William Goldman Strikes Again

I’m at the point in my research where I’m pretty sure William Goldman is right. Nobody knows anything.

My goal is to make my thesis an (overly-detailed) stepped marketing plan to build my author brand (hi, blog! boy will I need to improve you!), and to launch my new product into the market.

So I’m shootin’ the breeze with my brother last night — and I don’t think he’d quite grokked before our convo that literally tens (hundreds?) of thousands of independent authors have posted their brilliance or their drivel (or maybe their brilliant drivel? But I interrupt myself entirely too much) on Amazon’s Kindle Store until I’d laid it out for him — and he’s all, sooooooo, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

He unwittingly asked the right question using a simple aphorism. Publishing worldwide is a $100B industry. The number of ISBN requests in the US has shot through the roof in the past few years, going from about 461,000 in 2013 to more than 1.6 million a mere six years later. And that doesn’t count the thousands upon thousands of ebooks self-published on Amazon organized on the site by ASIN. That’s a LOT of chaff along with however much wheat.

There’s no churn in the ebook business, as there would be at your local bookstore, or even the local library. Where the brick-and-mortar destination is constantly making decisions about which catalog books to continue to stock or keep on the shelves as they make room for new product or books, ebooks require so little server space that companies like Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo can and do keep all of these titles “stocked” essentially in perpetuity, until the publisher decides to pull a title, or the e-commerce site chooses to delist (or remove the “buy” button from) a publisher’s titles in a fit of pique or as a hardball tactic to extract better co-op fees and shipping terms.

And just how many ebooks are now in the wild? Amazon really doesn’t want us to know. Apple doesn’t share, either. Fortunately Derek Haines is on the case. We know Amazon was hawking more than six million ebooks in June 2018, and their rate of growth is AT LEAST one million new ebooks annually, which would put the total number now at more than eight million, maybe nine. It’s a fair guess that the overwhelming majority of ebook authors publishing elsewhere also put their stuff on the big behemoth.

The common supposition, at least in the US, is that Amazon will remain the unchallenged online bookstore and ebook leader for the foreseeable future. They do own the lion’s share in the US and a have giant footprint in dozens of other countries, BUT Apple’s and Google’s worldwide footprints are just as daunting. All three understand that content is king. Google Play for ebooks I haven’t really looked into yet. It’s a sliver of the market, but Alphabet can’t be ignored, what with its massive digitizing of all public domain literature ever thing (not to be confused with Project Gutenberg).

Apple, however, recently did something that’s flown under the radar outside of Mac fanatics and close watchers of the ebook market. Just in the past couple of weeks, they opened up their ebook submission process to non-Apple devices. Previously, if an independent author wanted to sell their tome through Apple Books, they had to either own a Mac, have a patient friend with one, or pay a third-party to do the registration and uploading. Now, Apple offers a relatively easy avenue for Windows desktop users to sell through the Apple Book store. Apple’s royalties are just as good as Amazon’s, if not better in some instances. In this era of click and go, easing the process will be the difference for thousands of independent authors between selling only on the biggest site and selling on the TWO biggest sites.

Amazon has another problem — Kindle sales are down. As more people turn to their tablets, phablets, and phones as e-reading devices, the OS becomes key. Apple and Android devices come with Books and Google Play already installed, respectively. Both companies leverage their OS to make purchasing a breeze.

Amazon and other companies are working on color e-readers. The devices may deliver a nice reading experience, but at this point, how many screens does the average consumer want to juggle? E-readers are slow, specialized devices ripe to be replaced by inexpensive tablets. Amazon is all about the customer having a one-click experience. How is Bezos going to defend his turf???

Bezos will have to rely more and more on the Kindle Fire tablets. Amazon’s tablet sales have more than doubled year-to-year between Q3 2018-19, making Amazon the largest seller of Android OS tablets, but Apple still sells almost twice as many iPads. As well, Amazon just came out with a freshened series of Fire HD8s. The screens are nowhere near as good as the iPad’s, and while Apple keeps pushing the iPad further into the world of multitasking business productivity where it’s now essentially a laptop replacement for large percentage of tasks, Amazon’s devices are still primarily aimed at media consumption and gaming. Bezos’ tablets compete against Apple and Android on price. The Amazon Fire HD8 base model clocks in at $90, while a similarly-sized entry-level iPad is around $400. Amazon offers their devices, I’m guessing, either at cost or at a very low margin, because Bezos is banking on them as a portal for the purchase of content and physical goods.

Apple, for its part, coupled its swinging open of the walled-garden ebook publishing door with friendly advice about marketing through Apple Books. Apple Books for Authors has a step-by-step publishing guide, along with videos offering marketing advice. Long-time Apple watchers know that Apple doesn’t make a move like this without a follow-up plan. Apple Insider, while questioning Apple not rebranding iBooks Author or even seriously updating the app in favor of pushing new and pretty book templates in Pages, does make the point that the marketing videos on Apple’s site resemble Masterclass videos. I know from browsing a range of independent author websites that many nonfiction authors in the self-help and how-to world sell themselves as much as their books — they make money doing corporate and other seminars, video masterclasses, and consulting; in some cases, it’s hard to tell if the seminars/videos are supporting their book business, or vice versa. For creatives whose product is themselves, a one-stop shop for their video masterclasses AND their books would be quite attractive.

This leads me to the next thing I think Apple’s going to do — and this is just wild slightly-educated guessing — jump headlong into the print book business. I can only speculate about what their approach would look like. Apple has long treasured its relationships with artists, graphic designers, photographers, filmmakers, and other visually-oriented creatives, so it wouldn’t make much sense for Apple to simply copy Amazon’s print-your-words-on-bound-paper approach. Of course Apple would offer text-centric book printing, but my guess is they are working on a solution for independent authors to print graphics-rich picture books (think children’s books), coffee-table books, maybe even niche textbooks. Speaking selfishly, it would be really awesome for Apple to offer a picture-book on-demand printing service that lets readers get a slick copy of a children’s book on child-friendly glossy stock with just a couple of clicks. Amazon, BTW, also offers picture-book printing, as do paid services such as BookBaby.

Paper, the market has shown us, is an enduring media for books. Boomers and near-boomers are more comfortable with e-readers, while children (and their parents) still have a strong preference for paper. A scroll down Amazon’s top-selling books for 2019 proves the popularity of children’s books on paper, be they picture books, chapter books for middle school readers, or YA novels like The Hunger Games. That’s a huge chunk of change for Apple to have left sitting on the table for all of these years, and I don’t think they will continue to do that, especially as the trend in the publishing industry overall is towards exploiting content across media in entertainment, educational, and other markets.

If I was Tim Cook, I’d play to Apple’s vertical integration strengths by offering self-branded experts (everyone from Tim Ferriss to David Lynch), and publishers, from the Big Five to independent and niche, a one-stop for book, picture books, ebooks, video, apps, and live/interactive.

Now back to my brother’s question. I had to explain to him that independent publishing is just that — independent. The author takes responsibility for writing, graphics, page design, editing, proofreading, cover design, choices of distribution channels, marketing; in short, everything. Almost any author who wants to make a living has to be a businessperson and self-brander/promoter. There are free and/or very low-cost resources available on the Internet for every step, along with reams of advice available through websites, videos, and of course, books. A small but active part of the gig economy today is independent ghost writers (Tim Ferriss suggests outsourcing the actual writing as a possibility), editors, proofreaders, graphic designers (think book covers and picture-book design), marketing specialists, publicists, social media advisors, website designers & managers, photographers, and artists/illustrators who, for a price, can help with every aspect of producing and marketing an independently-published book.

An independent author distinguishes themself through their author branding, their business/marketing savvy from choice of subject matter through promotion/followup, their consistency and tenacity, their artistic taste (again, think book covers, which are rather important), and last not but not least, their actual books. Unless I rant about Amazon, that’s likely what my next posts will be about — finding a niche and putting together your author branding and book marketing plan based on who you are, what you’re producing, and who you’re producing it for.

Then again, half the bestselling self-help books right now have the word FUCK in the title, so maybe all you need is a hook, a good agent, and a sucker buyer at a Big Five imprint chasing a fad. What the fuck do I know, eh?

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