Ever get the feeling that independent publishing, which promised so much, is heading down the vortex, especially for Australian authors? When it all started rolling it seemed like writers would be able to reach readers without all the intermediaries deciding who and what would be allowed through the hallowed gates of author-dom.
It looked as if new technology would link writers and readers all over the world and open up the artificial geographic zones which for half a century had been creating unnecessary boundaries around the best new writing. Readers were forced to pay absurdly high prices in some areas, including Australia, to accommodate the outdated business model. You might have thought the response would have been to change the business model, but no, that didn’t happen, and now things seem to be in some kind of weird spiral.
In the US E-books are still selling, and selling well. In number they far outweigh trad pub titles, and just recently they have superseded print books in dollar value. Of course many of these sales are for traditionally published books from established publishers, who bring out an e-book edition along with their print editions. It is very hard to get accurate figures separating the different market components out.
When Indie publishing took hold, a network of new support mechanisms evolved to help authors bring their work to an eager public. Traditional publishers went on doing exactly as they had been doing (but added in e-book versions) and everyone else was free to try things out in all kinds of ways while Amazon provided the all-important technological platform.
For a while Amazon set the prices of the e-books from the traditional publishers. But after a legal case spear-headed by global giant Hachette Amazon was forced to raise the prices of the e-book versions so they did not compete with print books: take a look at the price box next to the Big Five published book you want to buy on your Amazon site and you will see “The price was set by the publishers”. This has pushed e-book prices higher for “good” books from all the global players who have eaten up the smaller niche publishers at least in the English-language market.
Meanwhile millions of other books are left wallowing about at the lowest possible end of the price scale in the hope that someone, anyone, will buy a copy. The unregulated indie market has turned out to be a ghastly place full of bad writing, creepy fantasies, idiotic space-nonsense, buff six-packs and bizarre arrays of erotica. There are many notable exceptions, of course, but anyone who takes a close look at what is going on in the Amazon indie market better not be a serious reader who thinks books have something to do with improving society and culture.
In Australia, the e-book revolution hardy took hold although Australians are known as early adopters of new technologies. Try asking around among friends and workmates and see how many actually have and use a Kindle. The answer, if you are an indie author, is super-depressing. It seems everyone longs for the olden days.
But there’s more to it than persistent nostalgia. It’s not just that people like going to physical bookshops, or buying physical books (often as presents for others), it’s that the guardians of Australian culture mounted an incredibly successful campaign against Amazon among booklovers. They were readily convinced that anything coming out of a corporate US giant like Amazon was automatically going to be a Bad Thing. This impression was shored up among the writers’ groups, in publishing circles, among academics and general literati, the local press, the network of book clubs and whatever other areas of public communication had anything at all to say about books and writing. Indie authors did not appear at Writer’s Festivals. Nobody mentioned them on the TV book shows (all now defunct); everybody interested in books and writing in Australia knew that good writing only appeared through a reputable publisher. The books by Australian authors hailed by the literati sold in modest to low numbers. Books written by Australian indie authors had to succeed in the US market, or not at all. There has never been an identifiable market for Australian independent authors in Australia.
Now things are even worse. Amazon won’t let Australians buy e-books – or any books for that matter – from it’s American site. This is supposedly because the Australian government didn’t like it that e-books were being bought by Australians who weren’t paying GST on them. Now the reader is forced back to the .au site, no option. Add the GST to the cost of the e-book and it looks a lot more expensive than when it was $2.99 on the US site. Previously, readers who wanted to order a print version could do so from the US site and pay horrendous postage. It seems that hardcover versions of Big Five published books are available through the Australian site, but still have to be sent at a high postage rate from the US. So guess what? You might as well buy a print copy of the book from your local bookshop, or by ordering online. Who needs Kindles and e-books after all? Somehow all this seems to have shored up the ultra-conservative elements in the Australian book world.
E-book author earnings are still very substantial, and when you consider that many authors identify themselves with a self-managed publishing imprint, the result is even more impressive. But of course this is happening in the US, not in Australia.
Australian authors often made print versions through CreateSpace and ordered fifty or a hundred or whatever copies to distribute themselves in Australia, sell through their own website or send out as freebies. Now CreateSpace has closed down and everyone is supposed to use KDP for their print books. But nobody, not even the author, can order print books from their US-based Amazon account, and Amazon is not going to be printing books in Australia anytime soon. You can’t even order a proof copy of your new e-book from KDP, apparently, because that would involve sending it at the US price. I believe this issue is currently being looked at by Amazon, but the bulk print copies will never be available again. So it’s back to the Australian traditional publishers.
Several correspondents have asked why authors don’t just have their own books printed locally, instead of worrying about the whole Amazon/e-book experience? Well, there are three good reasons. Firstly, local printers quote for a paperback version around two-three times the cost CreateSpace used to be able to supply them at, even with shipping from the US. They can look a lot better with much nicer paper but the price needs to be set very high if the bookseller gets the 40-50% discount they expect. The author may finish up getting even less than the miserable payout from a book priced at $2.99 on Amazon. Second, local bookshops are very reluctant to stock books from independent authors unless there is some local reason to do so – like a book about riding bicycles along back paths here in the Blue Mountains, which sells well from just two or three bookshops. The author supplies the copies personally when the bookshops run out. But if you are trying to sell more widely it means you have to keep stocks of your printed books somewhere – in your garage, or in your bedroom, or in a warehouse-type space, then you have to post or send or courier copies to whoever wants them, then pick them up again if they aren’t sold.
There is no simple answer, obviously.
BTW I want to thank Anna Castleton for her recent comment (August 31st) which prompted me to write this post sooner rather than later. I also should mention that my e-books, such as they are to date, have been illustrated and cover-designed and the interiors formatted by a well-regarded professional (in Mexico, as it happens) and the colour shift problems I had with my children’s book The Priceless Princess when print copies were made on Ingram Spark were the result of the Ingram Spark presses not “reading” the PDF files correctly. Ingram Spark seems much more responsive these days and is making a significant push into the space being vacated by Amazon. And it prints in Melbourne. More on this in a later post.