Indie publishing and the Amazon Maelstrom of Doom

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I was a very early adopter of Amazon e-books. I opened an account straight away and I still have a collection of ancient Kindles with their grey screens and clunky keyboards. Once I realised the possibilities of self-publishing through Amazon I thought that might be for me. I knew a lot about conventional publishing especially in the academic field. But I had also looked into commercial publishing and knew some well-known published writers. Drusilla Modjeska is a kind of relation (my second husband’s first wife) and we had talked about the literary scene since the 1970’s. Still talking in the naughties, I tried to persuade her that Indie publishing was the way of the future but she, like most Australian literary figures, considered it completely unacceptable and infra-dig. I couldn’t persuade her of its virtues no matter what I said. Of course she already had a publisher and a secure literary reputation, so I can see why it wouldn’t have appealed.

By the time I was getting ready to publish my fiction and memoirs, it was another scene altogether. Traditional publishing had become almost impossible. The old literary circles were dying off and the Big Five international publishers had swallowed up one after another of the smaller presses. Agents at least in Australia just wouldn’t look at debut authors unless they seemed like literary prize material or were writing self-improvement texts or cookbooks and even then they had to have a profile on TV.

Self-publishing, or publishing through small presses, had indeed picked up the baton and become not merely successful but a huge industry with an entire infrastructure of its own.The demands on the independent writer now included the ability to manage all the things the old trad publishers had done, and as standards increased so did the expenses. And as the number of services for self-published authors bloomed, so did the number of titles, all neatly divided into nifty genres and subgenres which often bore little relevance to the actual book the author had written. There seemed increasing pressure to write to distinctive niches: alpha billionaire S and M, historical vampire fiction, sweet Amish romance, a whole submarket in stories about Mormon polygamy. Marketing became the watchword, but how to achieve it without paying for a marketer, with no guarantee of ever getting your investment back. The old days when the writer handed over a bundle of typed pages and received a cash advance began to look halcyon.

The Amazon publishing ecology is fantastic and offers every support to the writer, except the crucial one, namely, how to persuade readers to buy your book. The rise of Amazon’s own imprints is having another kind of impact, more on that later.

The glories of self-publishing are looking increasingly tarnished right now. In late 2016 the graphs of sales and income for Amazon self-publishers began to drift downwards for the first time in five years. Millions of e-books are washing around on Amazon and a few other platforms. Some estimates suggest that there are 5,000 new books published on Amazon each day. It’s almost impossible for readers to find good quality writing, the kind of book which is not repetitive trash genre fiction. Not to mention the ghastly low standard editing and typos in so much of it.

There is a huge market of people who love to read and appreciate the e-book format and like the low prices knowing most of it is going to the author but they want to read real stories with a certain kind of “truth”.  The enormous success of Sydney writer Liane Moriarty is an example. Liane is a really good Australian writer who tells well-crafted stories about real lives which readers can recognize. I found it at first unbelievable that her stories, set in Australia, were being snapped up by legions of American fans. She is almost completely unknown in Australian literary circles and certainly will never turn up on a literary prize listing. Her readers are not necessarily  part of the cultural elite, but they are still serious readers, who  get lost fast in the wilds of Amazon and will be generally turned off by the oceans of junk and rubbish now swirling about in the maelstrom. It was good luck as well as a good product which brought Liane to her readers at a time when Amazon/Kindle hadn’t reached the stage of terminal bloat and ultimate Doom.

We urgently need some method of curation which doesn’t go through the conventional route and can open a space for e-book publishing for serious readers and writers who want to engage with the new world of online publishing. That’s the number one challenge now, it seems to me.

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