How Indie Publishing Got All Cocked Up

“There’s an author who trademarked the word ‘cocky.’”

Those words got a laugh of disbelief at first, but as I heard more, it stopped being nearly so funny. The cocky author was sending people outrageously threatening letters, claiming she was going to sue them for all of their royalties for daring to use her special word in their titles.

The cost and lost positioning in algorithms and advertising from a change in title is huge, enough to destroy an indie author. Most are just barely afloat or actively sinking as it is. Others are covering this story with greater insight than I can offer on the legal aspects and impact.

But while everyone else in Romancelandia was talking about how the romance author is a nobody, an outsider to the community, and not nearly as famously linked to her brand as she claims, I was thinking something else entirely: “I know you.”

Not personally, thankfully, but I recognized the tactics. I knew the style. Choose a genre with voracious readers. Space marines, post-apocalyptic, and all sub-genres of romance are popular. Get your social media accounts set up and make sure they already look popular before you publish a thing. Write so fast you’re basically publishing a first draft. Once a month is a necessity, once a week is even better. You probably can’t do anything long at that pace, so try out what the MVP — minimum viable product — is for your genre. Put entire other books in your back matter to beef up your page count if you have to. Put the book in Kindle Unlimited and email strangers on GoodReads for reviews. A lot of reviews. If you’re buying reviews, don’t admit it. (But you’re probably buying reviews.) Now you pour all your money into advertising. No, more.

I was a member of a writers group that the cocky author belonged to. I hadn’t paid much attention to her until all of this happened, but the second I heard a description of her writing I already knew where she came from.

“Write X many books and you’ll make five digits!” When? In a year? That’s not that impressive. In a month? In a lifetime? What’s the time frame here? It’s never explained and yet the formulaic approach, the idea that it’s just a matter of numbers and not talent or connections or luck, is a very attractive one to some people. It was to me.

This is how I ended up writing a book a week with a writing partner when I should have been getting ready for my wedding, believing that I would achieve success and then, then, I could slow down and write what I wanted, instead of books I barely remembered because I was churning them out so quickly. I didn’t engage in any of the practices that felt scammy to me, believing (oh-so-foolishly) that the writing was the real trick. Yet my monthly royalties only broke $1000 once, after putting out dozens of books. I once worked out how many hours I was working and determined in my best month ever I was making just over $4 an hour.

Other people kept claiming they were making tens of thousands of dollars off of their books. I’d check their rankings on Amazon and they were always high, despite the fact that nobody outside of indie author circles seemed to know who any of these people were.

It all came down to algorithms, ultimately. Get a BookBub promotion or other good advertising spot. Get your book — no matter how crappy it might be — linked to other books that Kindle Unlimited readers will tear through for a cheap read with no huge concern for quality. Release as fast as possible so Amazon’s algorithms work for you, always keeping your books floating at the top for readers.

There was a whiff of Kool-Aid about the whole thing, of course. Something almost cult-like in the belief of authors involved in the group that if you weren’t making $XX,XXX by X number of books, you had done something wrong. The formula was flawless, but failing authors were all flawed.

In a Q&A session with an author following the formula, an anonymous person asked what could be wrong if they were writing quickly, with good covers and good stories, but still not succeeding? The author chortled that if they were following the formula and money wasn’t pouring in, then the anonymous person had to be a shitty writer.

Just how great does the writing need to be to succeed? Here’s a sample from our cocky author:

It’s…not great. A first draft that could be improved with more time, maybe, but time is the enemy of the algorithms. The books have to come out as fast as possible. And who cares about craft when money is on the line?

Some of these pen names may be groups of ghostwriters, as I’ve seen other authors allege. Mostly, I think it’s just like the old infomercial scams I’d see as a kid. “Send me $$ and I’ll tell you how to become a millionaire by asking people to give you $$ to find out how to become millionaires!” If you present yourself as some sort of indie god, you can sell a lot of books to desperate, inexperienced authors like I was, trying to see how you achieved your success.

Once I saw that, so many little tips made sense. Why would an author spend money on buying followers and likes on social media, when those are guaranteed to just be useless bots? Because it makes you look successful. Because the appearance of success will trick naive hopefuls like I was into listening and maybe buying. And once you’ve sold enough books, the algorithms take over and you start getting those sweet, sweet Kindle Unlimited reads.

Eventually, I burned out. I lost my ability to write at all and questioned if I ever wanted to write a book again. I grieved the stories I’d actually wanted to write, the ones put on the back burner while I was trying to “write to market”. My dream was dead. It felt like something inside me had died as well. My mental health was at absolute rock bottom. Perhaps writing that fast works for some people. For me, it ruined my life.

I imagine the same thing has happened to a lot of people, but embarrassment over our effort keeps us quiet. After all, it’s our fault, right? The formula cannot fail. It can only be failed. Who wants to admit to being a failure? Our pained silence lets the image of guaranteed success remain untarnished.

And even if the acolytes start dropping away from the indie gurus, fear not. There’s still another way for the unscrupulous to feed off of other authors: litigation. Pour money into lawyers like you’ve poured into advertising. Threaten to sue if people don’t take their books down or pay you off, based off of a dubious trademark violation. Go after indie authors, obviously. Your natural prey. You’ll either thin the herd and reduce your competition or actually manage to bleed them for money.

Hopefully, the collective wrath of the entire romance genre will put a stop to this, but I worry. Even if our cocky author might have overplayed her hand this time, there are hundreds more out there just like her who might learn from her mistakes and be even harder to deal with next time.

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