I think the current state of indie publishing is, in many ways, reflected in this video essay:
While Bo Burnham’s comedy both intrigues and repulses me, the kid is definitely onto something when he says that the ubiquitous need to perform has become a generation’s prison.
Indie publishing is, in many ways, caught in the same trap. While Kindle Direct Publishing (and digital publishing in general) has created a tremendous financial opportunity for authors who are willing to play the game, it has also become a prison of sorts for other authors.
The State of Indie Publishing: It’s A Mess
Exhibit A: KDP itself. A decade ago a talented author with moderate marketing skills could produce two or three novels a year and do quite well for themselves financially. But as the “indie author coaching” industry sells the indie publishing dream to thousands of new customers each month, competition has become ever more fierce. Now, authors are finding that publishing “just” a few novels a year is a good way to become forgotten by readers who are all too eager to move on to more prolific writers and publishers.
As well, I give you Exhibit B: the Amazon algorithms. Black box that they are, indie authors are painfully aware that the algos have changed over the years to encourage authors to produce content at an ever more rapid pace. Where we used to fear “the 90-day cliff,” after which Amazon’s recommendation algorithm will stop promoting new releases to readers, now it’s a 30-day cliff.
Thus, authors who wish to maximize the benefit of free advertising and promotion from Amazon’s AI must plot, draft, revise, edit, and publish a new novel every 30 days.
Speaking of promotion, I give you Exhibit C: Pay-Per-Click advertising. Coinciding with the shorter attention span of its latest recommendation engine iteration, Amazon has created its own advertising platform to compete with Facebook and Google (although Google is much less favored by authors overall). This has essentially made Amazon and KDP pay-to-play. If you don’t spend money on advertising, you will not sell many books. Period, end of discussion.
Of course, predating Amazon’s entry into the PPC ad platform space was Facebook’s transition to a pay-to-play model. Consider this Exhibit D: social media marketing. In many ways, social media marketing no longer exists on Facebook and Instagram, because organic reach is nearly nonexistent. Even if you have a business page with tens of thousands of followers, if you don’t boost posts, less than 1% of your audience will see them.
Many authors will respond to this assertion by pointing out how such-and-such writer is selling thousands of copies a month/week/day on (insert flavor-of-the-month social media platform here). However, what these authors fail to realize is that corporations do not exist to provide authors with free advertising. They generally have investors and boards of directors to whom they answer, and thus they must turn a profit.
Meaning, all social media platforms follow a similar life-cycle. They are born and grow organically, offering the sweet nectar of organic reach, rapid audience growth, and free advertising to creators. Then, when their popularity hits critical mass (or when their investors and board demand it), they implement paid advertising, slowly tweaking their algorithms from that point on to wean creators off organic reach and onto a pay-to-play system.
Then, once their ad platform is a proven model, they start working to attract large, corporate advertisers with deep pockets. These advertisers often play with multi-million dollar budgets, and are able to drive the cost of advertising up such that the smaller advertisers (read: “creators”) who built the platform are essentially squeezed out. We saw this happen with Google Adwords, we’re seeing it happen on Facebook, it’s starting to happen on Amazon (as legacy publishers learn the utility of the system), and it will happen to any other social media or book-selling platform that rises to a top-five market leader position.
The Age of TikTok Book Publishing
These factors have all combined to create a sort of perfect storm in the indie publishing industry. This is the age of TikTok-style writing and publishing, where content must be created at a breakneck pace for the creator to remain relevant, with little time, care, or attention spent on the creative process.
Accordingly, today’s indie author faces a challenging conundrum. Not only must they wear many hats, they must do so in 10x fashion. They must be creator + entertainer + editor + marketing manager + copywriter + social media expert + whatever they do in their personal lives… if they have time left for that.
The lack of creative sustainability inherent in the business model created by KDP + Amazon + PPC ads + social media (which I will refer to as “K.A.P.S.” from here on out) has never been more apparent to me than now, when I am fighting lung cancer. This illness is like having another full-time job. Often I find myself struggling just to maintain the bare minimum in writing output—daily word counts I would’ve laughed at a year ago.
Yet, to remain relevant to an audience that demands content be produced at a breakneck pace, the indie author must produce… and quickly.
Lately I’ve been hearing of authors who are producing novels every seven days, and making money at it. For the benefit of the uninformed, I’ll state that it is highly improbable that a single author could produce a decent 50k to 100k novel in seven days, week after week.
Presumably these authors know they’re producing less than stellar work, but the audience wants it and they are willing to pay for it. Thus, these authors continue to iterate the same basic story dressed up in different clothes, week after week, secure in the firm knowledge that literary accolades do not pay the mortgage.
Losing One’s Soul For The Sake Of The Sale
Honestly, I cannot blame them. That sort of business model is not for me, but I do not hold it against an author to pay their bills with their craft—however they might do it. Yet, there must come a point where that sort of mind-numbing production sucks the soul from said author.
Even the dedicated amateur who paints beach scenes and fruit baskets by numbers lives for the sake of their art. Take away the joy of creation, and what is left to feed the artist’s spirit? Unfortunately, rapid iteration by its very nature removes much of the joy of the creative process from writing (as anyone who has made a living writing sales copy can attest). And, I fear, it removes much of the quality found in good writing as well.
While many will argue that speed in writing does not necessarily equal a reduction in writing quality, at some point it always does. My question is, when does it stop? At what point do we, as authors, decide where we draw the line between creative integrity and feeding the algos?
As always, this is a question that each author must answer for themselves. However, I would wager that a good many will say they are not sacrificing quality for quantity, while they know in their hearts they are doing precisely that.
Learning To “Just Say No”
Admittedly, in many ways this “ready, fire, aim” approach to creation is a must in today’s publishing environment. Not only are indie authors facing constant pressure from the “K.A.P.S.” publishing ecosystem to work 24/7/365, they’re also facing increasing competition from grindhouse publishers that employ multiple authors and ghostwriters to crank out whatever the market currently demands.
These grindhouse publishers are damned good at marketing. They know how to create covers and write blurbs that sell. They are savvy advertisers, and they work with big budgets that allow them to make power plays on the PPC platforms, edging out smaller publishers and indie authors who can’t afford to keep up.
Moreover, grindhouse publishers have no issues with closely duplicating the works of other authors. Granted, genre fiction is defined by tropes, a subject I’ve tackled on this blog previously. But there’s the practice of using accepted genre tropes, and then there’s the practice of skirting the boundaries of plagiarism. If you’re an author who has seen their work copied and adulterated by one of these publishers, you know exactly what I am talking about.
Between the ambient operating pressure in the “K.A.P.S.” publishing ecosystem, increasing competition from the thousands of newbies being drawn to indie publishing yearly by the siren song of the “indie author coach” industry, as well as certain less than scrupulous publishers, all this combines to make it difficult for the average author to make a living writing well.
But just as Bo Burnham decries the “sellouts” who are doing “horrible shit” to make millions, many authors who take their craft more seriously are saying “no” to the “K.A.P.S.” hamster wheel of assembly line novel production.
Instead, they are embracing a creative process that promotes quality over quantity, even at the risk of losing readers to assembly line authors and grindhouse publishers.
For me currently, this is the only way forward due to my circumstances. In that regard, I think Joel Haver presents a tremendously positive example of what it looks like to be prolific while maintaining artistic quality and enjoying the process (please refer back to the video essay at the beginning of this post if you’re unfamiliar with his work).
What This Means For The Author Who Gives A Damn
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably an author who wants to make a living by producing good work. I’d also hazard a guess to say that you want to enjoy the creative process while doing exactly that.
Thus, it follows that you’re wondering if I have any advice about how that might be done.
Yes—yes I do.
#1. Decide where you draw the line.
You can’t completely ignore the current publishing environment and expect to make a living in self-publishing. If you want to support yourself at this, you have to play the game to a certain extent. That means being self-aware enough to know your limits—how quickly you can produce good writing, and how well you balance that with all the other responsibilities indie authorship brings.
Then, you must weigh that against what it takes to survive in this current digital publishing environment. You might very well have to learn how to produce novels at a more rapid pace than is comfortable for you. This will mean learning how to be more efficient at doing things well.
But you still have to draw the line somewhere, and that somewhere will be based on your own talents and skills.
#2. Focus on your craft.
And when I say “craft,” I mean the craft of entertaining readers. If you want to earn a decent income from self-publishing, chances are good you’re going to be writing genre fiction. Genre fiction exists solely for the entertainment of the reader, so you need to learn to write from that perspective.
Forget what your profs said in your MFA program or creative writing class. Chances are good they were giving you advice geared toward winning literary accolades. As I mentioned before, those accolades and awards do not pay the bills.
Instead, learn how to use pacing, dialogue, and characterization to create novels that make readers come back for more. If your readers aren’t waiting in eager anticipation of your next novel, something is missing. Find out what it is and fix it.
#3. Commit to being just as good as the grindhouse publishers at marketing.
Being an indie author means being in business for yourself. When you’re self-employed, you simply cannot ignore marketing and promotion. As a consultant, I’ve worked with small business owners for two decades, and this dictum is usually the first thing I convey to my clients.
For you, this means being just as good as the competition at presenting your work to the world. Meaning, your work needs to look just as good or better than the stuff those grindhouse publishers are pumping out month after month.
That means becoming a student of cover design and blurbs. It means understanding meta data and ad platforms. It means getting professional editing for your work before it goes to publication.
In short, it means putting out a quality, polished product—one that is easily identifiable by the audience as a book in your genre. Readers should not have to crack your book open to know what’s inside. Instead, the cover, blurb, and platform placement should scream it to them.
#4. Develop and nurture a relationship with your audience.
This one is huge. If you have no connection with your readers, they will not stick with you during times when you experience delays in production. The last thing you need is to lose the interest of your audience when you get sick, or when you fail to line up an editor in time, or your cover designer is booked up, or you’re simply burned out and need a few extra weeks to recuperate between novels.
So, develop relationships with your audience. This means engaging with them on social media. You don’t have to do it all the time, but you need to do it regularly enough so that they know you care.
Caring is a big deal to readers when it comes from a favorite author. They’re used to authors being rude, condescending, or indifferent to them, because many authors who make it become dicks. Don’t be a dick to your readers.
No, you can’t answer every DM and email, and you don’t have to do so (I actually stopped reading my reader emails, because I got tired of fielding support complaints for Amazon). However, you do need to pop into your author page on Facebook every few days to interact in the comments, you do need to send a newsletter regularly, and you do need to respond to comments on your blog every once in a while.
In short, acknowledge your readers. Do so and in return they will reward you with their loyalty.
This article started as a post for a small, private writer’s group I run on Facebook. Thus, you should consider it as a reflection of my own personal thoughts and opinions on the indie author landscape, and not as the gospel truth on how to pursue a career in self-publishing.
However, I do stand by my assertions as to the challenges that sincere authors currently face with regards to pressure from the “K.A.P.S.” publishing ecosystem combined with ever-increasing competition.
My final advice in that regard? Find a balance between writing what makes you happy and writing what the market demands. Then, promote the shit out of your work. Eventually you’ll find your 1,000 true fans. So long as you treat them right, you’ll enjoy a lasting career as an indie author.