Profits of Doom?

James Scott Bell

Cassandra, prophetess of bad tidings

There’s a bit of a buzz (meaning less than a meme, but more than idle chatter) about declining profits for indie authors. If I’m tapping into this correctly, there are more than a few writers who’ve experienced  significant drop offs in their Kindle royalties. Some attribute this to the Kindle Unlimited program. Others say it’s the massive entertainment options that compete for our attention. 

Or could it be that the ever-increasing number of titles sprouting like steroid-laced Kudzu each day offers too doggone many choices?

That is the view of Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, who has (perhaps reluctantly) donned the robes of a Cassandra. On his blog recently he issued this prophecy:

The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over. Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it.  In recent weeks, for example, I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon dropped significantly since July when Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited… Some authors are considering quitting. It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either. When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on. Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all…. 

[E]very year there will be more and more books for readers to choose from. Unless the number of readers and the number of books read by readers grows faster than the number of titles released and ever-present, there will be fewer eyeballs split across more books. This means the average number of book sales for each new release will decline over time unless readership dramatically increases, or unless we see an accelerating pace of transition from print reading to screen reading.

He was challenged on his assertions on the Passive Voice blog. To one commenter Mr. Coker responded

[I]f you’ve got a better method of describing the big picture dynamic, please share. I’m open to suggestions. If ebook readership (both a function of the number of ebook readers and the number of ebooks read by readers) is spread thinner across an ever-growing, ever-accessible number of books, and the growth in ebook supply exceeds the growth in consumption, then what happens? Very simple question. Does the average new release get more readers or fewer?

I’ll take a stab at answering. I don’t believe that ebook readership is “spread thinner” because of an “ever-growing” number of titles. In fact, readers never choose from the whole universe of books. They filter their choices through author favorites, recommendations, genre preferences. They usually stick to certain places they like to shop for their books. Rarely, if ever, do they pull a Captain Kirk and blast out into the great unknown seeking new life and new civilizations. 

Thus, an expanding universe of content does not have a proportional negative effect on readership. 

One might call it a “discoverability” issue. But again, I don’t see a causal effect here. As I’ve emphasized over and over, by far the best discovery tool is word of mouth, which is based upon the writing itself. The more quality you produce, the greater the word of mouth. This will happen no matter how vast the sea of options out there. Add to this the author who wisely becomes an “ownllist” writer, and there is no reason to believe that we’re only going to see profits of doom henceforward.

Mr. Coker also says there is more quality now in indie books, making competition tougher. I do think he’s right about that. There are a number of reasons this is so, including more trad-midlist writers ditching the old system and jumping into the new. I think, however, Mr. Coker overestimates the breadth of the effect. Quality is always the toughest thing to produce in any enterprise. We have more of quality indie books, true. But not nearly so many that it makes competition any more formidable than it’s always been.

The writers who do the best in the future are going to be just like the writers who’ve done the best in the past. They will write books  readers love and keep that their primary mission.  

For those writers I still say there is good money to be made and deep satisfaction to be enjoyed in self-publishing. In fact I wrote a book about that. (In the interest of full disclosure, and adding to the anecdotal evidence, my own revenue has ticked upward in each of the last four months. I don’t have my novels in the KU program).

I therefore agree with Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, who says in a post at The Guardian: “Many of the association’s members are earning significant salaries now. I’m not talking here about the outliers, like the Kindle millionaires, but the many who are earning enough to leave their day jobs, feed their families, pay their mortgage, afford comforts and luxuries. And let us not forget that sales doesn’t just equal money, it equals readers. It’s one of my great delights to witness what this does for their confidence in themselves and in their work.”

One last thought. Mr. Coker surmises that, “Some authors are considering quitting.” Well, those are precisely the authors who should quit. This has never been a profession for the easily discouraged. As David Eddings has said, “Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead.”

It’s always been the case that the successful writers are the ones who can’t not write. Who exhibit persistence, discipline, production of words. Who write even in the face of serial rejection or dismal sales. These writers keep punching. As the old boxing guys used to say, you always have a puncher’s chance.

Can you accept that? Then politely tell Cassandra to put a cork in it…and get back to the keyboard.


49 thoughts on “Profits of Doom?

  1. While I’m not published, I am a consumer of books, and I don’t buy the gloom & doom prediction for indie authors either.

    RE: Kindle Unlimited: I adore Amazon. It’s my favorite retailer. Period. I go to them first for anything I need to get. However, I do NOT do Kindle Unlimited. It would not be worth my while. First, I already pay for Amazon Prime each year (which definitely pays for itself). I’m not going to add $10 a month for books when 1) They are unlikely to offer the books I want to read (largely nonfiction, and very selective non-fiction) and 2) With work and school, I don’t have time to read $120 worth of fiction a year (and I doubt I could find enough interesting fiction to spend $120 year) and again, they probably wouldn’t include all the titles I’d be interested in.

    Second, as a consumer, my outlay for e-books has only increased over recent years. Sure, based on my expenditures alone people aren’t exactly going to get that hot car they’ve been salivating over, but if many consumers are like me, spending $0.99 here, a couple bucks there, it all adds up.

    Third, since e-book costs are (sometimes) more affordable than print books, I give newer authors a chance more often. I would never have done that for print.

    Fourth, traditional publishers who sell ebooks on Amazon are STILL pricing themselves out of the market. I’m not paying $12 for an e-book of fiction. Maybe one day there’ll come a novel that will warrant me shelling out that kind of money but I seriously doubt it.

    So from where I’m standing, indie e-book authors are still in the best place to cash in, and I hope they won’t be discouraged by a few worriers.

    As you’ve stated, it’s STILL all about letting yourself be found in this vast marketplace, and then getting word of mouth.

  2. Yeah, there’s a lot of doom and gloom around–meanwhile, ion the Writer’s Cafe at Kboards, another lady quit her job because she’s making 10k a month off her writing. She said she has about five series, young adult cozy mysteries featuring witches. (I found it encouraging that you can do that well without writing erotica!)

  3. I haven’t received my first royalty cheque yet. Doing my best not to think about it at all, and when I can’t help it, when I allow myself to imagine some success, I do my best to keep my expectations low while I work on book 2.

    So, even though I thank you, Mr. Bell, for keeping me informed on what’s happening in the publishing world, I can’t stop to ponder or wonder.

    Head down, keys a’tapping….

    • Amanda, you’re just at the beginning of things. One book doth not an income stream make (unless you’re that one “lightning strikes” author that happens once maybe every couple of years). So I’m glad your head is down and the keys are tapping. That’s the sound I love to hear. That’s the sound of someone in it for the long haul, which means every single year until they haul you away.

  4. I’ve followed this buzz about falling Amazon profits for indie authors. I only have a few short stories up, having spent the last couple of years working to get better at writing novels, but I can see some self-published authors are worried.

    Me, I’ll take that puncher’s chance.
    I’m not stopping. Ever. I will continue training, practicing, reading, studying, aiming to write compelling novels and stories. I’d rather suit up every day and be in the ring regardless of the outcome than forever watching from the sidelines.

    • I like that as well, Dale. “I’d rather suit up every day and be in the ring regardless of the outcome than forever watching from the sidelines”

      I’d buy that mug.

    • Hey, JSB, I would have to challenge this assertion you made:

      The more quality you produce, the greater the word of mouth. This will happen no matter how vast the sea of options out there.

      For the writer just starting out, one who doesn’t have a private mailing list of established fans, just getting ten people to purchase, read, and review is a nearly insurmountable task. It doesn’t happen automagically even with a well-written book. I’m in that boat myself, and I’m currently swapping reviews with other indie writers who are producing books that are of high quality but still aren’t making sales because so few people know they exist. Maybe if I live to be 100, I can rely on word of mouth eventually growing my audience, but otherwise, that isn’t the reality for a newbie running into the nearly four million titles on Amazon.

      I’ve also heard that Amazon is counting KU lends as sales when they compute sales rankings, which means people who didn’t actually ‘sell’ their books are getting into the top 100 sales lists, which helps increase visibility and generates more sales and lends.


    • Kathy, admittedly I’m talking about a general rule, and yes, for the author with one book it’s the start of things. It almost always takes a set of books, and the books themselves have to be really good.

      I’m not saying to wait for word of mouth to kick in. Certainly do other things, most importantly whatever it takes to get better at the craft.

      I don’t have any stats or data about KU lends and rankings. But I have said in the past that going with Select is one strategy for the new writer who needs eyeballs more than income for the future.

      I hope that clarifies a bit.

  5. Jim, thanks for the great advice. And thanks for mentioning your book, HOW TO MAKE A LIVING AS A WRITER. I bought it on Kindle when it first came out. It was great. And your post today reminded me that I haven’t bought it in paperback yet. It’s now on my list for the next batch of books I buy.

    You mentioned that you’re not using the Kindle Unlimited program. In your book you quoted Hugh Howey as advocating the program. Has Howey changed his mind? Any pros and cons, from your standpoint, on Kindle Unlimited? Would it make sense to use it initially, then get out?

    Once again, thanks for a great post.

    • I linked to a post where Hugh takes a somewhat careful view, opting at the time for the increase in readership over the possibility of lower revenues.

      Most recently he an his Author Earnings report have taken a look at the effect of KU, not reaching definitive conclusions yet. This was last month. In his post on this he states: “To me, weighing all the benefits of KDP Select against the minus of exclusivity, my thinking is that KDP Select is great for those starting out and those selling at the very highest levels. For those in the middle, who might be getting traction on other outlets, the increase in sales does not seem to outweigh the percentage of the market given up.”

      This was before “highest level” author H. M. Ward reported that KU “crushed my sales.”

      NOTE: The first link in my post was supposed to be to Ward’s report on Passive Voice. I had it linked to a Howey post. Apologies. I’ve now changed it, and recommend you give it a read in light of this discussion.

  6. After more than ten years of writing unpublishable novels, I’m not going to let a little thing like a market trend stand in my way. My first is going up on Amazon in February. The next two are already in re-writes. How foolish to work that long and hard only to let a little competition force me to quit. My question to those who want to is this: is this tough market any worse than the fight to get trad published? We’ve always known we’d have to work hard. Nothing has changed.

  7. My current problem is that I abhor, absolutely abhor Amazon’s business model and tactics. I’ve stopped buying anything through them. This includes Kindle downloads. That means I’m missing out on many indie productions. Wouldn’t my becoming an indie author make me an absolute dependent on Amazon?

    • There were authors in the 90s who deplored what Barnes & Noble did to indie bookshops, yet they did not keep their books out of the largest retailer. Perhaps some did, and if there’s an ethical issue like that for a writer, there are other (albeit less profitable) avenues that are available. Nook, Kobo, iBooks. Also, selling direct, which more and more authors are doing.

      Heck, Gary Provost used to pack his car with print books and go door to door!

  8. I think the current challenge for indie authors is just one part of the overall picture. I recently read articles in PW describing how the numbers of submissions to major publishers are declining, and competition for good first works has become a feeding frenzy. Another article discussed how the sales tracking techniques used by publishers cannot accurately track (or therefore, assess) the sales data for indie books. That article, rightly I think, said that some indie authors will fall by the wayside, and some will continue to adapt and survive. It’s the Wikd West in publishing these days, but only the publishers are circling the wagons. The rest of us will be fine, as long as we keep trying.

  9. Reports like these do cause me a bit of panic. Oh no, I missed it, the profits are down, and now I’m going to starve and be one of those homeless people hawking their books on the street corners.

    And then the panic dies down when I realize this is pretty much business as usual, there will always be people saying profits are down and we’re all going to die in the gutter.

    Also, I’ve written this long without making money, so releasing the books into the wild to find readers won’t change things. It’s worrisome when people quit jobs and rely on that income for their bread and butter, but I’m not there yet, so I can afford to stick my head in the sand a bit.

    • You’re right, Elizabeth. Cassandra and Chicken Little have always like hanging out together. Until we make like Clint Eastwood and snarl, “Get off my lawn!”

      In the 90s, when I was coming up, I knew several writers who got contracts and quit the day job too soon. I always tried to caution against that. Have a least five books out and positive royalties flowing, and a new advance in hand, I’d say. And maybe not even then.

      Self-pubbing can become a nice side stream and then, possibly, a white-water river. You make the same choices along the way.

  10. I agree. If someone even considers quitting, it’s time to hang it up. Your heart isn’t really in it for the long haul. Great post, James!

  11. I haven’t read any ebooks yet. I gave my Kindle to my young daughter. (I ordered a paperback copy of your latest how to from Amazon. Thanks for that option!)
    I don’t have anything to add to the indie buzz except that I do not believe that sales equal readers. I buy too many books and have more books than I can read in my lifetime. Sales equal buyers.

  12. Well, absolutely, JSB. This isn’t the oil business here. Statistics is a strange one. We are constantly faced with “figure and ground” issues with statistical models. What to include and exclude with the statistical population base. Often I think that “extreems” should be excluded. Just think about home sales stats. Broad general strokes don’t mean much in the small world where we live. Genre-specific stats are more informative than lumping all fiction together.

    If we were all realistic we would quit writing and join the circus.

  13. I remember a similar argument when I had a real estate company during the big 70’s boom. Agents complained about unprofessional, part-timers taking business away and causing no end of trouble. This was largely true. These part-timers weren’t knowledgeable and gave poor service. Unfortunately, it was hard for customers to pic them out.

    It’s different with books. You can read “samples” and get a good idea about whether you will like the book. Nothing ventured. Nothing lost. Crummy books are not harming good the ones. Nor are the diluting the pond.

  14. I’m an indie.

    Before KU, I used to be able to pay all my bills and feed myself from my books. Since KU, I am not afraid to admit that I have been STRUGGLING . My sales have plummeted by a whopping 70%. I kid you not.

    Before KU, very rare would you see my sales ranking in the one-hundred-thousands on Amazon. Since KU, I’ve been dawdling as low as the four–hundred-thousands.

    It’s HORRIBLE!

    I’ve wasted hundreds of dollars on marketing strategies that produced no results. Out of panic, I have tried all kind of things to get my books back where they used to be. Nope, KU has ruined everything for me.

    I do not believe Amazon cares about indie authors, period. They care about the customers.

    I told my best friend at this I have no choice but to get a part-time job, because I can’t NOT write, but I also need to eat and pay my bills, and Amazon has screwed me royally.

    That’s my two cents.

    Kudos to those who this hasn’t affected and are still making thousands monthly.

  15. JSB–
    To the issue of “discoverability”: what’s missing is some kind of respectable vetting process that will do for indie publishing what traditional reviewers and review organs (newspapers and magazines) used to do (and to a lesser degree still do) for commercial publishing. Perhaps it’s time for people of influence like you to promote some kind of organization that can serve as an objective “quality control” mechanism. BookBub is viewed as an honest dealer with standards for what it advertises. It seems conceivable that an equivalent non-profit could be established whose purpose would be to set up review panels–perhaps by genre–and to publish the findings for readers. Gone would be the paid-for reviews, those written by family and friends, etc. Books would get looked at–up to the point where they stopped being worth the time. Any book good enough to be read to the end would now be worthy of a short commentary, etc. What would be the standards for evaluation? ? That would have to be worked out. Who would pay for such a service? I can imagine lots of people who for a charitable-contribution tax deduction would be interested in writing a small annual check. Who knows? Maybe some foundations might be interested as well, to the end of promoting literacy and the written language.
    Just a thought.

    • And: I can well imagine lots of readers interested in paying a modest subscription fee for access to the monthly/weekly publication of such an organization.

    • Barry, I do know some have floated this idea before. Honestly, I think the days of a one-stop curator (like the NY Times c. 1960) are over. There may pop up small, niche slices, but I don’t know if there’s enough market there for a paid program.

      But certainly anyone can make the attempt.

    • Again, from the standpoint of a reader, I don’t need any organization vetting books for me, and my tastes often diverge from what critics fawn over. I’ll make my own decisions on quality. If I want to discover books, it won’t be through an organization like this.

    • BK–I’m not talking about serving up what some critic fawns over, or establishing an arbiter of taste. I’m talking about a way to apply basic standards related language, to publish those standards, and to invite readers who share a respect for such standards to subscribe to a service. I think such an offering would make it easier to find good books that have no other means of being discovered. Word of mouth is fine, unless a book has no way of gaining visibility. I may be wrong, but I think this happens a lot.

  16. I released an ebook novella under a new pen name this summer with no advance promo and limited promo from my publisher afterwards. That book, and the two subsequent books under that pen name have sold very well. They are fairly niche and are written as well as my original pen name books which haven’t sold much at all despite all the promo efforts I’ve made. I am coming to the conclusion that a lot of this comes down to writing the right book and releasing it at the right time, which are two ‘unknowables’ until hindsight enlightens us. What I’m doing now is writing another for the ‘successful’ pen name with plans to self-publish and use some of the profits from that to promote my ‘unsuccessful’ works (since they are certainly as good as the ones that sell!)

    • Lynn, there certainly are factors we cannot know or control. What we have to concentrate on is what we can control and pound that as best we can, every time out. You have a good idea about investing some of the profits. Deal-alert services (e.g., BookGorilla) is the best use of those dollars, IMO.

  17. I released my first book in January of this year. I sold a few the first couple of months (friend, family, blog ‘friends’, etc). Then, I went four months with 2 sales per month and that’s including Smashwords and B&N. I joined KDP Select/KU in late July and my sales have grown. I don’t use the money to pay bills. I use it for writing expenses (workshops, office supplies, etc) and I’m happy to be able to do that with just one novel.

  18. I love that Wild West idea. The gold rush perhaps it over but its a big brave new world full of possibilities.

    It’s late and I am not feeling too wordy. But I wanted to be faithful to my habit of interacting each day. Thanks for the article Mr. Bell. I always look forward to your contributions.

  19. As you say, persistence pays. The writer who gives up will never earn a living at it. Your career is only over when you say it is. Getting more quality work out there is the best move you can make.

    • I always wonder when people stress about “quality works”. Yes, this rule #1 in indie publishing, and should be adhered to, no questions asked.

      But “quality” doesn’t mean your books will sell. And just because a book is not doing well on the market does it mean we should assume it isn’t “quality”.

      Quality works haven’t been hitting Amazon Top 100, USA Today or the New York Times for quite some time now, if we care to be honest about it. Half the time the books on these lists are garbage, leaving me to wonder how on earth they made these lists with such terrible, badly edited writing and plot-less stories.

      That’s because quality matters but at the same time it doesn’t. It’s all about word of mouth, connections to the right people, a loyal fan base and a sprinkle of dishonesty. That’s what’s been shooting those awful books to the top, while “quality” struggles.

      How many times have you taken a step back from all the hype and end up finding a nice little gem? Quality. A book that nothing on the big lists can compare to?

      Me? All the time.

    • But this is true for anything, from sports to business. There is one sure way not to succeed, and that’s to give up. There is only one way to have a shot, and that’s never to give up.

      That’s why the writers who have the best chance are those who love what they do, so that love sustains them in their drive.

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