I try to keep this blog reader focused, but from time to time, I also will opine on the publishing industry as a whole. This is one of those times, so if reading my blathering about the state of publishing doesn’t sound like your idea of a party, we’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming soon:) Oh, and a warning: this blog post is long.
2016. Well, that was interesting!
So much changed during 2016, and I don’t really have the space here to go into all of it, so I’ll just hit a few highlights of the things I noted during the past year. Ready? Here goes…
Kindle Unlimited (or a broken system in danger of breaking an even bigger system)
I have refrained — with great difficulty — from commenting much regarding Kindle Unlimited (KU) of late. I can’t stay quiet anymore about it. I’m sure some of you have noticed that all of my stuff has disappeared from KU. There’s a (serious) reason for this.
KU is broken — and IMO in its current iteration, it hurts both readers and writers.
Kindle Unlimited has been beset by problems. The PageFlip feature was rolled out, which Amazon has admitted by design does not count pages read, despite the fact we know some readers read entire books in PageFlip, and enjoy using the feature. A mysterious new page read filtering algorithm that Amazon hasn’t admitted exists (but like dark matter, we can see the effects of) appears to have been instituted. Then there’s the fact that if a reader reads to the end of a KU book, and subsequently navigates back to the beginning (perhaps to peruse that pretty cover again, or to see the Also By list of books by the author), then closes the book? Yeah, all those pages just read… aren’t credited to the author. They go POOF.
This has been tested by multiple authors. It’s real. And it’s really frustrating.
So, what’s going on here? These are my opinions only, but I feel they’re reasonably well-informed ones:
Scammers Ahoy! The internet marketers and black hatters continue to hit KU in massive, massive numbers, utilizing some diabolically clever gambits to scam the (pitifully) vulnerable KU system for page reads. There have been numerous publicized instances of this. Amazon is allergic to bad press more than anything else, and as a result I am quite confident these publicized incidents spurred a drive to fix those vulnerabilities in KU’s system. Since KU has a pool-based zero-sum game payout, every time scammers exploit KU for yet more pagereads it (theoretically) impacts every other author in the program. More importantly, these scammers have flooded KU with, to be blunt, truly shitty product. That’s patently unfair to the readers who plunk down their hard-earned ducats for KU.
How long will it take before readers, faced with sorting through this scam ocean in search of something halfway decent to read, conclude that all authors in KU are simply trying to make a quick buck on pump-and-dump crappy product? Or at the very least, conclude KU ain’t worth $9.99 a month? Do I want to risk my work being associated with the fire hose of effluent spewed into KU daily by the scammers? No, not anymore.
The “fix”… broke more than it fixed. It now seems likely that there has been a significant algorithm change (you’ll often see authors refer to this as “KU 3.0”) put in place to combat the “skip to the end” scamming exploit we’ve all heard about. My guess is that this new algo is what’s responsible for the legit page reads going bye-bye when a reader navigates back to the beginning of a book before closing out of it.
I didn’t really put two and two together on this at first… until I noticed a suspicious number of 1 page reads coming in. I think in the entire time I’d been in KU, I’d seen a single page read show up once? Maybe twice? I track sales and page reads daily, so I know my data. This was new — and very mysterious. That is until writers began connecting the dots, and realized this flurry of “single page reads” was quite likely from readers who, for whatever reason, had read some, or all, of a book, then navigated back to the front before closing out the book. BOOM, single page read registered.
(NOTE — this is NOT the fault of readers; readers should be able to read a book however the hell they want to. This is Amazon’s fault.)
I suspect Amazon has been trying to come up with a fix, for the fix, ever since. For some reason though, as I write this, there is no evidence to suggest they’ve come up with a good remedy for this problem yet. Which is, frankly, unacceptable to me.
The anti-fraud filter that appears to have a very interesting definition of “fraud.” Filtering of page reads appears to be in full effect now. Of course, Amazon hasn’t admitted to this either, but if you read the fine print in the TOS, they essentially reserve the right to determine at their sole discretion what a page read actually is, and how they decide to measure it. Great deal, that. This filtering could be inferred by the weird batching we began seeing this summer and early fall that occurred along with the precipitous page read declines so many authors witnessed. Page reads became extremely choppy in how they were being reported. I’d seen it, and wondered about what had changed, but didn’t have much else to go on.
But then others began reporting the same thing.
Since Amazon won’t acknowledge the filter exists, nor what the parameters are for said filter (I don’t blame them for this; scammers would immediately game it if Amazon disclosed such information), we are left completely in the dark. Again.
What if, in a bid to combat bots “skimming” through books at prodigious rates, this filter was too draconian and impacted the reads of some particularly fast human readers? What if “power readers” (readers who fly through a book — or books — a day) are having their reads ignored as illegitimate because this filter thinks they’re robots because they read “too fast”?
We’ll never know, but it’s reasonable to wonder, considering the giant page read declines some of us saw. I saw a decline of 30% overnight — and I’ve never scammed nor used bots in my life. Did readers suddenly think my books suck? Sure, anything’s possible. But when many, many other authors report similar (or in numerous cases MUCH larger) page read declines, it’s reasonable to suspect there is a serious problem here.
Not okay. Not something I want to participate in.
Amazon refuses to admit that there is any problem with KU. I know how big corporations work, and the canned responses to any inquiries — even when presented real evidence of a serious problem — have legal CYA written all over them. This is, from a pure business standpoint, understandable — lawyers gonna lawyer — but it’s frustrating to indies who now find themselves even more in the dark than they were before.
The bottom line with KU is that it’s about trust — or lack thereof. I don’t know if Amazon realizes (or really cares about) the fact that this lack of trust is what’s going to do real damage to them over time if they don’t figure out how to right the KU ship soon. I recognize that the revenues brought in by indies for Amazon constitute not much more than a rounding error on their P&Ls, but the principle remains. I just don’t trust the KU scheme anymore. I still trust a sale. But a nebulous, ever-changing definition of a “page read”? A system that to this day is actually unable to determine the exact number of pages a reader has read, but instead extrapolates based on percentage of the book completed? Not so much.
Why would I participate in a system that I no longer trust to even properly calculate how I’m supposed to be paid? I wouldn’t, which is why I’m out.
(For those of you who want more of the ugly details, the ongoing mega-thread on KBoards is well worth a read. It’s… illuminating.)
I HATE that this negatively affects readers who rely on KU to get their reading fix. I don’t WANT to do this. But I’m left with little choice, thanks to the broken scheme that KU has devolved into.
Look, I recognize that Amazon is one of the biggest reasons why many of us are able to make this our career, and unlike some, I’m not going to engage in Amazon Derangement Syndrome. There is zero evidence that Amazon is intentionally trying to screw over authors in KU. Occam’s Razor being what it is, the fiasco we saw this summer probably boiled down to nothing more exotic than an abortive implementation of new anti-fraud protections. Amazon was probably trying to do the right thing (and something they should have done before rolling KU out in the first place, but that’s water under the bridge). I still, even with the kluged-up state of KU, consider Amazon a business partner. But just because I consider them a business partner, doesn’t mean I’m just going to sit there and endure their serial screw-ups and not point out blunt truths about how badly the program has gone off-track.
Hope springs eternal though, and perhaps one day Amazon fixes the god-awful mess that is the current state of Kindle Unlimited. If and when they do, I’ll be happy to participate again. But not a minute before.
Amazon continues its dominance in retail book selling
2016 was interesting in that Amazon is increasingly “last man standing,” not particularly because of what they’re doing right, but because their competitors seem to be doing almost everything wrong. The dumpster fire that is KU notwithstanding, Amazon continues to do most everything else competently, if not spectacularly. Their competitors… can’t be described the same way.
While I have hope that someone — anyone, really — will rise to compete with Amazon, that hope is fading. Publishing is a mature industry, and even the indie part of publishing has reached some semblance of equilibrium (more on that later).
Nook appears to be circling the drain; a company cannot continue to sustain serial quarterly revenue declines of 15-20% and expect to survive as a going concern for long. Perhaps they will reduce the company to a size that is more sustainable (“right-sizing”) — or perhaps Barnes & Noble will continue to look for a buyer for their embattled digital division. I suspect it’s the latter, which is too bad. I like shopping in Barnes & Noble, and — aside from some unfortunate instances of visibility suppression applied in the past to us dirty smut slingers — BN has a much, MUCH more liberal policy when it comes to determining what they will allow indies to publish on Nook. This has been a hidden (and frankly, underappreciated) aspect of the Nook business.
What’s amazing is that despite the cavalcade of bad news regarding Nook, they still remain a solid number 2 in sales for many indies (including me). This tells me that BN and Nook still retains a very sizable (if shrinking) customer base. I really, really want Nook to survive… but I’m not particularly optimistic that it will.
Apple and Google (my 3rd and 4th place retailers, respectively, by sales numbers) seem to be running in place. Apple acts as if books are a mere sideline to help them sell hardware; Google appears to be adrift entirely.
Apple is now notoriously intolerant of erotica, and has a frustrating inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish erotic romance from hardcore smut. They have the most resources with which to compete with Amazon, but they appear to be unserious about engaging in such an endeavor. It’s too bad.
Google’s closing of the Play store to new indie publishers, while understandable (they had an even worse problem with scammers and plagiarism there than Amazon does), was clumsy — and probably set them back considerably in any bid to seriously attempt to compete with Amazon in the book sales space. But since they acquired a significant portion of Oyster… it suggests Google has something in mind for the future. Or they simply snatched it up to prevent anyone else (such as Apple) from buying it. We’ll never know, but it’s fun to speculate.
Kobo was surprisingly strong in 2016, and Rakuten (Kobo’s parent company) seems very serious in their bid to compete for customers, especially internationally where Kobo has a considerable leg up on Amazon in many countries. Kobo, however, has a website in need of an overhaul (including a seriously deficient search function), and suffers in general from a lack of a large client base in the USA. I’m hopeful that over time, Kobo remedies this. If they can, they’re going to become increasingly important to indies — and publishing in general.
The sudden collapse of All Romance was surprising in its swiftness, but considering the damage Amazon — and KU — is doing to competitors, it shouldn’t be surprising at all. ARe’s demise may or may not have been caused by mismanagement, but one thing is certain — they saw the same significant sales declines many indies and retailers saw in 2016.
Amazon is nowhere near a monopoly, and doesn’t even have a monopsony (though some have offered persuasive arguments to the contrary), but the fact remains that when it comes to viable competition in the book selling space, the boys from Seattle continue to suck more and more oxygen out of the room…
The “Happy Times for Indies” period is dead and gone
The headlines in author circles splashed the “shocking” news that according to Author Earnings, the market share for indies actually declined slightly in Q3 of 2016. The problem was: nobody really knows why. But what it does signal, along with many other aspects of the new reality, is that the gold rush, and the “easy pickings” for indies, are truly gone. The indie segment of the publishing sector is maturing, and what we witnessed was the continued flattening — and lengthening — of the “long tail.”
Though it’s impossible to know for sure, I have little doubt that the very heaviest of hitters actually had a helluva 2016; in every other industry the “haves” at the very top, end up having more every year. There is no reason to suspect the publishing industry is any different. And there is not a thing wrong with that. However, what is now apparent is that everyone else below that very top cohort saw some softening of growth, or in some cases, actual declines compared to last year.
Contrary to what some have been saying though, this is a positive thing — it means that a LOT of the get-rich-quick types, the internet marketers, and the fly-by-night folks will begin moving on for greener pastures. By definition, these sorts are looking for the “easy button”, the formula, the secret, the “one weird trick.” To see them fade away is an unvarnished good — especially for readers.
But there are also cold realities dawning for many indie writers now:
Churn and burn. The amount of churn occurring at Amazon is increasing relentlessly. New releases appear to be favored more than ever. Where once we could count on a 90 day period where Amazon would help us sell books, that’s out the door. Now, IMO, you’re going to get 45-60 days — and closer to the former figure in that range. Some authors maintain a book a month is going to soon be more or less demanded by Zon’s merciless algos. (I think those authors are largely correct, though those days may not be immediately at hand.)
Welcome to the indie treadmill. Same as the old treadmill — only faster.
There are many theories as to why this churn is occurring, but my supposition is that this is a function of two things working in concert: the influence of the voracious client base utilizing Kindle Unlimited AND Amazon’s internal data analysis telling them that the sheer number of books now competing for eyeballs dictates that any one book — barring a killer sales history — is going to get a shorter time “in the limelight” of internal retailer promotion.
The upshot of this is that it’s getting increasingly difficult to make a book “sticky” — even with a good promo push. This new reality made promotion in 2016 both riskier and more expensive, as inevitable market pressures caused ever more indies and trad publishers to throw increasing amounts of money at the various promotional venues in an effort to maintain visibility.
Adapt… or else. Indies, with the exception of the true (very) heavy hitters, are facing two main choices in combating this relentless churn: increase production volume, or increase unit sales per title while maintaining existing volume. The former usually necessitates either producing more work in a given year, or lowering prices (or both). The latter necessitates spending more on promotion, and/or hoping you get one or more big hits.
Most indies are likely to choose the former, as they know one of the few things they really have control over is their own production rate. Some indies will conclude that increasing the number of titles they publish in the year is unsustainable for them. Some will keep going and hope for the best. Still others will conclude they have no choice but to hire ghostwriters to maintain the production volume that author feels is needed to “keep pace.” Some writers — perhaps many of them — are, sadly, likely to give up.
This is hard work, and it’s business, and now, more than ever, indies who do not treat this as a business are going to be at a serious disadvantage. If you aren’t prepared to work your ass off, and treat this like a job, then you’re going to fall further and further behind. That said, while this is capitalism and the free market at work — as it should be — it still, as a writer (and a reader), makes me a little sad to know this new environment is going to wash out so many otherwise talented indies.
Quality is subjective (but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter). The level of quality writers competing for reader eyeballs in every genre, sub genre, and sub-sub genre, is tremendous. Gone are the days where a mediocre book, or a half-baked story will garner a ton of sales. Yes, those will still sell some (one man’s trash is another man’s treasure), but the general level of quality among mid-list and higher indies is now virtually indistinguishable from books released by traditional publishers. In some cases, they’re now superior to trad releases.
Readers expect — and deserve — a quality story, well-conceived, well-told, and well-packaged. They expect a good product — and a good value — for their money, and indies who can’t — or won’t — provide it will find readers are quite willing to take their business to the legions of other writers who will. As a reader, this year stunned me with the quality of so many good books released by indies — and I LOVED it.
But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming…) this means indies have to continue to up their game vis-a-vis quality, creativity, and freshness of ideas. Which leads me to the last main item I noticed in 2016…
“Writing to Market” became increasingly prevalent
In 2016, this seemed to be the new trend, and many, many indies jumped on board. This had good and bad aspects to it. On the good side of the ledger, writers have become much, much more adept at sussing out what readers actually want to read, regardless of what the industry tells them is “hot” or “out” or whatever.
The days of publisher gatekeepers in NYC arbitrarily determining what genre or sub-genre or trope dies that year in the tautological vicious circle of “That genre is dead. We aren’t publishing those books anymore. Readers aren’t buying them” are, blessedly, at an end. Writers will, seriously, write anything that readers want to read. New tropes and twists on themes are popping up everywhere. It’s often stated — and it’s true — that it’s the best time in the history of man to be a writer. But what’s even more true is that it’s the very best time in history to be a reader. It really is an overwhelming embarrassment of riches.
There is a drawback to this trend though, and it’s potentially quite serious. The tendency to “follow the leader” is stronger now than I’ve ever seen it, and as a result we witnessed a metric shit ton of books that were seeking to duplicate the success of other books. While analyzing what might have made a book successful is smart, a lot of indies either took it too far, seemed to take some shortcuts, or concluded copying the basic elements of the story were what was called for rather than noting that emulating the tropes and themes was what the writing to market trend was originally aimed at.
Rather than seeking to use similar tropes, we saw, over and over, books that were essentially pale facsimiles of other successful titles. This has always happened in publishing, so this phenomenon isn’t new by any means. What’s new are the sheer number of books that are appearing to suffer from this particular malady. It started with very similar packaging and marketing (especially covers), but increasingly I heard readers begin to complain about the “sameness” of the stories themselves. I’d noted it myself while browsing for a good book to read. When this homogeneity becomes that noticeable, that’s when the trend is no longer our friend. Unless this trend recedes — or indies get smarter about utilizing these techniques — it’s got the potential to turn off a ton of readers. I hope I’m wrong about that.
(This dovetails back to my previous assertion that freshness of ideas and great execution of stories featuring beloved tropes are going to earn dividends for indies — especially in an environment filled to the brim with knock-offs, and derivatives of derivatives.)
I’ll go ahead and end things here for now. Tomorrow, I’ll give you my advice for new indies starting out this year, and address what I think is in store for us in 2017. I may even include a few predictions too:)