with a medium-sized publisher (Baen), and indie books. Peter Grant started indie, and now has books with one small publisher (Castalia) and is an anthology with a medium publisher (Baen). Being indie is a publication option, not a mandate. As such, it’s wise to keep tabs on the industry at large and at small – because no matter how good the contract is, if the company folds right after you get the signing bonus and before you get the turn-in bonus? Your work is tied up as part of the company’s IP, and you’ll have to wait like every other unsecured creditor to see if it’s going to be sold off (and to whom) in bankruptcy court.
If your small, medium, or large press is selling through B&N / Nook (as they do), and it goes under – then you can count on your publisher not getting paid, and having unsold inventory disappearing into that hot mess. Which means your publisher may have cash flow problems – and depending on how thin their margin or profit, and how shallow their reserves, that could take the publishers down, too. Which can turn into a much bigger pile of problems… and, for people who are trying to sell to a hungry market, a bigger pile of opportunities, too. So stay nimble, and stay aware!