In July, I presented a talk at the Eastern Sierra Book Festival. The organizer asked me to give an update on trends in the publishing industry. I decided to spend the allotted 30 minutes discussing current market forces that impact not only independent authors and small publishers but also impact any business competing for an audience’s valuable time.
The first two market forces are Our Competition and Our Content. These synergistic forces are evolving faster than many large businesses can adapt.
The third force is Amazon.com. In particular, I will emphasize the importance of diversification away from Amazon while continuing to use their platform.
When assessing our competition, whether it be another book within a genre or a competing product, we must first acknowledge that we are competing for our audience’s valuable time in an era of market over-saturation.
Who is our competition that is flooding the market?
In the publishing world, the natural competition for consumers’ time would be other book publishers. However, the big publishers are putting more resources into their best-selling authors and taking fewer risks on new authors, so this means fewer books (the rationale behind this could be the basis for a long post). Regardless, I believe that other publishers are the least of our worries.
Most people around the world now have countless options for consuming media content. They can endlessly watch Netflix, HBO, Disney, Hulu, YouTube, and a host of other online streaming platforms. They can also play immersive online video games like Fortnite (a freemium game that Netflix has acknowledged as a major competitor).
Product and content developers must acknowledge that they are not competing against similar products in similar genres. Instead, they are competing against anyone with access to the limited supply of our audience’s free time.
This raises several points:
- We are competing for our audience’s free time.
- Our audience’s time is valuable. They worked hard to afford their free time. The retail price of a $10 book is not the real cost of that book to the customer. The actual cost is the number of hours they will spend reading that book. This implies that consumers are less price-sensitive and more time-sensitive.
- How do we convince our audience that we value their time, and therefore they should invest their time in our product?
If our ideal customers guard their time more closely than ever, and if their time is more valuable than the price-point, then how do we convince them to invest that time in one of our books or other products?
In this way, our broad and worldly competition is driving the content and experiences we create.
How often have you read a non-fiction, New York Times bestseller that delivered enjoyable reading for the first half to two-thirds of the book, and then fell apart at the end?
The reason for this is the traditional publishing model in which these books were created. A writer said: I have a compelling idea for a summer read; it comes in at 40,000 words. And the publisher said: Great, but you need to bring it up to 90,000 words because the marketing people say that we can’t sell a 180-page book at $29.95, but we can sell a 400-page book at that price.
While this was true once upon a time, it is no longer the rule.
Then what type of content do we create?
We create compelling content from beginning to end. If that means your book is 30,000 words rather than 90,000 or your movie 45 minutes rather than 90 minutes, then so be it. We must also create high-quality content. This means we must deliver exceptional design and editing to the project (all are services that I offer).
As a case study, one of our books, Half Dome: The History of Yosemite’s Iconic Mountain, was a collaborative creation that kept these points in mind: deliver high-quality content with no fluff and designed to be read within a narrow window of free time. After reading the book, we want the reader to feel: Not only did I learn something interesting, but I enjoyed the process and at no time did I think the author or publisher wasted my time.
Amazon: Find Ways to Diversify
Many independent authors, publishers, and even product manufacturers are highly dependent on Amazon.com sales. It is easy to understand why. Amazon makes life easy for these businesses. For an independent author, Amazon’s platform allows an author to do everything from marketing to printing in one location.
That convenience comes at a hefty price: all of the eggs are in Amazon’s basket.
Here are some specific problems that authors, publishers, and other sellers are likely to encounter on Amazon:
Amazon Product Search Algorithms
Similar to a Google Search update that causes a website to lose its ranking, an Amazon Product Search update can cause a product to lose its page ranking and thus its sales. I have both benefited and lost from these updates over the years.
Paid Product Placements
For many years, I resisted engaging in the use of Amazon Advertising, where a business can pay to have its products featured at the top of the search page or on another product’s page. I was unhappy with the fact that Amazon was already getting its fair share of the retail price, and now it wanted an advertising fee as well. I also felt that the books I had published were niche-enough to be resistant to advertising from other products—I was wrong.
I watched as advertised products slowly carved into my sales. Finally, I admitted defeat and created several advertising campaigns. The results were phenomenal. I set new sales records. But nothing lasts. Within months, the CPC (cost-per-click) began to increase. Keywords that had once been affordable became prohibitively expensive.
The big takeaway here is that a monopoly is bad for everyone and we must take it into our own hands to diversify so that we are not dependent on one sales source.
How do we do this? …
What does all of this mean for independent authors, publishers, booksellers, or anyone trying to sell a product?
- We must find ways to compete with large market players like Fortnite, Netflix, HBO, Spotify, and Instagram.
- We must spend more time producing quality content, products, or services.
- We must always be developing new, diverse markets for our products.
The final point, especially for independent authors, publishers, and booksellers, is that we must never forget the importance of relationships. Relationships with our audience, our vendors, our media, and our community are what sell books. Relationships allow us to diversify our mindsets through exposure to new people and new insights, which help us to create more value in our work. And, holistically, relationships are critical to living a good life.
If you have any questions about this presentation or want to discuss a project, feel free to contact me.