Without a True North: Tactical Approaches to Self-Published Fiction

Ian Keith Rogers

Abstract


Introduction

Over three days in November 2017, 400 people gathered for a conference at the Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall in Las Vegas, Nevada. The majority of attendees were fiction authors but the conference program looked like no ordinary writer’s festival; there were no in-conversation interviews with celebrity authors, no panels on the politics of the book industry and no books launched or promoted. Instead, this was a gathering called 20Books2017, a self-publishing conference about the business of fiction ebooks and there was expertise in the room.

Among those attending, 50 reportedly earned over $100,000 US per annum, with four said to be earning in excess of $1,000,000 US year. Yet none of these authors are household names. Their work is not adapted to film or television. Their books cannot be found on the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores. For the most part, these authors go unrepresented by the publishing industry and literary agencies, and further to which, only a fraction have ever actively pursued traditional publishing. Instead, they write for and sell into a commercial fiction market dominated by a single retailer and publisher: online retailer Amazon.

While the online ebook market can be dynamic and lucrative, it can also be chaotic. Unlike the traditional publishing industry—an industry almost stoically adherent to various gatekeeping processes: an influential agent-class, formalized education pathways, geographic demarcations of curatorial power (see Thompson)—the nascent ebook market is unmapped and still somewhat ungoverned. As will be discussed below, even the markets directly engineered by Amazon are subject to rapid change and upheaval. It can be a space with shifting boundaries and thus, for many in the traditional industry both Amazon and self-publishing come to represent a type of encroaching northern dread.

In the eyes of the traditional industry, digital self-publishing certainly conforms to the barbarous north of European literary metaphor: Orwell’s ‘real ugliness of industrialism’ (94) governed by the abject lawlessness of David Peace’s Yorkshire noir (Fowler). But for adherents within the day-to-day of self-publishing, this unruly space also provides the frontiers and gold-rushes of American West mythology.

What remains uncertain is the future of both the traditional and the self-publishing sectors and the degree to which they will eventually merge, overlap and/or co-exist. So-called ‘hybrid-authors’ (those self-publishing and involved in traditional publication) are becoming increasingly common—especially in genre fiction—but the disruption brought about by self-publishing and ebooks appears far from complete.

To the contrary, the Amazon-led ebook iteration of this market is relatively new. While self-publishing and independent publishing have long histories as modes of production, Amazon launched both its Kindle e-reader device and its marketplace Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) a little over a decade ago. In the years subsequent, the integration of KDP within the Amazon retail environment dramatically altered the digital self-publishing landscape, effectively paving the way for competing platforms (Kobo, Nook, iBooks, GooglePlay) and today’s vibrant—and, at times, crassly commercial—self-published fiction communities.

As a result, the self-publishing market has experienced rapid growth: self-publishers now collectively hold the largest share of fiction sales within Amazon’s ebook categories, as much as 35% of the total market (Howey). Contrary to popular belief they do not reside entirely at the bottom of Amazon’s expansive catalogue either: at the time of writing, 11 of Amazon’s Top 50 Bestsellers were self-published and the median estimated monthly revenue generated by these ‘indie’ books was $43,000 USD / month (per author) on the American site alone (KindleSpy).

This international publishing market now proffers authors running the gamut of commercial uptake, from millionaire successes like romance writer H.M. Ward and thriller author Mark Dawson, through to the 19% of self-published authors who listed their annual royalty income as $0 per annum (Weinberg). Their overall market share remains small—as little as 1.8% of trade publishing in the US as a whole (McIlroy 4)—but the high end of this lucrative slice is particularly dynamic: science fiction author Michael Anderle (and 20Books2017 keynote) is on-track to become a seven-figure author in his second year of publishing (based on Amazon sales ranking data), thriller author Mark Dawson has sold over 300,000 copies of his self-published Milton series in 3 years (McGregor), and a slew of similar authors have recently attained New York Times and US Today bestseller status.

To date, there is not a broad range of scholarship investigating the operational logics of self-published fiction. Timothy Laquintano’s recent Mass Authorship and the Rise of Self-Publishing (2016) is a notable exception, drawing self-publishing into historical debates surrounding intellectual property, the future of the book and digital abundance. The more empirical portions of Mass Authorship—taken from activity between 2011 to 2015—directly informs this research and his chapter on Amazon (Chapter 4) could be read as a more macro companion to my findings below; taken together and compared they illustrate just how fast-moving the market is. Nick Levey’s work on ‘post-press’ literature and its inherent risks (and discourses of cultural capitol) also informs my thesis here.

In addition to which, there is scholarship centred on publishing more generally that also touches on self-published writers as a category of practitioner (see Baverstock and Steinitz, Haughland, Thomlinson and Bélanger). Most of this later work focuses almost entirely on the finished product, usually situating self-publishing as directly oppositional to traditional publishing, and thus subordinating it.

In this paper, I hope to outline how the self-publishers I’ve observed have enacted various tactical approaches that specifically strive to tame their chaotic marketplace, and to indicate—through one case study (Amazon exclusivity)—a site of production and resistance where they have occasionally succeeded. Their approach is one that values information sharing and an open-source approach to book-selling and writing craft, ideologies drawn more from the tech / start-up world than commercial book industry described by Thompson (10). It is a space deeply informed by the virtual nature of its major platforms and as such, I argue its relation to the world of traditional publishing—and its representation within the traditional book industry—are tenuous, despite the central role of authorship and books.

Making the Virtual Self-Publishing Scene

Within the study of popular music, the use of Barry Shank and Will Straw’s ‘scene’ concept has been an essential tool for uncovering and mapping independent/DIY creative practice. The term scene, defined by Straw as cultural space, is primarily interested in how cultural phenomena articulates or announces itself. A step beyond community, scene theorists are less concerned with examining an evolving history of practice (deemed essentialist) than they are concerned with focusing on the “making and remaking of alliances” as the crucial process whereby communal culture is formed, expressed and distributed (370).

A scene’s spatial dimension—often categorized as local, translocal or virtual (see Bennett and Peterson)—demands attention be paid to hybridization, as a diversity of actors approach the same terrain from differing vantage points, with distinct motivations. As a research tool, scene can map action as the material existence of ideology. Thus, its particular usefulness is its ability to draw findings from diverse communities of practice.

Drawing methodologies and approaches from Bourdieu’s field theory—a particularly resonant lens for examining cultural work—and de Certeau’s philosophies of space and circumstantial moves (“failed and successful attempts at redirection within a given terrain,” 375), scene focuses on articulation, the process whereby individual and communal activity becomes an observable or relatable or recordable phenomena.

Within my previous work (see Bennett and Rogers, Rogers), I’ve used scene to map a variety of independent music-making practices and can see clear resemblances between independent music-making and the growing assemblage of writers within ebook self-publishing. The democratizing impulses espoused by self-publishers (the removal of gatekeepers as married to visions of a fiction/labour meritocracy) marry up quite neatly with the heady mix of separatism and entrepreneurialism inherent in Australian underground music.

Self-publishers are typically older and typically more upfront about profit, but the communal interaction—the trade and gifting of support, resources and information—looks decidedly similar. Instead, the self-publishers appear different in one key regard: their scene-making is virtual in ways that far outstrip empirical examples drawn from popular music. 20Books2017 is only one of two conferences for this community thus far and represents one of the few occasions in which the community has met in any sort of organized way offline. For the most part, and in the day-to-day, self-publishing is a virtual scene.

At present, the virtual space of self-published fiction is centralized around two digital platforms. Firstly, there is the online message board, of which two specific online destinations are key: the first is Kboards, a PHP-coded forum “devoted to all things Kindle” (Kboards) but including a huge author sub-board of self-published writers. The archive of this board amounts to almost two million posts spanning back to 2009. The second message board site is a collection of Facebook groups, of which the 10,000-strong membership of 20BooksTo50K is the most dominant; it is the originating home of 20Books2017.

The other platform constituting the virtual scene of self-publishing is that of podcasting. While there are a number of high-profile static websites and blogs related to self-publishing (and an emerging community of vloggers), these pale in breadth and interaction when compared to podcasts such as The Creative Penn, The Self-Publishing Podcast, The Sell More Books Show, Rocking Self-Publishing (now defunct but archived) and The Self-Publishing Formula podcast. Statistical information on the distribution of these podcasts is unavailable but the circulation and online discussion of their content and the interrelation between the different shows and their hosts and guests all point to their currency within the scene.

In short, if one is to learn about the business and craft production modes of self-publishing, one tends to discover and interact with one of these two platforms. The consensus best practice espoused on these boards and podcasts is the data set in which the remainder of this paper draws findings. I have spent the last two years embedded in these communities but for the purposes of this paper I will be drawing data exclusively from the public-facing Kboards, namely because it is the oldest, most established site, but also because all of the issues and discussion presented within this data have been cross-referenced across the different podcasts and boards. In fact, for a long period Kboards was so central to the scene that itself was often the topic of conversation elsewhere.

Sticking in the Algorithm: The Best Practice of Fiction Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is a virtual scene because its “constellation of divergent interests and forces” (Shank, Preface, x) occur almost entirely online. This is not just a case of discussion, collaboration and discovery occurring online—as with the virtual layer of local and translocal music scenes—rather, the self-publishing community produces into the online space, almost exclusively. Its venues and distribution pathways are online and while its production mechanisms (writing) are still physical, there is an almost instantaneous and continuous interface with the online. These writers type and, increasingly dictate, their work into the virtual cloud, have it edited there (via in-text annotation) and from there the work is often designed, formatted, published, sold, marketed, reviewed and discussed online.

In addition to which, a significant portion of these writers produce collaborative works, co-writing novels and co-editing them via cooperative apps. Teams of beta-readers (often fans) work on manuscripts pre-launch. Covers, blurbs, log lines, ad copy and novel openings are tested and reconfigured via crowd-sourced opinion. Seen here, the writing of the self-publishing scene is often explicitly commercial. But more to the fact, it never denies its direct co-relation with the mandates of online publishing. It is not traditional writing (it moves beyond authorship) and viewing these writers as emerging or unpublished or indeed, using the existing vernacular of literary writing practices, often fails to capture what it is they do.

As the self-publishers write for the online space, Amazon forms a huge part of their thinking and working. The site sits at the heart of the practices under consideration here. Many of the authors drawn into this research are ‘wide’ in their online retail distribution, meaning they have books placed with Amazon’s online retail competitors. Yet the decision to go ‘wide’ or stay exclusive to Amazon — and the volume of discussion around this choice — is illustrative of how dominant the company remains in the scene. In fact, the example of Amazon exclusivity provides a valuable case-study.

For self-publishers, Amazon exclusivity brings two stated and tangible benefits. The first relates to revenue diversification within Amazon, with exclusivity delivering an additional revenue stream in the form of Kindle Unlimited royalties. Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a subscription service for ebooks. Consumers pay a flat monthly fee ($13.99 AUD) for unlimited access to over a million Kindle titles. For a 300-page book, a full read-through of a novel under KU pays roughly the same royalty to authors as the sale of a $2.99 ebook, but only to Amazon-exclusive authors. If an exclusive book is particularly well suited to the KU audience, this can present authors with a very serious return.

The second benefit of Amazon exclusivity is access to internal site merchandising; namely ‘Free Days’ where the book is given away (and can chart on the various ‘Top 100 Free’ leaderboards) and ‘Countdown Deals’ where a decreasing discount is staggered across a period (thus creating a type of scarcity).

These two perks can prove particularly lucrative to individual authors. On Kboards, user Annie Jocoby (also writing as Rachel Sinclair) details her experiences with exclusivity:

I have a legal thriller series that is all-in with KU [Kindle Unlimited], and I can honestly say that KU has been fantastic for visibility for that particular series. I put the books into KU in the first part of August, and I watched my rankings rise like crazy after I did that. They've stuck, too. If I weren't in KU, I doubt that they would still be sticking as well as they have. (anniejocoby)

This is fairly typical of the positive responses to exclusivity, yet it incorporates a number of the more opaque benefits entangled with going exclusive to Amazon.

First, there is ‘visibility.’ In self-publishing terms, ‘visibility’ refers almost exclusively to chart positions within Amazon. The myriad of charts — and how they function — is beyond the scope of this paper but they absolutely indicate — often dictate — the discoverability of a book online. These charts are the ‘front windows’ of Amazon, to use an analogy to brick-and-mortar bookstores. Books that chart well are actively being bought by customers and they are very often those benefiting from Amazon’s powerful recommendation algorithm, something that expands beyond the site into the company’s expansive customer email list. This brings us to the second point Jocoby mentions, the ‘sticking’ within the charts.

There is a widely held belief that once a good book (read: free of errors, broadly entertaining, on genre) finds its way into the Amazon recommendation algorithm, it can remain there for long periods of time leading to a building success as sales beget sales, further boosting the book’s chart performance and reviews. There is also the belief among some authors that Kindle Unlimited books are actively favoured by this algorithm. The high-selling Amanda M. Lee noted a direct correlation:

Rank is affected when people borrow your book [under KU]. Page reads don't play into it all. (Amanda M. Lee)

Within the same thread, USA Today bestseller Annie Bellet elaborated:

We tested this a bunch when KU 2.0 hit. A page read does zip for rank. A borrow, even with no pages read, is what prompts the rank change. Borrows are weighted exactly like sales from what we could tell, it doesn't matter if nobody opens the book ever. All borrows now are ghost borrows, of course, since we can't see them anymore, so it might look like pages are coming in and your rank is changing, but what is probably happening is someone borrowed your book around the same time, causing the rank jump. (Annie B)

Whether this advantage is built into the algorithm in a (likely) attempt to favour exclusive authors, or by nature of KU books presenting at a lower price point, is unknown but there is anecdotal evidence that once a KU book gains traction, it can ‘stick’ within the charts for longer periods of time compared to non-exclusive titles.

At the entrepreneurial end of the fiction self-publishing scene, Amazon is positioned at the very centre. To go wide—to follow vectors through the scene adjacent to Amazon — is to go around the commercial centre and its profits. Yet no one in this community remains unaffected by the strategic position of this site and the market it has either created or captured. Amazon’s institutional practices can be adopted by competitors (Kobo Plus is a version of KU) and the multitude of tactics authors use to promote their work all, in one shape or another, lead back to ‘circumstantial moves’ learned from Amazon or services that are aimed at promoting work sold there. Further to which, the sense of instability and risk engendered by such a dominant market player is felt everywhere.

Some Closing Ideas on the Ideology of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing fiction remains tactical in the de Certeau sense of the term. It is responsive and ever-shifting, with a touch of communal complicity and what he calls la perruque (‘the wig’), a shorthand for resistance that presents itself as submission (25). The entrepreneurialism of self-published fiction trades off this sense of the tactical.

Within the scene, Amazon bestseller charts aren’t as much markers of prestige as systems to be hacked. The choice between ‘wide’ and exclusive is only ever short-term; it is carefully scrutinised and the trade-offs and opportunities are monitored week-to-week and debated constantly online. Over time, the self-publishing scene has become expert at decoding Amazon’s monolithic Terms of Service, ever eager to find both advantage and risk as they attempt to lever the affordances of digital publishing against their own desire for profit and expression.

This sense of mischief and slippage forms a big part of what self-publishing is. In contrast to traditional publishing—with its long lead times and physical real estate—self-publishing can’t help but appear fragile, wild and coarse. There is no other comparison possible.

To survive in self-publishing is to survive outside the established book industry and to thrive within a new and far more uncertain market/space, one almost entirely without a mapped topology. Unlike the traditional publishing industry—very much a legacy, a “relatively stable” population group (Straw 373)—self-publishing cannot escape its otherness, not in the short term. Both its spatial coordinates and its pathways remain too fast-evolving in comparison to the referent of traditional publishing. In the short-to-medium term, I imagine it will remain at some cultural remove from traditional publishing, be it perceived as a threatening northern force or a speculative west.

To see self-publishing in the present, I encourage scholars to step away from traditional publishing industry protocols and frameworks, to strive to see this new arena as the self-published authors themselves understand it (what Muggleton has referred to a “indigenous meaning” 13).

Straw and Shank’s scene concept provides one possible conceptual framework for this shift in understanding as scene’s reliance on spatial considerations harbours an often underemphazised asset: it is a theory of orientation. At heart, it draws as much from de Certeau as Bourdieu and as such, the scene presented in this work is never complete or fixed. It is de Certeau’s city “shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces” (93). These scenes—be they musicians or authors—are only ever glimpsed and from a vantage point of close proximity. In short, it is one way out of the essentialisms that currently shroud self-published fiction as a craft, business and community of authors.

The cultural space of self-publishing, to return Straw’s scene definition, is one that mirrors its own porous, online infrastructure, its own predominance in virtuality. Its pathways are coded together inside fast-moving media companies and these pathways are increasingly entwined within algorithmic processes of curation that promise meritocratization and disintermediation yet delivery systems that can be learned and manipulated.

The agility to publish within these systems is the true skill-set required to self-publish fiction online. It traverses specific platforms and short-term eras. It is the core attribute of success in the scene. Everything else is secondary, including the content of the books produced. It is not the case that these books are of lesser literary quality or that their ever-growing abundance is threatening—this is the counter-argument so often presented by the traditional book industry—but more so that without entrepreneurial agility, the quality of the ebook goes undetermined as it sinks lower and lower into a distribution system that is so open it appears endless.

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Keywords


self-publishing; book publishing; writing; scene; entrepreneurship



Copyright (c) 2018 Ian Keith Rogers

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