Reflections and Observations (2014 – 2015)

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2014-2015It’s that time of year to both reflect on 2014 and consider what lies ahead in the publishing world in 2015 with a particular focus on self and independent publishing.

Around this time of year on The Independent Publishing Magazine, I usually present a solid list of predictions for the forthcoming year in publishing. I’ve actually not done so over the last couple of years; simply because book publishing means a lot of different things to people now, whether you are an author, publisher or reader. In previous years I’ve spent days researching and citing articles from TIPM over the recent twelve months, and also linking to various industry surveys and data presented by official organizations, as well as the personal views and experiences of experts and authors. What I will do this year is list some movers and shakers who have shared their own thoughts on the past and coming year. Their assessments are often a good place to start any new year.

Mark Coker – Smashwords

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This year’s rendition is more of a personal set of reflections, observations and views on what I experienced over the past year and what we can expect from the coming year. If I have learned anything over the years as a publishing consultant and editor of TIPM, it is that folks are still reflective at this time of year and still in the process of forming ideas and choosing paths forward for the coming year; rather than discovering how to reinvent the wheel or spend time churning through blocks of data or click through a bunch of links presented by someone who might not peer through the same crack as you when considering what lies ahead in 2015.

Too often, yearend predictions can be a symptom of reflective frustrations and guesses born out of a publishing psychosis! And 2014 has had its fair share of frustration in the publishing world for authors, however their books are published. The whole Amazon/Hachette affair has left some traditionally published authors musing on how much they are not in control of their own destiny. It is a feeling many self-published authors might be about to experience during 2015 if the latter few months of 2014 are anything to go by.

Just like big publishing, I think we are seeing signs that the self-publishing services arena is beginning to contract. I don’t think I can remember a year when so many companies providing services to authors disappeared. This was particularly noticeable in the UK, a much smaller market than the USA. In 2014 Indepenpress and Authors Online closed their doors for good, both citing the increasing pressures of operating in a market dominated by quick, efficient and streamlined DIY publishing platforms like Amazon KDP and IngramSpark. There is nothing more frustration for any author than to find themselves and their book(s) back at ground zero. Two companies dropping off the radar may not seem like a lot, but consider that the UK assisted self-publishing service arena is dominated by a core of about ten core companies. Losing two significant players is the equivalent of losing a dozen big players from the USA arena.

While many authors still want substantial publishing service support when they self-published — from one-stop publishing shops (whether in the shape of packages or a list of bespoke services); the pace of migration to DIY platforms this year has even surprised me. It’s so hard to get a proper measure of what the split is here, but I suspect we are quickly moving to a 50/50 split. It’s been noticeable that long term author clients I’ve worked with over the past year — who may have been adverse to the DIY self-publishing path — are far more willing to contemplate the additional workload of directly managing their book projects; from obtaining ISBNs, setting up an imprint, to directly hiring marketing professionals. In an ideal world, I’d rather see all my author clients — who wish to go the self-publishing path — opt to contract out the services they need rather than locking themselves into (often) expensive publishing packages. The reality is that authors want to write for the most part of their time and don’t want to become small business entrepreneurs. I’ve found this fundamental reality something many very vocal advisors and experts in the self-publishing community are too quick to brush aside, blatantly ignore, or worse, deride as the mark of the amateur author or timewaster.

A year ago, during my client consultations, authors seemed very fixed on the practical process of publishing — Should I use POD with an e-book release? How do I get my own ISBNs? Who’s the best publishing service provider for me? Now, the focus is often about longer term development — How do I build my author brand? How do I market my book? I’ve also been struck by the intense preparation and foresight authors have invested when it comes to their books and writing career. Far more authors have had their work professionally edited and critiqued before they speak to me than was once the case. And, significantly, more clients now seem to report back (after a consultation and publication of their books) that they have had an offer from a publisher or agent. I can only recollect two clients experience this in 2013 — that’s up to eight in 2014. Who said mainstream publishers and agents are not mining self-published books?

2014 has also taught me one thing; it’s that this ‘our way or the highway’ theme implied by some experts and authors is still a worryingly prevalent attitude in the self-publishing community.

2014 has been a tough year for the self-publishing community. I do think (for a number of years) that there has been something of a ‘let the good times roll on’ mentality, and what I think is happening is that most self-published authors are only now really and truly getting to grips with the realities that have faced the wider publishing industry for several years — pricing, discoverability, and the near hemorrhaging problem of supply far outstretching reader demand. This all comes in a vacuum where every self-publishing expert tells indie authors how they should build brand by writing more books to increase sales and gain greater exposure. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve heard worthy industry voices (not out of spite or self-importance) warn self-published authors that our problems are about to become your problems now you are running a small business and now you are an author-publisher the next dinner on the table depends on. There are indie authors only too quick to scoff at advice and insight offered by people from the mainstream book industry, as if every word is meant as a direct slight on self-publishing itself.

If I might dare to use an analogy when I consider self-published authors over the past year (in my experience); the self-publishing community has reached its middle-aged crisis! The hard work has been realised and the reality is that whether you are a big publisher or humble indie author — we are all pitching in different ways for a reader audience faced with increasing choice, but also a readership under constant distraction from other forms of stimuli and relaxation, whether it is films, TV, gaming, or the time-constricting rigours of everyday life. Self-publishing can deliver a great deal of freedom and control for authors, and if executed the right way with a growing band of readers, maybe it can even amount to a second steady stream of income. For a limited few, it might even deliver a fulltime living, a secondhand sports car, or a few dream holidays and some financial comfort. But for most authors it simply means the satisfaction of a completed and published book.

For me, perhaps the saddest departure from the self-publishing community and writing world this year was that of Dan Holloway, author, poet and literary performance figure in the UK for a number of years. In essence, after eight years, and finding he wanted to do other things in life, self-publishing and writing wasn’t fun anymore. It was starting to become comfortable and like work. Self-published author Suw Charman Anderson also explained her personal reasons for bowing out of self-publishing and her wish was for a more intimate reader audience.

I do still want people to read what I write. I do still want an audience. But I want a smaller audience, a more intimate audience, one that I feel a greater connection to. So I shall be releasing my writing, in full and for free, to the people on my mailing list.

But more to the point, Anderson also underlined another reason why she was withdrawing:

I had come to a point of feeling bitterly disillusioned with self-publishing. Even the fact that there are some really wonderful, kind and generous people in self-publishing wasn’t enough to keep me feeling positive. In fact, some of those wonderful people in self-publishing told me that they too were feeling unhappy about how the public discourse was going, and how they were going to stay away from commenting on the more politicised aspects of it, because it had become just too toxic.

It’s something I’ve experienced a great deal throughout 2014 — in all the online debates and conversations—and it doesn’t bode well for 2015. Too often, self-published authors have mistaken the business of self-publishing their books and reaching their readers with the business of publishing itself. No one author can change the landscape of how an industry works, and yet too often authors within the self-publishing community have adopted a self-appointed Judge Judy role as if every aspect of the publishing world should be run just how self-published authors believe it should be run. 2015 needs to be the year when voices come together, rather than another year when ringside seats are purchased and opposing corners are suitably chosen.

If I have a wish for any one thing in 2015, it is that the debates we have about publishing become considerably more inclusive than decisive.

And some final notable things to look out for in 2015:

  • The lawsuit against Author Solutions may reach a conclusion. I think many authors within the self-publishing community could be disappointed with the eventual outcome. I’m concerned how strong the case is on behalf of the three authors and how well the case has been presented to the court in New York so far.
  • Free e-books (even for limited periods) may mean nothing at all this time next year. Exclusivity means nothing when you don’t make up the rules! You are beholden to the company you entrust your book(s) to.
  • Expect more authors to fall out of Amazon Unlimited and its selectivity. Amazon appears to have shifted to a strategy of enticing both authors and readers into a labyrinth they may find hard to extract themselves from.
  • The recent new European Union law on VAT payments may have torpedoed direct sales for self-published authors. I’m hoping we see some changes in the law because I had strong hopes that direct sales would be the way to go for some authors prior to the new law.
  • I’ve yet to see a UK-based company fully harness DIY self-publishing services. Maybe we will see one emerge this year.
  • CreateSpace is falling behind IngramSpark and it needs to fully embrace its position globally. CreateSpace needs to seriously improve its print and delivery options to UK authors.
  • I think we are going to see some new dedicated crowdfunding options for self-publishers in 2015 and there is room for one to really establish itself.
  • Publishers and indie authors both need to better utilise mobile applications to harness more sales.
  • Indie authors need to use online platforms that are book orientated rather than simply social media orientated when it comes to marketing books.
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