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In The Aftermath: How Mass Bans Changed The Indie Landscape

August 22, 2018

Amazon banned a very significant portion of the heavy-hitters in indie romance over the past two months, and it has already had a startling impact. For the purposes of this post, I'm not going to deal with the guilt or innocence of the people banned. I talked about that issue in one of my last posts, so you can refer to that if you're curious about my thoughts on that side of the issue. 

What has changed? 

Believe it or not, the bans seem to have doubled the lifespan of a book's peak rank window. In the past, an author could expect a top 100 book, or generally any rank book, to spend roughly a week climbing to peak rank, roughly two weeks at peak rank, and then roughly a week sinking back out of the top 100. All in all, your book got about two weeks in the spotlight, and then the performance started to kind of taper off. About six months ago when many of the now-banned authors hit the scene, this window was shortened. Peak rank was only holding for about a week in most cases, which was a drastic hit to the overall earnings potential of books, considering a lot of books earn more than half their total profit during the period where they are ranked highest. 

I've been watching the top 100 since the bans started and noticed something very surprising. Books just aren't going away. Yes, some are still falling, but in general, books that are punching into the top 50 are holding their peak rank for more like three to four weeks, and then they are holding a slightly worse rank for almost an entire month afterwards. 

Just to illustrate what kind of impact this has on earnings potential, let's use some simple numbers. 

Say a book is going to earn a total of $100 over six months (I'm using really small numbers here to keep the example simple). And then let's say your ad budget for the book was $25 over those six months. 

The earnings might break down to where it earned $5 the first week, $30 the second week (while at peak rank), $25 the third week (while slowly losing rank), and then the remaining $15 the fourth week. The remaining  $25 over the next few months. 

Short version? Books in Kindle Unlimited earn the majority of their money while they are at a high rank. 

 

Implication of peak ranks lasting two months? The same books might earn twice as much money as they used to. 

Why is this good for readers?

I don't need to explain why this is good for authors, but what might be less clear is why this would be good for readers. Authors of indie romance are caught in a relatively vicious grinding cycle. The cheapest and most efficient way to promote yourself is by releasing new books. Because of the earnings period I described above, if authors want to maintain any kind of steady income with their books, we're forced to release every month. Earnings dry up very quickly after the third or fourth week. 

So where do readers come in?

Authors feeling rushed to write a book every month means they have less time to make the books amazing. It means everything gets forced into an almost factory assembly line style production. The cover design, promotion booking, plotting, and every little detail has to go off quickly and smoothly. There's often no time for mistakes or big revisions. It means if you're not happy with the first half of your book and feel like a different direction would be better, the only realistic way to make time for re-writes is to scrap your launch date and push your release back to next month. Meanwhile, your income will tank. 

If books continue holding their peak rank for two months, this will all change. Once authors have confidence that this new change is something we can count on, I'm fairly confident there will be a large up-tick in quality across the board. Sure, some authors might see it as a chance to simply earn more from doing the same thing, but I think most authors would love the opportunity to spend more time revising and editing, or fleshing out their stories and making them a little longer. 

 

The bottom line is the new behavior of books is great for authors, and almost entirely great for readers as well. The only potential downside I can see for readers is that an author who embraces the every two months release schedule this new book behavior would allow would be releasing half as many books. Granted, I think the books they *do* release would be higher quality, so it's a mixed bag. 

Why the change?

The effect of the bans seems obvious, but why would banning a couple dozen authors have such a huge impact on the behavior of books? After all, books are competing against literally millions of other books every day. How could any conceivable number of bans even put a dent in an ecosystem as large as the Amazon book store?

I think there are a few parts to the answer. The first main component is that romance is and always has been the mega-star of the book genre world. Readers eat up romance, and it has an absolutely staggeringly large audience. And even though other genres share the top 100 with romance, at the end of the day, romance readers are going to propel a certain number of romance books to the top of the rankings on any given week. That means romance books are only competing with other romance books to a certain extent. That also means if you clear out a section of the competition, it's going to open up more opportunity for books to last longer, because there are less new books competing with high ranking books. 

But it's a little trickier than that. Amazon *mostly* banned a very particular type of author. I do want to sidetrack just for a sentence here to clarify that I really mean *mostly*. I strongly believe they caught many innocent authors in their bans, which is a whole different, unpleasant topic, but I also think they caught some people who were using really unsustainable business models that were poisonous to the genre as a whole. 

The type of author that was almost completely wiped from the store (for now) was the mass producer. I've talked about this style in some other posts, but the short version is that they ran multiple pen names from one account. They bought ghostwritten manuscripts and created armies of pen names to pump these books out. They also put ungodly amounts of money into advertising, largely in hopes of scooping up the KDP All-star bonuses to recoup some of those costs. The largest KDP  All-Star bonus given out every month is $25,000 to the 10 most read authors in KDP for the month, for reference. 

Most of the extremely aggressive advertisers were taken out of the game with the bans. That means the store is currently back to a somewhat more natural ebb and flow where books are allowed to have some space to organically perform. People are still spending a lot of money on advertising, but for now, I think most of the people who were willing to take extremely small profit margins on a book by book level in order to shoot for scooping up bonuses are gone. It's impossible to know, but from what I've heard about the budgets some of these authors were using for ads, they would be losing money every month if they didn't get a bonus. 

 

I call that style of operation poisonous because at the simplest level, it's deceptive. Amazon has spent millions, if not billions, of dollars perfecting an algorithm and a strategy for helping you spend your money. If you go on Amazon, their goal is to make it as easy as possible for you to find the products you are most likely to buy. That means data is constantly being gathered, collected, and plugged into the system to help decide what products show up in your inbox or on the suggested section on Amazon. 

I'm going to take a big detour to explain one of my little theories about books and advertising here, so I apologize if you're already wondering where the heck I'm going--we're about to go deeper, baby, so strap in. 

 

I think you can basically give every book a score. This score has almost nothing to do with the content of the book. Instead, I'd call it a marketability score. I believe the cover is the biggest factor, followed by the blurb, then the reviews. Depending on the author, the name on the cover can insert itself anywhere into that list of importance. 

 

This imaginary score is going to impact a few things. One is how likely people are to click links leading to the book. Maybe the title is really intriguing or the premise is, and it's a great book at drawing people to the product page. Bonus points for that. 

But the score also has to take into account how likely people are to actually buy the book once they get to the product page. 

 

Based on past numbers I've seen, I would say a really high scoring book can have as high as a 15 to 20% conversion rate when people reach the landing page. In other words, if I led 100 people to my book on Amazon with ads, I could expect 15 to 20 sales. On the other hand, a weak performer might get as low as 5 to 8%, or 5 to 8 sales from the same amount of clicks. 

As you can imagine, this ties in really closely with advertising strategies and deciding how much to budget for ads.

So let's look at four different authors so I can illustrate three different strategies to make a living writing books. 

Author A generally writes really marketable books and also spends somewhat aggressively to market these books. Because her books are generally very marketable, she gets overall great results. If she spends $1 on advertising, she expects to earn $4. She expects to earn $5000 per book. 

 

Author B generally writes really marketable books and spends very conservatively on advertising. She doesn't earn as much as author A overall, but she still does well even though she doesn't hit high peak ranks. If she spends $1 on advertising, she expects to earn $10. She expects to earn $2000 per book.

 

Author C generally writes books that aren't extremely marketable and spends somewhat aggressively to market these books. She usually has pretty good covers, but the blurb is often kind of weak, the reviews are sometimes shaky, and her pen name doesn't have the best reputation. If she spends $1 on advertising, she expects to earn $2. She expects to earn $2500 per book. 

 

Author D buys ghostwritten books and puts nice looking covers on them. They usually write the blurbs themselves and aren't typically from a writing background, and it sometimes shows. The books look good, but don't convert sales very well. If she spends $1 on advertising, she expects to earn $0.50. She expects to LOSE $2000 per month. 

 

Okay, so obviously there would be all kinds of in-between scenarios from these really simplified examples. But I wanted to illustrate some of the main philosophical differences here. If it weren't for bonuses, there would be no way an author could survive who was spending more than they were earning. Granted, I can't guarantee these authors were actually losing money with every book, but with the numbers I've heard thrown around for budgets, I would be shocked if they were profiting. 

 

Authors who spend aggressively to market books that aren't to reader's tastes are not good for the health of the community. Why? Because an almost natural-selection type process is supposed to prevent those books from getting favored in the algorithm. After all, if people didn't like these books, how could they be selling more copies than the books people actually enjoy? 

Because the authors are willing to accept slim profit margins to a loss while they chase the bonuses. It means the books many readers didn't want to read were the ones showing up in suggestions and emails and all over your Amazon page because these authors were forcing them down readers' throats. 

It didn't take long to see the negative effects of this, especially from the author's side of the fence. 

 

Unsustainably high ad budgets had countless negative impacts. Let me name a few.

 

1): They drove up the cost of advertising for everyone on any platform these authors were using.

2): They force-fed their books to readers by sheer overwhelming advertising investments. This meant fewer borrows, pages read, and buys for everyone else. 

3): They clogged up the top categories and ranks in romance. Ranks and categories are a major way to gain visibility. 

4): They sucked up the bonuses. Regular authors had a much harder time getting bonuses when they had good months because so many people using this technique were flooding the store with books from several pen names that a single author writing their own books couldn't hope to keep up with. 

5): They reduced the staying power of books. Readers have enough to keep up with in their lives without worrying about authors trying to pull a fast one on them. So when they see a book that looks professional and clean, they can't be faulted for grabbing it. Usually it's $0.99 or even free if they have KU, so there's no huge incentive to do a bunch of research or sift through hundreds of reviews. That means the endless stream of new books coming from these ghostwriting farms were constantly distracting readers away from existing books and favoring the newest, freshest covers. 

Summing it all up

The end result of the ban is probably going to be really similar to what happens after a forest fire. Without fires, forests get crowded with underbrush and so much growth that it chokes out the possibility for anything new to grow. Fire comes, some trees survive, but anything without strong roots will not make it (the analogy isn't perfect here, because it didn't matter how strong your roots were if Amazon decided to ban you). But the point is that for now, I think the surviving writers will flourish for a period, and there's going to be a wide open space for new voices and writers to come up and make a name for themselves. 

All in all, I hate that it happened the way it did, but I also think it could turn into an exciting time for readers and aspiring writers. Many of the cynical authors who were using romance like a cash cow are gone, and hopefully more passionate writers will come up to take their place. Writers who survived the bans now seem to be able to charge a more fair price for their books at $2.99 or $3.99, because we're not competing with mass producers of ghostwritten material. Our books are surviving longer and getting seen by more people, which means we don't have to break our backs to write a new book every three weeks if we don't want to, which in turn means we can spend more time making the books we give you higher quality and more enjoyable. 

So it's a win. There were some innocent people who got really screwed in the process, but I hope the innocent ones will find a way to get the energy to try again and they can take advantage of the current ecosystem in the indie world. I hope the people who were milking romance for money will decide to move onto something else and never come back, I really do. 

I hope that was interesting! Also, just as a side note, as of today (8/22/18) I'm finishing up the final few thousand words on Her Cherry, which is William's story. It should be live around 8/25 or 8/26 at the latest. Keep an eye out for it and mark your calendars! Also let me know if you can think of any awesome titles for my next erotic fruit book, lol! I want something with a little more creativity than straight penis innuendo, like his cucumber or his pickle. Inanimate objects work, too. Email me if you think of something, because I've been spinning my wheels for a month without much to work with. 

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