Ebooks: What a Long Strange Trip

by | Dec 17, 2014

By Jason Matthews

Hard to believe it’s only been seven years since Amazon released the Kindle. It happened in November of 2007, and while ebooks existed before then, that was a pivotal event for the future of publishing. More specifically, for the future of self-publishing.

Back then the consensus among many writing circles was that self-publishing “is the sign of a bad book” or the author gave in to desperation when all else failed. I heard it a lot. Some people still feel that way, they’re just quieter in general. But times have changed. A newbie to self-publishing today is less likely to hear ridicule. They may receive praise for a wise choice. Even talented, traditionally published authors have switched gears to indie or hybrid because they enjoy better royalties and more control over projects.

New Era Began

The perceived risk factor and social response to self-pubbing changed dramatically from 2007 to 2011, when it seemed like everybody was doing it. Why not? It was a rush with unlimited potential, the chance to be the next Amanda Hocking. We witnessed the rise of the indie author. If you had good books and a decent platform, you could do very well, starting at Amazon and branching out from there.

Indies discovered we needed a lot more than a good book. Doing well with sales meant author platform, which meant doing well online. We needed tools never mentioned to me at pre-Kindle writing conferences. We needed Facebook and this thing called Twitter, something that still intimidates and confuses many writers. Change meant getting active with social media and blogging.

While writers networked and shared the latest tips, retailers tried to keep Amazon’s pace, making e-reading devices and/or enabling authors to directly upload. In a few short years after 2007 new names became commonplace, names like Smashwords and Kobo while established brands like B&N, Apple and Google jumped into the fray. Ebook markets grew exponentially in America and abroad, despite avid readers’ claims of needing the feel and smell of real paper and ink.

First Turns

If self-publishing was a rollercoaster, Amazon had the best amusement park where the first turns tossed everyone around.

In December of 2011 Amazon introduced KDP Select, a program brewing controversy then and now for its requirement of an author contract and sales exclusivity in 90-day chunks. KDP Select eventually generated free promotion days, Kindle Owners Lending Library, Countdown Deals and Kindle Unlimited subscription service. Amazon seemingly did everything it could to monopolize the market, dictate pricing and still keep publishers at the table, even if they felt their hands were tied.

KDP Select was a fine experiment for authors with new books. A welcome option for prolific talents of romance, thriller, action-adventure or any author who could produce multiple books per year. It wasn’t easy for many others though, writers who didn’t produce as quickly or didn’t like the exclusivity clause.

For the next few years Select made us question its ethics and the direction publishing was heading, perhaps even more than arguments over Agency model pricing, which has been going on from the DOJ vs. Apple suit through the recent Amazon-Hachette showdown. Regardless of the outcomes in those melees, Amazon held onto a familiar position. They were the top retailer for readers and the king of indie sales, most author’s bread and butter.

Enjoying the Ride?

Whether one participated in KDP Select or not, times were generally good for authors like me, writers who wanted to publish without the approval of agents, publishers and perhaps even readers. Regardless of the sales numbers, we at least grabbed our fifteen minutes. Books got published in record number, blogs became hip and Facebook Fan page likes were a must. Readers loaded up on cheap or free ebooks, many confined to a black hole of cyberspace on a second generation Kindle.

Another Twist

Something’s happening again. It’s not 2007. It’s not 2010 or 2012. Speaking from my experience and from authors I know, royalties for many have dropped dramatically. Mark Coker of Smashwords has said things like, “The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over” and “no more partying like it was 1999.”

Mark Coker is a smart guy, intertwined with the industry. And Mark also says what a lot of authors have recognized—it’s a best of times, worst of times situation. The next Amanda Hocking potentials are still in place, but the economics are foreboding. There are way more books, way more authors, way more new releases each year. Multiply that with infinite shelf space and shelf life at cyber-retailers for both ebooks and print on demand paperbacks. Divide those concepts by roughly the same number of readers as existed in 2007. All of that adds up to unparalleled competition for readers as never before, building stronger each year.

Now Where?

I believe the lure of KDP Select is fading fast. Free promotion days worked great a couple of years ago but they don’t do nearly as much now, nor do Countdown deals. Kindle Unlimited keeps some authors and publishers in the Select loop, but that loses appeal to authors who also want to sell with Apple, Google and elsewhere.

Interesting how it took so long for more retailers to offer subscription packages. Netflix has been thriving on this model since 1999. Scribd and Oyster now sell ebooks (audio books too at Scribd) on an unlimited monthly deal via subscription. My own sales have grown noticeably at Scribd now that the new model is in place. These deals may spread to every retailer. If so what would Amazon’s unique angle be, and how does Agency pricing hold up when a reader can buy an unlimited number of books per month at $10? How might these influence an indie’s strategy looking forward?

Future Indie

To succeed authors will still need a wonderful book and preferably several. The other usual suspects should be in place: social media savvy, a visited website or blog and hopefully some luck. Then again, all of that’s been the formula since 2007. There must be more to author success in the coming years.

More is a word that comes to mind. As readers experience more, they’ll expect it. More content to enhance the story, audio and visual elements that entertain or give additional information. Author interviews or behind the scenes elements of creation. More giveaways or prizes. It’s probably time for authors to think, how can my book be more than just a book?


Assuming we’re still around in 2022, what might the next seven plus years bring to publishing? (Can’t believe I just wrote 2022 and realized it’s not that far away.) I don’t have the answers, just some hunches, and I’m curious what others have to say in the comments.

Many of us have become so involved with marketing, blogging, etc. that we’ve lost proper time to create content. Or we’re facing a continually expanding learning curve, doing things like implementing Google’s authorship markup into every post we’ve ever made only to have Google discontinue the program. Err. I doubt the average indie can wear many more hats than they do today, but I believe all forms of video is a wise investment in an author’s time.

Can the average writer really utilize things like AR (Augmented Reality) for their books? Will Fiverr and Freelancer be our go-to options for so much more than basic formatting?

I hear the same questions time and time again in direct emails and in my Facebook group. Writers want to know how to sell more books, if there are marketing companies that are worth the money and how to get more reviews. I wish I had better answers, but the simplest one feels the most accurate. All you can do is write the best book you can and be frugal with financial choices. After that, make an effort to market in your free time and keep up to date with the unending changes of this (technically) not so long but strange trip.

2022 is now closer to us than the release of the Kindle.

Jason MatthewsJason-Matthews- of eBook Success 4 Free is Contributing Writer for The Book Designer. He is also a novelist, blogger and self-publishing coach. He works with writers around the world through every phase of book creation and marketing.

You can learn more about Jason here.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Ernie Zelinski

    As for me, I still like avoiding what is in vogue. I am in general agreement with what this “New York Times” Best-selling author stated last month in regards to marketing books:

    “The obvious you’ll pick up within an hour of web surfing is create a website, engage on social media (FB, Twitter), blog if you have something to say. Does any of that sell books? Questionable. Very questionable.”
    — Russell Blake, “New York Times” Best-Selling Author

    Avoiding what the crowd is doing has served me well. For example, in 2009 when my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” was selling around 11,000 copies a year, I established a goal of having the book sell 2,000 copies a month or 24,000 copies a year. I decided to concentrate on print sales and not ebook sales even though ebooks were the rage. In fact, I didn’t introduce it as an ebook until around two years ago. When I did, I refused to place this book on Kindle Select or price it below $9.97 as an ebook.

    I like what markeing guru Seth Godin stated about the strategy of low-ball pricing. He called it “Clawing Yourself to the Bottom.”

    “Trading in your standards in order to gain short-term attention or profit
    isn’t as easy as it looks. Once-great media brands that now traffic in
    cheesecake and quick clicks didn’t get there by mistake. Respected brands that rushed to deliver low price at all costs had to figure out which corners to cut, and fooled themselves into thinking they could get away with it forever. As the bottom gets more and more crowded, it’s harder than ever to be more short-sighted than everyone else. If you’re going to need to work that hard at it, might as well put the effort into racing to the top instead.”

    By sticking to my standards and utilizing creative marketing techniques (that 99 percent of authors don’t use), I was able to get the sales of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” to reach 24,500 copies in 2013. More of a surprise to me, the total sales of print, ebook, and audio editions of this book should reach 45,000 copies this year (an 80 percent increase over last year). (Ebook sales will be only around 13 percent of the total.) Keep in mind that I self-published this book over 10 years ago.

    Here is the key to achieving what I have done. If you have a great book, the answer to getting more sales for that book is not to write more books. The key is to concentrate on where your success is coming from and to capitilize on it further.

    Of course, you have to have a great book. Related to this is the recent statement by the owner of Smashwords.

    “Good isn’t good enough! With the glut of high-quality books, good books aren’t good enough anymore. Cheap books aren’t good enough (Smashwords publishes over 40,000 free ebooks). The books that reach the most readers are those that bring the reader to emotionally satisfying extremes. This holds true for all genre fiction and all non-fiction.”
    — Mark Coker

    Incidentally, I am now avoiding all subscription services as well. Seth Godin further covered why providing a product [or book] at a cheaper price is not a great idea in another blog post.

    “Will they switch for cheaper? In fact, most people switch for better.
    Without a doubt, there’s a slot in every market for the cheap enough, good enough alternative. But rapid growth and long-term loyalty come
    from being better instead. When your product or your service doesn’t measure up, the answer probably isn’t to lower your price or offer a refund to the disappointed customer. Instead, the alternative is to invest in making it better. So much better that people can’t help
    but talk about it — and so much better that they would truly miss it if it were gone.”

    In short, I like what Mark Coker said: “Good isn’t good enough.” Indeed, not only must your book be better than good, your marketing must be better than good. In other words, you will require a great book and great marketing to succeed in the future. This is exactly what Robert J. Ringer had going for him in the 1980s when he self-published three “New York Times” bestsellers that sold millions of copies.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 225,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • C. Louis S.

      I really appreciate your comment. I’ve felt that ignoring the hype and not clawing myself to the bottom was the way to go, but it’s really good to see someone doing it and being successful.

      Without realizing it, I started looking for more ways to reach out into my social circle and milk FB, twitter, etc and create an expensive website. But your first quote about that being doubtfully helpful made me wake up and change my plan.

      Thank you.

  2. Roland Denzel

    Well said.

    The gatekeepers might have been too overbearing before, but now the barriers to entry are so low that it’s really reader beware. There are so many poorly written books out there on Amazon, many with a lot of good reviews. I’m not talking a Twilight level of poorly written, but several orders of magnitude worse.

    I try to read Indie books, but I delete more samples than ever before. Good indie books are as good as good traditionally published books, but there aren’t as many bad ones.

    Having multiple books, all good, seems to be the best way to differentiate yourself. It’s not all that hard to get your fans, family, and friends, to review your first couple of books, but after that, they’ll be worn out. You need true fans, which only come with good books.

  3. Anne R. Allen

    Jason–Thanks much for telling it like it is. The ebook bubble is deflating. A lot of us–both self-pubbed and trad-pubbed–have seen our incomes fall off a cliff since the introduction of KU. Authors are going to have to find better ways to market on other retailers, because Amazon has mostly taken itself out of the equation. I’m trying not to fall into talking doom and gloom on my blog at the holidays, but I’ll have a post on the subject of the deflating bubble for January 4th. The “Kindle Revolution” is over. We need new strategies. Bookbub type newsletters that cater to iTunes, Nook and Kobo could help a lot. I hope somebody will do this.

    Very well-thought out overview of the current ebook market, Jason. Thanks!

    • Jason Matthews

      Thank you as always, Anne. And I’m with you on that–not getting into doom and gloom but a need for grounding and reassessment of what we can do.

    • Joel Friedlander

      In a way this may make better publishers of us. Before Amazon (yes, there was a time…) success for self-publishers mostly relied on the ability to accurately identify communities that would be interested in our books, then effectively marketing to them. We didn’t have one big retailer who would take care of that for us. Now we’ve seen both the advantages of an “800-pound gorilla” and the disadvantages of becoming dependent on one giant retail channel that we have no control over. Not as easy, true, but the savvy you need to create your own success may insulate us from kinds of problems in the future.

    • Joel Friedlander

      You can thank our editorial director Shelley for that one, it sure stopped me when I saw it!

  4. Frances Caballo

    Jason: I agree with you. I don’t advise clients to enroll in KDP Select. I just don’t think that authors enjoy the jump in sales that they used to following a day or two of free downloads. I also agree that writing more books will improve the sales of previous books. It’s an odd dynamic yet holds true. BTW: What is your Twitter handle?

    • Jason Matthews

      Yep, that ship has probably sailed. Now that other retailers are joining the monthly subscription party I’m curious what Amazon execs are mulling over for the next angle.
      @Jason_Matthews (pretty sure we follow each other?)

      • Frances Caballo

        Yes we do follow each other but I couldn’t find you on Twitter and I wanted to credit you as the author of this post!



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