Ebooks: What a Long Strange Trip

POSTED ON Dec 17, 2014

Jason Matthews

Written by Jason Matthews

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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.

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Jason Matthews

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Jason Matthews

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