Sunday, July 19, 2015

The End is Nigh. Is Indie Publishing's Mother Lode Tapped out?

Is it just me, or has the Indi Publishing movement turned into a modern day reincarnation of the 1849-1855 California Gold Rush? I don't mean in terms of authors getting rich - like the "forty-niners" of old, very few of us will hit the mother lode, a percentage might break even, but most end up broke and stranded.

When I published my first novel, The Third Revolution, in 2004, self-publishing (publish on demand, as we called it then) was largely a do-it-yourself endeavor and print only; the first Kindle e-reader was still a good three years away. I would order a couple of dozen of my own books, send out review copies to the relatively influential bloggers of the day who I hoped were sympathetic to my themes, cobble together some funny ads with Photoshop and run them on some of the more affordable, demographically relevant blogs using a service called BlogAds (apparently still in business today!).

I think I sold over 1,200 copies of that first book (at $16.95 for a soft cover!) before ebooks started taking over the world. My marketing formula continued to work well when I released Middle America in 2007, and, to a lesser extent, Little Birdies! in 2009. By the time I released The Last Bartender in 2010, the methodology seemed tapped out, probably because the audience for that story was less tightly defined than for the previous books, hence harder to target market in an economical way. In addition, AdBlock made its debut in December of 2009, and Adblock Plus in December of 2010, dramatically lessening the effectiveness of (simple banner) online advertising.

It may just be my visionary grasp of the obvious, but it seems like, on Twitter, at least, there are more publishing support services and consultants than readers. They're certainly easier to find. Just send out a tweet with a #amwriting, #kindle, #ebook, #author, or #freeebook hashtag and see who follows you. Hint: they won't be asking you for books, they'll be asking you for money.

If I didn't have that mute option, my Twitter feed would be one nonstop onslaught of book advertisements, book promotional services, new media campaign services, "platform" building services, $5 per thousand Twitter followers, bots all, most masquerading, in their present incarnation, as other "authors" ("helping" other authors, of course...).  Consultants and support services have become the forest; the readers are tiny chipmunks, skittering around the forest floor and hiding under rotting logs. Good luck trying to find (much less capture) them.

So what about that opening Gold Rush analogy? Famously, after the first initial, successful claims were settled and worked, the floodgates opened to hundreds of thousands of prospectors, each seeking his personal fortune. Returns diminished rapidly, to the point where the adventure cost most people money instead of making them rich. So who cashed in?

The merchants. The outfitters, the equipment, tool, food, clothing and service providers. The landlords. If you had something to sell, rent or lease to a prospector, you could likely count on a steady income stream, as long as the starry-eyed dreamers kept pouring into the state. The prospectors became the suckers, the marks, and ended up providing the start-up capital for the industrial titans of the new century (Armour Meatpacking, Studebaker automobiles, Wells Fargo Bank, and, of course, Levi Strauss all got their start during the Gold Rush).

In this present day reincarnation, for every person who's willing to give you a few bucks for a book, there are scores who are asking for your money in exchange for "expert" advice on how to find the next buyer. I suspect that the publishing gold rush will finally grind to a halt when every last failed or frustrated Indie author finally gives up writing and hangs out their shingle as a new media publishing consultant. Then we can all write free ebooks directing each other to our websites, where we'll offer each other paid advice on how to drive even more of us to each other's websites.

Maybe that's what they mean by the "new economy."

P.S. ~ I'm writing another damn book anyway...

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