The Shaky Future of Self-Publishing and Romance
The romance self-publishing world isn't going to look the same this time next year.
Before I go all doomsayer, I should preface by saying that romance readers aren't going anywhere and the genre as a whole should always remain strong. The simplified version of the problem I see on the horizon is this: the readers will remain, but the platforms they use and the way they seek out books will change dramatically.
To better understand what's happening, it's easiest to first look at how romance self-publishing has evolved. Like most things, the best way to understand where it's going is to understand where it came from.
Romance self-publishing started out so, so innocently. Everyone knew traditionally published books were real books because the publisher already went through the work of vetting out the books that didn't deserve a spot on your bookshelf. It's the way things were for hundreds of years, and it's why being a published author used to carry so much prestige.
With the advent of digital booksellers like Amazon and iBooks, however, things quickly changed. Just like most technological paradigm shifts, the early adapters were the most handsomely rewarded.
The first authors who jumped into the self-publishing arena found very little competition. Self-publishing was still new and not trusted by many of the serious authors, who still put their energy into trying to find traditional publishing contracts.
About four or five years ago, self-published romance was a well-kept secret. A few people were making a lot of money, some even in the seven figures a month range, and hardly anyone knew about it. At a glance, you might see a amateur looking cover and just a handful of reviews, but behind the scenes, these authors were serving a ravenous readership that was eating up every word authors could put out. Many were making hundreds of thousands of dollars for books that took them a few weeks write and market.
It was a quiet gold rush, and it was only a matter of time before people started to find out.
About two years ago, word started to spread. A second wave of new recruits had started to work their way into the self-publishing industry, drawn in by the promise of the huge, eager fanbase and the piles of money.
The new wave of authors was originally not a threat to the current top-dogs. More and more people were trying to figure out how to make it big and get their books in front of bigger audiences, but the successful authors weren't talking. Eventually, the secret got out.
Apparently, the most successful authors had already known for years that it was completely worth it to spend $100 a day or more on Facebook ads to promote their books. It meant their competition was crossing their fingers for organic traction and trying to use paid newsletters and swaps to get the same ranks, but couldn't hope to compete. After all, the books using Facebook ads had a nonstop stream of advertising instead of a short burst like paid newsletters give.
When everyone figured out how effective Facebook ads were, most of the existing top indie romance authors at the time were pushed into the back seat almost immediately. Without diving into all the complicated intricacies of Facebook ads, suffice it to say that the more people targeting the same audience via Facebook ads, the less effective the ads are.
Within a couple months of the secret spilling, the average spend per day on Facebook that most authors were using jumped from $100 to $500. Within a year, it wasn't uncommon to hear authors talking about spending $1000 a day to advertise a single book. Today, I hear rumors of numbers exceeding even that, like $1300 on the low end and $1800 on the high end. $1800 per day.
At the risk of offending some, many of the first authors to find success self-publishing had a false sense of confidence. Everything they had tried seemed to work, so it made them believe they had a mastery of the market and could continue to succeed no matter how much it might change.
Unfortunately, this wasn't true for most. The widespread use of Facebook ads by new authors seemed to prove that the previous kings of romance just had access to a very valuable secret, and once the secret got out many of them could no longer find a way to keep succeeding like they used to.
Many established authors struggled to keep succeeding in the new market. There was an entire wave of fresh-faced and eager-eyed new self-pubbers looking to carve themselves a spot. This brought new ideas, more aggressive marketing approaches, and many other innovations. Many established authors clung to what they had known to work for years, expecting to ride out the storm of the new wave of change. Cover styles were changing. Blurb styles changed. Social media engagement changed. Advertising changed. It was a new frontier, and any who didn't embrace it were left to flounder.
Now, if you're a casual reader of romance and you've made it this far, you're likely wondering what relevance any of this has to you. Honestly, as far as the changes from 2015-2016 went, the impact on readers was minimal and likely hard to notice unless you were paying very close attention. The only real considerable difference I can think of would be a good one. There were more authors to read and more books to consume. That, and your inbox probably got hit harder with newsletters and your Facebook feed filled up with more ads for romance books.
2017 was a very interesting year in the self-pub world. Many, like myself, went from obscurity to becoming regular chart-toppers. My first four books in 2016 lingered around rank 200 and 400, making me barely enough money to feel like I could maybe risk leaving my teaching job to pursue writing full time.
In 2017, I launched my first best-seller, Punished, which reached rank 44 in the Amazon store. My next book, Single Dad Next Door, reached rank 10. A few top 20 books later and only a handful of months had me on track to earn well over half-a-million dollars in a single year. From self publishing romance books.
It was humbling, exciting, and terrifying all at once. At the time, I thought I had secured my future. I'd written a bunch of top 100 books and thought I'd built up a loyal fanbase that would continue to support me for as long as I wanted to write. I had career security and nothing could stop me.
Except I hadn't been in the game long enough to see the bigger picture.
I was just one of the lucky ones to figure out the newest strategy and to figure it out early. Yes, I think I write fantastic books and I pour so much energy and time into making each one as good as I possibly can that it hurts. But I also realize that I can't write a great book, slap a bland cover on it, title it "Sexy Guy with Abs", make no marketing plan, and expect it to do well. In other words, having a good book is just the basic requirement for entry. There are tons of great authors in the indie romance world, and part of what makes my job so hard is trying to figure out how to convince people to read my books when there are so many others to choose from.
Short version? Yes, I was doing well, but no, I'm not a magical unicorn who writes so much better than everyone else in the romance world that I was gaining hordes of devoted fans. My success was going to last for exactly as long as I continued to write good books with good covers, blurb, titles, and marketing plans.
At the time, none of that was clear to me. I was riding a gold rush, constantly wondering if the next book could possibly do as well as the last, all while secretly hoping I had actually fought and clawed my way into my dream job. The trend continued on through July or so. It also seemed like there was room for everyone to do well. New authors could hit the top 100 and make enough money to change their lives if they just emulated the same marketing formula I'd been using.
Now, if you're wondering where the heck I'm going with this post, just stick with me, because I think it's important to understand the past before I explain how I expect the future to play out.
Just like the early adopters who found success in the 2010-2015 era, many of us started to believe we were positioning ourselves more and more firmly in places where we'd be able to comfortable continue writing our books and making a happy living as long as we wanted.
And what happened to most of those authors in the 2010-2015 era? They vanished. Many launched four or five books in their old way, only to find their name didn't have as much weight as they thought it did. New-era marketing was pushing the new wave's books ahead of the old guard, and the old guard had waited too long to adapt and stay on top.
When summer of 2017 rolled around, there was a widespread slump. People who had already gotten lazy in the six months of easy success suddenly fell flat on their faces, myself included. Within a month, the general consensus among the indie author community was that self-publishing through Kindle Unlimited was dead. The rate we were getting paid per page was falling, and they thought it was only a matter of time before it got so low we couldn't possibly survive.
Nearly 25% of my friends in the indie romance community stopped writing over that three month period. They tried to launch a few books the same way that had been making them so much money, only to find book after book flopping.
It was eerily similar to what happened to the previous top-dogs, except this time, it didn't seem like there was a group of new authors rising to take our place. Romance in general just seemed like it was in a slump, and there was no clear reason.
The slump did eventually fade. For those who stuck it out another three or four rough months, there was some light on the other side of the tunnel. After the slump, it seemed like it was possible to get books back into good ranks again, but for some reason the number of pages read we were seeing wasn't what we were used to seeing. Where top 20 books had previously broken 300,000 pages read a day on average, sometimes jumping as high as 650,000 or more pages per day for a single book, now they were very slowly climbing toward the low 200,000 range, if that.
I blamed my own personal lack of pages read on maybe having written some books that just weren't clicking with readers. After my Knocked Up series, which seemed to defy the slump most people were seeing, my pages read weren't the same (and still aren't). Even my last book, Savage, which peaked at rank 20 overall, had a pages read distribution that looked like this.
Unfortunately, Amazon only stores the data for the past 90 days, but previous books I've had in the same rank range averaged nearly double the pages read per day. Considering I sell my books for $0.99 and earn about $0.33 per actual sale, the vast majority of my income is from the amount we're paid per page read.
In other words, the same rank books are earning about half as much now as they used to with no clear cause.
I won't claim to know what's going on with 100% certainty, but I feel I have enough information to make a very educated guess. In a lot of ways, it ties into everything I just talked about in the past. Like the authors who succeeded before me, I've found myself in the middle of a changing system. Also like the authors before me, I can feel myself being pushed farther and farther from the levels of income that can allow me to keep doing this for a living.
So what happened, as far as I can tell? Why are many authors suddenly seeing drastically lower pages read than they used to, and why are many finding it nearly impossible to hit the top 100 when they were doing it with ease just months ago?
The answer starts off really simply: the new strategy is to spend two, three, and even four times the amount of money per day on ads that was the norm. I'm just going to simplify the numbers but use accurate ratios for this example so it's easier to understand.
When I was first starting to do well in early 2017, the common practice was to spend $1 for every $4 you earned. In other words, you would earn $3 profit for every dollar you spent. This worked really well when only a fraction of romance writers had the means or the knowledge to spend that $1. It meant we were really only competing against everybody else's $1 a day.
We had a natural leg up on everyone who wasn't spending any money at all, but there was still healthy competition among the authors spending $1 a day.
It didn't take long for a few problems to crop up. One was the most obvious. If you know everyone is spending $1 to make $4, couldn't you spend $2 to make $4 and get an edge on your competition?
And thus began the slippery slope. Within only a few months, I was hearing about authors who had always struggled to get their books to good ranks spending more money per day than I'd ever known one of my books to make. In other words, it seemed like they were spending so much on advertising that they had to be losing money. Worse, they were launching books faster and faster, sometimes every week, but more often every two weeks, primarily because these new big spenders weren't actually writing the books--they were using ghostwritten material, so there was no limitation on how quickly they could release.
For months, I racked my brain trying to figure out what could be going on. Spending money on advertising yields diminishing returns, which is a big part of the reason the norm was to spend $1 for every $4. Basically, if your book is strong and organic, that $1 to every $4 you've earned seemed like more than enough to give it a fair shot to gain organic traction and do well for you. Bumping up your spend did less and less for actual results because it stresses out the ads and makes them rapidly get more expensive (it's confusing, but that's more or less how it works).
So why were people spending $3 to every $4 earned, and even more confusingly, how were they spending $5 for every $4 earned, and so on?
The answer is kind of easy to miss if you're not actually reading their books, and instead just checking out the cover/blurb/rank like I tend to when I look at the books of other authors. All the authors I was hearing about spending seemingly unsustainable amounts of money per day on ads were also the same ones who were stuffing 7-10 books or more into the back of their new releases.
Before I explain how that makes their ad spend explainable, let me preface by saying that I stuff two of my previously published books in the back of my new releases. It doesn't feel right to condemn anyone for stuffing as much as they can fit in the back, because there are no rules against it. Yet at the same time, the thought of stuffing even more than two books in the back always felt like it was too extreme for me, which is why I've always stuck with two. I thought stuffing 7-10 books in the back would send a message to readers that my books were low-quality (though, I can definitely see the same argument being used when I stuff two in the back, and rightly so).
Maybe you're wondering what difference it makes. We get paid around $0.0044 cents per page read through Kindle Unlimited. This means if a book is about 300 KENPC (which is their way of determining how many of the pages we get paid for), a full front to back read will put about $1.34 into our pocket.
On the flip side, if you take a book that is stuffed close to the KENPC limit of 3000, one full read is worth $13.4.
That means even if only one in every hundred readers actually reads the entire 3000 page stuffed mega-book, these authors are making as much as an extra $130 a day if they get 1000 borrows, which is not unusual for a top 100 book near its peak. If a smaller percentage reads even half of the 1000 borrows, say 2% read half of the stuffed content, that's another $130, and so on. Add on to that my suspicion that Kindle Unlimited bugs probably give you a percentage of your book's pages read from time to time, and the number gets very high. It explains how these authors could afford to be spending seemingly unprofitable numbers on their ads.
It seems too good to be true, and that's because it is. Long term, the market can't survive like this. Kindle Unlimited is a zero sum system. Kindle determines the "pot" every month, which is the set amount of money we all are fighting for a share of. If one author does well, it means someone has to do worse.
It also means (converting to real numbers instead of ratios) if an author who mega-stuffs can afford to spend $1500 a day on advertising, they are creating a widening barrier to entry for new authors. Essentially, they are forcing self-publishing to be so expensive that it will become harder and harder for new authors to arrive on the scene and catch your attention. They're pumping so much money into ads that Amazon will continue to suggest their books to you first, you'll see them first in newsletters, and they'll be the ones showing up in your social media feeds again and again.
None of this would be very new or unusual. After all, it's essentially what publishers did a long time ago. It's the reason hardly any authors could afford the risk of self-publishing their own novel and fronting the up-front risk of pre-printing tens of thousands of copies and paying for advertising on top of that. The only way to succeed was to go to a publisher for funding and pay them a huge cut.
The difference is that these new authors, who would be more accurately referred to as "pen names" are playing the role of publisher, and not author. The vast majority don't write their own books. They buy ghostwritten manuscripts and publish them as quickly as they can, creating new pen names to avoid overwhelming their readers with too much content too quickly, all while happily making pennies for every dollar they spend on advertising because they are publishing so much content that it adds up.
The bigger problem here is a lot harder to see. The current system allows complete anonymity for the publishers. There is very little reader loyalty to specific names in indie romance outside a few exceptions, which means an unknown name with a debut novel with a title, blurb, and cover that are on-point has just as much of a shot at doing well as a novel from someone more established. So there's no reason for the authors who are publishing ghostwritten content under different pen names to care about long-term reader loyalty.
In other words, they aren't going to worry if it cheapens their brand to add 10 bonus books, or if taking advantage of loopholes with questionable morality is going to come back to haunt them. They can ruthlessly go after the most aggressive and sometimes underhanded strategies to get ahead and stay ahead, and if it ever comes back to bite them, they can just discard the old pen name and start a brand new one like nothing ever happened.
So we finally come to the doomsday part of my post. The grand finale, if you will.
How is the market going to look different in a year?
It's going to be dominated by publishers pretending to be authors. One individual may be behind eight or more pen names. The entirety of the top 100 romance authors may be owned and operated by a handful of people, none of whom care for the long-term health of the genre or quality. They only want the quality to be good enough to sell right now. Who cares if the book you just published is horrible and you know it, you've got seven more books coming out this week, each with thousands of dollars in advertising money. Once one pen name slumps, you spend an hour or two making a new persona from a template you have and keep on moving on like nothing ever happened.
This is the future of romance self-publishing, and I only see a few ways to stop it from happening.
One is in the hands of Amazon. They could limit the number of pages we get paid for in our books, which would potentially cut bonus book income or get rid of it all together if they simply banned bonus books. Maybe they will, maybe they won't, but I won't even pretend asking them would make a difference, so I'm not going to worry about that possible solution. They could also put a stop to ARC reviews, which would stop many of these monster books from hiding behind the first wave of fake 4 and 5 star reviews (because most of them are flooded with negative reviews after the first few weeks, but it's too late by that point).
Unfortunately, the other solution would be for readers to notice this and stop supporting these authors. I say "unfortunately" because I don't even have a very good way to tell anyone how to look for these books. They look just like every other book. Right now, I could say to watch out for books stuffed with 7-10 books in the back, but who knows, I may find myself resorting to that kind of stuff in a couple months if I continue to struggle, despite hitting the top 20 and top 40 with my last two releases.
So my advice is this. Instead of trying not to buy these books, which I think is going to be next to impossible, start reviewing the books you read. Statistically, about 1 in 700 romance readers leave a review (based on looking at my past sales, reviews, and taking away ARC reviews). If the authors publishing ghostwritten material are actually putting out high quality content, then who cares. Leave them a great review and let people know you enjoyed it.
If, on the other hand, you read something that is so bad you can't understand how it has tons of 5 and 4 star reviews, take the time to leave a review letting people know what you thought.
Any other solution would be unfair, as far as I can tell. Readers need to take it upon themselves to police authors by leaving reviews. Advanced reader copies currently drown out the voice of real reviews because so few readers actually review. If your ARC team gives you 100 reviews, it's going to take a month before 20 or so real reviews show up. Even if ten of them are 1 star reviews, it's going to be drowned out by the ARC reviews, and indie romance books have already reached their peak rank and fallen after a month, so it'd be too little, too late.
So leave reviews! It's that simple. It may not be the most drastic solution, and it may not work overnight. But I promise you, if even two or three times as many readers started leaving honest reviews (and at least glancing at them before making a purchase) it would solve a lot of the problems we're facing.