2018: A Retrospective

Of the emails I send, I get the most responses from readers on “the author biz.” I initially figured few people would like to hear about the inner clockwork mechanism of indie publishing, but in hindsight it’s not crazy so many readers want to hear about it. I mean, you’re readers, and have a special relationship with writers.

2018 hasn’t been kind to indie authors. I know quite a few friends and colleagues who’ve noped out of the profession, and also a number who’ve made it rain C-notes from the sky. With this kind of duality going on, shit’s confusing. The reasons are, in business parlance, “nuanced.” Let’s dig in, shall we?


Hugging it Out

Some author friends (…who are actually just friends who also write) and I Skype’d in December. We talked about a lot of things, but the tone of the conversation was, overall, dire. Not a single person on the Skype wasn’t feeling some form of burnout. The authors I know are fairly rugged, overachieving, hard working people. They don’t tend to complain, so when they do, shit got real, yo.

We wanted to diagnose the problem before jumping to solutions. We categorized the challenges into four main groups; while burnout was real, that’s not where things started.

  1. Incumbency
  2. Interaction
  3. Energy Positivity
  4. Burnout

Incumbency

When you’re trying to shill books to an eager crowd of readers, what you need is eyeballs on your product. The problem is, humans are creatures of habit; we like watching the same TV shows and movie series just as much as we like reading the same author. I’m sure you’ve all got a must-buy author: the one when, no matter what they release, you buy it. The challenge with habituated humanity is getting them to change is hard. It’s no different with getting readers to try something new, like your it’s-actually-amazing-just-trust-me book.

Let’s talk numbers. The Boz recently mentioned, “…over a thousand independent authors surpassed $100,000 in royalties in 2017 through Kindle Direct Publishing.” 2017 was reported by many authors as far, far better than 2018, but let’s work with this.

Having only a thousand people make >$100k is a serious, serious industry problem. If you pointed at any other industry and said, “A thousand people make over $100k,” you’d know the industry was sick. The money isn’t evenly distributed – the $100k income isn’t shared between those people equally. The top earners make Scrooge McDuck’s money vaults look like pocket change. Those figures say that very few people make a livable salary from writing.

The problem is compounded by incumbency. The indie author boom started somewhere around 2010. Authors able to create quality content fast built a readership. They have a decent group of readers who, being creatures of habit, will stay in those story-world funnels. On top of this is advertising: when you have a successful business, you can afford to spend money on marketing. The figures I’ve had from successful authors (over $100k) say they spend 10-35% of their income on advertising. One author I know who is very good at their business spends $3-4k a month on ads, which exceeds most authors’ earnings.

What we have is a numbers problem. The successful remain successful because they have a) readership and b) money to invest in their business. They aren’t competing so much with people like me as they are with each other. The same names appear in the top ten categories at your favorite retailer because those authors have a) readers and b) advertising dollars, both fueled by a long history of writing quality content. New authors might be able to compete on quality, but they can’t compete on readership or ads dollars. Readership, and its associated revenue, comes from time or a cash injection, and I don’t know many people who can afford to drop USD$3,500/month out of their existing household budgets.

It’s not impossible to become successful at writing, but it’s harder than ever. I know few authors who claim their 2018 revenue increased (it has for some, but for the majority it’s gone the other way). The low- and mid- tier pools are growing and merging, with the incumbents are relatively entrenched at the top. This isn’t a criticism on incumbents, although I see a lot of marketing advice from established authors that boils down to, “You should have been writing before 2010.”

If you like other authors who share data, Chris Fox’s Income Report is a good watch. You’ll note his income is overall up, but because he can get into things like audio and consulting; his ebook business continues to trend downward. He notes the treadmill required for success.


Interaction

A thing with not having a huge megacorp between you and your customers is you get to build enduring, meaningful relationships with them. I got into writing partly because it let me have great conversations with fans, some of whom became friends.

In the goal of increasing interaction with our readers, writers use a variety of tools. A website, like this one. Email. Facebook, Twitter, or other social channels. A few things hit these channels that caused interaction to go down, and not just a little.

  • General email fatigue is a big player. Someone worked out that using email to sell was a great idea (and it was for a brief period). Now, your average indie author’s email is riddled with buy-my-shit and buy-this-other-guy’s-shit-too. The net effect, even for authors who create quality, innovative email content, is a reduction in open/click rates, one-to-one replies, and a corresponding increase in unsubscribes. Everyone gets too much email, and as the efficacy of this channel as an outreach program goes down, people scream into the pipe louder, further reducing the reach, and thus the great snake eats its tail forever. This was combined with the Great MailerLite Fuckery™ debacle, through which I saw the destruction of my own email, with even friends and family unable to get messages from me.
  • Facebook, not content with the world getting screamed at through email, has really upped their spam game too. Organic reach, whereby you post a thing and people see it, is a trash fire; Facebook litter my feed with insistent demands to pay $10 to reach my fans. Fans are largely oblivious to this, because Facebook are now doing this in stealth mode, reducing reach of Pages that don’t pay to boost posts. The authors on our Skype noted that Facebook is almost worthless now, for two reasons. First, the onus is on the Page owner to generate content to entertain Facebook’s followers; hardly anyone creates posts in Groups anymore, so this is a lot of work. Second, those posts are seen less and less frequently, because Facebook want money from Page owners to reach the very people actively interested in that content. When I asked the Skype people whether we should still even be on Facebook, the answer was, “Umm?” Authors are getting a lot less out of the interaction cycle – it’s taking more work and money to achieve less results. No one can point to Facebook as a profit engine (outside the Ads Platform – totally different thing). Yet, authors feel they must be there, because fans are there, and there’s demand. It’s a horrible place to be, because it’s a beast that must be endlessly fed, for very few rewards (which are, remember, actual interaction).

The authors on our Skype preferred talking through our websites or email. It’s personal, it’s direct, and it’s heartfelt. But – and there’s always a but! – trying to engage readers that way is difficult; we all know we need more feeds to follow like we need a case of syphilis, and despite the absolute torching of privacy by Facebook, early results from my recent reader survey shows it’s people’s preferred social media channel by far.


Energy Positivity

Creative arts take a lot of energy positivity. I’m not talking chakras ‘n’ shit; this is about how to create cool, interesting characters who pop off the page, live interesting lives, and kill people with enthusiasm.

Linked to energy positivity is the feedback from the previous cycles. One of our Skypers said things at the moment feel like, “shouting into the void.” It’s not just the emails that go unopened or unanswered, or the Facebook posts with zero reach; that’s explainable, albeit difficult to swallow. What authors are seeing now is a drastic reduction in things like feedback (e.g. reviews, or emails saying, “This character was a huge dick”). Most authors write so their stories can be read, not for self gratification. Hearing from people buoys us up.

We suspect this reduction is related to general fatigue in the world, but where one in a hundred used to leave a review, it’s more like one in a thousand on a good day now. I heard from a newer author recently who was frustrated trying to get people to read, let alone review, their new story (and it’s a good one). When we put so much energy into creating a wonderful tale, it’s heartbreaking to see it ignored.

Adding to this malaise are things that are energy negative. There are two important ones our Skypers see:

  • Piracy. As our sales go down, pirates sites are awash with our content. December sales are normally very difficult for the author community regardless of which year; money is tight, we get that. What we have an issue with is people stealing what they can’t justify the price for. This December, an automated service I use (Blasty) issued take-down notices to 249 infringing sites. That’s not stolen books, as each of those sites can distribute tens or hundreds of our books. Thousands of people stole my work (my books cost about as much as a Venti Caffe Latte at Starbucks, and last a great deal longer).
  • Freebie seekers. Services like Prolificworks (previously Instafreebie), Kindle Unlimited, and mailing lists like BookBub are teaching readers that books are valueless, and/or should be free. I’ve lost count of the number of people who find my work via a promotion, and tell me via email (all while noting they read books digitally on an expensive tablet, phone, or purpose-built e-reader costing hundreds of dollars) they can’t afford books. Kindle Unlimited pays authors less, assuming a decent-length novel, than we make by selling a book. For every bargain someone gets, another person is paying. It’s not fucking Amazon! It’s the authors who pay, by way of reduced earnings, because people do not value reading enough to pay $3.99 for an 80,000-word book that took 200 hours to write, with a high-quality cover and editing services.

I try to keep my grin in place, but it’s wearisome to maintain positivity in the face of so many people who love your work but don’t want to pay for it, and/or will happily steal it. You might think that pirates and freebie seekers are a small percentage of the book-buying population, but I can assure you that more copies of my back catalogue are stolen than I sell. I have theories on why this is, but most authors don’t collect data like I do and/or aren’t in a position to share it. Buying books on sale pays authors, in the parlance of our people, “Fuckall.” This isn’t just an indie problem, either.


Burnout

Lo, we made it here in the end. I hope you’re still with me, and not reaching for the gin and razor blades.

One of our Skypers said they felt constantly like they were, “At the bottom of the mountain again.” For all the work we do writing the best stories we can, it’s insufficient to gain a readership (and thus, hard cold cash). There are contributing factors to burnout, but most are because no matter how hard authors work, we see reducing returns on that time and/or money investment. Because authors tend to be highly motivated types, they work harder when things get tough, right up to the point they self-destruct.

The top five things we’ve seen contributing to our general fatigue? Let’s have a look.

  1. Reach, particularly Facebook. We touched on this above, but the real impact for 2018 specifically was how Facebook changed the algorithm/rules and hammered smaller businesses flat. We work more for a reduced return.
  2. MailerLite’s spam issues impacting our business. Also noted above, but most of us thought it was something we did and tried to change, all while noting a dwindling contact pool with our readers. We tried to engage more, try neat things, and exhausted ourselves on the treadmill of another business’s failings. MailerLite was incredibly popular with authors, and it took a long time for the collective  to understand what was going on. Many authors are still ignorant of this, and churn away at decreasing reach with little return.
  3. Amazon KU pagereads. In August/September my author business was picking up, then Amazon changed (waves arms vaguely) something. Most authors in various communities saw a reduction of 30-50% of the pageread revenue Amazon reported to them. I saw this too; despite increasing advertising spend, my income halved. Amazon have given a variety of non-answers, but to see a third to a half of your income evaporate is soul-destroying. Amazon Kindle Unlimited pays based on the number of pages read in a book (hence: “pagereads”). It doesn’t pay as well as an outright sale as we’ve noted above, but the volume is supposed to salve the burn. That volume’s gone away for most authors I’ve spoken with. Amazon are overall trickier to wrangle; they can completely destroy your book launch and there’s nothing you can do about it.
  4. BookBub efficacy. BookBub offer a promotional service where authors can get a book featured for many dollars (Tyche’s Flight ran in December for USD$740, IIRC). Previously, featured deals could make an author’s career on discount books through volume; this isn’t working anymore (in my own results I saw less than half the average downloads they suggested for the title). Many authors note giving away books free is still an effective use of their platform, assuming your series has decent sell-through. One author in our clique managed a modest profit on a boxed set priced $2.99 (so, 70% royalty, not the 35% afforded at 99c deals). These are expensive, and after you blown a month’s advertising budget on one, you’re left somewhat miserable as to why you’re out of money and people start pirating your books.
  5. AMS and Facebook ads efficacy. We’ve seen an assorted dose of fuckery across the board here. AMS blacklist ads looking vaguely “adult,” stopping many authors marketing their works at all. Facebook’s ads platform is heavily oversaturated; you can get a lot of social reach and likes and shares, but very few purchases. Ads need constant tuning to be effective, and even the most successful advertisers in our business notice ads stop working for no credible reason.

…The End?

If you’re wondering why your favorite author seems a little less sprightly, this might shed some light on things for you. If you’re interested in how terribly, terrible bad 2018’s been for me:

  • I’ve earned around NZD19,000 (USD$12,800) this year (our tax year ends in March, so there’s some runway), and
  • I’ve spent around NZD$16,000 (USD$10,800) on software, advertising, editorial, covers, and so on.

My profit is NZD$3,000 (USD$2,000) for a year’s hard work. Ignoring the profit side of things, I’ve never made so little in my professional career (not even adjusting for inflation). The only time I’ve made less was working a paper route and then at a supermarket. My poor wife is run ragged paying the bills and supporting us both through this; we find it heartbreaking. So many people tell me I’m the best writer they’ve read, and pirates would agree, but people willing to buy books seem to be in the minority.

I’ve spent the last two years writing the best stories I’m able. All my savings is gone ($80,000 invested in the two-year business plan), and my year-on-year author income continues to decline. I’ve mentioned to a few people I feel like a failure, and with some surprise realized I’d slipped into depression toward the end of 2018. Friends see pre-orders of their works achieving five or six hundred units; my last title got 59. 59 people thought my work was good enough to pay the equivalent of a Starbucks Venti Caffe Latte. I know hundreds pirated it, though.

2019 will bring a number of changes, but it’s almost certain it means the reduction of my writing. When I embarked on this career change in 2016, it looked sustainable, but the landscape has changed drastically and not for the better. I’ll keep writing as I love it, but at a reduced pace. To my fans and friends who’ve supported me, thank you – it means the world. You’re awesome, and I couldn’t have got this far without you.


ICYMI

If you missed the emails, you may want to read a few choice pieces:

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