Why the Self-Published Ebook is No Longer the "New Query"

by Anne R. Allen

A few years ago, soon after the debut of the Kindle e-reader, the world was buzzing with talk of self-published "Kindle Millionaires" like Amanda Hocking and John Locke, and big publishers were beating a path to the doors of all the newly successful self-published ebook writers.

Even modestly successful self-publishers were being approached by agents with offers of representation. Agents were actually urging authors to self-publish, as in this quote from agent Jenny Bent from Sept 7, 2011, which I gleefully quoted on this blog.

"Unpublished authors, do you have a great book but can't find an agent? There's no excuse not to get that book out there independently and prove to yourself and to the world that there is an audience for your writing."

Soon after, as Ms. Bent said in an interview a few years later, an "industry" grew up of agents and publishers who approached Amazon bestsellers and offered them contracts. Some were more ethical than others, but many did get lucrative deals for their formerly self-pubbed clients.

That year, at the peak of "the EBook Revolution," Random House bought a self-pubbed book that became one of the bestsellers of all time, the notorious Fifty Shades of Grey

But four years is a long, long time in publishing years.

Since then, a number of things have altered the publishing landscape (yet again).

Update: When I wrote this post, I forgot that 90% of people never read to the end of a blogpost. There are many hopeful things at the end of this blogpost.

But now I'll add some here:

This is not the end of the indie revolution. Far from it. This is still a great time to be a self-published writer. If you WANT to be a self-published writer. The landscape is changing, but it has always been changing. Tomorrow a brand new retailer may spring up that offers us better deals and more money. I just heard from one today. Anything can happen.

But if you're hoping for a Big Five contract, self-publishers are not as welcomed as they were four years ago. And big, expensive self-publishing packages offered by vanity presses owned by the Big Five are not leading to many lucrative contracts.

If you're hoping for a contract from Amazon imprints, things may be different. I understand they are still offering deals to top selling indies. Amazon Imprints won't get you in bookstores, and may not impress your Great Aunt Susie as much as an offer from Random Penguin, but they will give you amazing perks and some of their authors are getting rich.

Here are some of the reasons self-publishers are no longer as appealing to the Big Five as they were in the early days of the "Kindle Revolution".

1) Many of the authors who made those big deals did not earn out their advances.

As agent Janet Reid says:

"If you dig beyond headlines and snakeoil blogs, you'll discover that a lot of the people who "got discovered" by self-pubbing have not gone on to stellar print careers."

The Big Five usually charge a whole lot more for the same ebook, so sales often plummet once a book goes from indie to trad. An ebook that zoomed to the top of the charts at $3.99 often comes to a screeching halt at $12.99.

Also, agents usually take a book out of circulation from the moment the deal is inked until a year or more later, in which time the book loses all momentum. If people do recall the title when it resurfaces, they'll remember it as old news.

2) Ebooks provide higher profits than print, and the ebook market for your title may be tapped out.

An ebook doesn't have to be printed, shipped or displayed in brick and mortar bookstores, and electrons don't cost a thing. That means the profit to be made with an ebook is a much higher percentage than for a hard copy.

An indie title that has sold millions in ebook form has probably raked in the biggest profits already.

Even if sales can be expected to be brisk in print, the bottom line isn't big enough to be worth the trouble for most publishers. Executives at the Big Five are loathe to put money into a print run for a book whose profits have peaked.

As agent Kristin Nelson said in November, "a St. Martin’s editor was willing to go on record to explain exactly why her house will no longer buy indie authors who have self-published ebooks that have gone on to be wildly successful. St. Martin’s claims their data shows that the ebook sales have already tapped out the market."

This hasn't always proved true, as in the case of Nelson's client Hugh Howey and his Sci-Fi novel Wool, which went on to sell millions in hard copy after his phenomenal self-publishing debut. But Howey is the exception rather than the rule.

Since super-agent Nelson is well known for getting some of the biggest traditional deals for former self-publishers, her words have weight. If she no longer can get the Big Five to look at self-pubbed titles, it's unlikely that other agents will be willing to try.

3) Some chain bookstores refuse to promote formerly self-published books

Nelson also says bookstores often refuse to promote former indies, even with an enticing "co-op" deal (that's when publishers pay to rent the real estate in the front of a store to promote certain titles. )

Kristin Nelson was  quoted in the Digital Reader, saying, "…even if a publisher buys a successful indie title intending to publish a trade paperback edition, and even if they’re willing to pay bookstore co-op, booksellers are reluctant to grant that title the physical retail space. They are simply turning down the co-op offer."

I don't know exactly why this is, but I have some theories.

By "chain bookstores" she may have meant Barnes and Noble specifically. B & N is a rival of Amazon, and they may see giving space to former indies as promoting Amazon, since indies generally make the majority of their sales on Amazon.

Or she may have been referring to the reputation indies have for producing unvetted work, including illegal, hardcore erotica.

After the big mess with illegal self-pubbed erotica making it into some of the big UK bookstores via Kobo in 2013, Kobo removed a huge number of indie books (both small press and self-pubbed.) Many of these books (like mine) didn't have a bit of sexual content, but Kobo's executives saw all small presses and self-publishers as suspect. (Kobo did eventually restore the majority of titles, but they took their time.)

UK bookstore chains like W.H. Smith and Waterstone's refused to carry any indie books after the scandal. I hear they are starting to restore a handful of very popular indie titles, but the big UK chains seem to continue to fear that indies will flood their websites with nasty stuff about getting it on with Bigfoot. 

4) E-readers are full. People are more selective about what they download, even if it's free.

In those heady days of 2008-2011, anybody could make a book free on Amazon and it could hit the bestseller lists without a bit of promotion. In fact, at the beginning, there was no freebie bestseller list. An unknown self-pubbed ebook like Elisa Lorello's Faking It could be "sold" as free in 2008 and make it to #1 in the whole Kindle store. (And Amazon soon scarfed it up for their own imprint.)

But even after the introduction of the "Free" list, it wasn't hard to make "bestseller" status. My first freebie put me in the top 1000 in literature and fiction, and I didn't even know about it. My publisher just put it free for a couple of days and there it was.

That was because e-readers were new and picking up new ebooks for them was fun. But now a lot of people (including me) have 200+ books on our Kindles, so we think twice about downloading new books, even if they're free.

As author/publisher Bob Mayer told the New York Times, "If you’re not an author with a slavish fan following, you’re in a lot of trouble. Everyone already has a ton of things on their Kindle they haven’t opened."

5) Amazon is no longer the indie playground it used to be

Amazon's algorithms no longer treat indies as equals with the same "also-boughts" and advantages they give their own growing list of imprints, so becoming a bestseller is a whole lot harder if you self-publish or go with a small press.

The Zon also requires that you stay exclusive with them in order to offer freebie runs and countdowns, plus the borrows everybody used to get with Amazon Prime. Plus borrows pay a lot less than they used to since Kindle Unlimited debuted last summer.

In fact, the Kindle Unlimited program has been mostly a disaster for authors. Borrows only get a payout if at least 10% of the book is read, and the payout amount decreases by the month.

Amazon has also started to offer big bonuses to the superstars at the top of their bestseller lists. Most of the stars are with Amazon imprints and other trad. publishers, so that hurts indie authors as well. The superstars get big monthly checks from the K.U. pot, so the pot shrinks for everybody else. Amazon has become a zero-sum game where a handful of winners take all. Even former megasellers like H.M. Ward have seen their incomes plummet by 75%.

As Mark Coker said on his blog in November:

"The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over. Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it. In recent weeks, for example, I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon dropped significantly since…Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited."

Why? Partly because Kindle Unlimited draws the readers who buy the most books and decreases the amount of money they spend. For a flat fee, they can read all the books they want. So somebody who used to spend thousands a year on books now only spends $10 a month.

Also, people in the program are more likely to choose expensive trad-pubbed books over the 99c-$4.99 indie book because it looks like more of a bargain.

For more on how K.U. has ended the "indie honeymoon" with Amazon, see Porter Anderson's piece at FutureBook , David Streitfeld's piece from last Sunday's New York Times and another on Friday, as well as Mike Shatzkin's Dec. 31st post in the Shatzkin Files.

All the big name authors' books available at bargain prices have had a huge impact, too, as Russell Blake said on his blog in December:

"The tried and true gambit most indies have been using, which is selling based on price, at .99 or $2.99 or $3.99 or $4.99, likely won’t work particularly well anymore. Because when you can buy Gone Girl for $2.99 and Connolly’s latest at $3.99, why would most readers buy your book at or around the same price?"

Another thing Amazon has removed recently is the nice button that allowed you to share your purchase on Twitter, FB, etc. Clicking on a button that said, "I just bought [title] by [author]" was a simple way for a reader to endorse a book. Now it's gone. One more way that Amazon is becoming less author-friendly.

6) Most of the "tried and true" techniques for marketing indie books are no longer effective

a) Trad-pub has taken over Bookbub. The bargain book newsletter which used to be the most effective marketing tool for indies is now often dominated by Amazon imprints and Big Five backlist titles at bargain basement prices. The prices for advertising in a Bookbub mailing have also gone through the roof, and it's so popular, very few books make the cut.

b) Freebies don't mean much anymore. One of the best marketing techniques for indies was the free book. But now that Kindles are full, most people aren't excited about getting another free book. As reviewer Ed Cyzewski said on his blog recently, "If you’re promoting a book, you need to keep this in mind: A FREE BOOK IS NO LONGER A TREAT." (Ed's caps.)

c) Social media has been spammed to death. Facebook has become pretty much useless for authors, since FB only shows your posts to about a tenth of your followers unless you pay extra. Plus so many writers post endless streams of Twitter spam that nobody pays attention to any of it. Some writers say they make sales through Pinterest, but even those are fading.

You Can Still Have a Career as an Author-preneur

I don't mean to discourage anybody who genuinely wants to self-publish. Many self-publishers are still doing well and much prefer having control of their own careers.

Self-publishing is here to stay.

It's also growing and changing. Ebook sales have stalled at about 25% of the market, but indies are finding better ways to distribute their paper books. A few months ago, indie superstar Barbara Freethy signed her own deal with the #1 US distributor Ingram to provide hard copies of her books for bookstores without going through a publisher

As Porter Anderson wrote at Thought Catalog, "If Ingram can translate what it’s doing for the big-selling Freethy into practical, actionable avenues to bookshops for more modestly producing self-publishers, a considerable shift might be in the offing."

Other indies are also doing well. Romance superstar Marie Force has made the NYT bestseller list 6 times with indie titles, and Brenna Aubrey, who turned down a six figure deal with trad publishing last year has had phenomenal success this year. It still does happen, especially for romance writers!

As Mark Coker said "If you publish for the right reasons and you adopt best practices that make your books more available and more desirable to readers, your future is as bright as your imagination."

But ebooks are no longer a novelty and the Amazon gravy train has left the station. Authors who want to make it as indies will have to use patience, well-placed advertising, and smart platform-building. Facebook and Twitter are no longer enough.

They will also do better with frequent launches of shorter books than a handful of long ones.

Most important: indies have to make their products available at as many retail sites as possible.  Even though K.U.'s policies hurt most authors, other subscription services like Scribd and Oyster pay full royalties for all borrows.

Authors will thrive if they think outside the Amazon box.

For a great overview of the post-K.U. ebook outlook, Jason Matthews has a thoughtful post at The Book Designer. And here's another from indie guru Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who reminds us that "the publishing business is about ups and downs, not a slowly upward trending line."

But if your ultimate goal is a Big 5 contract...

Self-publishing is not the best path for authors who hope to have a "hybrid" career with the Big 5. If you want some of your titles to be traditionally published, you'll be better off going with the trads first, which means starting by querying agents.

Some YA agents say they still do check Wattpad for superstars with an eye to signing them as clients. But Wattpad is a social network where people give away chapters of their books for free, not a self-publishing platform.

I recently read a blogpost by a self-publisher who used self-publishing as a kind of apprenticeship. She unpublished everything when she felt she was good enough to publish traditionally.

But in today's climate, I urge people like her who want a trad. career NOT to self-publish. Go the traditional route from the beginning. Don't put money into expensive cover design and marketing when you don't have a product that can compete with trad-pubbled titles. It's especially unwise to throw amateur work on Amazon with a homemade cover and no editing if you're hoping for a real writing career someday. Those things can lurk in dark corners of the Interwebz and come back to haunt you.

Put that energy into workshops and conferences and classes. The publishing business is for professionals, whether you self-publish or go traditional. Become one.

Mild self-publishing success will not work in your favor with agents. You need to first have a mega-seller, then query with another book (not in the same series.) Even then, agents will not be as interested as they were four years ago.

The new query is the old query. If you want a traditional or hybrid career, learn to write at a top-notch professional level, create a great book, and start the agent hunt anew. The best places to start hunting are QueryTracker and AgentQuery. The QueryShark archives can help you polish up that query.

If you're still on the fence about whether to self-publish or go the traditional route, here's a handy infographic to help you decide.

Next week:  we'll have a guest post from Agent Laurie McLean of Fuse Literary Agency talking about all the latest news in the agent business.

And as a special favor, Laurie McLean will accept queries from readers of this blog, even though she is closed to queries from the general public.

So what about you, Scriveners? If you're self-published, have you found that K.U. is cutting into your bottom line? If not, can you share your success story with us? Or are you pre-published and still hoping for that Big Five contract? Have you felt pressured to self-publish? Are you planning to query agents with your current work?


I have a new book! 

It's a collection of eight stories and eight verses, formerly only available in anthologies and hard to find literary journals. Some are award winners. All are kinda funny. 
Only 99c. 

Why Grandma Bought that Car 

I love the fun cover by designer Keri Knutson

99c on Amazon

Humorous portraits of rebellious women at various stages of their lives. From aging Betty Jo, who feels so invisible she contemplates robbing a bank, to neglected 10-year-old Maude, who turns to a fantasy Elvis for the love she's denied by her patrician family, to a bloodthirsty, Valley-Girl version of Madam Defarge, these women—young and old—are all rebelling against the stereotypes and traditional roles that hold them back. 

Which is, of course, why Grandma bought that car


VIGNETTE WRITERShere's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25.  Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.

THE MEADOW NOVELLA PRIZE $15 ENTRY FEE. The winner of the contest will receive $500 and publication in the annual print edition of the journal. Submissions should be between 18,000 and 35,000 words.  Deadline February 1, 2015.

Vestal Review Condensed Classics Anthology Call for submissions to an anthology of world classics condensed to 500 words or fewer. Submissions are still open for the new anthology edited by Mark Budman titled "Condensed to Flash: World Classics." Find specifics here and Scroll down to "Condensed to Flash" and check out the sub guidelines. The payment: $15 and a digital copy for an original story and $5 and a digital copy for a reprint. The deadline: January 31, 2015.

The M.M. Bennetts Prize for Historical fiction. $10 Entry fee. $500 prize for the best historical novel published in 2014. To be announced at the Historical Novel Society Conference in June in Deadline January 31st, 2015

Writer's Digest Short Short Story CompetitionFirst prize $3000. Top 25 will be published. Entry Fee $25. 1500 words or less. Deadline January 16th, 2015.

Prize is $250 and publication in Best New Writing to the best short fiction and creative nonfiction. Entries are limited to 500 words or less. Gover Prize winner and finalists will be published in the upcoming BNW edition. Deadline January 10th, 2015

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