The Self Publishing Train Wreck Is Upon Us

Self-publishing is evolving and suffering growing pains

The self-publishing train wreck was always an accident waiting to happen, and although there has been no crashing noise and screaming sirens as yet, all the signs point to fact that the self-publishing train wreck is very close to happening.

In recent and not so recent times a number of signals have turned bright and dangerously red, but for many self-publishers, they appear to be colour blind to these signals and still think all the signals are go, go go, green.

But the red danger signs of the self-publishing train wreck have been appearing for some time. Perhaps it started with the end of the Sony Reader Store in 2014, and recalling that Sony were, in fact, pioneers of the ebook.

Then we had the end of Diesel Ebooks, who keep promising to return from the dead, but hasn’t as yet. More recently, Smashwords has announced the loss of Flipkart, and that Oyster is closing down. On top of this, there was also the announcement that Scribd is cutting romance ebooks from its subscription service.

More recently, Barnes & Noble has dumped its UK Nook business by selling its UK Nook ebook business to a supermarket chain. The ramifications of this on UK Nook customers has been a disaster.

If these are not signs of impending self-publishing problems, I don’t know what is.

Other than closures, interest in self-publishing is also waning, which is a sign that all is not well. Until today, I only had my gut feeling about this, but by chance, I was doing some research on self-publishing trends and came across this graph from Google Insights, which seems to indicate that interest in self-publishing might be gradually falling away.

Interestingly, from the same results page of Google Insights, came this graphic of regional interest for the search term of self-publishing, which proves that self-publishing has not been a global success at all. Four countries do not add up to a global phenomenon.

However, with all the closures and failed ebook businesses, on top of diminishing interest and lack of global sales potential, the self-publishing train thunders along in the belief that all the lights are green when in fact every signal is flashing alarmingly red. But why?

The Magical Amazon Effect

Amazon has done a splendid job of convincing self-publishers that Kindle has been such a worldwide super success and that if you hop on its magical Amazon KDP train, fame and fortune awaits.

Stories abound of superstar self-published authors who have struck it rich with Kindle ebook sales. I am sure you know all their names too, because, in reality, there have been very, very few. Make a list of them and see if you can get past five or six names.

But the dreamers have been convinced by the success stories of a few outliers and have in countless thousands jumped headlong into KDP self-publishing with no idea at all about book marketing, but with a firm belief that if they have written a book, they will make a fortune. Since 2009, this trend has continued unabated, with hundreds of thousands of new Kindle ebooks being published each and every year by new hopeful authors.

But the end was always in sight, and now after many years of publishing far more ebooks than the market can possible buy, borrow, get for free or read, self-publishing needs to recalibrate.

The BIG red light! Kindle Unlimited.

The last red warning light was Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU). Sure, everyone knew that ebook subscription was coming, and although a few had tried and failed, Amazon is not one to fail. When KU hit, it caused a huge storm of protest from self-published authors, who believed their income would take a hit.

For most it probably did to a degree. But that was all to change when Amazon had a change of heart after only a few months and modified the rules for KU, quickly dropping the promise of an author being paid per ebook borrow, to Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP) Read, or in layman’s terms, authors getting paid per page read. So from around $1.40 per borrow, which was way below most author’s selling prices, KENP now gives a return of less than $0.005 per page. Yes, under half a cent!

For a self-published author with a title priced at $3.99, it is not difficult at all to say that a return of a half a cent per page is indeed a self-publishing train wreck.

In my own case, I have a 290 page novel with a selling price of $4.99, but under KU, I get $1.45. And do you think Kindle readers are silly? Of course they happily pay $9.99 per month, to get my $4.99 ebook for (next to) nothing.

So I got a full $1.40 under KU 1.0 and I now get $1.45 under KU 2.0, so what’s the problem?

Easy. At least I got a set amount of $1.40 for a borrow under the original KU for a reader who started the ebook, but how many readers read a whole book? Now I get paid for what they read. Perhaps 20 pages for $0.15?

Can you imagine going to McDonald’s and saying, ‘hey, I only had one mouthful of my burger, and only ate half of my fries, so I’ll only pay for what I ate.’ Or, if you rent a car, and you don’t drive it every day that you rent it, do you get a refund?

I have read my copy of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy more than twenty times. Should I pay for every time I have read it?

I have a hardcover copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses but have never got past page 100. Should I get some money back now?

This is the problem with Kindle Unlimited, and why it will be a big problem for self-publishing authors. It defies all free market, sales logic and fairness, but it does obey the Perverted Value System of the Internet, which is that everything should be free, or very close to it anyway.

So where does self-publishing go now?

Self-publishing as it has been since 2009 is dead. It was all so simple back then. You wrote a book, published it, and readers bought it, or not.

There were no conditions attached. Even subscription borrowing had some merit. You borrow it; I get paid. But now, it’s a convoluted disaster. I do not want to get paid for someone reading five pages of one of my books and then thinking, ‘oh damn, no vampires. I’ll try another book, then.’

For me, it’s back to square one, and I’m prepared to wait out the self-publishing pain ahead, the headlines, the enquiry, the aftermath and all the squealing and yelling.

Firstly, I have exited KDP Select, as I enrolled under KU 1.0 when things were fair. It is not fair now. Secondly, I have reverted to open distribution of my ebooks via Smashwords and Draft2Digital.

This is not to say that I am thrilled with aggregation, or that Apple, B&N or Kobo offer anything startling, but at least they all honour a genuine ebook sale. If I get fewer sales, well so be it, but paid in full.

Lastly, I will refresh my paperback backlist and make sure that all of my promotional links are directed not only to my ebooks, but also to my paperbacks. You know real books.

When I started in self-publishing, these things called books, were what made me money. As I noted above with the graphic about regional interest, there is a whole world out there that still love books.

Ebooks are a basically a US and UK thing, so to be honest, why should I concentrate all my efforts on two countries, which are the home of Amazon and Kindle Unlimited, and together are the cause of the coming self-publishing loss in earnings.

No. I don’t want your perverted half-eaten hamburger and fries ebook model, thank you very much.

I’ll wait out the disaster ahead, but with one saving grace in mind. Self-publishing has one outstanding and unique benefit, and it is that a self-publishing author retains total rights over their ebooks and books, so they can do whatever they please, whenever they please.

So my pleasure is to say, ‘no thank you to your exclusivity and slashing of ebook earnings, Amazon. I’ll take my books and ebooks elsewhere.’

Want to discover more about Derek Haines? He writes regularly about publishing and writing on Just Publishing Advice and blogs his personal thoughts as The Vandal.