I’ve been taking in what authors have been discussing in author groups and speaking privately with a couple of author friends. My gut feeling has been telling me that I better make plans on what I should do when self-publishing is no longer the best venue for publishing. I wish I could dig up a comment someone had made back in 2010 about trends in publishing because what he said seems to be playing out in front of me. But one thing he said was that self-publishing would take off for a while, and then there would be a point where it went into decline. From the decline would come the resurgence of traditional publishers.
I have to admit, I thought that guy had a gloomy outlook on things at the time. Nevertheless, his words had stuck with me over the years, and the more I look around at what’s going on, the more I’m convinced he’s right. He based his assumptions off of the history of publishing. His argument was that things are cyclical. What has been is what will be.
Thinking over his words, I can see why publishers would become more attractive than self-publishing. I don’t have time to break down all the different scams going on, especially within Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) program, but people who are gaming the system at KU have weakened the integrity of self-publishing. In the author community, these people are called scammers. Now, I’m not going to say the scammers are the only reason I think self-publishing is in a state of decline. It’s just one part of several factors. But scammers have definitely hurt the quality of self-published books to a degree I’m not sure KU can ever recover from. This will probably mean the end of KU in the long run, and a lot of self-published authors’ careers have been built on KU. Since it’s a lot harder to get noticed on other retailers (Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, Google Play), I don’t expect those KU authors to hold out for things to take off on those retailers. Amazon has made visibility easier, which is why so many authors have embraced exclusivity with them. Now it’s even harder to get visibility on the other retailers than it was a few years ago. This only makes an author new to a retailer harder to get noticed. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder, and a lot of KU authors will give up.
Another factor contributing to the decline in self-publishing is the “pay to play” trend. If authors don’t have money to spend on ads, they’ll see sales decline because ads give them visibility. In the end, those with the money can stay relevant. Those without the money won’t. There’s no way I can spend significant money on ads every month. Most authors budget $50 or so a month. But there are some who spend $1000 or more. That’s every single month. Those authors who have the most money will get the most exposure, and exposure means sales. So the more you pay, the more you sell, which leads to the more you can play. Hence the term “pay to play”. Already, I’m hearing rumblings from authors who said their ads are no longer effective, and it’s because they can’t afford to spend more than they already are. Thus, those who can’t afford the ads will end up being weeded out of the self-publishing business.
And another factor in the decline of self-publishing is the saturation of books in the market. There’s no way anyone can read all of the books out there. Even if someone reads 2-3 books a day, they’ll never read all of the stuff that’s currently available. This glut of books in the market means that it’s going to get harder and harder for authors to get noticed or even stay afloat. For example, I’ll search for particular things within romance that I want to read, and most of the results are sponsored ads (that often don’t even match what I’m searching for). I might find one or two promising books within a few pages of scrolling through my search terms, but even those aren’t fitting exactly what I want to read. I have to rely on the Freebooksy emails, Bookbub recommendations, or running into an author on social media by accident in order to even KNOW the author/book exists. Of all of that, I probably go on to buy about 5% of anything I come across. That’s a very low number of books. But it’s hard to find what I’m looking for. This makes it hard for authors to get noticed, especially new ones who haven’t had time to build a platform.
So, I think these are the major forces that will eventually drive out a lot of self-published authors.
I don’t think self-publishing will completely go away. With the internet being the way it is, it’s hard to imagine that people won’t be able to keep publishing their own books. The question, however, becomes whether or not the people can afford to publish their own books. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times in the past on this blog, but most authors are not financially independent. They need to earn money in order to make publishing books worth it. Authors have bills to pay, just like everyone else. If authors can’t make enough money from the sale of their books to pay their bills, they will have to find another job. It’s just the way it is. It’s not that they want to stop writing. It’s that they have to.
I see no reason why any author should be asked to write for free. On average, a book costs about $500-$1000 to produce (that factors in editing, covers, formatting). So they need to get back the cost on making the book, and after that, they can pay their bills. If they aren’t selling books, the math doesn’t work out. I guess one could argue the author can work a job outside the home and use that money to pay for producing a book, but it’s more likely that the author will need to spend that money on bills or save it. So I think the financial angle will weed out a lot of self-published authors, too. And, since publishers take on the cost of book production (getting the edits, covers, and formatting done), it will make traditional publishing more attractive to the average author.
Now, these are just my own thoughts on the topic. I don’t have a magic ball. But I believe we’re looking at the decline in self-publishing, and I believe this will lead to a rise in the traditional publishers.