The Death of Self-Publishing

Good news for publishers: Self-publishing is dead. Amazon, who gave it (in the digital age), has taken it away.

I have self-published three books: The Ghost of Caroline Wald; A Beast in Venice (Redux); and Self-Portrait of a Dying Man. It was fun. You have control. You pick the cover. And there’s nothing like seeing that someone has bought one of your books. But something bad has happened in the past year.

There was a time when an author, i.e., someone who had learned the craft, could publish a book on Amazon and sell some without doing any marketing. What Amazon did to make that happen, I don’t know. But for a while, The Ghost of Caroline Wald sold about a dozen books per month in the US, and a couple in the UK, without me doing any marketing, other than the occasional giveaway.

Then about a year ago, that stopped. The sales flatlined.

I thought perhaps it was because I hadn’t published anything in a while. When I got the rights to A Beast in Venice back (it had originally been traditionally published), I self-published it. At the same time, I published Self-Portrait of a Dying Man

Nothing happened. My friends and family bought some, but that’s pretty much it. The only bump in sales I saw was when I was quoted in the NY times regarding the fact that the books I had on Amazon were not selling.

It was clear to me that Amazon had done something to change the visibility of indie books.

Other people had the same experience. People who, unlike me, were making good money from selling books on Amazon (the other online retailers having always been irrelevant). 

For example, M. Louisa Locke, who writes a mystery series set in San Francisco, says she was making about $4,700 profit per month. That is, that’s what she had when she subtracted her marketing costs from sales. Then the bottom fell out. In October, 2014, she made only a third of that.

She blames it on the introduction of Kindle Unlimited (KU). Under KU, the reader pays a monthly subscription to be able to download and read all the books they want. The author is paid out of a pot, based on the number of downloads, provided the reader gets 10% of the way through the book (which seems like another way to screw the author). A lot of authors had the same experience as did Ms. Locke, and they also blame KU. Although I’m sure KU is part of the problem, I don’t think it’s the whole problem.

My drop in sales happened long before KU. I’ve read posts here and there by other authors who had the same experience. So, there is something else at work.

Over the past two years, Amazon has been working to diminish the value of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for authors.

At one point, Amazon introduced (KDP) Select. An author would give Amazon exclusive rights to sell their ebook for ninety days, and could set the price to zero for five days during that period.

This had (ostensibly) the dual benefit of getting your book in the hands of more readers, which would give you the coveted reviews. It also kicked your book up in the rankings. A better ranking meant more visibility, which translated into more sales.

I did this a few times for The Ghost of Caroline Wald. I gave away hundreds of copies. Although I did see a few sales afterward, as it did raise my ranking slightly, I got few, if any, reviews as a result of it. In other words, people were not reading it. 

Then Amazon changed things. Now a free book does not count as a sale. Giving away books has no meaningful effect on ranking.

So, why give away books? If you’re not getting reviews, and you’re not realizing an increase in rank, then there is no reason.

Indie authors, though, are convinced that by giving their books away that they gain exposure. This is a fallacy, because few people read these free indie books.

AT the same time, Amazon changed the algorithm to reduce the visibility of indie books. That, I’m sure, is what did me in.

Then came KU. Now, instead of the author getting 70% of $4.99 ($3.50), a book read through KU pays about $1.39 (it varies at the whim of Amazon).

The result is that it’s nearly impossible to sell books as an indie author through Amazon. You can earn a pittance on books being lent through Kindle Online Lending Library (KOLL), and by books being downloaded through KU, but that’s all.

All marketing efforts, therefore, have to be done on the part of the author. It’s always been true that to sell books you had to market them, but there was an inherent advantage to being on Amazon because they gave you a certain amount of visibility. That advantage has gone away. 

Now, Amazon is just another place the author needs to have his books available.