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The End of the Indie Gold Rush?

This is a guest post from Ricardo Fayet. Ricardo is an avid reader and startup enthusiast who has been studying the publishing industry with interest for several years. He co-founded Reedsy, to help authors collaborate with publishing professionals.

An  ALCS survey in the UK last summer crystalised industry concerns about whether career authorship is a viable profession these days. The report painted a somewhat grim picture for professional and part-time authors alike–regardless of whether those authors publish traditionally or independently. (For a crash-course on the industry landscape, I recommend Kristine Kathryn Rush’s exhaustive report on “things indies learned in 2014”.)

The question now is, has the inde “Gold Rush” passed? Is success finite, and has it been mined to depletion?

I don’t believe so.

In fact, I’m convinced we’ll see many more indie success stories over the next few years–maybe even more than the ones we’ve witnessed so far. The “Gold Rush” ends when there is no more gold left, or no way to get to it. That’s not the case here. The problem today is that there are too many people who want to find it, and perhaps not enough of them willing to do the hard work it takes to strike it rich.

If you think about it, that’s a not such a bad problem to have. A few years ago, when Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath, Bella Andre and their peers started “self-publishing”, the ‘problem’ was different but no less complicated: sure, they were the first prospectors to the river, but they had absolutely no clue how to find the gold, or if there even was any. As I like to say, the first indies had to sift for nuggets and hope for the best. Now, everyone can gather around a massive ore deposit someone else painstakingly discovered and chip away until they find what they need. The problem arises when the easy gold has been picked off and we have to start digging deeper to find the good stuff.

How to “mine deeper” in today’s climate? Genre-blending is one answer. Think of Western Fantasy, or “Weird West”–a genre Stephen King himself has embraced, but few indies have.

Indie authors have to start acting like startups: experimenting and testing, revising and trying again. If a book isn’t performing, change the cover. A/B test your newsletters. Cross-share with other authors on Google+ to improve SEO. Put calls to action at the end of every message (including your books). Learn about actual pricing strategies (and no, permafree isn’t one).

Once you’ve done all that, think outside the box. Authors have the enormous advantage of being creative people. Use that. Remember always that competition is a good thing. It means vanity publishing authors will get discouraged and that the standards of quality in writing and production will be raised. Finally, it means authors and publishers alike will have to get much more creative in their marketing efforts (something I’ve largely discussed with indie author Eliot Peper in an interview).

If gold were easy to find and obtain, it wouldn’t be valuable. Success awaits those open to change and hard work–especially those who dare to dream of riches lying below the surface.

authors, indie publishing, Reedsy, self-publishing

Comments (18)

    • I think there’s also value on being synthetic. However, I do agree this might be worth expanding much more into, and I’ll certainly do so in future posts. Thanks for your comment!

      • I don’t know…every time I see an interesting headline then click through to find out it’s a 300 word blurb, I regret it because I could have saved time and just read the headline. I think there’s really something about longform journalism. Anyone can write short content. Anyone, it take very little skill with prose, only necessitates good grammar.

        • You know, I’m 100% with you on that one. I usually try to write longer form — especially because I get carried away easily. But it is a reality that short-form blogging does better in terms of numbers and engagement (it’s kind of sad, really). So I try to mix both, have a short form article like this linking to a long-form interview, etc.
          In any case, I’ll be diving more into all these matters over the coming weeks over here, kind of “serialising”.

          • Sometimes you can get just the motivation you need from something that is short & sweet. I always think that it is what the article invokes in you that is important. It might be that one sentence that gives you all the motivation you need to make it to the next step! E.g. “If gold were easy to find and obtain, it wouldn’t be valuable. Success
            awaits those open to change and hard work–especially those who dare to
            dream of riches lying below the surface.”
            Thanks for sharing Ricardo

  • I haven’t had much success as an author, but I have studied what other self published authors are putting out and my theory on what you have to do to succeed is that you need to think like somebody that makes B movies. You aren’t going to succeed by imitating what other authors have done before. I see lots of stuff on Book Gorilla that seems to be chasing trends. Zombie books, vampire books, post-apocalyptic books, dystopian books, fantasy based on Biblical prophecy, etc. “Almost as good as X but cheaper” isn’t a winning formula, but that’s what these authors are offering.

    B movie makers have to compete with A list directors with A list actors and the best screenwriters, possibly based on books that are already bestsellers. The guy who made Sharknado wasn’t just competing with other low budget movies. He competes with everything on NetFlix and everything on Hulu. The person who chooses to watch Sharknado could have chosen to watch an Oscar winning drama or a classic comedy or any number of movies that have a decent budget and decent actors. Still, people do watch Sharknado. The guy who made Sharknado did something right, something that better funded movies couldn’t do.

    My plan for success is to create stories so unusual that no conventional publisher would know how to sell them. This means doing more than mixing Fantasy and Western, although that might be a step in the right direction.

    • That’s an interesting comparison, James. Though I think that, in books, it is quite possible to easily reach the standards of traditional publishing. You don’t need a million dollar budget to produce a high-quality book… A couple thousands can do.

      So I do believe that indie authors can “run with the big dogs” even in ‘traditional’ genres. They just need to ensure the same level of quality in the production and then be more savvy and ingenuous in the marketing. And they need to get the “business” part of things right. That’s crucial and it’s Kristine Kathryn Rush’s main point.

      • Continuing with the Gold Rush metaphor, I think that the editors and the cover designers might be making more money than the self published authors in this racket, I could see spending two thousand dollars on a book where I was reasonably likely to make that back in the first couple of months, but as an unknown author that isn’t going to happen. I agree you need to have decent grammar, spelling, etc. and a cover that doesn’t look amateurish, but I can do that much myself. Here is a sampling of books I publish:

        http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=bhakta+jim

        I use public domain art and free fonts, and I use the free program The GIMP to do the covers. These are nice looking books.

        Even if I spent the money to get better looking and better proofed books I still am competing with established authors who are better at their craft than I am. If I’m going to get an audience I have to offer the reader something he can’t get from Neal Stephenson or any of the other really good authors he could be reading instead.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more on that one, Scott. I’ve actually got a video Hangout on Air lined up for this Friday on the Reedsy blog with a great cover designer, and we discuss the importance of covers, among other things.
      I think that the “you absolutely need a professional editor” message has finally sunk among all indies now, and the next step is cover. Big name indies are finding out that if they change their cover and even do some A/B testing, that has an enormous and unexpected impact on sales. As the Amazon marketplace becomes more competitive, I think that the value of cover design is increasing and we’re far from aware of its potential yet.

  • The one thing everyone forgets in discussing indie books is that the same thing applies with them that applies in traditional publishing: you can have a terrific book, great production, brilliant marketing, but the timing might be off through no fault of your own. In other words, your book’s luck isn’t good for any number of reasons: people aren’t in the mood for it because of what’s in the news; too many people are writing things very close to what you are and the competition’s too stiff, etc.

    • Totally agree with you, Lev. And I think that is the core message that is being transmitted by most of the successful indies out there, especially around cover design (where indies under-invest, imho). It’s just a matter of time until the whole “self-publishing a good book is easy and costless” message goes away.

  • The secret is that there is no gold rush. There never WAS a gold rush.

    Some people made a lot of money; they broke out in very big and very noticeable ways. This was partly due to skill and partly due to luck. But on the heels of their success was the public *perception* of “gold in them-thar hills”, the idea that with *little effort* someone could make a lot of money through self publishing.

    It was a false expectation. It was NEVER the reality.

    The reality is this:
    – It is more possible to make a living as a writer today than EVER BEFORE in all human history.
    – More writers are making a living today than EVER BEFORE in all human history.
    – Making a living from your writing means working hard.
    – Being lucky helps.
    – The harder you work, the luckier you will tend to be.

    DO NOT expect to make a full time living from writing without working at it full time. That’s a fool’s daydream. FULL TIME WRITERS put in full time hours. Actually, most of them put in a lot more than full time. Russell Blake does 60-80 hour weeks. He publishes a new novel every month or so. It is not unusual for an entrepreneur to need to work those sorts of hours for the first few years.

    Then they can drop back to a more ordinary work week.

    But if you’re not putting in 20+ hours a week writing new words (say, 20k words a week or so), then you’re not really working full time at writing, and why would you expect to make a full time living as a writer without working full time at it?

    • I totally agree with you on full-time writing. I put in those hours myself as an entrepreneur and if you’re passionate about it, you don’t really mind.

      I do think there was a gold rush, though. That doesn’t mean that there was a time when self-publishing was “easy money”. It means that, in the beginning of ebooks, certain authors started publishing on their own (and believe me, it was 100 times harder and more time-consuming for them to do so at that time), and discovered that it was a viable way to earn a very good living. So they started talking about it, maybe not insisting enough on the “what we did is incredibly hard” bit, and too much on the “this is an amazing opportunity”, and a gold rush started.

      • I’ve been here since about the beginning. 😉 What I was saying is, there was a perception of “easy money in ebooks”, but that was NEVER the reality. So perception of a gold rush? Sure. But it was always a false idea. Everyone who did well worked awfully hard for it.

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