Friday, 30 November 2012

Is Amazon Killing Indie Publishers?

There's a lot of doom and gloom in indie halls at the minute. Freebies aren't working like they once did, there's a vicious rumour that the 'also bought' lists are changing to weight in favour of legacy houses, and you can't turn online without coming across a crowd of newbies all wailing about pitiful or nonexistent sales. Is this the death-knell for indie publishing?

I don't think so.

We all know about the algorithm change early in the year. Following the spectacular advent of Select, which allowed paid borrows and five days free listing in exchange for exclusivity, the new year saw Amazon's marketplace flooded with free books. I know a number of authors who did exceptionally well out of it - give enough books away for free (we're talking tens of thousands a day, here) and when the book reverts back to the paid side of the rankings the increase in visibility leads to hundreds and even thousands of subsequent sales.

Then the algorithm changed. Previously it was 1-1, where a free book counted the same as a paid sale and when the ranking transferred over the freebies had a natural advantage over the books that have always been priced. The change meant that a free download now only holds a tenth of the weight of a paid one. Now you really need tens of thousands of downloads on the free days to spike the ranking to a level where the giveaway begins to pay for itself with subsequent sales.

But that was okay, because sites like POI and ENT featured some lucky, lucky authors when their books went free. The publicity ensured that they got the necessary download numbers - figures of thirty or forty thousand downloads in a day were pretty standard. Given that after early summer this year the market was so glutted with new authors falling over themselves to make their books free that most people literally couldn't give 'em away, this was a godsend.

Except that those sites had a minimum requirement for both number of reviews and overall rating. Which positively begs authors to fake their reviews using friends, family, paid sites and review swaps with other authors equally desperate to be noticed. It devalued the whole review system - and was, ironically, most lamented by the very sites who not only facilitated, but necessitated, the meltdown.

Amazon responded by culling hundreds of reviews en masse. You don't have to look far to find an indie wailing that their reviews have been pulled. Amazon has adopted a zero-tolerance response to those who try and resubmit the reviews, and I know more than one author who has been threatened with having their book pulled if it happens again. Yes, it's heavy-handed, and I'm sure that they made mistakes with some of the reviews, but it was the simplest and fastest way to deal with an issue that was becoming untenable. When customers are complaining that the review system isn't reliable, what are they supposed to do?

They then went a step further, threatening to revoke the affiliate rights of the big sites that previous advertised freebies. So now we're at a point where there are so many free books out there (and, let's be honest, so many of them are just awful that readers don't bother with them the way they did even six months ago) that most authors struggle to get numbers even into three figures on any given free download day; they are denied the opportunity to advertise the freebie on the biggest sites in order to try and bump those numbers; the books they do give away count for far less than they ever used to; and any review they get - but especially positive ones - runs the risk of being pulled.

Dispiriting, isn't it?

And here's some more bad news. There is a rumour - unsubstantiated, and my very brief investigation didn't show any evidence to support it - that the 'also bought' listings are also changing to weigh in favour of the bigger publishers. Now aside from the ranking spike, the point of doing a giveaway is to get your book in as many 'also bought' lists as possible. The key to sales on Amazon - or any platform - is visibility. The more visible you are, the more you sell; and the more you sell, the more visible you are. Amazon's model ensures that sales beget sales.

Now the Also Boughts have already been demonstrated to be less effective than first thought, because if you run a freebie you won't show up with other books in your genre, you'll show up with whatever else was free that day. Not helpful. But if indie books get pushed out even when they legitimately belong on those lists, in the correct genres...Well, we're all in trouble.

So is this all a big conspiracy? A year ago Amazon was touted as the champion of indies, the go-to place to break out and make millions from your perfectly-crafted but previously-misunderstood novel. Now it looks like Amazon has us by the balls and is beginning to squeeze.

No, it's not a conspiracy. I don't care what you've read saying that it is (and I've seen that a lot). It's business, plain and simple.

Let's rewind the clock back a year or so and have a look from Amazon's perspective. Some of the biggest legacy publishers out there were at the end of a price-fixing scam which inflated ebook prices to preposterous levels. No matter what the distributors did, they weren't budging. If you wanted the latest bestseller in ebook form, you were going to pay $12.99 or more for it.

Readers completely rejected that model. For that they can buy a paper book - a real book - something tangible, something they can have and hold forever. Something that retains a resale value. Hell, at any supermarket you can pick up a dozen bestsellers for buttons. Here in the UK, my local ASDA does big name, bestselling books on 3 for £5 as a standard offer. Who in their right mind is going to pay $12.99 for an ebook?

That left Amazon in a quandary. They'd spent millions developing and advertising their signature e-reader, and invested god-knows-what in dominating the ebook market. But if the consumer doesn't want to pay for an ebook, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Amazon needed cheap ebooks, and it needed them quick. Hello, indies!

Opening their marketplace to self-publishers was a stroke of genius. Breakout stories by the likes of Amanda Hocking or John Locke or EL James soon started coming in. There are dozens of indie superstars out there. They write great books, and they offer them for significantly less than any legacy publisher wanted to go. Amazon now had a very, very strong bargaining tool: they'd got the big publishers on the back foot, suddenly the publishers needed Amazon, and not the other way around. And Amazon's e-reader took off and their place as market leader looked pretty assured. Win, win, win.

Then there was the ruling against the publishers, and the price-fixing days looked to be coming to an end. Legacy publishers started to wake up and smell the revolution. While some still cling to the ridiculously inflated prices of old (JK Rowling's Casual Vacancy, anyone?) more are prepared to lower their prices to something more palatable, especially for their back catalogues.

Now Amazon's got a new marketing tool. Not just the number of books that they have in their store; the number of exclusive books that they have; and the number of free books (thank you indies, all), now they've got the latest bestseller, the minute it's released, for far less than anyone else. It's a massive coup. Which are they gonna push? What's the Christmas advert - Buy a Kindle, we're the biggest independent author platform in the world, or Buy a Kindle, get the latest James Patterson and JK Rowling and [whoever] the minute it's released, for less than $10. It's a no-brainer.

So if - and it's a big 'if' - Amazon are weighting books in favour of the big publishers; or they decide to do so in the future, it's not a conspiracy, it's good business sense.

Amazon have also just responded to indies. For the next three months they've doubled the Select pot - the amount of money shared out by the authors whose books are borrowed. They've also rolled out borrows across non-US Kindle stores. Four weeks before Christmas, is that really any surprise? Indies are once again falling over themselves to sign up, not for the freebies, but for the borrows. Especially if they've only had disappointing sales on other domains - and the other markets are undoubtedly smaller than Amazon - then  it seems a sensible business decision. And, from Amazon's POV, they've got a flood of more exclusive books to offer to their market not only for Christmas, but for the two months afterwards, which is the busiest time of year for ebook sales. Genius.

None of this should be any surprise to anyone who is paying attention. I'm bored of seeing indies whine that they're artists, not businessmen. That's fine, but don't be in business. Get yourself a publisher, let them take care of business and you be an artist. But if you're an indie you'd better be paying attention, not just to your own little niche, but to the publishing industry in general. If you don't want to be left behind then you need to keep ahead of the game.

Here's my prediction for the future - always bearing in mind that this market changes at lightning speed, and (as Gerry Anderson would have said) "anything can happen in the next half hour."

  • Indies will sign up to Select again in droves. Amazon will sell a record number of Kindles off the strength of their ebook store. The price per borrow will decrease, despite the increased pot, because of the increased marketplace and the flood of new Kindles out there. Authors will whine and wail and whinge, but they're tied in and there's nothing they can do until March.
  • Non-Select authors will see a (small) bump in sales from other domains - notably B&N and Kobo, both of whom have expanded their markets outside the US and are aggressively advertising. Those on iTunes will also benefit.
  • There will be a flurry of free books available from mid-Jan through to the end of Feb, as indies disillusioned with a slower-than-expected Christmas season decide to try a giveaway after all.
  • Amazon will harvest the best from the indie crop via their in-house publishing arms (for thrillers and romances, the two biggest genres on the store anyway). They will also sign up a significant number of indie books to their new film production branch.
  • Weighting will move in favour of Amazon's in-house authors.

Doom and gloom, right? Well maybe not. Because last night as part of my little investigation into the rumour about the Also Boughts I trawled the top 10 books in the US Kindle store, and each of the 7 books on the first page of the Also Boughts for each of those books. Three of the top ten books were indies; the other seven came from five big publishers, none with more than two books in the top 10. Then of the Also Boughts, the vast majority were also indie. Of 55 total unique books (because there was some crossover on the Also Boughts) twenty-five were indie books. That's almost 50%. The next biggest publisher was Amazon itself, with seven books. Then Random House with four; HarperCollins and Penguin with three each; two from Little, Brown & Co and Wayman Publishing, then a plethora of big, medium and small publishers with one book apiece. 

Here's the deal. Those who can't, whine. Those who can, sell books. The twenty-five indies at the very top of the Amazon store, I'd never heard of. (But I'll be watching them in the future...). I know literally dozens of people I call the "almost famous" - indies who are not only selling books, but who are earning a living through their writing. And not scratching around on $20k a year 'earning a living', I mean I know people who have earned well into six figures in the last year. People who are making serious, serious cash from self-publishing, but who sail completely under the radar. 

So next time you see a blog post from someone saying that the end is nigh, that the self-publishing ship has sailed and we've all been left high and dry, look again. Look at their rankings on the US Kindle store. Look at the bigger picture. Look at it from the distributor's point of view. Never forget that any - any - distributor exists solely to serve itself. Amazon owes us nothing. The best we can do - and what the successful among us do - is learn the rules of the game and play it well. And never forget that it's Amazon's playground, their ball and their rules. If they want to change them on a whim, they can. You can write as many whiney blog posts as you like, it won't help you sell books. 

My predictions for the future might be completely inaccurate (although I doubt it), but they're at least informed, they come from a position of looking at the bigger picture, thinking how I would act if I were any of the players involved, and then thinking how those actions would affect others. The best advice I can give for the future? Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Learn the difference between playing the game and gaming the system. Don't be short-sighted: the minute you confine yourself to one book or one distributor, you're thinking too small. If you still want to be writing for a living in 10 or 20 or 40 years' time, you need to be thinking long-term all the time. 

And the number one tip? Lurk. Lurk everywhere where readers or authors or publishers congregate. Listen to what they're saying, what's happening, what's changing, what's new. Then take a step back and look at what you hear in the context of the bigger picture. And remember: 

Those who can't, whine. Those who can, sell books.

UPDATE - Dec 2012. It might be a little early to crow just yet about my predictions for the future of Select, but KOLL payout per borrow in November was $1.90. In October it was $2.35 and in September it was $2.29. Just sayin'. However, it's worth noting that when the programme started a year ago the first borrows paid $1.60 each.

Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
Find all her books on AmazonAReB&N,  iTunesSWSony & Kobo


  1. Great blog post.

    Bottom line: Amazon will do what is in its own best interest. Sometimes that will align with indie authors, sometimes it won't.

    That's why, even though Amazon accounts for 80% of my sales, I'm working to expand into other markets. Eggs in one basket... bad idea.

    And it still comes down to the same thing for all books, indie or traditionally published. Your first step is to write a good book.

  2. Great post.

    You definitely need to remember that Amazon is a business and they are out for themselves and not here to help the Indie Authors. I currently have one short story on Select as a trial and won't be doing it again. There are too many free books and too many "exclusive" books out there for the readers to choose. Plus on the borrowing side, why pick an unknown when you can get a best-selling author for free?

    I agree with Charles - the best thing to do is write a good book.

  3. Wonderful, rational post. I totally agree, and it's nice to see someone blogging about this without screaming that the sky is falling.

  4. I love the analytical look at the total picture. Business is business, period. Glad to see in writing some of my suspicions when I didn't have the time (or make the effort!) to research the hard facts. Thank you.

  5. "...the minute you confine yourself to one book or one distributor, you're thinking too small..."

    And that's it in a nutshell.

    Great and rational post. What I have published is up on Amazon and B&N. Anything else from now on will include Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords, and CreateSpace. And I'll keep my eye out for other markets. Any other approach, short-sighted as you say.

  6. Great Post. Yes, publishing is a business and as writers it is our job to remember that.

  7. I absolutely LOVED your post:) Great insights!

  8. Great post! Very insightful and the very reason my husband and I have expanded to other online stores.

  9. Thanks for your insights! I have my books available at every retailer possible and though sometimes I imagine select success, I can't fathom removing my titles from all revenue streams except on...I prob. just cursed myself and will inexplicably pull everything from retailers tomorrow...ahahaha. I won't but I certainly see why people give select a try. When it works, it works.

  10. Best post I've seen on the topic yet.

  11. Wow, thanks to everyone who has responded to this post...It's been surprisingly popular! It's nice to know that the voice of reason still gets heard occasionally :-)

  12. Very informative! Thank you for this amazing blog post!

  13. Yes, I loved the post... and all I can say is that although I am not earning six figures from my books; my books have a large number of reviews and not one of them are dodgy, influenced, swapped, etc. I got all of my reviews from hard work, and I put that up on my blog recently as well.

    One thing I will never do, and I don't care how rich she is, but to class EL James as a superstar. Her books/twilight-fan-fiction-turned-published are painful to read... but it comes down to what we always know, is that the mass majority of readers don't care, and they think that her works are masterpieces of fiction.

    When I saw how famous she got, read her "50 shades of oh crap" first few chapters and refused to go any further, I then realised that popularity and sales are something that I cannot really compare with. I write my books to stay true to what I am passionate about, and as a result... although they are not perfect, I have been enjoying great reviews and ratings in general.

    I have seen indie authors talk about tactics of churning out more books to increase their sales on Amazon, etc. To be honest, I think that if someone is churning out quantity over quality and making a ton of money, then great for them... but that is not why I am writing. Yes, it is a business, and I work my arse off to work my books as a business, but I will not stoop to the level of writing ripoffs of popular media to attract sales.

    No, I am going the old fashioned route of hitting the pavement and virtual pavement to actually talk to people, you know... ENGAGE people. Discover readers who will enjoy my works, and maybe find a few who don't, but along the journey, I have been building up a following and readership of my books. This is not the size of Amanda Hocking, but they are my readers and I treasure them. They tell people about my books, spread the word, etc.

    I tried Kindle Select, and it didn't work much for me. I gave away thousands of free books for a handful of sales.

    I am currently writing my third book in the Legends of Marithia fantasy series, and although I do watch the sales of my previous two books, I think that ultimately we need to write quality books that when readers discover them, they get lost in and want to read more.

    Isn't that ultimately what this is all about? Or has it become a market of "clone wars" and indie authors clawing their way through the crowds to get their hands on as much cash as possible?

    Peter Koevari

  14. Amazon is deleting positive reviews that it deems (without trial or substantiation) fraudulent and allowing clearly illegitimate negative reviews to remain, and it is removing tags that helps readers locate books by genre. A lot of people think these are deliberate strategies to destroy the independent author.

    1. A lot of people think these are deliberate strategies to destroy the independent author.

      The bestselling ebook on through Dec-Jan was Hopeless by Colleen Hoover. It is an indie book published through KDP. Do you have any idea how much money the 'zon has made from that one book alone? And while Colleen's (currently) at the top of the tree, I can name half a dozen indies that I personally know that have sold books into six figures in the last year. Indies are a cash cow for Amazon - they spend nothing sourcing or managing or distributing content, the suppliers come to them and 99% of the process is automated.

      Amazon opened the gates and reinvented the indie market. They are not out to destroy it now. What they are out to do is protect their own interests. That's all.

      And we (as a community) bring most of it upon ourselves. Tags were written out of the algorithms months ago, and eventually removed completely a few weeks back because indies abused them. Not just occasionally but routinely, and on a massive scale. Tag-swap threads were rife in every community I've ever been a part of, and malicious tagging and counter-tagging happened all the time. How much time and how many resources has Amazon had to dedicate to responding to authors complaining about the tags on their books, or reporting others for abusing tags? Easier just to do away with them - none of the legacy publishers used them and it never hurt their sales. They were just something else newbies latched onto as a 'magic button' which, when pressed, would generate sales. Tags were a smokescreen, at least in the last year.


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