How the Self-Publishing Industry Changed, Between My First and Second Novels

Photo: Nicole Dieker

As of this writing, my self-published novel The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004–2016 is currently ranked #169,913 out of the more than one million Kindle books sold on Amazon. When Biographies Vol. 2 launched at the end of May, it ranked #26,248 in Kindle books and #94,133 in print books. At one point my book hit #220 in the subcategory “Literary Fiction/Sagas.”

So far, Biographies Vol. 2 has sold 71 Kindle copies and 55 paperbacks, which correlates to about $360 in royalties.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’ve probably been thinking it since you saw the words “self-published.” But no, those sales numbers aren’t because my books are terrible—and I didn’t self-publish because my books were terrible either. (It’s a long story, but it has to do with an agent telling me that I could rewrite Biographies to make it more marketable to the traditional publishing industry, or I could keep it as an “art book” that would be loved by a select few.) Last year’s The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989–2000 was named a Library Journal Self-E Select title; Vol. 2 was just selected as a Kirkus Reviews featured indie, with the blurb “A shrewdly unique portrait of everyday America.” I regularly get emails from readers telling me how much my books have meant to them, and how they couldn’t put their copies down.

So. I could tell you a story that makes The Biographies of Ordinary People sound like a triumphant success, and I could also tell you that in its first year of publication, Biographies Vol. 1 sold 382 ebooks and 157 paperbacks, earning $1,619.28 in royalties.

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The day before Biographies Vol. 2 published, novelist Tom McAllister’s “Who Will Buy Your Book?” ran on The Millions. The essay, like my previous paragraphs, notes the difference between accolades and sales (and the difference between Facebook likes and sales, and the difference between people who say they’ll buy your book and sales), and includes the quote, “The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.”

I’m not quite that pessimistic, in part because it’s not my nature and in part because, as an indie author who is also her own publisher, I’m not hiding anything from myself. I publish a tally of my earnings and expenses on my blog, and I am very well aware that the book tour I just finished probably cost me more than I’ll earn from Biographies Vol. 2‘s first year of royalties. (The numbers work, in my case, thanks to the $6,909 in Patreon contributions I received while drafting the two novels. As my own publisher, I had to make sure I got an advance!)

But I am also aware that the book industry is — like politics and economics and climate change and pretty much everything else right now — not having its best year ever, and there have been a handful of changes between the publication of Biographies Vol. 1 and Biographies Vol. 2 that can’t be ignored.

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The first big change, at least for me, came on November 6, 2017. It arrived via email, with the subject line “Pronoun is shutting down.”

While many challenges in indie publishing remain unsolved, Macmillan is unable to continue Pronoun’s operation in its current form. Every option was considered before making the very difficult decision to end the business.

Pronoun was Macmillan’s indie publishing service. Think of it like Bandcamp for books. Authors could upload manuscripts, and Pronoun would take care of the formatting and the distribution. It also had an extensive marketing section that allowed authors to test covers, categories, and tags before finalizing their decisions, and you could even review data on optimum price points.

I loved working with Pronoun. I got to visit their offices in New York, my name and my book cover were on their posters, and they helped me through the huge learning curve involved in publishing a debut novel.

Why did Pronoun shut down? Publishers Weekly quotes Jeff Seroy, senior vice president of publicity and marketing at Macmillan’s Farrar, Straus and Giroux:

Asked why Pronoun was being shuttered 18 months after the acquisition, Seroy said despite Macmillan investment in the platform and “terrific” feedback from Pronoun authors, “we came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a path forward to a profitable business model and decided to shut down the platform.”

Profit has long been an issue in the book industry — Borders closed in 2011, the Big 6 book publishers became the Big 5 in 2013, Barnes & Noble fired all of the full-time employees at 781 of its stores last February — and if your first thought is well, of course, Amazon, you’re right.

But not necessarily because of the Kindle.

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Believe it or not, traditionally published ebook sales went down in 2017. I’ll cite Publishers Weekly again:

Unit sales of traditionally published e-books fell 10% in 2017, compared to 2016, according to figures released by PubTrack Digital, part of the NPD book group. The service, which tracks sales from about 450 publishers, said e-book unit sales hit 162 million last year, down from 180 million units in 2016.

People are buying more print books, and Amazon is opening more and more bookstores.

The indie publishing world hasn’t been hit quite as hard with this ebook decline, for a few reasons. Indie writers often sell their books exclusively online (and in many cases, exclusively with Amazon, since there are financial advantages to joining the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program). They reduce expenses by only selling ebooks, and increase sales by pricing those ebooks significantly lower than their traditionally-published counterparts. With no publisher to take its cut, indie writers get a larger royalty share per book than traditionally published writers, so the math works in their favor—and with more and more indie writers on Amazon, especially in popular genres like Romance, self-published books are both growing in number and gaining market share.

The Author Earnings website, which tracks both traditional publishing and self-publishing trends, has the data:

It tells us that, in aggregate, trade publishers of all sizes, combined, grew their dollar sales 1.1% over the 9 month period. Indies grew theirs 2.1% during the same period. For the last 9 months of 2017, then, it appears self-publishers in the aggregate were still gaining market share, albeit slowly.

Author Earnings also notes that, in Q4 2017, “284 of the top 1,000 selling ebook authors in the US were self-published indies.” (Go team!)

The top-selling ebook in 2017, however, wasn’t an indie. As Publishers Weekly reports, it was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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This means we have to discuss the other big change in the book world, which Patricia Lockwood efficiently sums up in her recent Tin House essay, “How Do We Write Now?”

The alternate title of this, of course, is how the fuck do we write now.

Just as the customary greeting of hello has been replaced with what the fuck is going on, and you grab your friend’s arm almost against your will and shake her a little bit and say no seriously, what the fuck is happening.

I had to completely rework the ending of The Biographies of Ordinary People because my last chapter, as per the detailed outline I’d written before starting the draft, was supposed to take place in November 2016. The fact that Lockwood’s essay was published 18 months after the election means… well, we’re still figuring out how to be who we are now.

Or, to quote Dahlia Lithwick in Slate:

It’s all just terribly sick and sad and the constant stream makes it hard not to be sick and sad all the time. We’ve long since stopped describing news consumption as drinking from a firehose. It went from firehose to tidal wave a year ago. Nevertheless, we’ve persisted.

We’re persisting at writing and reading and trying to be everything our current era demands of us, but it’s a lot easier to persist at writing and reading, both of which feel like a necessity and an escape, than it is to persist at, say, asking your mailing list to buy your book. It feels wrong to ask someone to pull their attention away from the rest of the world and focus on something as trivial as a novel — even though that’s what I’ve been doing, nearly every evening, with stacks of books carried home from the library.

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On the subject of the constant stream: I would not be surprised if the increase in print book sales was directly correlated with our desire to stop looking at social media for at least, like, 30 minutes. (You might remember my previous Longreads posts on whether 2018 would be the year we step away from social media and why it won’t actually be that easy.) As much as I would like to never have to do the Twitter-Tumblr-Facebook-Instagram shuffle again, social media is still one of the primary ways indie authors — really, nearly all authors — communicate with their readers.

But social media isn’t working the way it used to. Part of it is because we’re kind of oversaturated with “read my book!” promotional posts, part of it is because we feel awkward writing those promotional posts in the middle of what feels like a constant national tragedy, and part of it is because a lot of us are culling or avoiding our social media feeds.

The rest of it can be blamed on Facebook.

At Medium, the Chicago Tribune’s Kurt Gessler details exactly how the Trib’s influence decreased, likely due to Facebook’s changing algorithms:

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

What did this mean? In baseball terms, we were hitting far fewer doubles and we were striking out 1 every 3 times at the plate. Four months earlier, we struck out 1 of every 90 at-bats.

And it was happening despite solid growth on our Facebook page — which, logically, would translate to increased reach.

Even if Facebook weren’t force-choking our posts (and we don’t exactly have proof that it is, aside from all of the evidence), we’d still have to deal with the ways in which social media both amplifies and dilutes any message we try to share. Everyone is asking you to read their thing, whether it’s a Twitter thread or a debut novel. Nobody has time to read everything, and the novel is longer and costs money (or a trip to the library).

“Social media and the internet have been instrumental in destroying the economics of writing,” Bradley Babendir told LitHub. He’s specifically referring to book criticism, which used to be a valued, paying gig but is now dominated by crowdsourced reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Book critics still get work the same way that authors still get sales, but … no, I think that comparison stands.

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Social media might have destroyed the economics of writing—or, more realistically, decimated them—but social media also gave us the #MeToo movement, which, along with 2015’s #OwnVoices initiative (still going strong, thank goodness) has continued to shift the conversation towards writers whose stories might previously have been ignored or discredited. Barnes & Noble regularly publishes lists of #OwnVoices and #MeToo books for readers to add to their shopping carts; BuzzFeed’s recent “30 Summer Books to Get Excited About” only includes two books by white male authors.

#MeToo has also started to shake at the more established literary gates and their keepers. The 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature has been postponed, and shortly after the 2018 Pulitzers were announced, Junot Díaz stepped down from his role as board chairman.

Meanwhile, discussions on social media and Goodreads have helped us refine our understanding of the responsibilities an author takes on when writing characters whose backgrounds and experiences differ from their own. As author Dhonielle Clayton, who also works as a sensitivity reader, told Vulture:

Most people are shocked by the blind spots they discover [in their drafts]. I read a middle-grade book about a little black girl who loves to go to national parks, and I told the author that the first thing she needed to reconcile was, how did this black girl get into national parks? Historically, black people weren’t allowed to visit national parks, so going to national parks is not a thing we do, as a group. I wrote to her that if this little girl loves to camp, you need to figure out how that happened, how that passion was stoked, how her parents and grandparents felt about it. Or you have to make her white. Because otherwise it’s a paint by numbers diversity piece and it rings false.

Despite social media’s effect on book sales and book criticism and all of our respective serotonin and dopamine levels, it’s hard to say that this past year of tweeting and posting and piling on hasn’t influenced the literary world for the better.

***

So. I could tell you a story about how the book industry has changed to the point where it’s become that much harder for any book to find its audience, or I could tell you a story about how readers are becoming more discerning about what they choose to read and which authors they choose to support. I could tell you that traditional publishers are having a harder time making money, and I could tell you that indie writers are having an easier time making money, and I could tell you that, like everything else in our economy right now, a few people are making all the money and everyone else is making do with fewer sales than we might have gotten 30 years ago.

I could also tell you that, if there is a shadow economy in the book industry, it’s funded on hope, not bullshit. The hope that our book will release on a day when our president isn’t on Twitter; the dream of finding the optimum price point; the wish that Instagram would finally let us embed hyperlinks in our posts because our beautifully ‘grammed book covers next to our lipstick-free lattes are worthless if we can’t provide a link to purchase it. The friends who eat the cake we bought for our bookstore launch party. The email from a reader that feels more valuable than a dozen sales.

But my job, as an author, isn’t to tell you things. It’s to write the kinds of stories that will let you come up with your own conclusions.

Also, while I’m here—did I mention I just published a book?