The state of indie publishing is in flux. Is print coming back? Are indie authors losing sales? And with the rise of more competition from traditional publishers, what is an indie author to do?
Based right outside of Philadelphia, I took the train up to New York and went hoping to find answers at Digital Book World Indie 2017. Truth be told, one of the main reasons why I went was to hear Data Guy talk in the Tight Insights: The Indie Universe Quantified session. I wanted to see his data on the big screen. I could have listened to him for hours (more on that in a bit).
For its inaugural year, I found the conference to be a mixed bag. Would I go again? Yes, I would because the most valuable lesson I learned was from a comment that Porter Anderson threw out to the audience at the beginning of the day.
How are indie authors going to compete and thrive against huge conglomerate corporations? At the end of the first session, Porter Anderson reminded all of us that when photographers needed to streamline their services, they came together to form a co-op. Professional services (developing the film, marketing, etc.) could be provided by reputable and vetted individuals while the photographers could stay out longer in the field, shooting. Anderson, in his understated way, turned to the audience and said, "Now it's all on you."
The biggest take home message from Digital Book World Indie is so simple that I almost missed it while preparing for the next talk. When we as indie authors unite, we have strength. We are the sum of our individual skills.
From a rough count, more than 200 indie authors attended the conference. Each of us struggles with learning marketing, writing, social media and a whole laundry list of skills that wrap us up in the mire. Many of us work full-time and are juggling two careers. But what if we united and pulled our resources to form a co-op? (Orna Ross from the Alliance of Independent Authors, I'm looking at you.) Ross' talk about the importance of ALLi hit home, but what was missing at Digital Book World Indie was the elephant in the room: homegrown indie author groups.
What do I mean? While I sat in the conference room listening to the talks, I had my phone out, sharing information with members of a private Facebook group. And throughout the day, I kept checking in on Michael Anderle's 20BooksTo50K Facebook group. I joined the 20BooksTo50K group back in December when there were 1,200 members. Less than a month later, there are more than 3,450 members. Fellow indie authors who are sharing their launch plans, screenshots from their sales dashboards, asking for advice on covers they are having designed and talk through the most in-the-weeds details about email lists.
Last week I posted a question asking the group what people's long term email strategy was now that reader magnets (giving the first book away for free) is starting to fade. Within a few hours, more than 85 people responded. What does this have to do with Digital Book World Indie 2017? Everything.
The mismatch between the experts at the conference and the brain power available from within the room itself could not have been more pronounced over the course of the day. Anderson's comment about forming an author co-op stuck with me because I could see the connections. Orna Ross has started an amazing organization: The Alliance of Independent Authors has a wealth of information, but when I searched the site for editing services in the US, I found only 12 people listed. In the 20BooksTo50K group, members list their skills and services, but there is a lack of organization.
See the opportunity? There are thousands of indie authors looking to organize in small Facebook groups across the world and Alliance of Independent Authors trying to do the same. The biggest opportunity that I took away from the conference is linking people together. Porter Anderson is right: How can we pool our resources? Who will do it and how? Do indie authors even want to organize? And most importantly, why would we even want to do this?
Knowledge Is Power
The second most important lesson I learned at DBW Indie is that traditional publishers, to quote Jane Friedman, "are kicking ass in marketing." Judith Curr's (President & Publisher of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster) talk brought that home to all the authors in the room. Not only are publishers creating apps such as Crave, but they are performing A/B tests with their advertising, targeting the appropriate readers with the ads as well as sending out thousands of ARCs in advance to build reviews online.
Judith Curr came to speak to a room full of indie authors with an olive branch, asking us to consider traditional publishing. The word "hybrid" floated throughout many of the sessions and authors were pitched not only by Curr, but by Kobo, Wattpad, Ingramspark and, if you wanted, one-on-one with iBooks. Opportunity flowed throughout the day.
The challenge that I see is that without the deep (for now) pockets of traditional publishers, indie authors will continue to struggle. Although traditional publishers have amazing teams to produce extremely high quality products, the opportunity for indie authors comes in our being able to control our own careers. We have choice. With knowledge, there is power. In today's publishing, we could license our print book rights, but retain our ebook rights and publish as we like. We have bargaining power that did not exist a few years ago. The more we know and understand the business, the better our careers will be.
The Big Gap: Expertise and Data
The biggest missed opportunity at Digital Book World Indie was the lack of discussion on the importance of analytics and tracking. Data Guy gave an engaging talk, sharing his numbers that brought forth hope and more questions. More than 75% of books are purchased online (mostly through Amazon) and half a billion dollars in sales have come in on books that do not have an ISBN. Positive stuff, right? Just when Data Guy's talk was ramping up, he had to rush to the end so that we could listen to a pitch from Mary Rasenberger of the Author's Guild. Whereas Orna Ross gave an impassioned speech on the value of the Alliance of Independent Authors, Rasenberger's talk fell flat.
I would have preferred to have another 15 minutes from the Data Guy so that we could learn, and then discuss, the trends in sales. But the missing piece of the puzzle that wasn't discussed at DBW Indie is with book sales and what that means for authors' own websites and marketing campaigns.
Google analytics, and its power, wasn't even mentioned all day. Neither were Facebook tracking pixels or retargeting ads.
In order to compete with the Big Five, we need to employ the same tools, faster, be nimble and more effective.
Case in point: Through networking with fellow indie authors on the 20BooksTo50K Facebook group and Newsletterswap, I drove traffic from my Instafreebie promotion to my list and then into my email autoresponders. When looking at my website's analytics, what did I find? A treasure trove of information. Once a subscriber signs up for my list, the next day they receive an offer for a free short story on my website. I studied the Google Analytics reports and guess what I found? Not what I thought. I had the gender correct, but not my readers' age. I had guessed, incorrectly, that my readers were between 25-35 years of age. But I was wrong. Instead, I learned that 70% of my audience is over the age of 45. Selling a book to women who are 45-65 years of age is a lot different than to women who are 25.
I bring up this example because it's integral:
Community and knowledge lead indie authors to empowerment.
Imagine what we can do if we joined forces, sharing information by offering help with setting up Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager and Facebook pixels for Facebook ads. We could then track conversions on our landing pages and study that data, aligning it with what Data Guy is seeing in his Author Earnings reports, to make informed decisions about our careers.
In the afternoon metadata session, Margaret Harrison (Director, Product Metadata at Ingram Content Group) gave a talk, explaining the fundamentals of metadata, so when she asked the audience what we wanted to learn, I spoke up.
I asked if she would talk about Google's embracing of machine learning and how the RankBrain search algorithm will affect the use of keywords in metadata.
Margaret Harrison promised to get to my question, but never did. I have the upmost respect for Harrison, but in listening to her talk, she did not display the knowledge on such an emerging and complex topic.
The opportunity for next year's Digital Book World Indie is to open up the conversation to be two-way. Machine learning and how Google's artificial intelligence is learning to predict what people truly want in their searches is changing the very foundation of best SEO practices. How you answer a reader's question for the content they search is becoming increasingly more important. Keyword stuffing doesn't work. Instead, we as indie authors, need to learn that we can start with keywords, but then need to contextualize our content by aligning it to a reader's intent. That's key.
Bringing together the latest SEO best practices and aligning them with analytics, will open a whole world of marketing opportunities for all of us.
Much discussion happened in the need to diversify our product listings. We now all know: Don't put all your eggs in one basket (Amazon). Listing your products in Kobo, iBooks, Amazon, NookPress opens up other doors. But Richard Nash's talk reminded us that we are storytellers and not just "writers of books."
Like Simon & Schuster's Crave app, Nash showed examples of a poet who used Weather.com's API to create a weather app to show one of his poems that matched the day's weather, Infinite Atlas that showcased all the places in Boston mentioned in Infinite Jest and even a Fifty Shades of Grey wine. We are entrepreneurs, and the more we embrace that, the more opportunities we'll have. Books today, VR or AR tomorrow. The sky truly is the limit.
But I also see diversification needed not just in what we do as a business, but in the way we share information. Getting back to the data discussion, I wonder if a small round table in breakout rooms at DBW Indie would help foster information sharing. Jane Friedman and Porter Anderson did a fantastic job on the programming for the event. The feedback I give here is meant only to enhance.
If I can speak about the importance of analytics and tracking, what other knowledge sharing opportunities are we missing by not creating a format to allow for discussion? Most sessions at DBW Indie ended without an opportunity to ask questions because the day was so packed. Often the room had a classroom style feel—the teacher taught, and we the pupils, listened. If there could be a portion of the day to break into smaller groups, centered around several topics, I believe that would bring more value to attendees as well as invited speakers.
Summing It All Up
You're not going to get rich in a day. In hearing the latest stars in the indie world speak, the common thread is that they try new things, have perseverance and nurture their creativity—over years. Meld creativity with an entrepreneurial spirit, and in time, you will see yourself well on the road to success.
I keep going back to Orna Ross' quote of the day: "Try, fail, try again, fail faster."
There is great wisdom in those words.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch reminds us that the indie publishing industry is maturing and so must we. Gone are the days when we can throw up our book on KDP select and rake in the money. We need amazing covers, flawless writing and a marketing strategy to back that all up.
The biggest lesson I learned at DBW Indie 2017 is that we have a long way to go. Our biggest opportunity on the horizon is to come together and share our knowledge. Groups like 20BooksTo50K have an exuberance that is infectious. Authors are sharing what hasn't worked, what has and we're all learning from these stories. My own transparency in sharing my successes, failures and even sales figures is done so that I can come to the table to take part in the discussion. I'm putting my words on the line because I see the value I can bring. If it were not for the help of other indie authors, I might have given up a long time ago. Am I finding the financial success I want today? No, I'm not. But I am seeing that change as I implement a more effective email strategy, produce higher quality books and continue to network with fellow indie authors. I'm learning what I don't know and I'm sharing with others what I do.
Imagine the power we'd have if we could open up the possibility of linking the energy found in small indie author Facebook groups with the Alliance of Independent authors and our joining forces at conferences like DBW Indie... I see a great future ahead with potential and success for all of us. The question is: Are you going to step up and help? Knock on my door, I'm fired up and ready to go.