Diversifying Income
 
Part of the self-published fun, for me, has always been to explore and experiment—to discover new tools and learn to use them, to try new marketing stunts and half-laugh as they sink, to put my sales and traffic numbers in a file and try to draw meaningful conclusions out of them. It’s learning—not just about writing, but about everything around it, too!

I have followed self-publishing blogs, how-to, and movement for the last six or seven years now, with varying levels of intensity. A lot has changed since! When I started paying attention, 99c novels shooting up the charts were the way to go. Today, that price is generally kept for short stories and novellas. Putting your novel that low (on a permanent basis) is a bat signal of low quality in many readers’ mind. Price points have balanced out at $3.99-$4.99 for full-length novels (80k and up), and $3.99 for shorter works. It shifts around a little, but these are safe bets for self-publishers.

Others things don’t change. At all. Amazon and the Big Five (these are the five publishing houses that own pretty much all trad US imprints, and often have branches in the UK, except those from small indie houses) have been warring with each others for years, and it has always led to “Amazon will ruin authors and the industry” think pieces, usually immediately countered by “Big Five’s crawling change pace is what is destroying the industry and ruining authors”. Amazon is still a good 80-90% of most self-publishers’ income, despite Kobo, B&N, and Apple doing their best to compete, and despite the rise of subscription services.

It’s kind of appalling, to be honest. When I started following, I thought Amazon would eventually lose part of its market dominion and, while still a major player, be one of the options. You could say there are still many options, but the truth is, if you’re aiming to earn sufficiently to live off your writing, they’re not. Not really, at least not on their own.

Why do I think that’s a huge problem? It’s never safe to keep your eggs in the same basket. This first mean that the more your sales are split between different products (novels, audiobooks, shorts, etc.), the less at risk you are. But more importantly, it means that you should not rely on a single distributor for your income. An excellent example of why is what happened to high-selling erotica indies on Amazon a few years ago. More and more of the negative media attention directed at Amazon and self-publishing would underscore how people made hundreds of thousands selling erotica novels, and how Amazon was fostering promiscuity and unsafe sex and other such bullshit (and you can bet queer books were included in this). Amazon eventually decided it needed to clean its image: the money it was making from its flourishing erotica market wasn’t worth the growing pushback. It, in essence, shadowbanned erotica. It would no longer show up in Also Boughts and vague search terms, and most of Amazon’s algorithms acted like it no longer existed. You could still buy if you knew what to look for, but Amazon did what it could to secret it away. Authors’ sales crashed hard. Authors making tens of thousands in a month suddenly struggled to reach 1k in sales. This ruined people, hard and fast, but it worked (for Amazon). Erotica no longer dominated the charts, and people stopped focusing on it in their think pieces. (This was a shitty move and a shitty time for some many people. There was also quite a few “we told you” pieces from anti-zon folk, which.. really compassionate from them).

When people say you can’t trust Amazon, they are right. They are not there to have your back. They’re there to sell your books and profit. That just happens to also be your objective, and Amazon has proven time and again it could help you better than anyone else out there. That doesn’t mean it will never change its mind and decide you are more a hindrance than help (it’s highly unlikely that it will do so for self-publishers in the foreseeable future. It may, however, see ways to profit more which become a problem for you).

Conclusion: it is always wise advice to have more than one income stream and diminish your reliance on a single thing. But is that easy or simple to accomplish? Shit no.

Many self-publishers decide that since Amazon is the source of their revenue, they might as well give them exclusivity and fully benefit from their programs, such as Kindle Unlimited, their subscription service, and the ability to easily run short sales. It’s a valid strategy which markedly augments your visibility and can net you new readers (yes, KU actually gives you more visibility than being on every other retailer available. Ridiculous, but real).

What if you don’t want to give Amazon exclusivity, though? Casting a wider net is your second avenue as a self-publishers. Some potential readers will refuse to touch anything coming from Amazon, and many just have different e-readers than a Kindle. Sure, they could load the Amazon app on that iPad or cellphone, but those are extra steps, and marketing wisdom knows that the more step you add, the less likely they are to buy. For non-Amazon users, the simplest way is obviously to distribute where they buy. Uploading manually to each site would be a pain, but distributors such as Smashwords or Draft2Digital can get your books in these stores without cutting too much into your profit.

Another option is to sell directly on your site. There can be complications there: you need to build the store (plug ins and apps can help), to make sure your are compliant with taxes law, and to make it easy to navigate. Honestly, half the work here should be already done, as I cannot recommend enough having pages for your books on your personal website (even if you are with a publishing house. Seriously). They might not be a store, but potential readers googling you ought to be able to find your books easily there! But yes! You could set up your own store.

Successfully running your own store (at least in a way that could make take a substantial amount of sales and make you less dependant on Amazon) requires being able to drive traffic to it, though. Sell direct sounds like a wonderful solution until you try it. Finding ways to get people to look at your book and buy it is already hard enough with Amazon’s One-Click impulse buy system, but when they have to go through the whole cart and account creation? Doubly hard. And the time investment you’ll put into successfully selling your book might just not be worth it. 

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try my hardest. Not on my site, though. If I’m going to sell (almost) direct, I will put all chances on my side and get good tools. And that is what I think Gumroad can be: an incredible asset in direct sales that, with time, might allow me to diminish dependency on Amazon.

And I will have a whole, lengthy post about how and why next time, so stay tuned!