Monday, October 15, 2012

Is this party over?

I made the decision to put my books up for sale on Amazon and other e-book retailers in the summer of 2010.  Things were just beginning to take off in this space at that time, with a growing enthusiasm among "Indie" writers for the e-book publishing revolution.  Self-published stars like Amanda Hocking and John Locke were on their way to the million mark in downloads and others like Joe Konrath were trumpeting their own success stories and others.

My first book, No Cure for the Broken Hearted, went up for sale in late November of that year.  To my surprise, it did remarkably well, climbing to #9 on the overall bestseller list at Amazon UK.  The price was a low .49 pence, but I was selling upwards of 300 copies per day across all platforms, ultimately selling 45,000 or so copies and garnering some great reviews.

I had high hopes for my second book, Sweet Ophelia (currently Tinseltown Fairytale).  It also ended up getting mostly good reviews but sold only about a third as many copies.  My latest book, Natalia, came out one month ago.  So far it has sold about eight copies, six of which were to family and friends.

So what happened?  It would be easy to say that people just don't like the sound of my latest book, but I know that there is more to it than that.  I follow the "Indie" writer's forum (Writer's Cafe) over at Kindle Boards, and by the way many of the writers over there are wringing their hands about their sales "going off a cliff," it is clear that something bigger is going on.

I have to say, I never really did trust the system much even when my first book took off.  I always figured that what Amazon gave, Amazon could somehow take away.  Not that it is necessarily Amazon's fault.  The jury is still out on that, but there seemed to be plenty of variables stacked against the long-term potential of this publishing paradigm.  Not that I didn't hope for the best, but always with caution.

Back in 2010 I saw two possible culprits for a crash.  The first was piracy.  Quite a few writers on the boards have the opinion that piracy is actually good for independent writers, since it gets more people reading our books, who might illegally download one but then buy the next, or spread the word about a particular writer.  I never bought into this theory.  To me, piracy is stealing, pure and simple, but I don't think it is having any large scale impact at this point in any case.

Another issue was the huge surge of self-pubbed books going up online all the time.  I've read somewhere that 50,000 new self-published books go up on Amazon every month.  Some are well-written but many are just junk, put up by people hoping for a quick and easy buck.  The bottom line is that this just makes it harder and harder to stand out in this massive sea of material.

A third thing that hurts sales overall is the proliferation of free books.  Authors like myself found that in order to stand out, sometimes it pays to give away a book for free for some period of time.  Free books count towards overall sales rank, so when you go off free you have a lot more visibility than you did before.  The first time I did this, with Sweet Ophelia, I gave away about 50,000 copies in a week and then had $3500 in sales the next week.  Not bad.  But as more and more writers give away more and more free books, I think some readers become inclined not to pay for books at all.  Great for them but bad for us writers.

The last thing, and this one is the hardest to quantify, is the tweaking that Amazon does with their algorithms.  This, I suspect, is what the sales crash for independent writers is mostly caused by at the moment.  Book sales on Amazon are driven to a large degree by the "Also Bought" listings you see on every page.  If enough people buy a certain book and then another, those two books will show up on listings on each others pages.  In this way, they drive each others sales.  The more books a writer sells, the more listings they show up on and sales can grow exponentially.

Amazon has algorithms, or equations, that they use to calculate which books show up where and what a book's ranking is on the bestseller lists.  From time to time they tweak these algorithms to favor one variable or another.  Free books, for example, used to count for a lot on the bestseller lists (after they'd reverted to paid books).  Now those free books don't count for much and the corresponding sales boosts after a free run have dissipated dramatically.

Honestly I don't think that anyone outside of Amazon knows what the reasons are for the huge sales slump amongst independent writers.  All I know for sure is that I did a free run with Tinseltown Fairytale earlier this month that led to three paid sales.  Other than that I only sold one other book in the last two weeks.  That means I've earned $8 in fifteen days.  Not quite the way to make a living.

So it leaves me wondering, is this self-published e-book party really over?  I'd always expected that this day might come, but I'd hoped I could run with my earlier success a little bit longer before it crashed.  I'm not giving up completely yet.  I'm working on a memoir now and have plans for some sequels to Natalia, though with nobody buying the first one it is a little hard to motivate to write the next.

Perhaps when Christmas comes along, all of the new Kindle owners will go on book buying sprees and boost all of our Indie writer's boats.  It isn't like people suddenly stopped reading, in any case.  They are reading now more than ever, according to statistics.  Apparently they just don't seem to be buying independent authors at the moment, for whatever reason.  I'm willing to give it some more time, in any case, but it does seem that there are dark clouds gathering at the moment...

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