In 2015, self-publishing saw a number of high-profile success stories. Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Redemption became the first novel by an indie author to find shelf space at Walmart, and Andy Weir’s The Martian, originally self-published, was released as a major motion picture starring Matt Damon. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake received major traditional media coverage and was reviewed in the New York Times (albeit after it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and picked up by Graywolf Press), and such writers as Vi Keeland, Penelope Ward, Deborah Bladon, and Tijan saw their indie books reach the New York Times digital bestseller list. Crowdfunding also continued to be a popular platform, with dozens of publishing projects successfully funded on Kickstarter, covering everything from teaching programming to kids to a Lil Bub picture book.
All this came during a general slowdown in e-book sales overall, with a 10% drop in digital sales in 2015, according to the Association of American Publishers. Penguin Random House exited the self-publishing business altogether with the sale of its troubled Author Solutions to a private equity firm, and subscription service Oyster announced that it was closing up shop in early 2016. Despite these shake-ups, many established self-publishing trends in terms of pricing and the popularity of genre fiction continued unchanged from previous years. We talked to some industry experts who discussed what they saw in 2015 and what their predictions are for the industry in the year ahead.
From Indie to Traditional and Back
Fluidity between traditional and self-publishing continued last year as a growing number of hybrid authors explored their options in both areas.
A steady stream of authors took publishing deals only to return to self-publishing, while traditional authors, such as bestselling comic book author Warren Ellis (Cunning Plans: Talks by Warren Ellis), continued to explore self-publishing as a supplement to their other work. This makes sense financially: a survey by Digital Book World found that hybrid authors earn the most money, with a median income between $7,500 and $9,999 a year, followed by traditionally published authors ($3,000–$4,999), and indie authors ($500–$999). The assumption that authors only use self-publishing until they can secure a traditional deal bears out less and less.
The bestselling author McGuire returned to self-publishing in 2015 for Beautiful Redemption after her deal with Atria had ended. “I still plan to traditionally publish, but with books that I feel are best suited for that route,” McGuire says. “Not every book does well on the shelf,” she adds. Walmart stocked Beautiful Redemption in its physical locations in 2015, although the details of the arrangement are bound by a nondisclosure agreement. “I think it’s just smart as a businessperson to keep all doors open,” she says.
Longtime bestselling romance author Lindsay McKenna left Harlequin for self-publishing in 2014 and then signed with Kensington in 2015—and has a number of indie titles in addition to her Kensington titles slated for 2016. Some authors rejected the traditional deal outright. New York Times bestselling indie authors Keeland and Ward went looking for a traditional deal for their coauthored novel, Cocky Bastard—but the offers they received weren’t in the realm of what they felt they could make publishing it themselves. The novel went on to hit the New York Times bestseller list in 2015. “Many [publishers] are beginning to be understanding of the wish to be hybrid, and the business sense behind it,” McGuire says of the continuing shift toward the hybrid model.
Continuing Trends into 2016
Though last year brought a lot of firsts to the self-publishing industry, the overall formula for success remained relatively constant. Preorders continued to be a key feature driving sales at Smashwords, for example. According to founder Mark Coker, though just 10% of authors took advantage of the site’s preorder function, those titles accounted for two-thirds of its top 200 bestsellers. Microtargeted subgenres continued to find readers, although romance remained the most popular genre overall, and e-book prices held steady at an average of $2.99, with many authors offering the first book in their series free to build a readership.
Amazon’s Kindle Singles program has capitalized on offering authors the ability to publish shorter texts. The program added 200 new titles by both well-known and new authors in 2015, bringing the total offerings up to more than 1,000 at the start of 2016, according to editor David Blum. “Generally, people are reading more and more on their phones, which works particularly well for Kindle singles, because they’re short and easy to read,” he says. This trend is supported by data from Wattpad, where 90% of the platform’s activity is from users on their mobile phones.
The trend in earlier years toward disrupting existing publishing models with new startups like the now-established Wattpad or the social reading community Goodreads, since acquired by Amazon, seems to have slowed in 2015. Some of those publishing models are stumbling as we enter 2016—the once-promising all-you-can-read subscription services maintain a small percentage of the market, with just 5% of consumers signing up according to Nielsen. Sixty percent of that market share goes to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, with services like Scribd and Oyster (the latter planning to close its doors in January) making up the rest. In an analog twist, subscription services such as Book Riot and OwlCrate, which offer monthly print books and other swag, sprouted last year as readers opted for the subscription box model. Though most of these are limited to books by traditionally published authors, in March hybrid author Colleen Hoover launched Bookworm Box, which caters to indie authors and has more than 2,000 subscribers and a wait list for membership.
Remaining Challenges for Indie Authors
There are two main challenges that have yet to be overcome when it comes to self-publishing versus traditional publishing. The first is print distribution and lack of shelf space in bricks-and-mortar stores. While indie authors continued to hit the bestseller lists in 2015, their presence in physical shops was negligible. Coker, the Smashwords founder, predicts that this will change With indie authors consistently hitting the national bestseller lists, he says, booksellers would be wise to carry those titles. Though total digital sales have reached the millions, many readers, even younger readers, still prefer print. In a study conducted by Publishing Technology, 79% of millennials said they read a print book in the last year—nearly double the amount who chose to read an e-book on any device—and 28% have discovered new books at retail stores. Indie authors want to capitalize on this market share.
Though many bookstores have small indie sections or may want to carry more indie titles, it is not always such an easy thing to do. The terms set by self-publishing platforms such as Amazon’s CreateSpace are famously incompatible with the way booksellers operate—that is, with a discount of 40%–55% and the ability to return books. Stocking an independent title means taking on a degree of risk that most booksellers aren’t willing to accept, so these unfavorable terms have long been a barrier to getting indie books on shelves. In addition, there remains the problem of discoverability. Most booksellers order their titles through Edelweiss—an online catalogue that doesn’t list self-published books. “If the books can’t be found in the catalogue—where every traditional publisher from Abrams to Simon & Schuster list their titles—then they may as well be invisible to bricks-and-mortar booksellers,” IndieReader’s Amy Edelman says. To overcome this issue, IndieReader teamed up with Edelweiss in 2014 to create IndieReader In-Store—a paid service that provides a listing of the author’s book as well as a digital review copy.
IngramSpark offers similar access. “IngramSpark makes it easy for self-published authors to make their books available to our retail and library partners,” says Robin Cutler, senior manager of independent publishing at Ingram. “Authors still want to have contact directly with readers, so the dream of seeing their book in stores and libraries is as viable as ever,” Cutler says. These services are a step toward leveling the playing field when it comes to indie versus traditional authors.
But logistical issues such as terms and catalogues may no longer be relevant moving into 2016, as Amazon expands into bricks-and-mortar stores, possibly bypassing the traditional publisher-distributor-bookseller model. In November, Amazon opened its first bookstore in Seattle, advertising it as a physical extension of its Web presence, which could be good news for indie authors. The store carries titles from other publishers, so it isn’t clear what percentage of the titles, if any, will come from the CreateSpace program, but it seems likely that New York Times indie bestsellers would find shelf space at the store. It will be a while before we know whether Amazon’s expansion into the physical retail sector breaks down the shelf-space barrier for indies on any meaningful level.
The second barrier still stymieing authors in 2015 was the lack of traditional media coverage for indie titles. Though indie authors sell copies in the millions and enjoy a robust social media following, recognition and validation from the traditional literary community is rare. To secure reviews for an indie book, authors had just a few options last year: paid review services (offered by outlets such as Kirkus, IndieReader, BlueInk Review, and Self-Publishing Review); customer reviews (solicited by sending review copies to beta readers or via Goodreads or social media giveaways); or a blog tour, where bloggers run an excerpt, review, or q&a—none of which usually leads to coverage in the traditional media. Coverage is reserved for reportage of self-to-traditional publishing deals rather than reviews. Edelman agrees that the lack of review space in traditional media outlets is a problem. “Self-published authors still face a huge lack of respect, both from readers and consumer media,” she says. She suggests that if self-published authors were to pool their resources and advertise their books in traditional media, the reviews would soon follow. “Money talks,” she says.
Edelman hopes that 2016 is the year that a consumer publication has the vision and muscle to reframe the narrative surrounding self-published books—by presenting them with the same care shown to indie movies and music. By featuring the best fiction, art, photography, graphic novels, and handmade titles in the self-publishing world, publications could help skeptical readers appreciate indie books. But until a high-profile consumer-facing magazine (she suggests New York magazine as a potential fit) or an influential public figure steps forward to champion indie books, Edelman predicts that “self-published books, for most people, will still mean ‘lesser than.’”