Friday, 10 October 2014

Thoughts on the Acceptance of Indie and Self-Publishing

Recently, I read a front page article in our local daily paper, regarding a local author who had considerable success with a series of Romance books.  It was called “Beaumont writer pens steamy bestseller (Edmonton Journal, Sept 25, 2014).  There were a number of aspects to the story that I found interesting, not the least of which was that it was printed at all.

The writer in question (pen name K.C. Lynn) has sold over 100,000 copies of her “Temptation” series since it came out in January of this year (three books, book one selling 60,000 copies since January, book two selling 45,000 copies since May and Book three selling over 6,000 copies in the first few days).  They sound like fairly standard Romance content –

·        bad boy meets sweet girl in high school,

·        they date, break up,

·        he joins military, serves in Iraq,

·        she serves in Iraq with a religious charity,

·        she is kidnapped by bad guys,

·        he has to rescue her,

·        though she’s a feisty one,

·        etc..

Its erotic content is not played down: “They’re steamy, rated R for sure” one person who is interviewed in the article is quoted as saying.

Actually, it sounds a bit like Kati of Terra J, though Helena Puumala is firmly in the “close the bedroom door when things start to get too steamy” camp of Romance writers.  Plus, Kati is science fiction based, rather than current events based.
Just a few short years ago, who could imagine a self-published romance novel, let alone an erotic-Romance novel being front page news in a major Canadian daily newspaper?  Not many of us, I would guess.  But money talks, and a book that sells over 100,000 kindle editions could easily make several hundred thousand dollars for the writer, depending on pricing, free downloads, special promotions and the like.  That kind of money tends to lend legitimacy to any activity (well, at least any non-criminal activity).  Add to that the “Fifty Shades of Grey” effect (which, by the way, started out as self-published), and you can see why the business world is no longer so squeamish about these matters.

I would say that over the course of the past 3 or 4 years, the acceptance of Indie/Self-publishing has increased significantly.  Most average people don’t really seem to care much anymore who publishes a book.  Some of the more knowledgeable ones have tended to nod and say “of course” when I have explained the nature of our book publishing business.
Furthermore, as my own analysis of the 2013 Amazon Top 100 fiction ebooks, or Hugh Howie’s “Author Earnings” website has shown, a lot of readers have made the transition from the big publishing houses to Indie/Self-published works.  My analysis for 2013 showed about one quarter of the 2013 Top 100 Kindle fiction ebooks were Indies.  Hugh Howie’s very detailed analysis showed an even higher number so far in 2014, with over one-third of Amazon fiction sales coming from Indie books.  It will be interesting to see what the 2014 Kindle Top 100 fiction books list shows.   I suspect the Indies in that list will have grown considerably, probably exceeding one-third, based on Hugh’s results.
That being said, the front page of the newspaper is not the same as the book pages.  In the book review sections that I have seen (the Globe and Mail in particular), Indie books are not much in evidence.  Some smaller publishers do get reviewed, though the majority of the space is given over to the big five or their imprints.  By and large, the majority of the fiction reviews are still concerned with literary fiction, eschewing genre.  However, based on my reading of these reviews, it seems like a lot of lit-fic is becoming more genre like, with more emphasis on plot and approachable characters.  That’s just my impression – I could be mistaken.  But often when I read a lit-fic review these days that describes the book as magic realism, I think to myself that it sounds an awful lot like fantasy, paranormal or science fiction.
The Romance genre in particular (regardless of the presence or absence of sexual content) has become much more acceptable than in the past.  Publishers are now actively courting that market, though Indies have made huge inroads.  Given the low barriers to entry and modest overhead costs, it is doubtful that big publishers will be able to compete in this market over the long run.  As goes the Romance genre, so will go some of the other genres, such as SF.
Also, at some point, a few of the big established best-selling authors are bound to test the self-publishing waters – perhaps they already are, via pen names.  That’s when things will really get interesting.
The other wild card in all this, is the state of the big print book stores.  Right now, Indies are largely locked out of those retail venues, as are many smaller publishers.  To a very considerable extent, they are the province of the Big Five publishers.  That gives the Big Five an automatic advantage over most everyone else, as print books are still a big part of the market, though a declining one.
Chain bookstores are especially important as a vector for the mega-best sellers.  Those books are bought by casual readers, people who only read a few books per year.  Losing the marketing advantage of the big chain stores like Chapters or Barnes and Noble would be a huge blow for big publishers.  And those stores have been losing money steadily over the last 3 or  4 years, during a relatively prosperous time of the economic cycle.  If they are still bleeding money when the next recession or down market hits, that might be all she wrote for them.
So, in summary, a lot of trends are well on their way to transforming the book market, accelerating the acceptance of Indie and Self-Publishing:
·        Technological changes, which continue to bring increasing ease of production, distribution and consumption of books to the masses.
·        Social changes, which continue to erode the concept of elite curation of cultural products (e.g. someone else knows what’s best).
·        Financial pressures, which threaten existing businesses and business models and force others to remain nimble and customer-centric (e.g. Amazon).

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