Tag Archives: Kindle Store

Only 40 Self-Published Authors are a Success, says Amazon

The cat is out of the bag, finally we know exactly how many self-published authors make it big: 40.

Yes, that’s not a typo.

40 self-published authors “make money”, all the others, and they number in the hundreds of thousands, don’t. This interesting statistic, recently revealed in a New York Times article, applies to the Kindle Store, but since Amazon is in fact the largest digital publishing platform in the world, it is a safe bet that self-published authors are not doing much better anywhere else.

“Making money” here means selling more than one million e-book copies in the last five years. Yes, 40 authors have managed that, and have even gone on to establishing their own publishing house, like Meredith Wild. Her story is fully reported in the New York Times, here, and well worth pondering over. And wondering what “making money” really means.

That story reveals some further nuggets about the current fluctuating state of the publishing industry: it seems that last year, a third of the 100 best-selling Kindle books were self-published titles on average each week. Conversely, that means legacy publishers only raked in two-thirds. Perhaps this is not such a surprising result, given their habit of pricing e-books at stratospheric levels, from $12 to $16 or more compared to self-published authors who deem that $3 to $5 is the “right” price…One has to wonder why publishers do this, even at times pricing e-books more than their own printed versions of the title. Perhaps they are afraid of digital?

The digital market is indeed scary, primarily because of its dimension: over 4 million titles today in the Kindle Store, compared with 600,000 six years ago (again, the data is from the same article). This means “book discovery” has become the number one problem. How can your book stand out in such a vast crowd?

There are many answers in the industry (and savvy marketing certainly has big role), but some of the more ground-breaking solutions come from the successful self-published authors themselves, like Meredith Wild and a few others that have (more or less) followed her example, like Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, H.M.Ward, C.J.Lyons. They have struck deals with Ingram Content Group, a major book printer and distributor, thus getting their novels in bookstores, big-box stores and airports. Because,let’s face it, when you’re selling big in the digital market, you don’t want to lose out in the printed one: 36% of book buyers still read only print books (according to a 2015 Codex Group survey – for more about how print books hold their own, see this article).

What does this mean in terms of the future of the industry?  According to David Montgomery of Publishing Technology:

“There isn’t one book market anymore: there are two, and they exist in parallel. One continues to be dominated by major publishers, and increasingly uses agency pricing as a strategy to support print book sales. The second publishing market is almost exclusively made up of e-books, and is driven by Amazon-published and KDP content sold at a substantial discount to the product produced by traditional publishers.”

And he foresees a growing divide in 2016 between the two markets. Yet the success of Meredith Wild and the other authors like her suggests that something else might be happening: self-publishing could be encroaching in a territory that used to be seen as exclusive to legacy publishers.

Time to celebrate? Not yet. There is a caveat and it’s a big one: only 40 such authors are likely to bridge the divide. In fact, writing is a poor man’s occupation. As Publisher’s Weekly noted in an article published last year: the majority of authors earn below the poverty line. The statistics are grim:

Given that a single person earning less than $11,670 annually sits below the poverty line, 56% of respondents would qualify, if they relied solely on income from their writing. The survey also indicated that not only are many authors earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less. Overall, the median writing-related income among respondents dropped from $10,500 in 2009 to $8,000 2014 in 2014, a decline of 24%. (highlight added).

That’s way below the poverty line! Small wonder that most authors depend on another job to survive…

So if you’re not selling your books, take heart, you’re not the only one. If you’re considering becoming a writer, think twice, it won’t make you rich. To be honest, if I could do my life over, I wouldn’t go into writing (though I love story-telling), I’d go into…film making! That is the art of the future, people don’t read books, they go to the movies, they binge on TV series, they play video-games. And in all these – movies, TV, games –  good story-tellers are more needed than ever

No, the art of writing is not dead, it is just undergoing a change of venue!

 

NOTE: This was published over a year ago and has garnered more comments than any of my blog posts has ever done before and I warmly thank my commentators including those who didn’t agree with my reading of the data – no doubt this avalanche of comments is a testimony to the (high) number of writers (self-published and non) wondering where they stand and what they can expect from a writing career. Bottom line: if you enjoy writing, just do it and don’t worry whether it’s going to bring in the bacon or not. One thing is will do for sure: it will make you happy. And that’s worth far more than any money you might ever make…Happy writing!

 

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Filed under Publishing, Uncategorized

2016: The Year of the Writer?

There are signs that after the dramatic 2009 digital disruption that brought in the self-publishing tsunami, the publishing industry is stabilizing. And Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a best-selling author and dispenser of cool, much sought-after advice has even decreed on her blog in a year-end post, that 2016, is going to be “The Year of the Writer”.

Kristine Kathryn Rush’s blog, click here

Hooray! Or is it too early to celebrate? KK Rusch notes that in 2015 a lot of indie writers suffered from burnout (disclosure: my case too). But she has words of wisdom to soothe the pain:

If you’re destined to be a career writer, you’ll come back to it—or rather, it’ll come back to you. One day, a story will pop into your head, a story that needs to be told. I just got an e-mail from a long-time published writer who said that very thing. For the longest time, he thought he was done writing, and now he’s turning his attention to a new novel.

So nice to hear I’m not the only one (and yes, now too I’m turning my attention to a new novel).

So why this high rate of burnout in 2015? Simple: because of marketing pressures:

  1. You have to market your book in every possible way, Twitter, Facebook, book tours, Goodreads, you name it – exhausting;
  2. You have to write your next book in the series – yes, it’s a series of course, the best way to keep your readers glued to your books – and you have to do it as fast as you can, you’ve heard that best-selling authors come out with a new book every three months (yikes, how do they manage that?) – even more exhausting, especially if coupled with (1) above.
No surprise then that authors collapse.
But as KK Rush says, why do it? The solution to burnout is simple: write what you want. And, as she notes:

It does take courage to write what you want. To follow your own creativity and see where it will lead you. To walk down a path that doesn’t exist yet.So maybe I should modify my conclusion and call 2016 the Year of the Courageous WriterBecause we’ll be seeing a lot of courage in print this year.

Ready to be courageous? Ready to do your own thing?

Well, maybe not quite yet. Also, there are many ways to deal with burnout. For example, you could step sideways – move into non-fiction. That’s what I did: since 2014, I’ve moved into a lot of non-fiction writing (mostly articles about the United Nations) and working as Senior Editor for Impakter – and it’s been a wonderful experience, I’ve come across a lot of new, hugely talented young writers contributing exciting articles to Impakter.

Impakter – The United Nations section, click here to see.

Meanwhile the number of readers on Impakter has grown exponentially, to the extent that it has become a lead magazine for Millennials, even exceeding the New Yorker…That has made my experience with burnout as a fiction writer a lot easier to bear!

But KK Rush does not stop there in her predictions. She has just published a fascinating analysis of what went wrong: “Business Musings: The Reactive Business Model“. What she is arguing is that traditional publishers, starting in the 1970’s, have been “reacting” to surprise best-sellers by imitating them.

In order to survive commercially, they’ve churned out as fast as they could books that are as close as possible to the surprise best seller. And now, indie writers have fallen in the same trap, writing in the genre that supposedly “sells”, following as closely as they can the example set by best-selling authors. And you get a slew of would-be Hunger Games, slavishly applying what KK Rusch calls the “reactive business model”. And she predicts:

More and more indie writers will leave the business if their business plan is based on the Reactive Business Model.Traditional publishers have forgotten that they used to partner with writers. Writers created the material and publishers published it to the best of their abilities. Because traditional publishers are owned by large corporate entities, the pursuit of profit has become the mantra, and if an imprint isn’t profitable in the short term (five years or so), it gets absorbed, replaced, or dissolved.
Indie writers don’t have to follow that model—and shouldn’t. They need to go back to the old model.

And of course, the “old model” – the reason writers abandoned traditional publishing and went down the road of self-publishing in the first place –  is exactly that:

Write what you want to write. Don’t think about marketing until the project—whatever it is—is done. Then consider how to market the project. Be creative in the marketing too. Don’t just imitate what was done before.

Wise words, no doubt about it. And when writing your next book, she warns:

 “Don’t act like traditional publishers and manipulate your next book to be like someone else’s success. […] Move forward in your career. Don’t look back. Following the Reactive Business Model is by definition looking backwards.

Definitely good advice.

I would only add: don’t worry about marketing at all.

I know, this may sound counter-intuitive in a time when book discovery has become incredibly difficult given the large number of available titles – more than 4 million in the Kindle store alone.

The theory that the “cream rises to the top” and that the best books will be inevitably discovered has proved wrong time and again. A book, to be properly launched, needs strong marketing. A push. And of course, be ready to do it when the time comes but don’t overdo it, and especially not at the expense of your writing time.

You can always do some more book promotion later, if and as needed. It may take longer for you to be recognized, but at least in this digital age, indie writers have an advantage over traditionally published authors of the past: their books don’t disappear from book stores after three months, digital versions stay in the cloud forever, they have a so-called “long tail” that is (eventually) working for them.

This simple technical fact ensures that your books remain available on Amazon and other platforms as long as you, the author, don’t retire them.

So hang on in there!

And Happy 2016!

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Filed under book marketing, genre fiction, Publishing, Uncategorized

Is the Amazon Customer Review System Broken?

English: Studio publicity portrait of the Amer...

In principle, book reviews spur sales. But on Amazon, they don’t seem to. Any author who’s following the sales of his/her books can testify to this: when good reviews come in, they rarely signal a spurt in sales. Yet book reviews are needed to be able to use the better advertisers like BookBub that will not take an author’s books unless a sizeable number of reviews can be shown, and particularly reviews from “authoritative” sources.

Add to this the now confirmed fact that e-book sales have gone very badly in recent months and Amazon’s bottom line is showing it. David Streitfeld in an article in the Business Standard, (see here, it was then picked up by the New York Times) has drawn attention to the fact that “to secure its upper hand, Amazon disrupts its own model.”

What Streitfeld is talking about is this: some $250 million in profits that had been expected by analysts somehow went missing last summer. Why? It seems Amazon practiced deep discounts and giveaways, offering free music, videos and e-books and that hurt profits. And of course Wall Street took note.  The argument is that Amazon is doing this on purpose to secure an ever-increasing share of the market – until it will be the only retail colossus on the scene.

But a lot of people have rushed forward with other reasons for the slowdown in Amazon sales, in particular attributing it to the long drawn-out Amazon-Hachette dispute (it last 6 months!) and continuing disaffection from once-loyal clients.

Whatever the reason, there is one thing that works poorly on Amazon and it’s their customer reviews of books. As long as Amazon doesn’t make an effort to organize it better, Amazon’s hope to compete with Hachette or any other “Big Publisher” is doomed. Because traditional publishers have got their buzz-around-books model down pat: they get top reviewers to write in major newspapers and magazines, they organize big prizes like the National Book Award or the Puliter, all events that drive traffic and draw the public. All stuff that’s closed to self-published authors and where authors published by Amazon imprints get little space, if any.

But we all know the arguments: This is the digital revolution that has enabled self-published authors to compete with traditional publishers. And Amazon rankings work to show who are the top sellers. And Amazon’s system in the Kindle Store is totally democratic, driven by the customers likes and dislikes, allowing everyone to express his or her opinion and the sales numbers speak for themselves.

Until they don’t.

You have books with thousands of reviews…and they don’t sell or don’t sell as much as you might expect. You don’t believe me? Look here (a book with over 2,000 reviews and a ranking on Amazon above #6,000) and here (over 800 reviews and a ranking above #10,000). Of course, there’s a high correlation if you check out the pages with books that have over 1,000 four-star reviews and above (see here) – there are nearly a million titles there, and the correlation is strong at first, as long as the number of reviews is above one thousand, but as you keep going through them, the correlation starts to fail you.

First lesson: you need at least a thousand reviews (more or less) to hope to sell steadily in the Kindle Store. But your book can still peter out, like this one, the Shadow of the Wind: over 1500 reviews and a ranking that doesn’t reflect it, at over #5,000 – and that happens to be one of my favorite books, I highly recommend it, it’s an extraordinary combination of dark poetry and suspense.

Second lesson: reviews on Amazon mean relatively little. In spite of Amazon’s policing efforts (they’ve gone after “sock-puppet reviews” in a systematic way since the 2012 scandal), it is still a fact that a 5-star review can be written by a friend or by someone who has absolutely no idea of literature or more simply, doesn’t know the difference between a good read and a bad one.  Ditto of one and two-star reviews.

Consider this one, about Elizabeth Taylor’s performance (click here), a particularly juicy dyad of 2-star reviews; here’s the screenshot:

As the friend who drew my attention to this said: “I’d like to know what Tennessee Williams would have said.”

Indeed. And to think that the second reviewer (“Kona”) is ranked by Amazon as a “vine voice” and “top 1,000 reviewer”… In short, someone whose reviews are appreciated by both Amazon and its customers. Someone who presumably has an “experienced” taste and a professional touch: you get up there in the Amazon Hall of Fame of reviewers by doing lots and lots of reviews and having lots and lots of people clicking that button which says that “they found the following review helpful”.

So what is wrong? I am not going to go into what happens with reviews of other products on sale on Amazon, the endless electronic gadgets, apparel etc – I shall limit myself here to books (a product I happen to know something about).

And books require special handling. You can like or dislike a book but that is not enough to constitute a helpful review. The next person doesn’t know you and may not share your tastes. So anyone doing a review should always explain the how and the why a book is likeable or detestable: that’s only fair to whoever is going to read your review. And the reviewer needs to come to some sort of conclusion that is reflected in the number of stars awarded. You can’t say something is absolutely transcendentally wonderful and then give it 3 stars because it’s not the kind of book you normally read or like. If something is transcendentally wonderful, then it deserves 5 stars, full stop. There is an organic linkage between the value judgments expressed and the number of stars given.

Reviews are not easy to do.

In fact, since the 19th century at least, book reviews have been in the hands of literary experts, people who are both widely read and know how to express a judgment clearly. This is far from simple and not everyone can do it or has the time to do it. Professors of literature at universities can do this successfully, they have the time and in a way it’s part of their job; best-selling authors can do this, and in general writers are good at this because they were all born readers first. You are never going to be a good writer if you’re not an avid reader in the first place; and someone able to read critically, as Francine Prose has so masterfully explained in her book Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperCollins, 2006) By the way, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

On this blog, I have argued in the past (see here) that Amazon should provide help in guiding book reviews, ensuring that major points normally covered in a professional book review are in fact covered (for example, the setting, the development of characters, plot pace, language/dialogues etc). But if Amazon is not willing to help and possibly fears that this type of guidance would be viewed by its customers as an unbearable intrusion, then there is another way to do this.

Amazon already has in place this Vine Program for reviewers (I blogged about it here). But at the moment, the program covers reviews of any sort, and top reviewers tend to review anything they wish, and remarkably enough, the very top reviewers (highest rank) cover all sorts of products but no books!  No books at all, or very few books, and in a most desultory way, reaping in fact very few votes from online viewers.

What Amazon should do is establish a Vine Program for Books Only. Book review guidelines should be issued and reviewers would be able to maintain their rank only if they follow the guidelines. And, once the system is up and running, the ranking of reviewers could start to take place, in order to arrive overtime at 1,000 top-notch book reviewers. My guess is that those reviewers are likely to be literary types of all kinds, including bloggers who specialize in reading  books in given genres.

Once Amazon has got a Vine Program for Books going, they should consider revamping the book description page, separating customer reviews from Vine Program reviews. That would be very important. Because at a glance, you could read the reviews that you can trust, that you know come from people who love books, read them all the time and can talk about them in a meaningful way.

At that point, and at that point only, would book reviews start to make sense and jumpstart the famous book buzz everyone is looking for, readers and writers alike…

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Filed under book marketing, social media

To Self-Publish and Perish: Buried Under 3.4 Million E-Books

 I finally found where Amazon reveals a hidden (and juicy) statistic: the number of ebooks available in the Kindle Store. If you’re an Amazon Associate, you can easily find it too but to make it simple I took a screen shot of the page where it shows, this one dated August 16, 2014:

Look at what the red arrow points to: “Results from Amazon Kindle Store…3,376,174 results”. That’s how many ebooks are stocked in the Kindle Store as of now: 3.4 million.

And by the time I had finished writing this blog post (one hour later) that number had climbed to…3,376,186! It took one hour to add 12 books, one new title every five minutes.  In 24 hours, the number had climbed to 3,378,960, that’s 2786 more books – let’s say, 2,800 a day, that’s over one million books per year – and probably growing at an exponential rate that I cannot calculate for the moment; I haven’t got the data though Amazon does (I wonder whether they are as scared as I am).

You can bet that in 10 years time the number of titles in the Kindle Store could be anywhere between 20 and 40 million books.

This is as many books as Google is said to have scanned globally, drawing from all the world’s libraries (the latest reported figure dates to last year and was 33 million books).

Surprised? I’m not, not really. Internet guru Jaron Lanier, in his fascinating book “Who Owns the Future” suggests that we should eventually expect as many writers online as there are readers. If he’s right (and there’s not reason to believe him wrong), we still have some way to go. But it will surely happen, and probably sooner than you think.

It’s also very instructive to look at the list of titles provided using the filter “new and popular” (the one I used – but there are other filters too depending on what you’re looking for) and you’ll see that Daniel Silva‘s “The Heist” (the 14th book in the Allon series) comes on top: it was published on 15 July 2014 and already got over 1,200 customer reviews. Not unsuprisingly it is is ranked #51 in “paid Kindle” and #1 in several subcategories including mystery and suspense.

By the way, “The Heist” is published by one of the Big Five (Harper) and priced at an average $14 which is standard for traditionally published books. That price, high in relation to the average price for self-published books (which according to Smashwords is around $3.99), does not seem to have impeded its sales or ranking. This is not to say that traditional publishers can get away with any level of high prices – I would argue that a level beyond $14 is damaging and ensures that some excellent writers, like William T. Volmann, perhaps our times’ major “fabulist”, is not as widely read as he could be. His latest book, Last Stories and Other Stories, is priced at over $22, a price equivalent to the hardcover.   That places him well beyond the reach of the average e-book reader, in practice excluding him from any exposure in the Kindle Store. Don’t be surprised if his book is sitting at #42,967 Paid in Kindle Store in spite of the boost it has received in the mainstream media, most recently the New York Times (see here).

Indeed, if anything, books that are priced high and traditionally published seem to occupy the first ranks everywhere on Amazon. And I’m not referring to special cases like John Green’s best-selling “The Fault in our Stars” with over 29,000 customer reviews and a ranking in paid Kindle at #8 for books, although it is noteworthy that its ranking is not the same in the ebook market (it sits at # 3,810). Here I am looking at the Kindle Store only and what pops up in the ranks is often quite different from what emerges in printed books, and why it is so, is a story for another blog post.

In any case, whether looking at the printed or ebook markets, you have to look hard for self-published authors though, undeniably, they are there…Hugh Howey with over 2,000 reviews for his Dust (book 3 of the WOOL trilogy) is sitting at #815 in “paid in Kindle Store”; Bella Andre’s Kiss Me Like This at #642 (it came out in June 2014 and has over 170 reviews); J.A. Konrath’s Whiskey Sour at #1615 (it came out in February 2013 and has nearly 1,200 reviews); Barry Eisler‘s Graveyard of Memories at #5,136 (it came out in February 2014 and already has over 600 reviews) – but Eisler’s book is published by an Amazon imprint, Thomas and Mercer, and he cannot be thought of as a self-published author stricto sensu, though he often sides with indies and famously walked away from a big publisher’s contract a few years ago.

The conclusion? Self-published authors, even the most successful ones, aren’t doing badly of course, but they are certainly not doing as well in terms of exposure as traditionally published authors. Sometimes, a traditionally published author who finds herself retrograded to the “midlist”, with the publisher giving no signs of wishing to renew the contract, may have no choice but to self-publish to survive. This is what Eileen Goudge did and so elegantly explained in a blog post here on Jane Friedman‘s blog, enticingly titled “Self-publish or Perish” (hence the title for my own blog post here).

However, we should remember that if the midlist author’s economic “survival” is ensured, it is largely thanks to the 70% royalty Amazon pays, because it is certainly not remarkable in terms of exposure – I won’t go further in the details and give you yet another ranking, you can check for yourself if you’re curious (here).

Moreover, one must remember that all rankings are ephemeral, they change constantly, and one needs to be Amazon itself (or set up a 24 hour watch for months on end) to figure out which authors have “staying power” and which don’t. So all the rankings I’m quoting here are merely indicative.

Still, some insights can be gleaned. It is particularly interesting to check on the more successful self-published authors and see how they fare today. I checked at random the more famous ones such as Amanda Hocking or John Locke whose amazing success stories (selling “a million copies” in a matter of months) have been instrumental in launching the self-publishing craze.

Well, they are not doing as well today as you might expect. Amanda Hocking has two books going currently for free and her best selling book, My Blood Approves (now traditionally published by St Martin’s) is ranked #34,251 Paid in Kindle Store. John Locke’s Promise You Won’t Tell, with close to 1,200 reviews was going free the last time I checked and his best selling non-free book Casting Call (actually also the most recent, published in February 2014) is priced at $2.99 and ranked #11,195 in paid in Kindle Store. In other words, it’s doing reasonably well but breaking no records.

Why are such famous self-published authors with millions of copies sold – I would say even “iconic” writers – following the free promotion strategy exactly as propounded by self-published author David Gaughran in his excellent guidebook Let’s Get Visible?

I’m sure you can come up with still more striking success stories, and please be sure to highlight them out in the comments, but my point is that the success doesn’t stay on…it waxes and wanes (which is natural) and then falls off a cliff, to use David Gaughran’s striking metaphor. Hence, the authors efforts to revive their books with free promotions. A tough life!

Now if life is tough for the more successful self-published authors, try and imagine what it’s like for the rest of us?

The reason why? Basically the tsunami of books that buries every single newcomer!

No doubt this is another compelling reason why you should follow David Gaughran’s advice. And don’t get discouraged, Amazon has just handed out a candy to self-published authors, making it possible for them for the first time ever to access to the “pre-order” functionality on its website (is this a side-effect of the Hachette-Amazon spat? Who knows…) Regardless of Amazon’s reasons for doing this, it is a big gift, because it means that,  just like a traditional publisher could do till now, you are able to promote your book on all the sites you navigate for 90 days prior to launching, while pre-orders accumulate on Amazon’s site: on the day of release, all these orders are filled at a single go, ensuring a boost to your book, launching it up Amazon’s rankings!

Because, as David Gaughran points out, in this environment awash with books, you cannot ever stop marketing your titles – and now you have another tool at your disposal to launch your next book…use it!

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Filed under Digital Revolution, Literature

Digital Revolution Act Two: TheTrue Nature of Amazon Revealed?

Fascinating report from Author Earnings (see here). In the traditional publishing world, the reaction to that report was rather negative (according to the UK Guardian), putting into question the methodology. But even taking into account all the limitations of this report, it still reveals a lot about about Amazon, keeping in mind that 120,000 books included in the report comprise approximately 50% of Amazon e-Book revenue and that Amazon’s own publishing ventures (five imprints) account for only 6% of the total, a surprisingly small share compared to 38% of the “Big Five” (legacy publishers):

 

OK, Indies account for 31 percent. Fascinating but at the same time frightening: remember, we are dealing here with JUST 120,000 titles (so, out of those, some 40,000 titles are indies) But this is out of a total of how many books in the Kindle Store, 3 million? 4 million? I’d love to know.

Assuming it’s somewhere between 3 and 4 million, that means less than 3% float to the surface and get bought, perhaps even as little as 2%.

The other frightening aspect of this (otherwise brilliant) analysis is the focus on rankings. It really confirms that there are no quality gatekeepers on Amazon, number of sales rule the day! Sales beget sales, historical sales keep a book floating for several weeks, and when sales dip for too long, the book sinks out of sight.

Sales numbers decide whether a book shows up or not in any reader’s searches.

I perfectly understand the logic but I deeply regret it.

It means that numbers trump quality.

Readers navigating Amazon will keep seeing the same books over and over again. If you’ve got a book that doesn’t hit the #100 rank, there’s no hope for you. None whatsoever. Because it means you have no Internet presence, not enough fans to buy your books together at a given point in time so that the ranking is boosted up. Authors with fans acquired in a previous existence as a traditionally published “mid-list author” have an obvious head start in this rankings game, no question about it, and that head start is decisive.

Good for them, but if you’re a newbie, never published before by a trad publisher, beware!

If all this notwithstanding, you do decide to jump into self-publishing, then the two genres that you should write in to have any hope of success, according to this report, are romance and science fiction/fantasy – but especially romance, look at this amazing graph:

Yes, on Amazon, the “Big Five” only seem to do well in thrillers and non-fiction. Thrillers also happens to be the area where Amazon imprints do best. However, for non-fiction, children’s and literary fiction, Amazon imprints are no match to the Big Five, they literally disappear…

Broadly speaking, literary fiction and children’s fiction don’t make the cut on Amazon, it would seem that both kids and persons who like literary reads need printed books from legacy publishers to be happy (I can’t say I’m surprised – that makes sense; ebooks are only good for quick reads when traveling or waiting at the dentist’s).

Of course, all this data needs to be taken with a grain of salt (we know nothing of the rest of what’s on Amazon – from where exactly the other half of Amazon earning stems from, and of course, Amazon won’t tell).

This puts the battle between Hachette and Amazon in perspective, doesn’t it? Some of Hachette authors are surely hurt but it is likely that many are NOT suffering all that much because the majority of their books are not sold in the Kindle Store…

Still, I am shocked that the whole analysis hinges on only 120,000 titles…Your views?

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Filed under Digital Revolution

Is the Amazon Ebook Market Model Broken?

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

Is Amazon about to drop self-published writers? Is there any reason why it shouldn’t if self-pubbed titles clog its Kindle Store, making it look like a hastily published slush pile? After all,  the ebook market is reportedly only worth 7% of total Amazon sales and it’s not showing much signs of growing.Yes, that’s not a typo. Ebooks sales are worth only seven percent of total sales to Amazon. Think of Amazon as a virtual WalMart – in fact, I suspect that is the real goal of Amazon, to become the biggest digital department store in the world. The publishing industry is only a side-show for Amazon.

So, if much is wrong with Amazon’s ebook market model, it is not likely that Amazon will care. And perhaps that explains the uneven performance of Amazon in foreign markets where it’s not the only player in town, by a long shot. For example, it is striking to see how Kobo is ubiquitous in Italy, it has its devices on display in most major bookstores but you don’t see Amazon’s Kindle anywhere. According to Ebook Bargains UK, Kobo has made many mistakes in expanding abroad (see first article listed below). Maybe so, but it is still doing pretty well…
Let’s list the challenges facing Amazon:
1. the payment system –  Amazon’s model for expanding abroad has proved to be antiquated; Amazon has followed the old system of expanding abroad with geographically based “offices/virtual store fronts” rather than going global digitally; this means, for example, that New Zealanders are forced to shop in its Amazon Australia beachhead. Why not have a global easy-to-pay system like Google Play (for example, they very successfully use carrier billing in the Far East)?
2. ebook subscription services and digital libraries: Amazon has ignored this new business model, presumably relying on its own Premium system – but how long will they stay out of that particular game? And if they do go in, how will the Big Five react? It’s very likely that they won’t like it and could withdraw their books from Amazon’s shelves. A conundrum for Amazon.
I’ll be honest with you, those subscription services really worry me. I’m speaking of Scribd, and Oyster, the two major subscription services and Overdrive, a digital library. The latter has managed to get one hundred million ebook downloads in 12 years, up to 2012! See here. A huge number.
That (to me) is terrifying, the start of a new trend that could change the shape of the book market forever.
The problem with an ebook is that it is not an object you hold in your hands. It’s nothing, it’s like a bubble of soap. You can’t feel a liking for it the way you might view an old book as an old friend, sitting there on your library shelf in your home. You don’t own it, it’s essentially a digital service, a permanent access to a text available up there in the cloud, somewhere on the Net.
So why own an ebook at all? Why not pay less and get access to the text for the time you need to read it?
Many authors I know are complaining about a slump in sales. This is anecdotal, I can’t prove it. My impression is that the slump which first hit the sales of new, emerging writers in early 2013 has now affected midlist authors (i.e. traditionally published authors that have recovered their rights to their backlist and systematically self-publish those out-of-print titles on Amazon).  These are the very writers who were most successful in the Kindle Store, hitting (at least for a short time) the top 100 rank with every new title they uploaded. They could count on their fans to buy their new titles. Well, it seems they no longer do; 2013 was a stagnant year for many.
Where have all the fans gone? Who knows. But the expansion of subscription services and digital libraries surely acts as a syphon on the market. You as an author may get better known to many more readers thanks to such services, but you are also likely to make a lot less money in future. To what extent this will happen cannot be foretold.
Let’s look at possible solutions.   
One thing that could be done is to fix the Kindle Store. And re-organize good gate-keeping systems to help in book discovery and let “the cream rise to the top”.
For the time being, the way things are in the Kindle Store, the cream cannot rise to the top. And the reason is very simple and can be told in one word: rankings!
To understand why this is so, let’s look first at what’s happened in the environment. Since 2012, the ebook market has changed dramatically. First, the settling of the DOJ case against Apple and the way that has played out seems to have calmed the nerves of the (now) Big Five. They have become more aggressive with their pricing, slowly but surely edging out indies.  Price was the self-published writer’s biggest weapon, it no longer is. We all know that “free” doesn’t work anymore and I fear that “cheap” doesn’t work either. Books under $9 scream out to the readers “beware, this is a self-published work likely to be full of typos and badly structured”.

And then there’s the matter of sheer volume of published titles. The tsunami of self-pubbed authors has totally changed the environement. I know what I’m talking about, some of my books, like the earlier ones I published are buried under one million books or more! Literally buried under and forgotten. That’s because Amazon publishes everyone’s ranking. I’ve complained about this before and done so publicly on this blog only to get comments from indies like “Oh, but nobody pays attention to ranking”. That may have been true once but it no longer is. Readers are savvy and they’ve learned how to navigate Amazon’s Kindle Store. Readers do look at rankings, I’m convinced of it. And the theory that “quality books rise to the top like cream” is a non-starter. How can they rise if readers before buying glance at the ranking and decide it’s not worth buying because the book is sitting down there at the bottom of the ocean of published books?

In other words, the Amazon environment has become toxic. Even Kobo, the latest one on the Big Boys scene, also exhibits rankings. BIG mistake. Rankings should be reserved for the top 100 selling titles, maybe the top 1000 but no more! Then, and only then, if your book is good, you might have a fighting chance to rise with good reviews

If you still have doubts, take a look at the ranking of books that you know for a fact are good. I’ll do it here with just one book as an example, but do take time to navigate the Kindle Store and you will see. The example I want to use here is Amelie Nothomb’s “Fear and Trembling” (see here). Now this is easily a masterpiece of French literature, one of the best books published in the last 15 years. She’s a huge success with young adults, hardly your dowdy old writer. And it is probably the best book she ever wrote, lively, fun, suspenseful, not at all a high-brow literary bore. Yet, in the Kindle Store she is sitting at a ranking around the 300,000th range and has only 46 reviews!! This says a lot about the Amazon environment…

Speaking of reviews…What is truly missing is a gatekeeper system to keep out poorly edited books and help readers find quality reads. Amazon regularly makes efforts to improve its customer review system and sweeps out reviews that are deemed misleading (the famous “sockpuppet” reviews). Unfortunately, when Amazon does that, it creates a lot of discontent among writers and doesn’t really solve the problem.

Perhaps what Amazon should do is set up a two-tier system, with customer reviews and expert critiques.

Most customer reviews are not professional in the sense that they are not comprehensive reviews touching on all aspects of a book (i.e. character development, plot structure, POVs and writing techniques etc).

They are merely opinions written by readers.

Don’t misunderstand me. That is how it should be: a customer has a right to voice his/her likes and dislikes and we authors are very happy when they do, we love to be in touch with our readers! That’s one of the best things about the digital revolution: it has given us, writers, the possibility to be close to our readers and that’s wonderful. But a customer review is not the same as a professional critique, fully structured and substantiated by evidence and references to literary criteria.

This suggests that there is space for two different types of reviews, the customer reviews and the literary critiques. And perhaps an online website linked to Amazon should collect all those critiques and list them for each title…It could be a start towards a system to guide readers to the better reads and finally allow the “cream to rise to the top”.

Any other ideas?

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