This is a preview of critical issues in the independent publishing industry according to real authors. We offer a preliminary analysis of interviews with indie authors conducted in November 2023 by Arthur Ehlinger, Stefan Luca and Amy Thomas. This data aims to complement and contextualise the quantitative analysis in the first global study of independent authors’ earnings, that we published in June 2023.
Our qualitative investigation reveals eight key issues to be aware of in 2024. These include: accessibility to the market; advertising strategies and their effectiveness; marketing within the context of writing and how it influences authors’ choices; the issues associated with increased quality in published works; differing copyright stances; the role of free labour in content creation and its ethical considerations; the utilisation of AI tools in writing and publishing; and the availability and impact of support resources for authors.
- Shifting Dynamics in Market Access
Ease of access to the market is a crucial factor for independent authors. Digitalisation has lowered the barriers to entry, allowing authors to publish their work without the lengthy and often challenging process of securing a traditional publishing deal. An illustrative story shared by one author encapsulates these benefits. Despite being rejected in more than 100 pitches to traditional publishers, this author found success and satisfaction in the indie publishing route, and is now sustaining their livelihood exclusively through their writing.
While digitalisation has indeed revolutionised the publishing landscape, empowering many authors with unprecedented streamlined access to consumers, it also introduces new challenges. Particularly, the reach of Kindle Unlimited (KU) makes it extremely attractive to opt for exclusivity with Amazon. While authors were generally happy with the services the platform provides, they have growing concerns about market concentration. Changes in platform terms, such as adjustments to royalty rates by important distributors like Amazon, could restrict authors’ choices and negotiating power. Concerns were also raised about platforms’ content policies and their automated enforcement. Furthermore, despite attracting more authors and readers, these platforms paradoxically don’t benefit the long tail — i.e. the vast array of lesser-known or niche titles. Instead, the influx of consumers has caused already popular and renowned titles to be favoured.
- Spending to Earn: The High Cost of Visibility
Independent authors value the fact that they can retain a larger portion of their earnings compared to the traditional publishing model. Advertising has been identified as the most significant factor influencing book sales for them, and the most significant cost, representing their primary area of expenditure.
“If I stop running ads, I don’t sell any books.”
Our findings indicate that while there is no universally preferred platform for advertising, Facebook and BookBub have received notable appreciation. Facebook is commended for its capacity to target specific audiences, whereas BookBub is recognised for its engaged user base. Despite Amazon being the first platform for revenue generation among independent authors, opinions were divided on the effectiveness of its advertising tools.
Acknowledging the diversity of their readerships and the varied effectiveness of different platforms, authors adopt personalised advertising strategies. Many authors experiment with different approaches, and successful ones often mention going through uncertain phases of trial and error before developing techniques that resonate with their unique book themes and geographic locations. In this regard, access is crucial to rich data enabling them to understand their current and potential readers, as it informs their strategic planning and growth. These strategies underscore the shift towards a more analytical and business-oriented approach in the indie publishing sector, where understanding and leveraging reader behaviours and preferences becomes key to success.
- Merging Marketing With Writing
While independent publishing allows authors more creative control over their work, including aspects like content, cover design, and publication timeline, there emerges a need for balance, and sometimes a conflict, between commercial success and artistic authenticity.
“If there was no commercial aspect to writing, I would probably write some things that are very different.”
Marketing is no longer viewed as a separate activity to be undertaken post-writing; instead, it has become an integral part of the writing journey, being considered, and implemented from the early stages of book development. Authors, especially those at the early stages of their careers, can feel compelled to conform to market trends and reader expectations, sometimes at the expense of their creative vision.
As traditional publishing has often been limited in its scope and imagination, independent authors take pride in creating content for underserved markets. Their focus on diversity and inclusion is both an expressive choice and a strategic business decision. Our earlier survey highlighted reversed earnings gaps for both gender and sexual orientation. In our latest interviews, authors transcended the groups that they personally represent both in their adopted perspective and intended audience; all in pursuit of a gap in the market.
There’s a notable trend among authors towards writing in series rather than standalone titles. This approach is seen as more effective in building and maintaining reader engagement over time. When a series becomes established, typically after the release of three or four titles, the first book often functions as a ‘loss leader’, used to attract readers, with the expectation that the subsequent books, sold at regular price, will drive revenues.
- Enhanced Quality: Impact and Implications
As the market becomes increasingly competitive and consumer expectations rise, authors look to stand out by producing high-quality work. They recognise that products that might have aroused interest in the past are now overlooked in favour of those that demonstrate superior quality and professionalism.
This need for quality drives demand for professional services involved in editing, design, distribution, marketing, and coaching, among others. Authors have reported inconsistent experiences with these ancillary services, with varying degrees of quality, honesty, and integrity. While some have had positive interactions, others have encountered challenges and fraudulent practices. This includes repeated solicitations for surcharge payments in exchange of services, non-payment of royalties, lost shipments, and dubious quality checks. Independent authors tend not use legal action in response to these issues, largely due to the significant time and financial resources usually associated with such proceedings.
- Diverse Copyright Perspectives
We found that copyright concerns are predominantly intertwined with issues surrounding piracy by consumers, rather than fears of plagiarism by other authors. Perspectives and strategies on copyright enforcement vary among authors of different levels of recognition and success.
Larger, more established authors tend to emphasise stronger enforcement, particularly in the context of combating piracy. Their concern is often rooted in the financial losses they perceive as a result of unauthorised distribution of their work. This group is more likely to quantify these losses as ‘lost sales,’ seeing copyright as a protective measure against financial damage. However, due to limited success with legal recourses, these authors typically turn to specialised agencies dedicated to tracking and taking down pirated content.
“I have a company that monitors my piracy issues. We do cease and desist letters, but you can’t stop it. They remove results from search engines for me, that’s all you can do.”
On the other hand, smaller authors tend to exhibit a relaxed stance towards copyright issues, often reflecting a limited understanding of the complexities involved. They view the process of copyright registration and subsequent enforcement as steps that only become relevant and necessary if their success and financial gains increase.
“I haven’t registered. I feel like small fry at the moment. I’m not making enough to warrant registering the copyright”.
- Free Labour: Balancing Community Engagement and Ethical Considerations
Interviews reveal a consistent trend of reliance on volunteer efforts and community support, a phenomenon that spans across all levels of fame and success. This widespread practice reflects a deep-seated culture of collaboration within the independent writing community, which dates back to the establishment of this less common publishing route. Today, it remains a cornerstone for many, especially emerging authors who may lack the financial means to hire a professional team. These volunteer contributions, which can include assistance in design, marketing, and promotional support, can indeed be invaluable for authors at the start of their careers.
However, as authors gain success and their works become commercially viable, the continued use of unpaid labour raises ethical questions. There’s a growing concern about the fairness and appropriateness of not providing financial compensation to those who contribute to the success of a published work. This issue is not isolated to the independent writing community but is part of a larger conversation within the creative industries about the devaluation of labour.
- AI: A Polarising Tool
The independent author community is sharply divided in its opinions regarding the use of AI. A segment of authors adopts a pragmatic approach, utilising it primarily for idea generation rather than for the actual writing process.
“I’m really pro AI. It helps me with things like bouncing ideas, ask general questions and help with my weaknesses”.
On the other side of the spectrum, some authors stand firmly against the integration of AI at any stage of writing, editing, or publishing. This opposition stems not from a fear of diminished creativity or originality — they remain confident in their ability to craft unique literary voices that resonate with their audience. Instead, their resistance is rooted in a commitment to preserving the traditional, human-centric approach to writing and storytelling.
“I don’t allow AI anywhere in my book. I would rather have a mistake in my book than my book having been rewritten by somebody else that isn’t even a human.”
There’s the impression that authors are increasingly comfortable with using AI for creating ancillary content such as audiobooks, book covers, and illustrations. This reliance on AI for derivative works can displace labour traditionally performed by other creators and performers, introducing a form of implicit hierarchy among creators. Given the growing importance of AI in numerous areas of society, completely stopping such displacement might not be feasible. However, mitigating its negative impacts will be crucial for derivative industries.
Furthermore, there’s a possibility that professional services might increasingly incorporate AI tools in their services to improve their efficiency, without always making this clear to the authors.
- The Vital Role of Support Resources
Support resources, including educational materials, and online forums, are crucial for independent authors, especially during the early stages of their careers. These resources not only provide guidance but also foster a sense of community, offering a network for sharing experiences and advice.
This sense of community is not only beneficial for novice authors but also for those who have attained success in their writing careers. Many successful authors express a sense of fulfilment in giving back to the community by assisting newcomers, suggesting the emergence of a sustainable cycle of mentorship and support within the independent author community. The resources provided by the ALLi and the Self-Publishing Formula have been frequently mentioned by authors in interviews as pivotal in their publishing journeys.
“I would not be anywhere near where I am now without their knowledge and their generosity.”
Historically characterised by a do-it-yourself ethos, the independent publishing industry is becoming more and more professional. This shift brings to light potential challenges reminiscent of those faced in traditional publishing. This concerns the standards and practices that determine what gets published and gains visibility in the market, as well as the level of expertise that is now required, not just in writing but in marketing and business management. It’s important to consider whether these developments might replicate the very issues indie publishing initially sought to address, such as accessibility and diversity, and whether the term ‘indie’ still applies in its original sense.
A full report detailing the current landscape of the indie publishing industry, encompassing these topics and more, will be available in early 2024.