Business Musings: New Tools: Indie Publishing (Year in Review 7)
I feel like I write a version of this post every year, and I always feel out of my depth when doing so.
Part of that is because we’re dealing with new tools. Part of it is because—full disclosure—I do the writing, but WMG does the publishing. Because I’m me, and endlessly curious, I find a lot of this stuff, and forward it to them. They determine whether or not it fits into our business model or not.
So most of what I’m writing about here are things I’ve heard of, but haven’t really touched. Some of what I’m discussing are things you all told me about when I sent out a request at the beginning of December for information on the year. If you want to see the responses, click here.
Some of the items mentioned I will deal with later in the spring, as I get more time to examine them for myself. I feel they need a bit more investigation before I’m ready to discuss them.
A theme of this year in review has been the hard split between indie publishing and traditional publishing. That split became clear in the numbers in 2021. The industry is no longer one industry. It’s at least two, maybe more.
But for now, we’ll go with two—indie and traditional. And one thing that has always separated these two industries is their willingness to grow and change. Indies are willing to change; traditional publishers are not.
One reason is that indie writers, in particular, are nimble enough to try new things and not have those things wreck their businesses or their business plans. An indie writer can take a book and make it exclusive in a new service for six months, and learn something. A traditional publisher has to make a legal commitment and usually cannot leave whatever service they’ve joined for a particular amount of time.
That makes sampling new tech and new software very difficult.
Also, much of the new tech is designed for the nimble indie, not for the big bloated traditional publisher. Which is why the new tools section is part of the indie publishing section of my year in review.
Many of these new tools are useless to traditional publishers. Others are impossible to sample, because the licensing agreements (contracts) those publishers have with their authors did not envision the latest, newest grandest thing. (That “any new tech anywhere in the universe” clause usually doesn’t cut it.)
So the new tools I mention here are for the first four categories of indie writer/publisher that I mentioned in the previous year-in-review post.
These mentions are going to be short. If you folks feel the need to add anything about these items—good or bad—please do so in the comments.
Generally speaking, the bookstores that survived that initial pandemic shut down from March to mid-summer 2020 are leaner and a lot more tech savvy. These stores, for the most part, are run by younger people. The older bookstore owners retired in that tough period or sold their stores. A lot of stores closed, particularly used stores. (Which is the position that Las Vegas is in. We had three used bookstores before March of 2020, and none now.)
Again, generally speaking, the new younger booksellers are more open-minded, a lot more willing to use the internet for everything from ordering to shipping, and receptive to local authors, even those not traditionally published.
All the information I have on this is either anecdotal or from the mists of my summer business reading. The good news here, though, is that indies who have paper editions can probably get them into a local bookstore, if only for a short time, provided the books look good (so many indie-designed paper books do not, even with all the best tools in the world), and provided the indie is willing to work with the store.
Mind you, this is a U.S. phenomenon. I have no idea what’s happening with brick-and-mortar stores overseas. If some of you want to chime in, please do.
One other U.S. bookstore development features Barnes & Noble, a company that seems to me like a mash-up between the Black Knight from Monty Python and The Holy Grail (“I’m fine”) and another Holy Grail sequence (“Not Dead Yet”). Barnes & Noble’s CEO since 2019, James Daunt, used the 2020 bookstore closures to remodel and remake the stores.
Then he did something rather brilliant—he returned control of each store to the local managers. They are now stocking books that locals ask for and want, rather than relying on corporate for ordering. Relying on corporate for ordering allowed B&N in the bad old days to get deep discounts on books, but it also meant that each store looked the same no matter where you went. And if a local author’s books were not in the store, nothing anyone could do would get them there. A special order only brought in one copy.
That’s changed, for right now anyway. Anecdotal reports are that the bookstores look bright and clean and full. The content is different from store to store, which makes the stores interesting.
From a writer’s point of view, suddenly the local chain store might be willing to order copies of a good-selling ebook or of a local author’s work for their local author section (if they have one). Writers actually have a chance to get their books into a brick-and-mortar store, at least one near their home.
Does all of this mean that B&N will stick around? Hell if I know. I don’t know if their balance sheet is good or bad anymore or what the changes mean.
But for 2022, anyway, the outlook is bright for anyone who wants to get their books into a nearby B&N. For what it’s worth.
There are so many now that I can’t keep track. Companies here, there, and everywhere. Any indie who is not using tools like Draft2Digital to upload their books to very small e-retailers is missing an important cash stream. It seems that every time I go on D2D or, more often, use its referral arm, Books2Read, I see yet another store I haven’t heard of.
So the continual growth of e-retailers is something that has gone on for years now. But the biggest change on this front isn’t the retail companies. It’s the success of retail stores on individual author sites.
This is anecdotal, of course, because there’s no way to aggregate it. But the pandemic changed buying habits, introducing a lot of reluctant people to buying from sites other than the big retailers like Amazon and Walmart. That change in buying habits means that a lot of readers want to buy directly from the author.
So individual online bookstores went from being a silly waste of time to something that provides writers with their purest income—no one takes a percentage from their online store. The writers can control pricing, sales, and everything else.
It helps that online stores are easy to build now. There are a lot of tools that reduce the build to an easy upload, and a click or two. These programs also provide a secure checkout as well.
If you haven’t tried any of the online store programs for the past five years or so, then you’ll be surprised at how easy it all is for writer and consumer alike. I personally think this will be one of the major growth areas of 2022.
If there are only one or two things you can add to your plate this year, make designing and maintaining an online ebook store one of them.
Book Design Tools
Every few years or so there is a major improvement in indie book design. The last one I was aware of was the arrival of Vellum, a software program for Macs only. At first, Vellum was only for ebooks, and then it expanded to paper books. The Mac users swore by it, and I know that WMG changed a lot of its templates so that we could use Vellum, saving hours and hours of work on each book.
But, as I said above, Vellum is Mac-only. PC users bitched about that. There was a workaround—they could use Mac on cloud, but it had problems that made the workaround uncomfortable at best.
Now there’s Atticus, which works on all platforms, or so it says. The PC people are excited about it for that reason. But I’m also hearing that it’s a good design program.
Honestly, it really doesn’t matter if it’s good or not. Because next year, there will be another program, and two years from now, another. We’ve moved out of the stage where everyone who is publishing indie is using the same tools for the same work. We’re not even doing the same work—which is probably a topic for a future blog post.
As I’ve mentioned in this series, the longer we indies exist, the more companies try to cater to us. Or rather, to all of us in the arts. For a long time, Adobe offered the best platform to help with design and producing ebooks.
Other products either didn’t have the reach or the level of protocols. That’s changing. Affinity has become very competitive, and I know of several designers who prefer their ecosystem. I’m sure we will end up with more such tools as the decade progresses.
I’m hearing from writers who should know better that discoverability is harder than it ever was. It’s not. It’s just that whatever worked in the past isn’t working as well now—and that’s normal. There are two keys to being discovered as a writer—putting your work onto platforms where readers gather and making sure those readers know you exist, somehow in some way.
What worked two years ago no longer works now. What worked three years ago is like going back to the Dark Ages. I’m hearing—anecdotally, of course—that Facebook and Amazon ads aren’t working “as well” anymore, whatever that means.
Which makes sense, since those ads buys were at their peak in 2016 or so. There’s always something new, and always something that will bring readers to writers.
But the writer can’t neglect the site where they were getting traction before. Readers still expect the ads/information to be there…as well as in the newest, hottest, latest trend. Is that BookTok? I don’t know. I honestly have stopped keeping up with the scurry to find the latest thing.
I learned long ago that running after the latest thing only tires you out. I’ve learned to wait until the latest thing has been around a while (and by a while I mean whenever I get around to investigating it) before I decide whether or not to jump in.
And speaking of the latest thing…
You know when people in traditional publishing are talking about something “hot” and “important,” it’s probably a fad.
For those of you who don’t understand what an NFT is, even thought you looked up the acronym which is short for Non-Fungible Token, let me share Investopedia’s short description (which is, in my book, the best):
- NFTs are unique cryptographic tokens that exist on a blockchain and cannot be replicated.
- NFTs can be used to represent real-world items like artwork and real-estate.
- “Tokenizing” these real-world tangible assets allows them to be bought, sold, and traded more efficiently while reducing the probability of fraud.
- NFTs can also be used to represent individuals’ identities, property rights, and more.
If you click on this link, you’ll find an entire article on NFTs, written in late December, so it’s at least up to date.
NFTs for books seems unwieldy to me. Everyone in the arts was chasing an NFT in June; then the news came out that NFTs used a lot of energy and were not as…gee, I don’t know…cool?…as everyone thought they were. Then they became controversial and symbols of generational divide.
But even that’s not clear. Because the 50-somethings are wondering if they should jump in while Gen Xers are worried about the carbon footprint and you know…
This is one I’m going to wait to see what happens next. You can throw this in my face in 2024 or so if I’m wrong, but NFTs have the feeling of a fad (at best) or a scam (at worst) to me.
There’s probably something worthwhile in the idea of a digital collectible, particularly for people who spend most of their lives in virtual worlds, but I have a hunch that the current design and tech behind NFTs is going to be seen as old and creaky by mid-decade.
Just a feeling. I could be wrong.
There’s been a lot of quiet growth in crowdfunding for books over the past year. Dean and Loren L. Coleman decided to see if they could punch up the publishing category on Kickstarter. It was a small, barely used category in 2019. Since then, the free class that we offer on Teachable and the willingness of dozens of authors to do small Kickstarters has actually made a difference. The category is much larger.
But it’s not just Kickstarter. Like any big platform they have haters. So a number of writers/publishers have gone to other crowdfunding sites like IndieGoGo to fund projects that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
There are other ways for fans to fund projects, and they’re growing. Patreon is undergoing some changes which I have not deeply investigated (and I should, since I have a presence on Patreon). People are doing well on Substack, and there are other platforms that seem to be worth investigating, which I will do Any Day Now.
When I asked for help in seeing the trends this year, almost every single indie writer responded with the same big trend: the growth in audiobooks. Not just the number of them, but the ease of making them (not including the time factor) and the ways that marketing them have become easier.
At the top of everyone’s list was Spotify’s acquisition of Findaway Voices. Findaway was on my list of new trends a few years ago, when they made it a lot easier for writers to produce audiobooks. Now their systems and backlist are part of Spotify which will become an audiobook producer and an audiobook distributor.
Apparently, Spotify did something similar with a podcasting service a few years ago, and it created a sea change in podcasting. People expect a similar sea change in audiobooks now.
And none of that counts a trend that’s been on the horizon every year for the past five years. AI recordings of audiobooks. At some point, having an audiobook “read” by an AI will be the way that many books go.
I figure that we’ll probably have a tiered level of audiobook: the AI-read version (or maybe the cheap AI), the AI that sounds like the author’s voice version, an actual human-narrated audiobook, and then the “enhanced” audiobook (to use a 15 year old phrase for a recording with multiple voices).
We’re still not there yet. I think for some products the electronic voice is just fine, and for some consumers, it’s probably fine too. But human voiceover actors still bring something extra to the table that hasn’t yet been replaceable—at least for creative nonfiction and for actual fiction.
I expect this category to continue growing as well. It’s a watch-this-space kinda thing.
There’s a lot more in trends and tools, ways to market to other countries, ways to get the word out, ways to serialize your books, ways to license your work. But as I said somewhere in this essay, we aren’t working off the same playbook anymore—and what interests me and my business probably doesn’t interest you.
I’ll be digging into what interests me in 2022, and that might spark some ideas for you. But as it stands right now, I’m excited about all of the opportunity.
Indie publishing has gotten easier over time. It’s easier to design covers and to find art and to design books and to upload books…and harder to find the time to do all the things that need to be done. With the proliferation of systems, opportunities proliferate too.
We’ve moved beyond the stage where each indie can do all the things. Back in 2011, we could do all the things. Now it’s absolutely impossible.
Sometimes I find that overwhelming. But mostly, I see it as healthy and wonderful and marvelous. We’re lucky to have the growth, lucky to have the chances to make money with our work in a hundred different ways.
As I said during this series, what I see in indie publishing fills me with hope for the future. Almost all of the change is for the good.
Yes, it’s more than any one writer can handle at one time, but I think that’s healthy too.
I’ll move on to other trends as the spring progresses, but I figure seven (really eight) posts on the year in review is more than enough.
Thanks, everyone, for all your help on this. I’ve still got a lot of digging to do on other topics that got sparked by all of the conversations over the changes in 2021.
I’m looking forward to learning a lot this year. I hope you are as well.
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“Business Musings: New Tools,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / DragosCondrea.