How to Succeed in the New E-books Era

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March 2015
by Mark Coker
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After a decade of exponential growth in e-books, with indies partying like it was 1999, that growth has slowed. Indies have hit a brick wall and scrambling to make sense of it. In recent weeks, for example, I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon have dropped significantly since July, when Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited. And with a couple of exceptions (namely Scribd and Oyster), most major e-book retailers suffered anemic declining sales during the past 12–18 months.

Of course, the earlier rapid growth of the e-book market may have masked flaws in business models, causing players to misinterpret both the reasons for their success and the assumptions they made when building and executing strategy. I’m talking about all of us—authors, publishers, retailers, distributors and service providers. It’s easy to succeed when everything’s growing like gangbusters.

Where to from here? I urge you to I urge you to embrace the coming shakeout rather than fear it. Let the new competitive environment spur you on to become a better, more professional player in the months and years ahead. Players who survive shakeouts usually emerge stronger.

Factors to Focus On

Although individual publishers’ results will differ from the aggregate, I think several drivers are shaping the current slow-growth environment.

These include a glut of high-quality e-books. Yes, self-publishing technology has enabled a tsunami of poor-quality published works, but critics who fixate on the garbage are blinded to the bigger picture. The poor-quality titles quickly become invisible because readers ignore or reject them, and automated retailer merchandising systems render them invisible.

The other, more important, side of this story is that technology has enabled a tsunami of high-quality published works by giving more authors and publishers the chance embrace the coming shakeout rather to have their works judged by readers. That has led to greater quantity and diversity of high-quality content than ever before. Although publishers still play an important role in editorial curation, readers are increasingly assuming a more significant curatorial role now that anyone can publish.

What a contrast with the past. Ten years ago, publishers artificially constrained book supply by publishing a limited number of the most commercially promising new titles each year, with agents and editors rejecting the vast majority of books in the “slush pile.” The supply of books was further constrained because physical bookstores could stock only a fraction of published titles and were forced to return slow sellers to make room for new releases. This forced many high-quality books out of print prematurely.

But e-book have unlimited shelf space. Today, there’s a glut of high-quality, low-cost works. The competition will grow stiffer from now on, as growth in the supply of e-books continues to outstrip growth in demand.

A few things are happening here. E-books are immortal. Like cobwebs constructed of stainless steel, they will forever occupy the virtual shelves of e-book retailers and be forever discoverable. This is both good and bad—good because for authors and publishers ers it enables a potential annuity stream of income for many years to come, especially for great fiction because fiction is timeless. The bad news is that readers will have more and more books to choose among.

Unless readership increases dramatically or the pace of transition from print reading to screen reading turns up again, sales per title will decline on the average over time. Meanwhile, the pace of transition from print books to e-books has slowed. The early adopters for e-books have adopted, and we’ve reached a state that might be described as temporary equilibrium.

Pointers to Profit From

Despite the increased competition in this slow-growth environment, tremendous opportunities lie ahead. There has never been a better time to be an indie publisher. Millions of readers are hungry to discover, purchase, and read their next great book.

Here are some recommendations to succeed in the new environment.

Take the long view.

You’re running a marathon, not a sprint. Most bestsellers slogged away in obscurity for years before they broke out. Every bestselling author you admire faced moments when it seemed more sensible to quit than to power on. They powered on.

Work today to create the future you want 10 or 20 years from now. Six years into the e-book revolution, you’re still early in the game. Early movers have the advantage in any market. Although it was easier two years ago to grow readership than it is today, it’s dramatically easier to grow your readership now than it will be in two years.

Focus now on building and strengthening a social media platform and a mailing list that you control. And remember that social media in all its forms rewards those who add value. As you grow your platform and your following with strong content, your readers will become your evangelists.

Don’t assume that good is good enough.

When readers face a virtually unlimited supply of great books, the bar for acceptable quality is raised. Good is no longer good enough. If you’re not publishing Wow! books then your books are unlikely to sell well. This rule applies to both fiction and nonfiction. A book must take readers to extreme heights of pleasure and satisfaction. Wow books earn five-star reviews. Wow books turn your target readers into evangelists.

Write more; publish more; improve your craft.

The more you write and publish, the greater your chances of reaching readers. But quantity without quality will fail. With every book you write and publish, make it your best. Never stop working to perfect your craft and your publishing prowess.

Diversify your distribution.

There’s a global market for English-language books via iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, Oyster, Kobo, public libraries, and other intermediaries. For example, iBooks operates stores in 51 different countries, each of which is a micro-market, and if you’re not there with your entire list of books, then you’re at a long-term disadvantage.

Similarly, if you don’t have all your books available at every retailer, you’ll undermine your long-term potential. There are millions of readers who can’t be reached at Amazon.

At every writers’ conference I attend, I’m surprised by the number of indie authors who ask, “How do I decide between Amazon and Smashwords?” A scary number of self-publishers think Amazon requires exclusivity. Not true. Yes, Amazon will poke and prod you to go exclusive, but you can say no and maintain full distribution to all retailers (see on “Exclusive Is Actually Optional at Amazon” and “Breaking Free—What Happened When I Left KDP Select” via ”Independent Articles” at ibpa-online.org).

Network with fellow indies.

It takes a village to publish a professional-quality book. Network with your fellow indies at conferences and through writers’ groups. Share experiences and support one another through the good times and bad.

Publish multi-author collections in boxed sets.

Multi-author boxed sets let authors amplify their fan-building bases. The process works best when every author pitches in on promotion, and when authors partner with the best authors whose work targets the same micro-focused audience.

Leverage professional publishing tools.

Take full advantage of new tools that give you a competitive advantage. For example, over the past couple years at Smashwords, we introduced preorder distribution to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Preorders give a book a merchandising advantage by enabling advance marketing and higher first-day placement in bestseller lists. We also introduced a tool called Smashwords Series Manager that enables improved discovery of series books at major retailers. Most distributors offer similar tools. Ask your distributor or retailer about preorders and enhanced series metadata, and take full advantage of these tools for all future releases.

Use recognized best practices.

No single magic bullet will make a book take off. You must do many things right and avoid mistakes. Here’s a quick summary of underutilized best practices (for more detailed advice on best practices, see my free e-book The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success).

Have each book professionally edited, copyedited, and proofread.

Have each book’s cover professionally designed.

Include enhanced back matter and navigational elements in each book that can drive sales of your other books and also drive growth on your social media platforms.

Experiment with free series starters if you’re publishing a series.
Be aware that longer e-books sell better than shorter ones, according to Smashwords research.

Check and double-check your book descriptions for typos, improper capitalization or punctuation, and the like.

Never forget that you’re running a business.

My unconventional (but proven) Rules for Business are

  1. Be a nice person, and treat everyone from partners to readers with kindness, respect, and integrity.
  2. Be honest; business relationships are built on trust, and the fastest way to destroy one is to be dishonest.
  3. Be ethical; don’t cheat; do unto others as you’d want done unto you.
  4. Be humble; you can always be better.
  5. Celebrate those who help you succeed; none of us can achieve our goals without support, encouragement, and love from those around us.

Pinch your pennies.

Spend frugally. Your sales will always be uncertain, but your expenses can be controlled. Get creative. If you can’t afford professional services, barter for them. Trade goods or services for professional help.

Take risks, experiment, and fail often.

Success is impossible without failure. Failure is a gift. The challenge is to take a lot of little risks and make every failure a teachable moment.

Dream big dreams.

Be ambitious. Aim high. You’re smart and you’re capable. You must believe this because if you don’t try, you can’t achieve. As Salvador Dali said, “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.”

Be delusional.

At a writers’ conference three years ago, I had a conversation with the agent Donald Maass. He had told a room full of writers that self-publishing was a fine option if they didn’t want to sell any books. Later, when we met at dinner, I told him I thought he was underestimating the impact self-published authors would have on the publishing industry. He told me he thought I was delusional.

When someone doubts me, I feel energized. If you see an opportunity others can’t yet recognize, great! Go for it.

Recognize that past success is no guarantee of future success.

I think about this a lot. We all have ups and downs. When you’re having a great run, enjoy it, soak in it, bank it, pay off debts, and build savings for a rainy day. The rainy day will come. When it does come, you’ll be prepared. Never stop running as fast as you can in the direction of your dreams.


CockerMark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, a global distributor of indie e-books. His three free books on e-book publishing— The Smashwords Style Guide, The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, and The Secrets to E-book Publishing Success—been downloaded more than 700,000 times and are considered essential references for e-book publishing best practices. To learn more: @markcoker and blog.smashwords.com.

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