Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Has Amazon declared war on the indies?

(And could that be the best thing that ever happened to us?)

So – hands up who calls themselves an indie? Hands up if you’ve enjoyed selling on Kindle? And hands up if you think you’ve got less lazy since you started selling on Kindle? I don’t mean time lazy, I mean idea lazy.

Still with me?

OK, I’ll start. Today sees the end of Amazon’s Sunshine Deals summer reading extravaganza, and for many indie authors it can’t come a day too soon. The effect on those of us tenuously in the top 100 has been devastating. Sales have tanked (from around 120 a day to 40 a day in my case) as ultra-cheap books by established authors have demonstrated that readers’ love of all things indie actually referred to price not content. And they’ll be with us for a while to come now they’ve worked into the recommendation algorithm.

But that’s not the most worrying development. The US forum moderators kicked all promotion threads into a “Meet Our Authors” forum, and today it seems at least two global changes have kicked in. The “insert product link” button no longer lists books, so you have to manually type in/paste a live link to a book, and the brackets many of us used after our book titles have all disappeared.

Those were two of the indies’ biggest marketing tools – the former offering readers simplicity, the latter being an attention grabber. These changes affect everyone in theory, but in practice impact the indies most.

So this is war on the indies, right? Well, quite possibly. Almost certainly Amazon is clearing the way for its own publishing programme.

But so what? I’m an indie. I’ve been saying for a while I think we’ve seen a change in what that means as more and more people with mainstream genre books have “gone indie”, meaning they’ve self-published, usually through Kindle. Heck, I’ve had a genre book in the top 100 bestsellers for almost 3 weeks. But for me whilst that’s great, and it’s been a financial lifeline at an incredibly difficult time on a personal level, it has nothing to do with REALLY being indie. I argued in April that the real winners on Kindle would be prolific midlisters who built a fanbase and didn’t rely on market vagaries – they would successfully replace the modest-income-addition they’d lost as publishers dropped their modest-income-addition-generating midlist.

For me being an indie is about freedom. It’s about writing the books you want, no, the books you *have* to write, and then being free to put them out in the world. They can be genre books or the most obscure experimentation, but the point is you didn’t put them there to make money, you did it because it mattered to do it your way, and to find your own readers, and get to know them and interact, and be less faceless than a regular author. Being indie is about individuality and community all rolled into one.

Which brings me back to my initial questions. It’s been too easy to make sales as an “indie” on Kindle. Lots of people spent lots of time on Amazon forums (yeah, me too) posting links to their books. They spent more time marketing than ever before, and with real success, and thought that was the key. Sound familiar, not just on a personal level but in terms of Business Studies 101? Yeah, of course it does. It’s the blinkered behaviour that’s characterised every bubble since time began – find a surefire way that works and stop looking for an alternative. Then wail and rend clothes when that surefire way vanishes.

Of course not everyone who Kindled their books was like that. The forums are filled with people who’ve used them to build a genuine relationship, Kevin Kelly style (I’ve said time and again the past two years how weird it is people stopped talking 1000 true fans – the reason’s simple: 1000 true fans isn’t easy. It seemed ersatz. It wasn’t). And people who do other stuff as well. They’ll be the ones who ride out the storm, because the readers will follow them.

And what of people like me, and the rag tag bunch of us at Year Zero and eight cuts gallery for whom indie is an ethos not a business strategy? Well, I’ll carry on doing live shows, weird online exhibitions, sharing recipes, and looking for weird and wonderful ways to bring what I write to people who don’t know about it. I’ll thank Amazon for the kick up the backside and warning not to get complacent (as well as for the sales whilst they were there of course). I’ll remind myself every day of what matters about writing, and culture as a whole. And I have to say I’ll rather enjoy the fact that very soon it’ll stop being cool to be indie. It’s made me a bit hot under the collar flyingthat close to the mainstream sun.

And at teh risk of sounding like a "take your medicine" parent, it'll do indie writers in general a power of good. The real indie writers. Those who've succeeded on Kindle because they engaged with readers will carry on succeeding. For everyone else the end of a cash cow may eb what's needed to get them doing it right and non-lazily before they learn bad habits.

Oh, and here are my books :)

Black Heart High
The Company of Fellows
The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes
Songs from the Other Side of the Wall
(life:) razorblades included


  1. I thought the site didn't insert book links either, but if you choose "All Products" the books come up. you might have to scroll a bit.

  2. Interesting post, Dan. I'm still struggling with the 'marketing' part.

  3. I haven't the first clue about marketing. I like doing readings and I like chatting online. So I do those. I think I got very lucky with my Amazon sales, and several things happened all at the same time that have helped – the key to that is keeping one’s nose to the ground and looking for new things.

  4. I'm still not sure what the phrase "indie author" actually means. Would you like to enlighten me, Dan?

  5. It's like literary fiction - one of thse things that doesn't mean anything but you have to use so you can talk about the issue you want to talk about and not spend forever talking terminology :) More and more people use it of themselves simply to mean self-publisher, especially on the Amazon forums - they're the people I'm talking to here, saying this is a wake-up call to be more imaginative with marketing

  6. Can you hear me clapping from about 120 miles away?
    Bravo, Dan.
    I've been worrying about this a lot lately, this marketting lark. In the end it does seem to come down to relationship.
    ha the wv is ACTOR. What are the odds on that??

  7. Hi Dan - good post. Interesting times, certainly.

    I think the people this will hit most are those publishing essentially mainstream fiction in a self-published way. They'll get drowned out, and people won't bother to go looking for them because they can get satisfactory alternatives for that kind of fiction without having to hunt any further. So the self-published success stories (in terms of £ and $) may dry up to a degree.

    Whereas people who've used the self-publishing boom to publish books that are in anyway alternative to the mainstream (and define 'alternative' in any way you want here) may still keep afloat, as their prospective readers will still be out looking for that kind of fiction... Here's hoping, anyway!

  8. Viv, I think it's one of the oldest things in the world - that what matters is relationships, and the long-term. Marketing is always best if you're just you.

    James, that's exactly it, and here's hoping too! In terms of the last one I published, I don't think there are too many books out there about overcoming depression through music and picking your feet (Stuart Estell's Verruca Music)

  9. Great post.

    I saw this coming, with Amazon, which is why I set up an independent system first. Sucks a bit that Amazon changed the week I uploaded to it, but never mind. There's more than one way to market a cat, or skin a marketing funnel - or something to that effect.

    You're absolutely right about marketing being best if you're 'you'. People get caught up in the idea of wanting everyone to buy their stuff. That's the last thing you want. A sausage company should never market to vegans. All they'll get is complaints. Better to market to people who like sausages.

    If only someone would bring out a non-sleazy course on marketing for writers, that balances common sense marketing theory with all the kooky, arty, negotiating-with-the-muse-ness of being a writer, and not wanting to be a slick marketer, bundled in as well. Hmm. I wonder who will do that? ;o)

    It's going pretty well, actually, and your interview will be a PERFECT addition to it. Thank you. That was lots of fun. I've made sure to include the cover shots of your books too.

    Oops. It's 4.30am. I've become nocturnal again. Eek. Goodnight.

  10. Rebecca, why is it the internet always comes back to food :D I shall spend the morning wishing I had sausages not marmite sandwiches.

    Very very best with the non-sleazy marketing :)I think the negotiating with the museness is the key issue. I went into writing because I had something to say. And it's so easy to get sidetracked from that when more people like the other stuff you do. I'm more than happy to do *both* but if it's one or the other then my *muse* is the one thing that won't be nefotiated with, so to speak.

  11. Hi Dan, Good post - just to let you know I've put a link to this post - and a link to The Company of Fellows - on my blog over HERE:
    All the best, sincere regards.

  12. Thanks, Haarlson, that's very kind. I've just noticed it in my subscription to your posts.

  13. You have a very good blog that the main thing a lot of interesting and useful!