08 March 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 37 comments

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.




  1. Jos'e M Batista
    Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 3:42 am

    Could be,. Although it seems difficult to imagine someone who thinks twice before spending $15 forking out $100+ to be able to go later into a $0,99 buying binge that’s what Apple app business model is based on.

    Any thoughts on the Audible market? In a few years probably a big chunk of the narration will be high quality machine work and the $0,99 audible book might become a reality.

    By the way, what’s NA ?

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 12:33 pm

      NA=New Adult.

      Book buying behavior is very different than app buying.

      The cost of producing and delivering a quality audio product will keep the cost high. A machine can’t catch nuance, inflection, the difference between voices in dialogue, etc. I mean, you can have machine read right now. It just sucks. So no, I don’t think we’re going to see .99 audio books any time soon, at least not in the mainstream, and certainly not with any quality. That, and file size/bandwidth issues are also a cost factor – these are big files.

    • Cathryn Cade  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 11:49 am

      Believe it. Millions of romance readers have purchased ebook readers because the ebooks are inexpensive & we were out of shelf space. It’s about the perceived bargain. Also, my kindle has paid for itself w over 1k books.

  2. Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 5:18 am

    What a fantastically sensible, thoughtful post. For what it’s worth, I think you’re spot on. In the *business* of self-publishing, you have got to assess and understand your market. You’ve done that right there.
    Thank you.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 12:33 pm

      Glad you liked it.

  3. Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 11:10 am

    I appreciate your insight and views based upon your successful Indie publishing career. As someone still struggling for purchase, it’s helpful. I agree that whatever the ultimate percentage of Indie sales vs mainstream shakes out at, most of us “mid-list” types are now far better off than before the revolution.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 12:35 pm

      It’s an awesome time to be an author. I’m making a great living. So are many of my friends. But every one that is has a common trait: they work at it very hard, and treat it like any other business, clocking 40-60 hour weeks of actual work, not screwing around. I think that’s the not so secret sauce to having a nice middle class publishing biz, assuming you can write decently, which many can.

      • robert bucchianeri  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 11:19 am

        Yup. That’s why my production is going to soar this year and I’m doing a series rather than the standalones I’ve written so far. Want to double the 6 book I have available now by year’s end…

        • Russell Blake  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 4:07 pm

          A good plan, as long as you keep the quality up from tome to tome. I actually think JET and the Assassin series have improved as I’ve written more of em. Then again, I’m biased…

  4. Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 11:13 am

    I wonder if since we have the largest amount of older people now than we’ve ever had if that will mean more book sales? My mom is a retired/high volume reader. Prior to my getting involved in writing, she only read paperback romances by the same authors, like you said. Now she’s been reading those on kindle only, trying out new romance authors, and has read the majority of your books, all in a short period of time. Oddly enough, she has never read anything in the genre before besides the Davinci Code. She says she likes your stories because she likes the female characters.
    I would like your opinion on something else too. Recently Giacommo posted an article about Amazon. I think it was from the New Yorker, about how trad publishers are charged co-op space so their books will be mentioned more in algorithms , charged to be included in editor’s picks, daily deals, etc. Which all makes sense since it is business after all. What I’m wondering is if there will ever be an opportunity for Indies to purchase those. I mean, we’re allowed to compete on an almost level playing field. We can write the best book we can, have a great cover/blurb, get high-quality editing and buy ads from Book Bub like big publishers can. Why do you think those other spots are not for sale? I would think if an Indie could afford it their money would be just as good as Harper Collins. Granted, not many Indies could afford it, but why do you think we aren’t able to buy those? Do you think it’s a contract thing they’ve signed with big publishers?

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 12:37 pm

      I have no idea why Amazon does anything, other than that it’s good for Amazon. My hunch is that it’s way easier to tell S&S that they have to pay $5 million to get their titles visibility than it is to manage 1000 indies’ ads over the same period.

  5. Sat 08th Mar 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Russell, Another great post. What I have realised for some time is that I need more product and you have confirmed that in this post. So head down writing in completion mode.

  6. IPG
    Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 1:50 am

    Very good analysis, and I generally agree that Big Publishing will always be around and will continue to own about 70% of the fiction market, more in some genres (literary fiction) and less in others (romance, SF, mystery).

    That being said, a chunk of your analysis seems to depend on an assumption that, by and large, new technology and the enhanced availability of books will not effect any significant change in reading habits.

    Here’s your statement:

    “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.”

    You’re probably right, but you could be wrong. Here’s what I think is possible:

    I haven’t seen anything more than small surveys, but based on anecdotal evidence, people I know, and scores of comments I have seen in Amazon reviews and various blogs and forums, there are certainly people out there making statements like “I haven’t read a book since college, and now I read one a week, thanks to my kindle.”

    Now, a 40-year-old who hasn’t read a book since college is a non-reader, and if he’s now reading 4 books a month, that’s significant.

    Sure, I have no way of knowing if there’s a 100 folks like this in the entire US or 100,000. But it does make me think that perhaps many nonreaders are being converted into occasional readers, and perhaps a few of these will graduate to becoming voracious readers.

    Maybe that progression will be seen across the range of readers:

    So, current voracious readers will read even more (I have certainly seen comments in Amazon forums and Goodreads where folks are saying that where 5 years ago they would literally end up re-reading old books because they couldn’t find / afford new books at their rate of consumption, now they are simply buying more books because they find high quality stuff for reasonable prices.

    And I don’t see any reason the occasional readers are immune from this progression. We will certainly see some movement from occasional to voracious.

    Look at the video game and TV markets. There are certainly folks who have never been “game players” who are now obsessively playing games on their iPhones and Androids. I know many of these folks–40-year-old busy businessmen and women who are glued to their phones on the commute and at home and in fact are playing games and not reading the Wall Street Journal. (Same with books on phones, but I’m talking about games here.)

    Same with video, TV shows in particular. The DVR and then Netflix dramatically changed viewing behavior. A show like “Breaking Bad” would never had become such a phenomenon in the old days, because by the time word of mouth spread, it was already Season 3 or 4. With old episodes available on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, that show attracted people who would never have bothered to join a show mid-arc.

    Anyway, good analysis. My points are just speculation, but so are yours to some degree. Interesting times. Thanks for taking the time to post your views.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 5:01 am

      I think my point is that the new voracious reader isn’t in the sights of the the trad pubs.

  7. Elizabeth Jennings
    Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 2:26 am

    Fantastic analysis, Russell! Another huge market for indies going forward is works in translation. European (and Japanese) markets are full of translated works but by the time the money trickles down to the author, it has passed through the hands of the foreign publisher, foreign subagent, publisher, agent…not much left. A savvy indie author can have his/her book translated–expensive, but a sunk cost–and the indie author gets the market. tina Folsom, an indie romance writer, is doing very very well in translation. She is a best seller in France and Germany and it is a very good revenue stream. that’s in the indie writer’s future too. World dominion, bwahaha.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 5:03 am

      Perhaps, but I haven’t seen any numbers that are compelling.

  8. Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 9:50 am

    I agree. Two markets are emerging. I write romance, and went into B & N yesterday. The romance shelves looked much the same as they always do (same authors), except the book covers were curling on the edges as if they’d sat there for a long time. I don’t even try to get into bricks and mortar anymore. That’s not my target market, but the trad’s are focusing on the big names, like you said. Their midlist is largely going indy…at least in my genre.

  9. Robert Jones
    Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 11:28 am

    This is a well thought out post. More than that, it’s an educated one. There’s a better than good chance this could be right on the nose on all counts.

    I wish the indy market was open to more than just heading in a pulp direction–though I agree this sounds entirely accurate. I think it will be a good place for some exceptional writers who do great one shots, but I also agree that probably won’t become the norm.

    I don’t agree that everything in e-publishing will sink in the next 6 years. Whatever sinking, or adjustments/settling into a groove, that may occur will most likely happen over the next 3 years. Give or take. The folks who came in looking to gobble up free content, no matter how terribly it’s written, will be phased out by then. As will the number of people looking to strike gold by publishing such crap. The audiences built by the better authors will become the norm…which seems to indicate that all is heading in the exact direction RB has indicated…the “Pocket Books” direction.

    I don’t agree that traditional publishing will die in 5 years, or 20 years–that number keeps changing doesn’t it, like Nostradamus predicting the end of days.

    My only question is, where does that leave the in-between guys like myself? Guys who probably won’t write the next literary masterpiece, but can’t produce the volume required for the pulp audience. Maybe that’s one of the future “Cottage” level publishers, who knows. I hope it is. But it’s a question everyone here needs to consider, or hope for, as time goes by. Why? Because I’ve done the pulp level work in other areas of entertainment. I’ve done the 60 plus hours each week, and many months where 60 hours turned into 80 or so. Eleven years doing that, along with the eye problems and back and neck problems that came with it, makes any pulp industry a finite equation for many. And when you need to slow down, you need a place to go. For some, that’s a question not even on the radar, and won’t be for some time to come. For a few, those who are veritable machines, it might never be a problem. For others, it might be just around the corner.

    Not trying to be a downer. It’s just a fact. One I’m currently living with, and one I don’t see being addressed–or planned for. If it can be planned for. I’m hoping over the next couple of years, as things do begin to settle, some genuine answers will surface. Meantime, I would certainly be open to suggestions. Or even hopeful predictions.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 4:05 pm

      Publishers will still be around. What will change is that in 10 years there will be a thriving middle class that’s servicing markets they can’t or won’t. All good.

  10. Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 11:45 am

    Most readers want escape/entertainment. The market for “literature” is and always has been small. I worked for a while with an Atlantic/Harper’s editor tied into the literary establishment and he estimated there were only 50,000 readers of “literary” novels in the country. So, whether you’re Indie or mainstream published it has been and always will be a trick to find an audience large enough to support yourself. That’s why most literary writers teach or rely on grants to survive.
    By the way, I think you can have high productivity and high literary quality, i.e. Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, etc. etc.
    Also once you build a large enough list of titles…maybe 20 plus, I think you might be able to support yourself (not get rich!) for quite a long period of time as digital books are now forever.

    • Robert Jones  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 12:33 pm

      @Robert B.–This is where my thoughts are aiming in terms of that middle ground as well. This is also what makes Russell an interesting guy to follow. For my money, he probably comes as close to this ground as anyone I’ve read, and currently has about the required number of titles. Plus I tend to believe he will continue to adapt and survive as the ground levels off on both sides of the industry.

      My own tastes–and hopefully my writing as well–lean towards the authors you’ve mentioned. I do have pretensions with one of my novels that seems to border a little more towards the literary, but even there I’ve tossed in some elements of fantasy. I think you’re right that most people need a bit more of a hook than most literary mainstream guys offer. Unless you’re a genius at crafting prose, you need an edge that leans toward a genre that grabs people’s attention. And if it’s told well enough, maybe you get the literary readers as well.

      • Russell Blake  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 4:03 pm

        The irony being that it’s the guys like Patterson and Brown that pay the light bill for the publishers, but those are also the authors an acquisitions editor wouldn’t sign today. Too predictable. Not quirky enough. Too sophomoric. And so on. But from that comes opportunity.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 4:04 pm

      That’s my hope.

  11. Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 8:30 pm

    I love how I go through life thinking I know everything, and then along comes a post like this and makes me feel dumb. Your analysis of the “1 or 2 a year” vs. voracious readers was a real eye-opener.

  12. Sun 09th Mar 2014 at 11:47 pm

    It’s a fun market to predict. I think paper will be gone in 10 years, and the trade guys will promote their titles like a movie release. I’m hoping us Indies come up with a platform that lets us know our customers.
    Ultimately, quality will prevail, of that I’m certain. I also think novel writing, by necessity, will become a part-time second job… if it hasn’t already…
    My 2 cents.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 10th Mar 2014 at 1:12 pm

      Well, I certainly hope it won’t be a part time job, although I could certainly use a break. Then again, living under a freeway overpass dining on rat tail soup while I pen the next Lord of the Flies doesn’t sound particularly appealing…

  13. Mon 10th Mar 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Good level headed approach to things. The reality always somewhere between the extremes.

    The focus on the different types of readers is key. The long tail is for voracious readers. The NYT bestseller list is built on casual readers.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 10th Mar 2014 at 1:14 pm

      Yup. Obviously, the concern is that the growth in voracious readers will taper as all the low hanging fruit has gotten a kindle and the segment becomes saturated. Having said that, even if it stayed flat from here, it’s still a robust segment where careers can flourish, if not wind up in airports.

  14. Tue 11th Mar 2014 at 12:36 am

    Just found your blog and so glad to read this post. Your analysis is brilliant. You’ve defined two clear market segments. I travel long distance and see both types of readers on every plane- those casual readers holding their airport bookstore purchases and those voracious ones with their e-readers. (Note that most passengers do not read.) Blockbusters drive trad pubs (my impression is they make most of their money on the blockbuster category0. Mid-list might not return anywhere near the same amount of revenue. From an ROI perspective, it could make sense for trad pubs to drop the midlist.

    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 11th Mar 2014 at 11:27 am

      They’re effectively doing exactly that with midlist. Which creates an opportunity. From my perspective, I get that I probably won’t ever be Grisham or Childs without a big company doing massive marketing push. However, having sold 375,000 novels last year, and on track to do about that many again this year, I’m not sure I care. Sure, I’d love to see eight figures in sales writing one or two books a year. But you know what? That only happens to a very select few, and in that regard, the trad pubs are kingmakers. Point being that you can have a very nice life on what I make, especially living in Mexico, so why stress it? That couldn’t happen five years ago. Now it’s not unusual. I love this brave new world.

  15. Tue 11th Mar 2014 at 1:21 am

    This is the first time I’ve read your blog, and I’m very impressed. I liked how you analyzed readers and how respectfully you wrote about romance authors. You’re absolutely right.

    I think there is a lot to be said about building up a fan base that continues to buy your indie books, even if you don’t work 60 hours a week. (I certainly don’t.) I had a pre-order go live today, and readers were already commenting on Facebook that they want the NOW (even though the last book in the series came out January 27.) So whatever happens in the future, you have your readership, which hopefully will keep expanding.

    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 11th Mar 2014 at 11:23 am

      Well, the good news about romance is that it’s mostly voracious readers, so far better served by indies and Amazon labels due to the price point than by trad pubs. It’s also the largest segment of the market, which may account for any sense of flop sweat on the trad pubs’ part. How do they compete in a market that’s accustomed to paying .99-$4.99 and is extremely price sensitive? Short of trotting out 25 year old backlist and hoping to get some easy money blowing it out, the numbers don’t support large advances, and why on earth would a successful romance author have any interest in taking a fifth of what they can make self-publishing in a market where the trad pubs really have no advantage?

  16. Tue 11th Mar 2014 at 2:07 pm

    This is an interesting take on an evolving subject. As author of 95+ traditionally published books and some self-published and reissued ebooks, I’m watching the market change at least every six months. Glad you and Mark Coker are willing to take its pulse on a regular basis!

  17. Steve Cooper
    Wed 12th Mar 2014 at 11:54 pm

    Great analysis!

    However, don’t lose hope that indies can create volume readers out of occasionals. I am a business traveler type, albeit middle class volume flyer versus the executive first class self help guru reader type. I never had time to hit the book store and my income level wasn’t going to support the airport hardback name brand market.

    One day I borrow my daughters kindle for a trip. One that I take basically every 2 weeks. I find Fatal Exchange randomly, and I was instantly converted to a volume reader over night.

    Your right: the price point for me is generally about $5. I pay that or more for known authors. I.e you. Less for unknown. I now easily outpace what any 4 or 5 authors put out. But always go back to my knowns and look for the next. Perhaps I’m a romance heart in a shooter body….

    Always looking for new box sets. Easier to download 3 at a time or more.

    Keep up the good work. Maybe I’m the exception, but don’t bury me either please. I like your stuff.

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 13th Mar 2014 at 12:51 am

      You’re actually the guy I’m hoping to build my business with over the years.

      I think the $5-$6 price point is a fair one for all involved. Amazon actually only pays 60%, once you get done netting the 35% territories and the bandwidth fees, so on that, I’ll average three bucks and change. Few million folks buy my books every year, I’m fat. Alas, that’s a ways away. But as I like to say, if it were easy, everyone would do it…

      Glad you like the work. I’ll keep writing em as long as folks keep reading em.

  18. Anonymous
    Wed 26th Mar 2014 at 11:53 am

    What would happen if you upped your prices to 9.99?
    You never know. Maybe the majority of readers would stick with you and you’d triple your money.
    And isn’t the idea to retire and let your backlist bring in passive income forever?

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 26th Mar 2014 at 12:55 pm

      I’m not sure I want to raise my prices to double what any other indie in my genre charges. I think at this price point readers get a great value and I’m seeing $3-$4 net per unit. At $10, I’d double that, but I’d bet my sales went into the toilet and never recovered. If I were trad pubbed I’d see roughly 25% of net from each book, or less than $2 if at $10. And if you look at even the big name trad pubbed backlists, they’re selling for $5.99-$7.99, so I’d be trying to command more than my trad pubbed peers for backlist. That’s not a recipe for success.

      And while that may be some people’s idea, I was already retired. My idea is to write for the next 30 or 40 years, because I love doing so.


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