'It's discovery that's lagging': #FutureChat recap on digital-first

'It's discovery that's lagging': #FutureChat recap on digital-first

“A difficulty in marketing something that has no physical presence."

That's the author Stark Holborn talking with my Bookseller associate Sarah Shaffi (pictured) about the question of digital-first publishing and its potential for writers, in Authors debate digital-first publication.

And that line, appearing among many enthusiastic comments from writers about digital-first in Shaffi's story, echoes the strongest qualm that our #FutureChat participants registered on Friday in answer to our question Is digital-first best for authors?

If anything, someone who listened to self-publishing authors a year or so ago and then today might say that they now sound subdued; not daunted, perhaps, but stymied.

By coincidence, the publishing observer who writes occasional criticism of the industry under the name "Agent Orange," weighed in on Friday with a similar observation. In his or her Vanity fair,

Agent Orange writes:

It’s been noticeable how the manic drumbeat of the self-publishing zealots has died down in the past year, but so effective has their message been that most authors feel almost compelled to consider that route [self-publishing] at the first sign of any rejection. But self-publishing is expensive. I encounter countless authors who have spent thousands of pounds they can ill afford to achieve precisely nothing. If these people were being encouraged to blow their savings on timeshares there would have been a national outcry about it. It too is socially regressive: what about the people who do not have the money to spend? It is worth noting how many of these gurus seem more successful at selling their DIY books/courses than they are at marketing their fiction. The people who really make money out of gold rushes are the ones selling the shovels . . . And there are many shovel sellers.

Agent Orange's latest commentary arrives at a time, in fact, when authors' most iconic digital-age tool — the ebook — is facing what my Bookseller colleague Philip Jones terms a "narrative of slowing growth...both here" in the UK "and in America." In his notably thorough look at the UK Statistics Yearbook from the Publishers Association (PA) here at The FutureBook, What we have learned from ebooks in 2014, Jones writes:

We still have no clear sight of the self-published digital market. Our perspective might change a lot if we did. That said, the traffic from self-published author to traditionally published author (or Amazon published) is still broadly going in one direction, suggesting that even successful indie writers are faced with the same worries traditional publishers have come up against. The narrative that indie writers are taking significant market share from big publishers looks exaggerated (at least in the UK), but there are growing digital only publishers not represented in the PA data (not least Amazon Publishing) that would help broaden our understanding.

The majority of Jones' write-up is not about self-publishers, it's about ebook economics in general and behavior in "mature markets" that may not have been anticipated by many who engaged in a giddy exuberance in the earlier stages of digital publishing.

Shaffi's story, too, is seated in comments of traditionally published authors whose books were released in various approaches using digital evocations first, sometimes in serial formulations.

We begin to realise that when it comes to the author story, we can too easily attach "ebook" to "self-publishing." This is hardly the whole story, although it's understandable, in that ebooks have been self-publishers' key vehicle.

There are impressions afoot that a print presence in bookstores may be more easily within reach of self-publishers now than before: IngramSpark is making a strong offer with its ability to produce, catalog and distribute books to bookshops without the Amazonian stigma of a CreateSpace printing. 

And the sixth quarterly AuthorEarnings.com report has been released by the author Hugh Howey and his associate known as Data Guy. Harvesting data on more than 200,000 bestselling ebooks at Amazon.com, they focus this time on ebook pricing as they see it affected by major publishers in newly renegotiated sales terms with Seattle. Referring to the chart seen here (from AuthorEarnings.com, the May 2015 report), Howey and/or Data Guy writes:

Soon after these agreements went into place, industry observers noted an upward move in average ebook prices. Freed from Amazon’s discounting, and with complete control over pricing, the publishers made a decision to push the price of many of their books above $9.99.
With six quarterly snapshots, each snapshot consisting of 50,000+ of the top-selling ebook titles, we plotted the average price by publisher type to see just how much prices have gone up. The blue bars show the price of self-published ebooks for each of our reports. The purple bars show the average price of Big Five published ebooks.
Since we started pulling this data, the average price of an ebook from a Big Five publisher has gone up 17%. Compare this to a difference of 5% for self-published titles, or the increase of 7.5% across Amazon imprints. The prices for Big Five published ebooks have risen quite steadily, rather than a sudden surge since the return to agency.

Friday's #FutureChat about author experience in digital-first didn't debate slowing growth in the ebook sector, nor the question of ebook-price control in major online retail settings per Author Earnings.

What did seem to surface, however, touches on all these things, in roughly this way: ebooks, while easier and quicker to release than physical books, may be harder to sell as the sheer volume of digital releases rises, while pricing seems to be on an upward curve, and while the growth of sales slows, as it seems likely to keep doing. While our #FutureChat participants could cite many reasons that digital-first is a useful and practical approach to releasing content for a writer, the trouble of selling it weighed immediately on the convo.

That scenario argues strongly for the concerns for authors presented by Agent Orange:

This century has seen hosts of companies springing up offering editorial, design, marketing and publishing services. Some good, some bad: all expensive. There are now endless digital vanity presses (sorry, DIY publishers) such as Author Solutions, about which Penguin Random House is now so silent. When did publishers think it would be a good idea to begin selling their “services” to work on books they clearly did not believe had any potential in the marketplace? At least in the past it was clear who the vanity presses were.

While it may sound somewhat perverse, it seems healthy if the authorial debate finally is being tempered by market realities. The understandable glee with which many authors may have greeted their initial ability to operate with independence in a digital environment now seems balanced by prudent concerns about the persistent problem of visibility, positioning, sales — discoverability.

Print hardly guarantees an easier route for all books. The stores certainly can't hold them all, not even as well as the Net can. But the electronic field now is spectacularly deep in titles. And even at a time when Howey and Data Guy cite what they interpret to be "an increase in daily revenue" for self-published authors in ebooks "of 12.4 percent since January 2015," if digital-first drives a new release directly into that bottomless arena of competitive titles, it's important to remember that AuthorEarnings looks at bestsellers. What about the rest?

Here's a selection of tweets from our #FutureChat, with our appreciation for all who participated.


Join us Fridays for a round of good conversation on topics in digital publishing at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST). Main image - Pixabay: LoggaWiggler