Profits of Doom?

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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.


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