Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Maturing of Indie: How to Keep Your Momentum in a Flattening Marketplace

By Dario Ciriello 

Part of the Indie Authors Series

This may come as a surprise, but Indie, our bright new baby boy full of hope and dreams, is looking all grown up. He’s started shaving, and his voice has broken.

Before we look at our new teen’s future, let’s just glance back at his early years.

It’s tempting to think modern indie publishing started when Amazon launched KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) in 2007, but in fact it began five years earlier when Lulu came on the scene. Before Lulu, an indie publisher was really a small press using traditional offset printing. In those days, the only option a self-published author (who today would identify as indie) had was the vanity press, which provided an offset print run and a boatload of stigma to go with it. I’m old enough to know a number of authors whose attempt at going indie before there was such a thing ended up with a garage full of unsold books and a lasting hole in their pockets.

Lulu solved the problem of the print run. By employing digital printing, a self-published author could order just the books they needed rather than to commit to a print run of 1,500 or more. But without any distribution options, they were still stuck with hand-selling them in person or from a website, and the chances of even getting into a local brick-and-mortar store were slim to nonexistent. Still, before long Amazon began listing Lulu’s self-published authors, the first step in conferring legitimacy on the new indie field. And when KDP came along in 2007, everything changed.

The Kindle wasn’t the first e-reader or (initially) the best, but it quickly became dominant. As readers snapped up the Kindle and the writing community discovered the KDP program, the initial trickle of authors turned into a flood. In the eight years since then, we’ve all—authors, publishers, and booksellers—been on a wild, dizzying rollercoaster ride, in which the entire world of books and publishing has changed.

Has anyone noticed how that change has slowed in the last couple of years?

A few years ago, people were extrapolating ebook sales growth and confidently predicting the end of print; the trad publishing industry was going to go the way of the music industry and become all but irrelevant; and brick-and-mortar booksellers were soon to be history.

None of this happened.

We could go into the reasons for the above, but I’m more interested in looking at how the maturing of indie and the slowing of the boom, like a rollercoaster car coming slowly to rest, is going to affect indie authors like you and I.

For a start, ebook sales growth has leveled off very substantially, dropping into single digits in 2013. Outside the USA and the UK—and certainly once you leave the Anglophone sphere—ebooks remain almost irrelevant and print is still king.

As e-readers cease to be a novelty, the wild enthusiasm for snapping up cheap and free books has also slowed dramatically. A huge amount of dreck continues to be published under the mantle of indie, forcing the ebook buying public, now wise to this, to essentially become slushpile readers, and thus holding down the price of indie books in the marketplace while trad publishers can and do still get triple to quadruple the cover price indies charge. And people are increasingly distracted by millions of apps and an endless stream of new devices.

What bothers me more though is the dramatic slowing of change and dynamic in the field and the lack of new options and opportunities for promotion, and with it much of the energy and excitement that drove indies onwards and upwards. A growing number of indie authors who started out enthusiastically two, three, or four years ago are visibly disillusioned, feeling they’ve hit a wall. Amazon keeps trying to get us excited about little tweaks, but they’re just fine-tuning and tinkering at best. Free is pretty much dead, though it’s still a good idea for the first book in a series. No serious challenger to Amazon has yet emerged. Getting an indie book reviewed by a mainstream publication remains an impossibility. The better book review and promo sites like Bookbub can be tough to get into unless your book already has a substantial number of online reviews. Everyone on Twitter is (rightly!) sick of authors endlessly pimping their books. Perhaps the only new thing to take off recently has been boxed sets, but other than that I’d say we’ve achieved a stasis of sorts.

If this is the case, how does an indie author grow their brand or—if they’re new to the game—get noticed in the first place? Looking at the most successful indie authors of my acquaintance, I’d say there are some things that work, and which continue to bring results even in a flat market:

1. Output

Your readers want more. Two novels a year should be every serious indie author’s minimum goal.

2. Consistency

Not only do your readers want more, they want more of the same, or something close to it. Genre-hopping (and I speak partly from experience) will cost you.

3. Focus

Don’t spread yourself too thin and try to do it all. If you love social media and don’t have a day job, maybe you can be on every platform and blog too, and still get your thousand or more words a day. Most of us are better advised to pick one or two platforms though (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and focus on those.

4. Quality

Covers and editing, people. It’s not just about the writing.

5. Brand

Knowing who you are ensures that others will too.

6. Flexibility

Only do what works, and if it stops working, change. Make sure you stay on top of developments in the market, and when you see a new marketing opportunity or technique open up, go for it (and much as you want to, it’s not in your best interest to tell everyone else!).

7. Work Ethic

The writers who succeed work hard—very hard. Write every day, meet your targets, and learn to say “no”.

8. Enthuse

Whether on social media or at your book launch (and yes, you really should have one!) make sure to excite your readers, your friends, your family. If you do this, they’ll evangelize for you in a way that nobody else can.

9. Print

I continue to be amazed at the number of indie authors that dismiss print. Yes, it’ll probably just be 5% or so of your sales, but for giveaways, book launches, some reviewers, and sheer credibility, nothing comes close. The cost is almost zero and the effort minimum—at most a couple of days of your time. (If that’s not enough, there’s also growing anecdotal evidence that some early adopters of digital reading—I’m one, and have met several others—are switching back to print as their preferred medium.)

10. Pay Forward, Give Back

Help new writers as others have helped you. When you see promise, help with a beta read, a review, etc. A kindness now will always come back to you.

How do you feel about the maturing the indie marketplace? What’s your strategy for remaining enthusiastic and relevant? 

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor, and the founder of Panverse Publishing. His nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real "Mamma Mia!" island), was a UK travel bestseller in 2012 and has recently been published in Poland. His first novel, Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short Science Fiction work, was released in June 2014. He is currently working on his second novel, another thriller. Dario has also edited and copyedited over a dozen novels, as well as three critically-acclaimed novella anthologies. He lives with his wife in the Los Angeles Area.


  1. Hate to sound like a broken record here but ... great advice.

    The great thing about print books is the social aspect. I remember sitting at the coffee shop or park reading and someone would ask me about it. I remember conversations started like, "Oh, is that the latest from ***. I haven't read it yet. Is it good." etc. We'd speculate on the characters, the endings, etc. That doesn't happen with ebooks.

    1. Hi HR ~

      Thanks, and good to see you again. Excellent point! Nobody does that with ebooks...and even if they ask what you're reading, they can't look at the front and back cover, leaf through it, etc. So true.

      Plus there's the pride in authorship of a physical book. I have a collection of shorts out in ebook only as it's just 35k words or so, and I really want to be hold it in my hand as a print edition!


  2. Thanks for offering this great perspective, Dario. Nothing is ever static, and this evolution of electronic publishing proves it.

    1. Hallo Walter!

      How nice to see you here :) Isn't that so true? As the taoists would say, change is a property of life. In the early days of indie publishing things were changing so fast it was hard to keep up. That's not the case now...and I'm not sure whether this is a good thing or not. Before, being on the ball and an early adopter of a new tweak in the indie field (the appearance of Kindle Select was the motherlode) could bring huge rewards till everyone else got on the bandwagon. But nothing significant has come along in a while now.


  3. Great post, Dario. People discount enthusiasm, but it is HUGE

    1. Thanks so much, Bonnie. I think so too...people love to be part of something, and if an author can really connect with some of their readership--and IMO a reading, book launch, or social event is the best, they really get excited and want to tell others, share it with their friends and the world. You can't *buy* that!


  4. Very interesting perspective. I'm with you on the fact that print may not sell as well as ebooks, but they are an invaluable promotional tool. People prefer to handle the book, even if only to work out if they want to buy the ebook!

    1. Rhoda, thanks so much :) And yes...the tactile dimension is important. If the industry got smart (I'm not holding my breath, haha) and we could bring the price of the Espresso book machine down by improved technology and greater sales, we could largely do away with shipping and warehousing print books altogether and bring prices of print down, even a good deal. It *should* be possible. Print isn't going away as it is; if we could bring print prices down say 50%, I bet sales would go way up.

      Really, what's needed is a home book printer: Download the book and print and bind it right at home.

      We can dream, right? ;-)


  5. The slowdown is a good thing. It means the people who hastily published a poorly written & presented book-like product under the mad illusion that they were going to make a whole bunch of money are discovering that it doesn't actually work that way. They'll find another bandwagon to jump on. Now self publishing can take a breath, stretch out, and discover its other facets.

    I think there will be two main classes of indie authors: those who have that one book they're longing to write, but only the one; and those who would keep writing novels even if they were just pitching them onto a compost heap after typing THE END. Hobby vs career writers, we could say, without in any way disparaging the hobby path. In both cases, we're going to see better books, because we're all learning how to produce good books on our own and because the trend-chasers will have dropped out.

    The challenge now -- and the fun, imho -- is going to be finding betters ways to connect readers and writers through stories. Authors cooperatives, book bloggers, review sites... places where readers can go to find out about the kinds of books they like. I think that as the standards rise for indie books and that as readers discover the awesome creativity and variety that indie authors produce, they're going to get bored with blockbusters, gain confidence in new authors, and start seeking more widely. There will always be best-sellers, I guess, but I predict greater fragmentation with closer connections between authors and readers. Which sounds good to me!

    1. Anna, thanks for your insightful comments on the mid- and longer-term future of indie.

      You know, I think you have it dead right--absolutely. What we've been living through is a crazy bubble/boom, but one where the bust is not a collapse of the market but a healthy maturing (my teenager analogy again). As the field settles and there's less media attention on the explosion of self-pub, the trend-chasers will begin to thin out. This may already be happening.

      Some of the author coops have been in existence for a while now, and it's a good model. I also think you nailed it when you talk about readers discovering the creativity and freshness in the best indie work. I've blogged more than once about the cookie-cutter conformity that's become rampant in trad pub ( see e.g., ), and I despise it.

      People often say that readers don't notice or care whether a book is trad or indie pubbed, but as happened with film and music (and beer for that matter), once they discover a few indie books, some readers may well start actively looking for good indie books. Reviews and attaining visibility remains a huge problem for us, but as things settle perhaps new developments in that area will come about.

      Thanks again!


  6. I was doing well with slowly growing sales for my series, until Nov 2017 when sales plummeted, despite no real change I could determine on my part. I have a theory that around that time Amazon changed their algorithms they use to promote/recommend books to readers. (I think they no longer promote a book after it's been published for three months, so unless you buy ads...)
    I'd be interested to know if other authors have noticed a similar change.
    We are rather at the mercy of Amazon's algorithms in that regard. For myself, I know very little about marketing though, so take my comments with a pinch of salt.