Mark Coker of Smashwords wrote a provocative blog about the future of indie publishing, in which he predicts that indies will have 50% market share within six more years.
I disagree. I posted a long comment as to why I disagree on his blog, but I wanted to summarize my thoughts and explain them a bit more than I could in 4073 characters.
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First of all, the folks who buy my books are a different market than the ebook segment the trad publishers market to. They focus on the guy who buys a book every month, at most, when he’s getting on a plane, going on vacation, or looking for something to read a few pages of every night. Why? Because that guy doesn’t have a lot of time, doesn’t really read a lot, and most importantly, isn’t price sensitive, so he’ll buy a book for $15 and not care too much. And he’ll likely buy a book by an author whose name he recognizes: a brand author, so to speak, like a Cussler or King or Grisham. They love that guy, because he’ll pay whatever it costs, and they’ll sell many millions of whatever that brand’s latest offering is. All good. Especially in airports, but once he gets a kindle for his birthday, he’ll go online and look for the same names. Big win for the publishers and the big names. Everyone makes bank.
The people who buy my books, and those of other indies, are largely big volume readers, meaning they burn through five to ten times more books than the trad publisher’s target market. Trad publishers don’t target that reader, except in romance and NA (hot genres), because their fixed costs and overhead make targeting what is a price-sensitive market a lousy return on investment.
They also don’t target him because they don’t want to become what they perceive as pulp mills, like the publishers of old, like Pocket Books, who did service that market, just as indies service it now: with product that’s economically priced. Rather, they want to continue selling $15 ebooks if at all possible. I don’t blame ’em.
Their model is one that looks for blockbusters and attempts to figure out what the next fad book will be – that book every year everybody has to read because everyone else is reading it. Which brings us to the other type of reader: the very occasional, who might read one book a year – that fad book. Trad pub loves that reader, too, because he also isn’t price sensitive. Everyone’s reading the book, so if it costs $15, whatever.
Back to Mark’s blog. Why do I think he’s wrong?
Because the occasional reader’s not likely to become a high volume one given his time constraints and habits, and the one-a-year guy isn’t either. Which means the overall market for indies has a natural ceiling, of sorts, unless the high volume readership grows significantly. I guess I just don’t see that happening. Where will all those readers come from? Non-readers? Mmm, no. Which leaves us with either the occasional guy, or the one-a-year, becoming a high volume reader – neither of which I see as likely.
There’s an exception here, which is romance – if I were a trad pub in the romance game, I’d be crapping my drawers, because that crowd’s a volume crowd, and it will naturally gravitate to lower priced offerings – why do you think so many of the huge sellers on the Top 100 are romances priced between .99 and $2.99? So we might see even more growth in the indie slice of the pie in that segment, but probably not in the others, beyond the next couple of years, when my gut says things will plateau.
So what does that leave us with, as indies? A great business. An interstitial opportunity to be the equivalent of Pocket Books to our volume audience. That audience will reward quality at an economical price, which is where we can shine.
If you notice, my business model is one featuring a large number of titles, all high quality, none of which sell huge. Last year JET was my big mover, this year, who knows? My hunch is that it will continue to be a big seller (as I release three more JET tomes this year – I’m working on the prequel, JET – Ops Files, as we speak, for release in April), but BLACK is also turning respectable numbers, and with BLACK 4, it could be a surprise for the season. I’m planning to put the series into KDP Select in a week or two to see whether that kicks it in the pants. Because you always have to keep mixing it up and experimenting. Other surprises for Q1 are Fatal Exchange and Upon A Pale Horse, both of which are selling nicely now that they’ve gotten new covers.
But back to my point. What’s exciting to me is that, whoever’s right, the opportunity for indies is huge, and growing. We may quibble over how large it will get, but to me that’s immaterial. It’s big enough.
There will be a lot more competition in that volume market moving forward, but hey, no market stays static, and you have to roll with the punches.
I disagree with blogs predicting the death of the trad pubs. I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I think they’ll continue to do fine, because the occasional reader isn’t going anywhere, so their bread and butter isn’t, either. I also believe they’ll scout the promising indies who are selling tonnage, and scoop those they can up, as they look for the next generation of names they can build into tomorrow’s big brands. Whether that works is questionable, because most of the big money’s being made in the one market that’s the most price sensitive: romance, and its cousin, NA. And romance authors tend to be a savvy bunch, so few that are making real money are likely to want to trade their million dollar a year income for a $500K advance, spread out over three years, with 15% going to their agent. Not even a million dollar advance would do it – that’s what they’re already making, per year. So that’s a tough sell for the publishers, who traditionally rely on non-economic arguments (prestige, etc.), to entice talent. Most romance authors are pragmatic, and so use their calculator, not their ego, when evaluating a deal.
But that’s neither here nor there. The opportunity is in understanding what we are, and who we service, and what motivates their buying decision. For our segment, it’s price/quality that creates the value, whereas for the trad pub ideal customer, it’s brand/quality, with little emphasis on price. Two. Different. Markets.
To me, this is exciting stuff, because it spells opportunity. Nimbler competitors can create nice cottage industries in the gaps the big boys miss. Sure, occasionally a Hugh will break out, but he, much as I love him, is a singularity. An exception in an industry of exceptions, a big winner. Most of us won’t be Hugh. We can’t be. It’s nice to dream, but reality suggests it ain’t going to happen. But what we can be is an emerging middle class that his numbers hint at. A middle class that makes a nice living servicing a market that’s been left behind.
My prediction of the future looks different than Mark’s, but it’s not a glum one. It’s one where smart, hard-working indies make comfortable livings selling their books to the volume readers, and enjoy the process. Sure, there’s always the chance one of us breaks big, but the point is that we don’t have to in order to have nice, satisfied, creatively-fulfilled lives doing what we love. Trust me, I’ve made good money doing things I didn’t love, and this is way better.
That should excite everyone, because, while we’d all like to be among the elite, being part of a prosperous middle class is a hell of an alternative to sitting in a slush pile for eons while working at Starbucks, which was the alternative until just a few short years ago.
I’ll take it as a win.
Now back to writing the JET prequel. Be nice to each other, and feel free to chime in about any or all of this stuff.