Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Indie Author: The tethered Cash Cow?

It's now officially official, there has been a reading revolution and it has happened super quickly. In 2011 14.9 million e-readers were shipped world wide, add that to the 14.9 million of 2012 and the predicted 10.9 million expected to be shipped in 2010, we get a shed load of people who own an e-reader. (That's not counting the tens of millions who own a tablet with e-reading application)

Undoubtedly Amazon led the way in the e-Reader revolution with its Kindle e-Reader. The mega powerhouse that is the Amazon book store was suddenly portable and instantly on hand to anybody with one of their magical little devices.

When coupled with its incredibly easy to use self publishing platform the indie book revolution exploded into the world. I was fortunate to be at the right place in the right time at the end of 2010 with the release of my first indie published book.

At the time, Amazon offered writers like me the opportunity to indie publish their work and have a 'level' playing field amongst the traditionally published houses - in fact a possible advantage. Offering 70% royalties on books over £1.49 was an incredibly enticing opportunity. Some writers who were canny enough to be prophetic already with a back catalogue of 10+ books even found themselves making hundreds of thousands of pounds (and we've heard about the millionaire indies, John Locke and Amanda Hocking)

But with the e-Reader thing going bonkers and the self-publishing world changing every turn of the Atlantic clock, the bubbles of optimism were sure to burst. And so they have...

The impact of the $0.99c Price wars: And the real winner is...

Firstly nobody really understood or thought that the price wars would impact on indie works so much. Humbled by their legacy-reputation of vanity publishing, indies soon realised that in order to gain a readership they would have to lower the price (and value? of their book) to $0.99 / £0.79p. I resisted for a long time, not because I believe readers should be milked for every cent, but because I knew that the $0.99c route was a very perilous one indeed. In the end market forces forced the decision on me and I lowered the price of my first book to $0.99c. It was a gamble that paid off in lots of ways but Amazon was quickly becoming Saturnine; yes, you can lower your book to $0.99c but you will only get 30% royalty.

There are now hundreds of thousands of $0.99c books on Amazon, and that is a lot of $0.70c profits filling up their coffers.

I am yet to understand why there is this difference in % royalties other than Amazon knowing that they are on to a very, very good thing and the indie writer is now nothing more than a domesticated cash-cow: Tethered fast by the KDP select program which insists on exclusivity to take part.  Goodness knows why (other than it being an overt attempt to monopolise the book selling world)

KDP Select & The dangers of all your eggs in one basket: 

In principle this is an excellent facility. When it first came out I jumped at it and had several very successful promotions. However it was early days for The Knight Trilogy, and at that time I was happy to be 'exclusively' on Amazon. But as time has gone on and I've had my docs specially formatted for Smashwords premium catalogue (allowing me access to iTunes / iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Nook and Kobo platforms, establishing profiles on each of them) I am reluctant now to pull The Knight Trilogy out of those for the sake of being able to freely give away a couple of thousand copies on Amazon.

 I'm increasingly wary about putting all my eggs in one proverbial basket - especially with a predicted fall in e-Reader sales (predicted to be as low as 8 million in 2014) as Apple, Samsung and Android tablets come storming up the market. (For more information on these market trends head over to )

I opted out of the KDP select program for this very reason about 12 months ago in order that I could investigate other platforms - unfortunately, such is Amazon's hold on the worldwide market that sales on sites such as Smashwords and e-zreader are very minimal.

How to make a living on Amazon: Series and coming to an agreement with your readers

I'm lucky that the genre and audience I write for lends itself towards series, which means I can afford to have my first book on at 0.99c and then have the rest of the series on at a more realistic living price. (Point of note: I have a 88% follow through on readership, with readers happy to pay £1.49 - £2.49 for books in the rest of the series.)

Interestingly though the readership thing is complex and despite having an 88% 'loyalty' for The Knight Trilogy, my stand alone novel 'Beautiful Freaks' has really struggled and I am probably going to have to lower that to $0.99 for a time (Gut galling as it is by far a more technically accomplished book and a gorgeous story - it's the favourite of all I have written)

I love writing, I love story telling even more. I want to spend my life writing books but I need to be able to pay my mortgage and put shoes on my children's feet. So I'm going to marry my love of writing with my business head; I am writing a 7 book series - and no I'm not compromising on quality. It took me four years to write the Knight Trilogy. I am planning on writing and publishing book 1-2 of The Meadowsweet Chronicles this year. I couldn't have done this four years ago (or before completing NaNoWriMo or investing in Scrivener) but I am more skilled, a stronger writer, wiser about what my readers want from a book. My readers want beautifully, passionately, honestly told stories that let them escape. They do not want the wordsmithery of Umberto Eco or the almost too clever genius of Will Self that leaves them feeling intellectually unworthy. My readers are clever, astute, savvy and will not take any messing - they know what they like and they have high expectations: I strive to meet them. My love of writing and their love of reading will make us a happy bunch.

From the business point of view, the books will be lower priced at the beginning of the series (after all my readers are taking a gamble with their hard earned cash) and then we will come to a compromise whereby the reader acknowledges my need to eat and their need to read on. However, I will never screw my readers over by whacking them with a $24.00 price tag for one of my new releases! (They'll stay below the $3.99 tag)

N.B Bundles: You can see from the image that another way around the 30% royalty issue is to bundle all your books into one and then charge $3.00  for the complete bundle. This way your reader is still paying the golden 0.99c a book but the writer is getting 70% royalty. It's swings and roundabouts - you lose the potential of a higher gain by readers going onto buy 2-3 at a higher price but you capture a 70% royalty outlay from the start. A few of these a month really boosts your royalty account.

How to bite back the hand that feeds: Refuse to play Amazon ball.

There is no denying that as an indie, I NEED Amazon and apart from their blatant exploitation of my vulnerable position as an indie, they serve me very well. Over 90% of my sales come from Amazon and it is because of them that I have bread on my table (I could afford wine to go with it if they cut me a 70% royalty on 0.99c!)

But there are ways that we could change things and one of these is promoting more of our work with the Smashwords links. Smashwords is a 'hidden' shop. Authors and those in the writing community are mostly aware of it and it has become very much the place where authors buy their own reading material. Smashwords offers a set royalty of 70% regardless of list price. It also allows the author to run coupons, giveaways etc without the demands of exclusivity.

Smashwords gives readers the choice of their download format - catering for almost every form of e-Reader and tablet device. Just because a reader has a Kindle it doesn't mean they are trapped into buying their works from Amazon - we can chip away at their sales monopoly. Readers can hop over to Smashwords, fill their Kindle with $0.99c books and know that the writer is getting a fair deal - a living wage.

Call to arms: 

  • When tweeting links to your books alternate them between the Amazon page and the Smashwords page. 
  • Write a blog post explaining to readers the buying options they have and how you are striving for a better deal for writers. 
  • Refuse to put all your books on Amazon at $0.99 and help to push the 'norm' back to $1.49 and a 70% royalty agreement
  • Love Amazon for all they do for us but don't let it be unconditional. Run your giveaways through Smashwords and spread your book across various platforms (Beware the falling e-Reader sales) 

Added at 3.39 Saturday 23rd Feb: 

As I said in the post, things change so rapidly and here is living proof over at Publishers' Weekly 

It seems that it isn't only authors that are feeling the tethered effect of the Amazon powerhouse. Several independent booksellers are suing publishers over DRM and the monopolisation of the e-book market by Amazon.
 “Consequently,” the complaint states, “the vast majority of readers who wish to read an e-book published by the Big Six will purchase the e-book from Amazon.”


  1. Very interesting article, as a reader I was unaware of the big difference in royalties above and below the 79p mark. Seems so unfair.

    1. Yes, it's an interesting situation and one that indie writers continually 'discuss' - it's one of the biggest barriers to a lot of writers making the leap of giving up the day job.
      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment and read.