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Is Indie Publishing dead? My Guest Post with Scott Nicholson

2752 Views 41 Replies 32 Participants Last post by  scottnicholson
The following blog is "now appearing" in slightly different form at The Vincent Zandri Vox:

Bestselling indie Scott Nicholson most definitely falls into that, "If we lived in the same town we'd be steadfast buds" category. Or maybe my association with him, although limited to internet, runs even deeper in a sort of cosmic, old soul sense. We've got more things in common than I did any of my ex-wives before I married them (don't get nervous Scott...). Like me he's journalist, a musician, a lover of adventure and history, and maintains an intense passion for creative writing and genre fiction. He's into some great bands too, like XTC, Elvis Costello and The Beatles. No wonder he's made quite a splash on the Indie scene. Like most successful dudes however, he comes equipped with well honed built-in shit detector which allows him to be realistic about what the future holds for authors and publishing. Like his guest post will reveal, what seems like a great independent publishing opp right now can soon turn into something that won't be indie at all anymore. That is, once the big houses pick up on all that we are teaching them about selling books.
But then, judge for yourself. That's what Scott does.

Take it away Scott:

Indie Publishing Is Dead

By Scott Nicholson

Nobody wants to read yet another blah-blah-blah indie author post unless it's controversial. So how about this one: indie publishing is dead.

Does that work for you? Or are you an author whose personal identity is somehow tied up in a specific outcome? You know the drill: the NY author under contract who insists NY publishing is the way to go, or the indie author who got rejected a hundred times by NY who says indie is the way to go because NY sux, or the suddenly-hip "hybrid author" who is "taking advantage of both opportunities," usually because they have a lot of dead backlist but are still stuck in indentured servitude and have no real choice.

Yes, it's great fodder for forum flame wars, except we all have to mutually agree or risk somebody slamming us with an anonymous one-star review or declining to retweet our hot sales link. So we only hang out where everyone has the same opinions as ours, because we'd rather be validated than right.

We are all equally right and wrong. I've been big pubbed, small pubbed, self pubbed, and soon to be pubbed in ways that are only now coming into existence. And all the words are roughly the same, the talent level is the same, the storytelling style is the same. And while the fracturing of publishing methods continues, it will also slop over, in much the same way all the distinct genres of music eventually get lumped into "rock 'n' roll" once they lose their freshness.

Indie publishing is dead because we, the current crop of indie authors, are teaching New York how to publish books. I know, that seems crazy, but publishing has always been a crap shoot, with a lot of money backing almost every bestseller and nothing but luck and the author's tireless marketing backing the other infrequent successes. But corporations aren't just nabbing superstar indie authors. They are paying attention to how books are presented, where they are priced, what readers really want instead of following outdated Bookscan reports that serve to reinforce the perception that publishers were-surprise!-geniuses at turning bestsellers into bestsellers.

Heck, even agents are rushing to learn the skills we indie authors were forced to develop as survival mechanisms. It's truly ironic that NY strengthened the enemy by thrusting marketing upon the authors-and marketing is the only skill of value in the world of digital publishing! All else can be purchased cheaply and easily and operated with no overhead but time.

Yes, we are teaching our competition, as we always should. Not that we could help it. If they aren't watching and learning, they aren't competition anyway, because they are out of the game. As soon as indie and trad and small press slop together, as they inevitably will, then indies will lose many of their advantages-low pricing, rapid response to changing conditions, innovative marketing that connects with real readers, and the ability to reach niche audiences with narrative voices that have been long suppressed because New York behemoths couldn't run on niche audiences. Soon, they can, and the niches can look pretty darned big when they are merely one click away, and staff and overhead has been trimmed, and the corporations consist of a half-dozen tech geeks clicking buttons and raking in cash (of course, they will still have a 60-member board of executives and numerous shareholders at the trough, but still….).

I'm not worried, because I plan on staying one step ahead of everything, even if no solid ground is there, even if it means flying on faith without a parachute. Everyone out there buzzing about John Locke, John Green, J.K. Rowling, J.A. Konrath, or Amanda Hocking has zero chance of duplicating what were outlier successes that defied chance. Buy all the how-to books and diligently copy them and you still won't be them, because 10,000 people are already doing it. We don't need a "next Locke" or "next Hocking" anyway. Why not be the first you?

The First You is the one who doesn't care if indie wins or New York wins or if so-and-so was right. The First You is already right, if you trust it. There are only three questions that matter:

(1) What is the next impossible thing I want to do?

(2) How do I get there first?

(3) How do I inspire people to meet me there?
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Excellent post!
I think we are going through another "paradigm shift" which, by it's nature, is difficult for most people to see as it is happening.
The successful people are those who understand and can quickly adapt to the changes as they happen.
Of course, the really successful people are those who cause the changes to occur in the first place...
Interesting post by Scott. I question one item, though:

It's truly ironic that NY strengthened the enemy by thrusting marketing upon the authors-and marketing is the only skill of value in the world of digital publishing! All else can be purchased cheaply and easily and operated with no overhead but time.
I'm still not convinced that social media marketing makes a significant difference. I think it helps, but how many sales it adds is hard to figure.

I'd also say that the marketing NY has done and will do for ebooks will easily outstrip our "no overhead but time" efforts.
Great post. THe next step as authors is to treat ourselves and books as a business... analyze, plan, and be prepared to change when needed.

-jb 8)
While I appreciate the "controversial" headline to get eyeballs - I think it is clear that indie is not dead.  If NY starts to "put the squeeze" on indies (no widespread adoption yet) by lowering prices, we'll just have to find other techniques to give us a competitive edge. I've never been comfortable with price being a sole differentiator between indie and trad (with all the indie low priced and the trad high priced). I'd love to see us compete on a truly level playing ground. I just prefer that playing ground to be $4.95 and not $0.99.
"I'd also say that the marketing NY has done and will do for ebooks will easily outstrip our "no overhead but time" efforts."

Exactly what do they do for eBooks? I see what they do in bookstores, and acknowledge that carries to the ebook. But when there is no paper, just what do they do? I don't deny it, but don't see it.
Thanks for the great replies all :)
(1) What is the next impossible thing I want to do?

(2) How do I get there first?

(3) How do I inspire people to meet me there?
Wow, that's great. Something that can be applied to anything in life. Dream. Do, don't just talk about it. Take risks.
Great post, but there are a couple of points I disagree with.

VincentZandri said:
(1) What is the next impossible thing I want to do?

(2) How do I get there first?
I don't think it's important to do the next "impossible" thing or even to be the first one to cross the finish line. Being the first may help someone to achieve success, but there is a limited amount of impossible firsts that a person can achieve. What I think is more important and more achievable is to push your talents as far as they can go, to stretch ones ability to the horizon and beyond. You don't wait for an original idea before you start to write. You write to the best of your ability, grow, learn, and improve and that will inspire people to meet you there.
Probably the freshest take on this I've read.
RS Sullivan quote:
"I'd love to see us compete on a truly level playing ground. I just prefer that playing ground to be $4.95 and not $0.99.

Amen to that.
I assume it's a two way street. While NY learns how to better do what indies are doing, indies will improve what they are doing. Instead of getting eight out of ten books rejected, they get to put all of them out there, and they get to see which ones don't work, and they get reviews which hopefully tell them why, and they adapt. IMO, indie publishing will evolve into a sophisticated world in which everyone gets their rightful share. Write well, work hard to promote, you'll get your money. Write poorly, blame the system instead of improving, sit on your butt when you should be promoting, and you won't.

But that only applies to e-books. IMO, the printed books which require up front capital to make big enough runs to make then cost efficient enough for everyone to make money, will always be controlled by some form of agents and NY publishing. That said, if indie authors like us all got together and shopped around for the best collective deal from a printing house and cover art studios, organized ourselves so that all our business would go to the same printer, the quantities of printed books might be sufficient enough to entice one of these self-pub printers to give us a group discount. It may never rival the NY pubs, but it might drop the price of printed books enough to make them far more enticing than they are now.
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With all respect to Mr. Nicholson, I have to disagree.

If NY trad publishers were to transform themselves into a few geeks sitting in front of computer screens hawking backlist titles as ebooks, then they'd no longer be NY trad publishers. They would be just marketing geeks, backed by a lot of cash to publicize a giant number of ebooks.

But they'd still have this problem, which each of US does not:

They'd be hawking a zillion titles.

We're only hawking our own.

WE can focus our resources, hone our marketing pitches, define and target our audiences -- individually, thoughtfully, meticulously. We can also adjust our efforts on the fly whenever something isn't working right. We can try out new covers, new blurbs, new price points.

But the NY version of the Geek Squad would have no such luxuries. They'd still be forced to promote a host of titles from a horde of authors, each targeting diverse readerships. So, realistically, how much time, and what percentage of resources, could they devote to any given author or title? Almost zip...unless your name is Patterson or Evanovich or King. In other words: same as they do NOW.

Moreover, big corporations are bureaucracies, where each participant clings desperately to his title, office, salary, and perks. How does any massive, disruptive transition to a lean, mean, marketing machine actually transpire, when everyone now working in the Big 6 will be fighting the changes every step of the way?

So, my answer to this bogeyman threat is: Bring it on.

I'm betting that they can't pull it off. What they'll do is use the indie bestseller lists as their new "slush pile" (as Robin Sullivan has pointed out), and then try to seduce successful indie authors into their fold with much better deals than they now offer. And for many authors, there's nothing wrong with accepting a good deal from a trad publisher.

But demolish the indie market? Fat chance. I'd be happy to wager about that, if I can find any suckers willing to take the bet.
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Good point RSullivan,

I rather not see competitiveness between "independents" and publishers be a race to bottom in pricing.
So, my answer to this bogeyman threat is: Bring it on.

I enjoyed the blog post quite a bit, but I have to agree that giant publishers just don't have the flexibility that indies do. Of course, they do have things that we don't all have, either, like access to the shelves of big bookstores.

But we indies have a burning passion for our work, and that's not something anyone else (including big publishers) are likely to have.
I don't see big publishers lowering the price on ebook versions except for backlist for some time.  I understand their problem since once they lower the ebook price by too much for new titles--they expect they will lose HC sales which has been a good money maker for them over the years. I don't see publishers pricing fresh fiction ebooks at 2.99 or 3.99 or 4.99 in the near future.  

Last year publishers put out 47,392 new fiction titles according to Bowkers and out of that only 103 or so sold 100K. Blockbusters.  Most others are lucky to sell 5000 copies though some will sell much better and some much worse.

Turning big publishing around is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around on a dime.

Publishers have to work at marketing those 47K fiction titles while the author can focus on 1 or 2.  Big difference no matter how much $ the pubs have to spend.

Even with that output there are still niches and nooks and crannies they miss.  Yet, these same small sweet spots might be able to sell 20K ebooks at 3.99.  Too small for the aircraft carrier but just fine for the writer in a 12 ft skiff.

I think today an author has to be aware and flexible and keep adapting.

The very strengths that big publishers have are their weaknesses.

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I think, realistically, the lower limit of what NY can charge for ebooks is higher than what we can charge. If they are selling @$.99, and the author is getting, what, 5, 10 cents? That writer is going to push for a minimum price for each version written into his or her contract. Or they'll go indie.

Also, in general, indies have a few things holding us back, but the advantages we have far outweigh those. We can keep clients (readers) *and* providers (writers) happy. We can put out a book a month if we're able/ willing. We can charge what we want, so far as readers are willing to pay it, and get the whole "royalty" from it. And our low overhead helps, too.

I don't think NY is going to open up hundreds or thousands of e-only slots any time soon. Even the bigger epubs don't have *that* many books coming out. They have too many other costs--slush, editors, typesetters, accounting departments, marketing departments, cover artists (some of whom charge a heck of a lot more than $100 a cover), more editors...

Indies need... Um... editing (if they can't trade with another writer or an english teacher) and a cover (if they can't do it). The rest? No slush, Word does the "typesetting", formatting is easy or cheap, and accounting happens about 4 times a year, which the self-employed are already dealing with--another couple hours isn't that bad.

Sure, NY'll change. It'll become more competitive. It'll snag indies that are doing well. But it won't be able to release a book from someones fave author every other month forever, because they just can't make that much space. The music biz got a bit better, movies chug along like they always do. Indie is still the same for both.

Did that make any sense? Haven't had caffeine yet.
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