Self-Publishing: New Formats, Old Challenges (but Amazon Still Rules)

Alex Daniel, in a recent article for Publishers Weekly, outlined this year’s trends for self-publishing. The field is growing, presenting new opportunities for indie authors and publishers, he says, but one has to “expand the definition of ‘self-published author’ to encompass new roles and new formats.”

Self-publishing is on the rise

The ISBN-issuing agency and publisher Bowker released a few numbers in its report, “Self-Publishing in the United States, 2010-2015: Print vs. Ebook,” that support that claim. Based on the number of the ISBNs registered in the U.S. during the specified time period:

  • ISBNs for self-published titles increased 375% since 2010
  • Self-publishing grew 21% between 2014-2015
  • 153,000 ISBNs were assigned to self-published titles in 2010, compared to 727,100 in 2015

The identified trends included:

  • More writers taking advantage of traditional publishing houses and self-publishing
  • Libraries and booksellers seeking opportunities to offer more self-published content
  • The number of self-published authors reaching prominent bestseller lists is on the rise

Jennifer Alsever, writing for Fortune, calls the global self-publishing phenomenon “The Kindle Effect” as Kindle Direct Publishing allows anyone to upload and sell a book for free. Citing the numbers from data site Author Earnings, she writes:

“This year Jeff Bezos’s company released 4 million e-titles, and 40% were self-published. Those volumes accounted for 25% of Amazon’s $2.3 billion in ebook revenues…

Independent authors enjoy more creative control and far better royalties: They keep 50% to 70% of book sales, vs. 15% to 25% royalties for traditionally published books. So-called independent books increasingly land at the top of bestseller lists, are optioned to be Hollywood movies, and generate real money for their authors.”

It’s harder for authors to stand out

The expansion doesn’t come without challenges, of course. Daniel writes:

“New services have made it easier than ever to launch self-publishing projects, and as the landscape gets more crowded, it becomes more difficult for authors to stand out and make a profit.”

Daniel quotes Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, an e-book-distribution platform for independent authors and publishers, who says the sheer volume of e-books flooding the market is making it difficult for authors to get their books discovered. Amazon’s shift from compensating authors based on the number of pages read vs. the number of books sold isn’t helping, in Coker’s opinion.

According to Coker:

“Amazon has not made anything easier for indie authors’ bottom lines with KDP Select, which requires participating authors to publish e-books exclusively with Amazon and allows titles to be eligible for Kindle Unlimited — a program that provides unlimited books for readers who pay a monthly subscription fee.”

Becoming your own publisher

As a result, more self-publishing authors are partnering with brands to deliver content in different formats, like audio, plus focus on getting the print version into the libraries and the brick-and-mortar stores. This means that authors have to become their own publicists, media consultants and marketers, and figure out ways to publish their book across different platforms. On top of all that, savvy authors also feel like that they have to learn the best way to track performance by using analytical data and existing tools and services, to tweak their global marketing efforts.

In her September article for The New York Times Alexandra Alter points out that while e-book sales keep tumbling the sales of print books and downloadable audio books are up, and the bookstores, including the indie ones, are doing better overall.

Alter writes:

“While publishers once fretted that digital book sales were eroding more profitable categories like hardcover, they now are finding that e-books — which cost next to nothing to produce and zero to ship and which can’t be returned as unsold merchandise by retailers — are critical profit engines. But e-book sales have fallen precipitously for months, in part because many publishers have raised their prices after negotiating with Amazon and gaining the ability to set their own prices.”

A success story from an Amazon author

OK, so self-publishing authors should help move their product by becoming their own publicists, but can they do it? And do they want to?

Why, yes. Some authors are more than thriving doing just that. One great example is the rise of A.G. Riddle (of The Origin Mystery trilogy), with his books sales surpassing millions on Amazon, Audible, and many foreign markets.

Observer‘s Brady Dale interviewed him last February for the publication’s ongoing Titans of Kindle series, asking, among other things, what was his biggest sales driver. (At the time of this post being written A.G. Riddle was ranked #52 Top 100 authors overall.)

While admitting that some of his success may be attributed by the mere fact that people just want to read his books, A.G. Riddle said it was also the “curb appeal in the Amazon store” and that Amazon “reviews are huge.” Another is pricing, Riddle said. Price too low, and hurt the sales. Price too high, same thing.

He noted:

“I agree with the idea that people assign value to the idea of price… But I think when you’re breaking into the market […] when I first came out in March 2013, people would see a 99-cent book and they weren’t as put off or scared, but I think that the psychology might have changed… I think it’s important, if you’re pricing low, that you do it as an introductory price.”

Digital Book World 2017: E-book sales are NOT dwindling

In an article dated January 18 this year, the same writer, Brady Dale, disputed the accuracy of the numbers showing that e-book sales are declining, attributing it to the fact that those reported numbers only cover part of the market, such as, for instance, large publishers only. “In fact, if anything, we don’t yet have an adequate way to estimate how much the market segment has grown,” Dale commented.

He cites two separate presentations at Digital Book World held in NYC on January 17-19 — by the previously mentioned Author Earnings and publishing tech firm Overdrive. “It became clear that ‘unit sales’ may not be the best way to measure the size of the book market,” Dale writes. “In more and more ways it’s becoming clear that there are additional ways for writers to earn money than by readers buying whole books or even buying books at all.”

Dale also pointed out that e-book sales reports tend to overlook the numbers pulled from Kindle Unlimited. Some consider those not real sales in a strict sense, because Amazon splits the revenue with the authors based on the number of pages read by members.

Amazon sales as of October 2016

The Digital Book World presentation by Author Earnings was largely based on the company’s October 2016 report. All estimates, according to the company, are of all the sales on Amazon only, with 20,000 unique publishers.

Also, the following note was included with the company’s October 2016 report. It may help better understand how the numbers are compiled:

“Due to their relatively small number of titles, Amazon Publishing’s sales are generally the most volatile from report to report. And this data snapshot was collected early in the month, when Amazon’s six KindleFirst titles held all 5 of the top 5 overall best-seller slots, and 6 of the top 7. But still, the KF titles made up only 2% of overall Amazon Kindle sales, or half of the increase we see in Amazon Imprint market share.”

Here are some other key takeaways from the presentation:

  • Author Earnings estimates that approximately 486,000 e-book units were sold in 2016
  • Amazon’s 2016 e-book sales grew 4%, compared to 2015. “For the last three years in a rising ebook market, traditional publishers have been rapidly losing market share to self-published authors and Amazon imprints…”
  • In 2016, Amazon imprints published approximately 7,770,000 audiobooks, 60,000,000 e-books, and 960,000 print books
  • No ISBN? No problem. On Amazon, 43% e-books purchased don’t have ISBN

Dale mentions that it took years for data companies like Author Earnings to come up with more or less accurate numbers for Amazon sales. He writes:

“No one will ever be able to get a God-view on the entire book market, but some sources incorporate as much information as they can while others appear intent on pretending like growing segments of the market just aren’t there. Which sounds more reliable?”

Still, a few things are clear: Self-publishing is on the rise and evolving to allow authors not only set the price of their work but also pick and choose from a number of different formats — print and digital — as well as hybrid services and tools, across various platforms.

Support for self-publishers on Amazon

As a result of Amazon.com’s market dominance in vending independently publishes books and ebooks, the first thing authors and publishers should do to promote their books is improve their presence on Amazon. Orobora has been helping authors promote their books on Amazon for two decades. We have some incredibly successful campaigns and resources to help you.

Amazon Makeovers. Our marketing specialists access Amazon through a back door and take control of your author page and product pages, then load them up with compelling content. Take a look at our Amazon Top Reviewer Campaign page for examples.

Getting Customer Reviews on Amazon. We locate the Amazon reviewers who are most respected in your market area and approach them to review your product(s). These are not fake reviews or paid reviews but honest reviews by reviewers Amazon customers trust the most. The results are incredible!

Amazon Self-Promotion Resources. Please see a series of videos we have produced showing exactly how to fix up your Amazon pages and attract top reviewers on Amazon. You can do the work yourself or hire Orobora to do it, but you are wasting your best marketing vehicle if you don’t actively promote your products right at the world’s cash register: Amazon.com.

Images by rawpixel/123RF Stock Photo (top) and akz/123RF Stock Photo.

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