As 2017 begins, indie authors and publishers are having to navigate a fast-growing industry filled with new opportunities, but one that also presents challenges related to that expansion. To find continued success in self-publishing, it has become more important to expand the definition of “self-published author” to encompass new roles and new formats.
Self-publishing continues to expand, with ISBN registrations jumping 21% from 2014 to 2015 (the most recent data available), according to the bibliographic solutions company Bowker. New services have made it easier than ever to launch self-publishing projects, and as the landscape gets more crowded, it becomes more difficult for authors to stand out and make a profit.
“We can expect 2017 is going to continue to be a challenging market for all authors and publishers,” says Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. He attributes this to the flood of titles that have entered the e-book space.
The growing supply is creating one set of difficulties for authors who are trying to get their titles discovered, and Coker says Amazon has not made anything easier for indie authors’ bottom lines with KDP Select, which requires participating authors to publish e-books exclusively with Amazon and allows titles to be eligible for Kindle Unlimited—a program that provides unlimited books for readers who pay a monthly subscription fee. He is critical of the online retail giant’s shift from compensating authors per books sold to a system based on the number of pages read.
Robin Cutler, director of IngramSpark, says that as a result of this drop in revenue from e-book content, indie authors who had previously focused on digital are looking to publish in print and other formats. “Getting their titles into brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as into libraries continues as a goal for many indie authors this year and into next year,” says Cutler.
Joel Friedlander, book designer and publishing consultant, seconds that, emphasizing that while getting print books into stores is not always easy, successful indie authors will be those who think outside traditional formats. “Authors are starting to understand that the world of book publishing is much bigger than e-books and print on demand,” he says.
Looking beyond the most common formats can also mean expanding a book’s reach into new mediums. This includes continued growth in the audio segment.
“Although many indie authors have joined the audio bandwagon, there are many still sitting on the sidelines,” says Sally Dedecker, a self-publishing business development and marketing strategist. She expects many audio holdouts to move into this segment as DIY audiobook services become both more professional and more affordable.
For some authors, expanding beyond traditional publishing formats may even lead to television. In November, Wattpad signed a deal with Universal Cable Productions to produce streaming video programs based on some of the self-publishing platform’s popular stories. This followed additional partnerships with media giants, including Turner and Paramount.
“Wattpad is more than reading and writing—it’s entertainment,” Wattpad cofounder and CEO Allen Lau wrote in a post on the company blog. “Hundreds of Wattpad stories have become blockbuster movies, hit TV series, and bestselling books.”
Lau mentions another way that authors can receive money through Wattpad. “Our native ads help brands reach consumers around the world with entertaining and engaging stories that don’t interrupt the experience they’ve come to know and love on Wattpad,” he says. Though Wattpad doesn’t sell books, its writers can make money through sponsored content. Last year, the platform partnered with brands including Coca-Cola and H&M, which paid to have their products mentioned in the stories of some of the platform’s top writers.
“The important thing is to pair the right brand with the right writers,” says Ashleigh Gardner, head of partnerships at Wattpad Studios. “The brands we work with aren’t too controlling about what the writers write, the writers are happy to get paid, and readers are happy to see more content from their favorite writers.”
New Roles and Smarter Marketing
Just as 2017 will likely see self-publishing expand into different formats, it may also be a time when authors have to find ways to expand their own roles. They are adding such words as consultant, publisher, and marketer to their business cards and passing on lessons for success to other authors.
“They typically begin publishing their own work and through that experience learn how to establish a publishing business or service to help other authors,” says IngramSpark’s Cutler.
Friedlander predicts that more indie authors will become indie publishers by assisting other writers in bringing their books to market in 2017. “They figure out book publishing on a small scale with their own books, and then they say, ‘I could help Jane out with her books,’ and it’s a natural evolution,” he says.
This year, Friedlander expects to see indie authors delve more deeply into marketing their books and helping other authors do so. “In the last year I’ve seen a lot more sophisticated Internet marketing from authors,” he says. “I’m seeing more multiplatform launches—with, say, 50 affiliates promoting a book launch to people all over the world.”
Friedlander compares this with several years ago, when “I was telling people, ‘I only have one foot in publishing, and the other in Internet marketing,’ but this is getting much more typical now, with authors making their business model turn on a direct-sales approach.” He points to Aer.io, which was purchased last year by Ingram. The service allows small presses and authors to sell books through social media and to include direct links to allow for the purchase of books in one click. “Selling direct to these customers is what these indie authors are best at, allowing readers to deal with someone they recognize—not Harper or Houghton Mifflin, but the guy who writes the books they love,” he says.
As authors are getting savvier with their online marketing, they are also expecting a higher quality of data about their readers and the performance of their books. “We’re starting to program with larger companies with the goal of providing data of what people online are reading and helping make informed decisions of what people want to see,” says Wattpad’s Gardner. The service’s Writer Analytics Dashboard gives readers such data as the number of unique readers by chapter, number of reader votes by chapter, and the ages and locations of readers.
Through growing tech tools and a wider array of services, it is easier than ever for indie authors to go global. Cutler says that this year IngramSpark will be offering more tools to allow customers to more easily provide multiple formats to customers.
“We are looking to offer easier ways to make titles available globally this coming year so that one list price can be converted into multiple currencies for global markets,” says Cutler.
Gardner also sees huge opportunities from a global readership. “We are seeing a lot of our audience coming from Southeast Asia and Europe, reading not only local, but English-language content,” she says. “I’ve been most impressed by the growth in Spanish-language writing. I think we’re going to see Spanish become the biggest language on Wattpad in the next year.”
Though the fast-growing self-publishing market is creating its share of challenges, there is no shortage of exciting ways for self-publishing authors—or publishers or marketers—to find success in 2017.
Alex Daniel is a freelance writer living in New York City.