Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Words Of Wisdom From Mark Coker of Smashwords

I've been with Smashwords since I first began self-publishing back in 2010 and have always been a huge fan.  Their CEO, Mark Coker, really understands self-publishing and his company has already published more than a quarter of a million books - almost TEN BILLION words!

The great thing about Smashwords is that it's a one-stop platform - you download your book to Mark's site and he sells it on to a string of retailers, including Apple, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and Sony.

Mark has just released his predictions for the industry in the coming year - and it makes for fascinating reading. You can read Mark's predictions - BY CLICKING HERE  I reckon that every self-published writer should read what he has to say in order to prepare themselves for what is coming.

I thought I might add my two cents to his thoughts on a couple of subjects, so here goes:

MARK SAYS:  Big publishers lower prices – Traditional publishers have always fought tooth and nail to hold the line on ebook prices.  By maintaining high prices, they left the sub-$5.99 market for ebooks wide open for indie authors to exploit.  For several years, indies have enjoyed this playground all to themselves.  The results of our 2013 Smashwords survey illustrated the competitive advantage indies received by pricing low.  Our 2013 survey found that books priced $2.99 and $3.99, on average, received about four times as many unit sales as books priced over $7.99.  This pricing advantage helped many indies out-sell and out-compete the traditional publishers.  It helped indies build fan bases at a rapid clip.  For indies who could write and publish low-priced books that were as good or better than what New York was publishing, placement in the bestseller lists became more achievable than ever before.  For much of 2013, it wasn’t uncommon to see indies holding up to half of the top 10 bestseller slots at major retailers on some days.  Big publishers have taken note.  In 2013 big publishers began competing more aggressively on price with temporary price promotions.  Until recently, it was rare to see a traditionally published book priced under $4.00.  In 2014 their temporary price promotions will give way to a new normal.  Discounting is a slippery slope.  Once customers are conditioned to expect big-name authors for $3.99 or less, the entire industry will be forced to go there.  The huge pricing advantage once enjoyed by indies will diminish in 2013.

I have written about this before on my blog. My publisher - Hodder and Stoughton - has already slashed the prices of the books of several of its big-name authors and I think Mark is right, there is a new normal coming and in the UK that new normal looks to be £2.99.  Personally I think that's a fair price for the reader,  if the money is paid one third to the writer, one third to the publisher and one third to the retailer. That works for me because I have a backlist of more than thirty novels. Where it becomes a problem is for the new writer who only has one or two titles under his or her belt. I'm not sure that a writer will be able to survive on the relatively small amount of money that a £2.99 price generates. Self-published writers have made a lot of money over the last couple of years because they had a price advantage. Now that the major publishers are cutting their prices, the self-published writers find themselves on a level playing field and that is going to hurt. The simple fact is that given a choice between a Sunday Times bestseller at £2.99 and a self-published novel by an unknown writer at the same price, most readers will opt for the bestseller. That means that self-published writers will have to cut their prices to make their books attractive, and that will reduce their income stream. Several analysts have described this as the rush to the bottom and it isn't good news for self-published writers.

MARK SAYS:  Ebook sales, measured in dollar volume, will decrease in 2014 – Yikes.  I said it.  The nascent ebook market is likely to experience its first annual downturn in sales as measured in dollar volume.  This will be driven by price declines among major publishers and by the slowing transition from print to screens.  Although readers will continue migrating from print to screens, the early adopters have adopted and the laggards will shift more slowly.  Another driver of the drop is that the overall book market growth has been moribund for several years.  As ebooks as a percentage of the overall book market increase, it means the growth of ebooks will become constrained by the growth and/or contraction of the overall book industry.  Global sales in developing countries remain one potential bright spot that could mitigate any sales contraction.

This is really bad news for most self-published writers.  Mark is right, I think. The number of eBooks will rise, but the cost will fall. And the cost will fall so far that while the number of books will rise, the total income from eBook sales will fall. And it's income that matters to writers. It's all very well selling books cheaply, or giving them away for nothing, but at the end of the day if writing is your career you need to earn money from it. And if that pot of money stays the same but the number of writers continues to rise, that means incomes will fall. For writers with large backlists it's not a huge problem, but for a writer at the start of their career it's the worst news possible. I think it means writers are going to find it very difficult to earn a living from their work if they are self-published and don't have publishers' advances to fund them.

2013 wasn't a great year for self-published writers as a whole. Yes, there were a few major success stories, but they were the exception. Most self-published writers saw their sales and incomes fall, some quite drastically. When I started on this self-publishing journey in 2010, there were several other authors doing the same thing and doing very well. But I have noticed that almost all of them have virtually disappeared from the bestseller lists. Where they were once selling thousands of copies a week I doubt that they are selling more than a few dozen. And where before they would have several titles in the Top 100, now their books aren't even in the Top 1000. There are a number of reasons for this - including price cutting by the big publishers and the way that Amazon now compiles its bestseller lists - but the reasons aren't important. What matters is that the world is getting harder for self-publishers and they are going to have to come up with strategies to deal with it. 

MARK SAYS: Production takes on increased importance in 2014 – One of the most important secrets to ebook publishing success is to write more books.  As a writer, your writing is your unique creation.  It’s your product.  Authors who write great books (and produce more of them), are the authors who build sales and platform the fastest, because each new book represents an opportunity to please existing fans and hook new ones.  Organize your time to spend more time writing and less time on everything else.

Again, Mark hits the nail on the head. Writers have to write. It's all very well going to writers festivals and using social media and blogging away, at the end of the day you have to produce work to sell and that means sitting down at the computer (or with a pen in your hand) and writing.  The days of a writer being able to live off one book a year have pretty much gone, unless you're a Lee Child or Stephen King.  That's how I used to write when I first started doing it full time: every year I would write a novel and it would be published in hardback. A year later that book would appear in paperback alongside the new hardback. Most writers worked that way, and a lot still do.

The arrival of eBooks has changed that for many writers. Last year I published three novels - True Colours and Nightshade through my publisher Hodder and Stoughton, and Take Two, through Amazon and Smashwords - and seven Spider Shepherd short stories, an Inspector Zhang short story and a Jack Nightingale short story. Late last year I finished writing the fifth Jack Nightingale book (Lastnight) and am now working on my 11th Spider Shepherd book (White Knights). I am also planning to produce two stand-alone novels in 2014 and at least five short stories.  I envisage working that way for many years to come! If you're a self-published writer, I suggest you do the same!