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Thursday, December 05, 2013

The state of independent publishing

One-quarter of the top 100 Amazon sellers are independently published:
As many as a quarter of the top 100 Kindle books on Amazon.com are from indie publishers, according to data revealed at a trade presentation by the retailer. A chart detailing the 25 top-selling indie titles in 2012 was passed on by an audience member via Twitter. Though the term indie is broad, covering everything from self-published authors to publishing houses that fall outside the big six, the news has been interpreted as a victory for the go-it-alone author. However in the US the term has come to mean self-published. A spokeswoman for Amazon.com said: "This figure is referring to Kindle books on Amazon.com in 2012, with 'indie' meaning books self-published via Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). So a quarter of the top 100 bestselling Kindle books on Amazon.com in 2012 were self-published via KDP."
Amazon is playing a little fast and loose with the term "indie" here. KDP does not require self-publishing; Marcher Lord has multiple Kindle Select titles that are not self-published. I suspect Amazon doesn't want to rub it in the major publisher's faces that they are already as much a super-publisher as a retail channel. Indie quite clearly means independent publishers AND self- publishers.

My experience with the both world of conventional mainstream publishing as well as indie ebook publishing may be useful here.  I looked up my old reports from various publishers, which happens to include a few books that were not mine, and found the following numbers for conventionally published books distributed through the the traditional bookstores:

SS1: 12,348
SS2: 43,000
SS3: 8,000
IN1: 4,790
IN2: 3,815
IN3: 3,441
IN4: 2,796

Books in bold are mine. The others are not mine, but the numbers are hard. Now, one year ago today, I published A Throne of Bones with Marcher Lord Hinterlands. In terms of sales, it is basically a pure ebook and it isn't available in any bookstore.

ATOB: 1,989

Here is where it gets interesting.  Let's assume, for the simplicity's sake, that the three novellas and SE are a single ebook called SE+.

SE+ PAID: 2,163
SE+ FREE: 21,681

So, even as a relative nobody, who is primarily known for being hated within the genre, and lacking a single book for sale on a bookshelf anywhere, I am still able to sell nearly as many copies of a book in a single year as a well-established minor conventional publisher managed to sell through traditional channels in a book's lifetime.  Since IN1 is one of my books, that indicates that I'm only able to sell about half as many books without conventional distribution, but the higher royalty rate balances that out. Conventional publishing will do literally nothing for me unless it is one of the six majors.

That being said, it is clear that even from my non-bestselling experience, the major publishers can still push more books than the same writer can reasonably expect to sell on his own. But since they pay lower royalties, which The Author's Guild describes as 15% of list on hardcovers and 25% of revenue on ebooks, a major publisher still has to sell twice as many copies just to keep pace with the independent revenues.

But that is far from the only consideration. Pocket signed me to write six books. I only wrote four of them and they only published three of them. Even if you sign a book contract with one of the six major publishers, even if you write and deliver the book, even if the book is edited, accepted, and the second half of the advance is paid, there is still no guarantee that the book will ever be published. Now, it's not a bad gig, being paid to not write books, but it's hard to really build on your success that way.

To top it all off, the ability to give ebooks away allows me to reach 10x more readers. I previously worked out that one out of every five free SE+ readers will subsequently buy ATOB. And, most importantly, the primary limiting factor, the publisher's print run, no longer applies. I could have sold considerably more copies of The War in Heaven and The World in Shadow had they not been limited by the print run; both books sold through their respective print runs, which caused the vice-president to call me up, congratulate me, and promptly signed me to two more books... neither of which were either completed or published due to organizational changes that had nothing to do with me. Hence the absence of Stalking the Beast from my literary oeuvre

Here is how I see the pros and cons of independent publishing:

Pros: higher royalties, no print runs, no 6-18 months publishing delays, guaranteed publication, no gatekeeping, total freedom.

Cons: lower sales numbers, no books in bookstores, no marketing, no advances, no professional validation, no free editing and cover art.

Since print runs and publisher reorgs have been the bane of my publishing history, and since I insist on being heavily involved with my covers, there simply isn't any doubt that indie publishing is my preference. If, on the other hand, all you're really looking for is professional validation, then you probably won't be happy with publishing independently.

I tend to suspect that Hugh Howey has demonstrated the future of the industry for the successful writer, which is to publish the ebooks independently and publish print books through a mainstream publisher.  However, it will be very difficult for established writers to swing this and an independent probably has to sell at least 100k ebooks per year before the major publishers will be seriously interested in that sort of arrangement.

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28 Comments:

Anonymous Feh December 05, 2013 1:04 PM  

"no free editing and cover art" -- of course, it's not even really "free" since they take it out of your hide in the form of a lower royalty.

Anonymous Ted December 05, 2013 1:06 PM  

Business question... " Pocket signed me to write six books. I only wrote four of them and they only published three of them. "

What happened/happens to the book they published? Do the rights revert back to you eventually?

Anonymous Ted December 05, 2013 1:07 PM  

What happened/happens to the book they NEVER published?

Anonymous Josh December 05, 2013 1:07 PM  

Hence the absence of Stalking the Beast from my literary oeuvre

What was this book about?

Blogger Beefy Levinson December 05, 2013 1:17 PM  

Suppose the independent publishing industry completely collapsed. I still retain all the rights to my work and can submit it to a traditional publisher. If I've published my book the traditional way and the publisher goes belly up, it'll take many years and a lot of legal work to try and publish my book elsewhere. If I ever can.

I have artistically talented friends who can do my cover art. And I have friends who are happy to proofread my rough drafts in exchange for booze and smokes (after the job is done, heh.) I'm just one dummy on the internet, but from where I'm sitting the prestige of having a physical copy of your book published by a mainstream publisher sounds like it costs way more than it's worth.

Anonymous CLK December 05, 2013 1:19 PM  

"no books in bookstores"... funny thing is normally cant find the book I want in book stores anyway... and when I buy a book (and I probably $1000 a year in books) I like them not to be read thru like many of the books at B&N store. I would say 95% of all books I buy is via Amazon, and that doesn't include all the free kindle classics books that I reading to make up in a deficiency in my public school education :)

They are pushing more books but are they actually being sold to customers ?... and at what price. If I buy an book at B&N store its almost always on the discount rack which I always assumed was a lose for the store..

Anonymous Josh December 05, 2013 1:24 PM  

but from where I'm sitting the prestige of having a physical copy of your book published by a mainstream publisher sounds like it costs way more than it's worth.

Apparently not for the gammas and female shoggoths, though.

Anonymous BluntForceTrauma December 05, 2013 1:26 PM  

I downloaded your free books for my kid, since he's into that genre, and then finally ponied up and bought one.

So I'd say your approach works.

Give away some samples for free, get them hooked, and they'll come buy more.

Hey, it worked for my buddy, who used to sell quaaludes in the Richfield, MN, high school parking lot. (He's since converted and is now preaching the gospel.)

Anonymous Michael Maier December 05, 2013 1:27 PM  

I still want to read the vampire abortion eater books.

I bet those would be badass.

Anonymous bob k. mando December 05, 2013 1:40 PM  

something else i missed in the refutation of Schmoe Author a couple of threads back:
Sci-Fi is almost officially dead as a genre. yes, yes, the bestselling books are 20+ years old or belong to series that old. the danger is more immediate and far worse than that.

compare the raw sales numbers in scifi to the other listed genres. the best selling scifi book was EG at just barely +100k. 2nd place was the only original book in the top 10 at almost exactly half of EG, just over 50k.

there is no VOLUME in scifi sales and, worse, there is no balance at the top of the board.

compare that to the other genre ( ignore audio, those aren't paper books ) numbers.

>> #10 << in these genres sold
adult fiction 316k
children's fiction 440k
romance 235k
mystery 121k
auto / biography 168k


the three remaining genres bested the #1 scifi book at
cooking 8th with 103k
business and history at 4th with 117k and 275k respectively.

scifi is in serious and immediate danger of being cast into the schlock lit ghetto of westerns and men's military adventure and not even being tracked by the 'respectable' people.

Blogger Crowhill December 05, 2013 1:46 PM  

I think that one of the major cons of KDP publishing is that all your sales are in their ecosystem. That has several drawbacks. The first is that it's very hard to build a list, which is a fundamental asset of a publishing company. The second is that the tracking capabilities on KDP are awful.

It's standard in publishing to track a promotional effort to a sale. It's very hard to do that in KDP. With just a little bit of programming they could fix it, but ... as I've said before ... I don't think anybody at KDP really understands publishing.

Anonymous VD December 05, 2013 1:58 PM  

there is no VOLUME in scifi sales and, worse, there is no balance at the top of the board.

Well, when they're throwing out mediocre and derivative writers like Scalzi, Kowal, and Asaro as the very best the genre has to offer, can you blame anyone for not bothering to read it anymore? I LOVED science fiction as a kid. I read everything. I had subscriptions to Asimov's and Analog, and I often bought the other digest mag at the store.

And I simply cannot read that Pink SF shit. I tried. I liked Old Man's War despite its cardboard characters. But I couldn't finish Ghost Brigades and dropped the Dick ripoff after the chapter-long fart joke. I made it about three chapters into The Quantum Rose before literally throwing it in the recycling; it wasn't just crap pseudo-SF, but the cover had no place on my shelves.

Anonymous VD December 05, 2013 2:03 PM  

What happened/happens to the book they published? Do the rights revert back to you eventually?

As you can see from the ebooks, they gave me back all the rights without any problem. I have zero complaints about Pocket except for the trade paperback covers. But I understood their reasoning at the time.

What was this book about?

I'll post about it sometime soon.

from where I'm sitting the prestige of having a physical copy of your book published by a mainstream publisher sounds like it costs way more than it's worth.

D'accordo. I think the hardcovers ML has done are much better than most of the books in the genre anyway.

Anonymous bob k. mando December 05, 2013 2:10 PM  

VD December 05, 2013 1:58 PM
And I simply cannot read that Pink SF shit.



you sexist pig, you. when did you stop wearing a wife beater while you beat your wife?

Blogger JartStar December 05, 2013 2:22 PM  

If B&N folds up as a general book store I can definitely still see a market for hardbacks. I envision a chain of high end niche stores which carry gorgeous hardbacks of classics and modern books which are status symbols for one’s shelf.

Anonymous Stingray December 05, 2013 2:28 PM  

Given the rise and success of independent publishing, do you think it could change the obvious decline in the quality of books put out by the big 6?

Anonymous Noah B. December 05, 2013 2:34 PM  

"If B&N folds up as a general book store I can definitely still see a market for hardbacks. I envision a chain of high end niche stores which carry gorgeous hardbacks of classics and modern books which are status symbols for one’s shelf."

That's what I see happening too.

Anonymous VD December 05, 2013 2:36 PM  

Given the rise and success of independent publishing, do you think it could change the obvious decline in the quality of books put out by the big 6?

No, I think it will get worse. They'll pick up whatever sells in large numbers, but only that which they approve of. So, 50 Shades of Slut is more likely to get picked up than The Christian Detective even if both sell equally well. They're going to use the indies as a farm system if they can.

Anonymous Josh December 05, 2013 2:44 PM  

What would be the advantage of an Indy author signing with a big six publisher if they're already selling 100k+? Can the big six publisher reall y increase sales enough to offset lower royalty rates?

Anonymous bob k. mando December 05, 2013 2:57 PM  

Josh December 05, 2013 2:44 PM
Can the big six publisher reall y increase sales enough to offset lower royalty rates?



it's not necessarily an either or proposition. and Vox already covered this, you just need to research Hugh Howey.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Howey
The deal allowed Howey to continue to sell the book online exclusively. He notably turned down seven figure offers in favor of a mid six figure sum in return for maintaining e-book rights.


movie rights, paper rights, audio book rights, epub rights, foreign rights,etc, these are all different things and can be sold or contracted for separately. this is most commonly seen with movie deals.

i remember an interview with MC Hammer when he made much the same claim about music. that he was selling going on $60k of tapes or some such out of the trunk of his car and the record company had to offer him a hellacious deal in order to get him contracted.

Hugh Howey is still 'selling the tapes out of his trunk'. he's just letting the major take care of all the ego, paper book stuff.

Anonymous VD December 05, 2013 3:18 PM  

What would be the advantage of an Indy author signing with a big six publisher if they're already selling 100k+? Can the big six publisher really increase sales enough to offset lower royalty rates?

Unless they can put you into Dan Brown territory, no. But they can deliver print sales. So the best thing to do is retain your ebook rights and give them the print rights.

Anonymous jack December 05, 2013 3:18 PM  

@VD: Hence the absence of Stalking the Beast

I loved the War in Heaven series and if this is one of those why not get it out? I will buy it and probably one or two extra for the kids and my brother.

Anonymous bob k. mando December 05, 2013 3:34 PM  

want to make a dirty nuke suitcase bomb? go to Mexico.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/stolen-cobalt-60-found-in-mexico-curious-thieves-likely-doomed/2013/12/05/262ef990-5d66-11e3-8d24-31c016b976b2_story.html

that's how little security there is around this stuff? seriously?

scientists are going to kill us all.

Anonymous VD December 05, 2013 3:40 PM  

I loved the War in Heaven series and if this is one of those why not get it out?

It's not. And I am WAY too busy.

Blogger JDC December 05, 2013 4:04 PM  

I was late to the e-reader bandwagon, holding out and insisting that only paper books will do. But as CLK mentioned - you can never find the book you want in a store. Bought a kindle about 6 months ago and discovered something...I can actually read in the dark with it (this was quite an epiphany in my hunting blind this year). One problem however is that if it gets too cold it won't turn on.

Read MHI-Alpha last week (about werewolves) while hunting. On my way back to my truck from my blind (about 1/2 mile) I could hear wolves howling...sounded like they were right near me. That was a surreal moment. To add to the irony the book is set in the U.P. of MI, and that was where I was hunting.

Anonymous automatthew December 05, 2013 6:01 PM  

Vox: "I think the hardcovers ML has done are much better than most of the books in the genre anyway."

Lately, yes. Gene Wolfe used to get stunning covers from Tor, but the last two have been unimaginative trash.

His latest

What he used to get

Michael Flynn and John C. Wright's covers for their latests series have been paintings by that guy who paints vague spaceshippy stuff, as also seen on the original Ender series. They're totally untopical, but at least they look good.

Anonymous automatthew December 05, 2013 6:05 PM  

Impressionist Spaceship Guy also did the cover for Old Man's War

Blogger James Dixon December 05, 2013 8:08 PM  

> ..I guess I need leave NYC. ..

Need to leave? Why haven't you already left?

> I was late to the e-reader bandwagon,

Likewise. My wife got a cheap noname ebook reader about 2 years ago now, and liked it, but it had a number of faults, not the least being it's flaky software. So we gave that one away and upgraded her to a Kindle Paperwhite last year. She's loved it. In fact, she likes it so much she asked for a second one, which I got her for Christmas. :)

I've been more reticent, but saw a set of used Nooks on sale at cedarpc.com for $15 each a month or so ago, and we got both of them. She's using one and I'm using the other. And yes, that means she now has 3 ebook readers. So far, the Nook seems to be working fine and meets my needs. Of course, almost none of the ebooks I'm reading cost money. They're either freebies or books from places like Project Gutenberg. I don't expect B&N top make a dime off me.

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