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Starting a discussion on the future of independent publishing

As regular readers will know, I try to focus on the business of independent writing and publishing, rather than the creative side.  There are two reasons.  First, there are plenty of good creative-focus articles and sites out there:  and second, there aren’t enough focusing on the fact that writing is, essentially, a business for all of us except those who are doing it as a hobby – and I don’t think there are many of those here.

Be that as it may, I’ve been noodling over the state of the industry for a while now.  I’m seeing a stratification emerge, and I think it’s going to affect how we work as independent authors and publishers.  I’d like to put my (admittedly incomplete) thoughts out there, and ask for your input in Comments as to how you see things.  You may figure I’m completely wrong, or partly right, or whatever.  That’s fine.  I’m trying to get a discussion going, so we can all learn from it.

To begin, I’ve said many times, in these pages and elsewhere, that we’re not addressing the book market, but the entertainment market.  Readers have a limited number of dollars to spend on entertainment, and they have many choices where they can spend them – restaurants, movies, video, books, and so on.  Many of those choices are now in the digital realm, too:  when was the last time the average person went to a movie theater, versus streaming a video of the movie at home?  How many readers can still afford to consume books on paper, versus e-books?  (Yes, I know publishers are trying to drive up e-book prices to “balance paper prices, but that’s where indie authors have a major advantage.)

OK, then.  The entertainment market being increasingly electronic, let’s look at the “layers” within that market.

  • First are what I’ll call content producers.  These are movie- and TV program makers and their ilk, and also include authors, because books are part of the same entertainment stream.
  • Next are content vendors or aggregators.  These are the people who package movies or TV programs (or other content) into packages or channels, and sell them to consumers like you and I.  Increasingly, big studios and producers are trying to cut out the middleman and establish themselves as aggregators as well, controlling their own channels of distribution rather than relying on others (who want their cut of the proceeds).
  • Finally, there are content consumers.  That’s you and I.

It’s interesting to see the market differentiation between those strata.  For example, for many years cable TV companies saw themselves as vendors or aggregators, selling packages of programs and channels to consumers.  That was their primary business.  The hardware itself – the cable over which the product was supplied to us – was secondary.  Nowadays, that’s changing rapidly.  Given the number of people who are “unplugging” from cable subscriptions, but still need high-speed internet access, the latter is where the money is to be made.  A recent report discussed one company that’s concentrated on that part of its business for several years, and is doing very well.  It’s no longer trying to sell its own packages of channels;  it’ll happily allow you to use whatever content provider you want, just so long as you use (and pay for) its cable network to receive that content.

If “middlemen” – content vendors or aggregators – are no longer going to make much money from that, what incentive do they have to support and publicize indie authors such as ourselves?  Right now, Amazon is becoming an aggregator in its own right, where its main income is driven by traffic more than content.  Amazon Video can afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on original content, but it doesn’t produce the content primarily to make money off its sale.  Instead, its content is designed to drive traffic to its Prime network of shoppers.  Prime subscribers get free access to such content, but Prime subscribers also spend a lot more money at Amazon than non-Prime shoppers.  Amazon makes its money in that way – recruiting more Prime subscribers through its enticing, and free, TV offerings – rather than by selling entertainment.  Its video programs – even, to a certain extent, its other entertainment offerings such as Amazon Publishing – might be described, from that perspective, as “loss leaders”, designed primarily to bring people into the Amazon environment, where they’ll spend more money on other things.  It may be that its expansion into physical stores with Amazon Books, Whole Foods and future operations will have the same effect;  and, if it does, I’m sure it’ll be by design.

In the sense that indie authors provide content that aggregators like Amazon can use to drive traffic to their channels, we have a certain amount of “job security” – but that will last only as long as the traffic we bring to those channels justifies their investment in a hospitable environment for us.  I submit that if Amazon, or any other major sales “channel”, decides that it can derive a more profitable return on investment by reallocating what it spends on us to something or someone else, it will do so in a skinny minute.

Is there any way in which we, as indie authors, can take a more businesslike approach to this issue?  Is there any way we can set up, or encourage, independent business channels through which we can funnel our offerings, so that we – on a smaller scale, of course – imitate the giants like Disney, Netflix, Amazon, etc. in providing our own content through our own channel(s)?  Is this even worth thinking about?

I freely confess that I don’t know the answer.  I’m looking at the business in which we operate, and trying to figure out how we can continue to make a living in so rapidly changing and evolving an environment.  This article is very much a work in progress.  I’d like to hear from you what you think of the subject, so that together, in future articles, we can explore our options and (hopefully) find some answers.

19 Comments
  1. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    You may recall from my political rantings and ravings that we are starting to see the future of information warfare realized, that it is important, and that I think Google is already an adversary.

    Amazon suggests that any sizeable aggregator has the potential to become very dangerous. (I’m noticed the new delivery vans. If portions of Amazon go bad before the thing collapses, those could be used to hide a kidnapping operation.) On the other hand, Amazon successors are probably not going to have funding as luxurious. Amazon is probably not going to long survive Bezos making seriously bad decisions, and the divorce suggests that his judgement is going to be on a downward trend.

    Amazon is currently considered too big to compete with. In the past, too big to fail has been bandied around. In information organizations, there may be such a thing as too big to trust.

    Regulation may be the wrong answer. Instead of preventing big organizations, it may couple all the smaller organizations together, making them effectively one large organization.

    I still think that this may be an area where we should consider funding of organizations by hostile state powers.

    March 8, 2019
    • thephantom182 #

      “I still think that this may be an area where we should consider funding of organizations by hostile state powers.”

      Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of the world considers the USA to -be- a hostile state power. As a Canadian, and having lived in the USA as well, I’m well aware that the people of the USA are the least hostile nation on Earth.

      The -government- of the USA though, that’s a little different. And Google has roots deep in the DC Swamp. Bottom line, I’m of the opinion that Google/Twitter/Apple/Facebook/Microsoft is basically the information/propaganda arm of the US DemocRat party and most of the federal bureaucracy. They shape search, opinion trends, hardware and software.

      That’s why the Kremlin runs on typewriters now instead of PCs. You can’t remote-hack a typewriter.

      What does that mean for me as a non-USA writer? It means I shouldn’t be surprised if my non-conforming book that goes against the Approved Narrative gets de-listed from Amazon and pushed to page 86 of google search. Just happened to Tommy Robinson this week, and all he’s guilty of is irritating the British government.

      Thus, if I am writing as a business, I should at least be aware of the Narrative and be somewhat subtle about subverting it. Subtlety is better than the pie-in-the-face message fic we all hate anyway, so not necessarily a bad thing.

      March 8, 2019
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        If the influence operation were organized domestically, for domestic ends, wouldn’t we expect that some of the time choices made would not work to cripple national security against the ChiComs?

        The hypothesis that PRC agents of influence have suborned leadership figures within the Democratic Party and silicon valley seems plausible based on what is currently publicly known.

        And there is no law of physics that says we must come to some international consensus on information organizations.

        If the United States does, in reality, have a mutually adversarial relationship with all of the major powers of the world, both our descriptions would apply. Slaughter can resolve otherwise irreconcilable cultural differences.

        March 8, 2019
  2. Peter, I think your concerns about being dependent on an aggregator for distribution are valid. I suspect the wise indie will continue to seek discoverability on the sites of the large aggregators, while also developing his own channels to readers.

    Practically speaking, that might include participating in Kindle Select to build audience, or seeking wide distribution so as to be less dependent on one aggregator, and developing one’s newsletter subscribers plus looking into the new software that makes having a storefront on one’s author website practical.

    March 8, 2019
    • The last one. The problem I see for indie authors in terms of sales specifically is sales tax calculation and payment. Finding a good way to have that handled as smoothly as an Amazon/Kobo/ B&N with a relatively affordable and easy to update software system… I know GumRoad is one way, but here again you are tied to an entity that might decide for whatever reason not to bother with you.

      Marketing without access to something like the ‘Zon is a whole ‘nother animal. 🙂

      March 8, 2019
      • Agreed on both counts.

        Sales tax calculation and payment are real issues. (I’ll be interested to see what BookFunnel does to address this.)

        And the website storefront will see no traffic unless one has already connected with a significant portion of one’s potential audience.

        But cultivating the practical connection with readers seems like a prudent investment in the future. If the large aggregators dump you, and you have no other way to contact your readers and no other way to sell your books, then you are sunk. If you’ve even made a beginning, you might have a chance.

        The storefront would be a lot of hassle with little return for writers at the start of their careers. Probably best to wait on it, until you hit a certain level of sales.

        But the newsletter subscription seems like a reasonable thing to start right away.

        March 8, 2019
  3. Mike Houst #

    Multiple business aggregators are what should be encouraged. We’ve seen too many instances where anyone who exercises monopoly, or even monopsony, power in the market can use censorship to drive their ideologies at the expense of the producers.

    March 8, 2019
    • In other words – don’t put all your eggs into one basket.
      I’ve never been tempted to put my books on KDP, since it meant cutting off every other platform.

      March 8, 2019
      • Mary #

        My reason, too.

        March 9, 2019
    • thephantom182 #

      Yes, distribution not run by doctrinaire Lefties is becoming important, but also sheer diversity of distribution companies is also important. The Left is only a problem when they’re the only game in town, as the current situation is.

      I was wading in the sewer the other day, and chanced upon something actually worth reading at Kat Goodwin’s blog regarding distribution. Apparently, according to her, the number of book distributors went from ~600 to about 6 really big ones in the 1990s. That coincides with the beginning of the “Great Suckage” that finally drove me out of the bookstores.

      The real problem we’re all talking around here is concentration of power. What we’re faced with is essentially Central Planning and Control. The decisions of a very few administrators effect the entire market.

      When you get right down to it, it doesn’t even matter who those people are or what their politics are. Currently it is the New York City Atheist Left, which is bad. But if it was the Tulsa Oklahoma Christian Right, or even the Loose Libertarian Association/Horde of East Moose-Antler Idaho, that would IMHO be just as bad.

      The actual failure point is central planning. When you only have 6 distributors, 5 Big Publishers and two book retail companies, (B&N and Amazon), then they’re going to homogenize everything to the way they like it, and it is going to suck.

      And because it sucks, eventually they’ll break down and go out of business. Same thing happens to countries eventually, the corruption and inefficiency of central planning kills them. With businesses it happens a lot faster, because they have to turn a profit.

      So to me, a guy who wants for people to read my books and enjoy my characters, the answer is not to get nailed down with odious contracts to one publisher and one distributor. If I can put my work up on multiple distribution systems, the new one that survives will still be making me money even though all the other old ones are dead.

      Its a maneuver war, not a static slugging match. Don’t be a fortress, be a giant tank. ~:D

      March 8, 2019
      • John Sanford #

        Its a maneuver war, not a static slugging match. Don’t be a fortress, be a giant tank. ~:D

        Wrong, oh, so wrong. Don’t be a fortress. Don’t be a giant tank. Be both.

        Be. A.

        B.
        O.
        L.
        O.

        🙂

        March 8, 2019
        • thephantom182 #

          One hundred and fifty miles per hour top speed, zero to sixty in eight seconds, gun with an output measured in megatons per second. That is what I’m talking about. ~:D

          A bountiful 33,000 tons of nuclear powered fun. With an attitude.

          Once I get the cover made for my fricking book, Brunhilde will be available to do burnouts for you. Did you know Bolos can drift? 0.o Dang!

          March 9, 2019
  4. Stanley Miller #

    I’m seeing groups like ScFi Bridge and Discover SciFi working to promote member’s books, maybe that could be extended to also selling books at a common site to share the costs.

    Having a backup option to keep selling if Amazon changes the rules to where you can’t make money there seems wise.

    March 8, 2019
  5. mrsizer #

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Amazon does decide that all this indie stuff is just too much bother for what they make off it and shuts it down.

    There will be a very bad period for authors relying on that income, but _something_ will replace it. The potential is too obvious, even if a different business model is required.

    As soon as new things start popping up, books can be republished. From what I understand, Amazon does not have the rights issues that arise with traditional publishers. Your book is still yours. There is certainly nothing “lost” when a book disappears from Amazon (assuming one has backups).

    March 8, 2019
  6. Draven #

    as a long time Prime subscriber, we make back in saved shipping cost the cost of the membership in less than two months. And yes, more often than not, we would have ordered the stuff from them anyway.

    March 8, 2019
  7. c4c; will read after some stuff.

    March 9, 2019
  8. I haven’t heard a syllable about the Wal-Mart/Kobo alliance since it was announced last August. Just checked the site. Whoa, is it awful. Wouldn’t be looking for Wal-Mart to go toe to toe with Amazon directly any time soon if this is any indication.

    I’d mark the experience as worse than B&N’s site at the moment. Confusing as heck. Click in some places and get pushed to the Kobo site. Click in others and you get a book listing. Using the generic search bar, there does not seem to be any way to limit searches to just books, even if you select books and the search says “books.” Typed in one author’s last name and got taken to a page of bath towels. Typed in another’s and got taken to a toy page. Typing the full name did (finally) take me to their books. But not until then.

    March 9, 2019
  9. George Phillies #

    Note that Kindle Unlimited and KDP are not the same. The former wants a monopoly. The latter does not. I also put my books up on Smashwords (about 10% of my sales on Amazon) and on Third Millennium 3mpub.com. Multiple suppliers. Some authors advocate yet another place that appears to duplicate Smashwords.

    March 12, 2019

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