Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Decoupling From Amazon

 Legionnaire (Galaxy's Edge Book 1) by [Jason Anspach, Nick Cole]

Over the weekend, Amazon de-listed Galaxy's Edge by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach. While the series is now back up on the Kindle Store, this event caused a disruption in cashflow and no small amount of confusion and acrimony from GE fans and their circles.

Nick Cole speculates that a hacker got into Amazon. Brian Niemeier presents another alternative: an attempt to shadowban GE to promote Disney's similarly-named Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. Note that Cole and Anspach's GE was published in 2017; Disney unveiled their GE only in 2019. It could simply be a rogue employee with an axe to grind against Cole and Anspach. Or it could simply be Amazon's algorithms failing again.

Amazon's ill-treatment of indie authors is infamous in self-publishing circles. Amazon took down Castalia House twice, one book in 2017, then its entire catalog in 2019. This was later blamed on a rogue employee. Nonfiction authors have seen their books removed from Amazon for touching on controversial topics, such as transgenderism. And there was my own struggle with Amazon to publish Babylon Red. What happened with Galaxy's Edge is merely the latest in a long history of censorship.

What happened at Amazon? Hacker? Rogue employee? Shadowban to protect megacorp interests? Shadowban to censor authors with inconvenient politics? Algorithm glitch? Workflow disruption? All of the above?

Regardless of what happened, it's clear that Amazon is an increasingly hostile place to authors. You could write the most milquetoast fiction to ever exist and still face the threat of disruption. In 2020, Amazon disappeared light novels and manga from their platform, and they did it again in 2021, without offering explanations.

No one is immune. It doesn't matter if you're a newbie or an established player, an indie author or a publishing house. Going forward, authors must treat anything they publish on Amazon as vulnerable to delisting. They need to operate under the assumption that Amazon will delist them and delete their accounts without notice, without explanation, and without recourse.

Though Amazon's marketing algorithms help authors reach a huge audience, Amazon demands exclusivity through Kindle Unlimited. This represents a single point of failure. A single misstep, a single annoyed employee, a single wonky algorithm could spell the end of an author's career. As Peter Nealen puts it: "[Amazon] has become a behemoth, the 800-lb gorilla in the room that no author or publisher can afford to ignore. The problem with the 800-lb gorilla is that when he steps on you, who’s going to stop him?"

You can't stop the 800-lb gorilla. But you can choose not to be where he is going to step.

It is critical for all indie authors to decouple themselves from Amazon. It is imperative for anyone whose books might attract the wrath of the corporate behemoth to develop redundancies. While this could mean losing access to Amazon's marketing and search engine, in the long term it's a small price to pay in exchange for being able to continue your writing career.

Here are some options available for the indie author:

Going Wide

This is the simplest and easiest option. Draft2Digital allows authors to painlessly upload their manuscripts to multiple ebook distributors and retailers. Even if Amazon takes your book down, it will still be available elsewhere. It will take a coordinated campaign to remove all your books. Which could still happen, but it will be harder.

More technically-inclined authors can also explore ecommerce solutions. By creating their own bookstore, they are free from corporate disruption, and get to pocket a higher share of the revenue. Of course, this also means putting in even more effort to attract and retain an audience. Without a distribution platform to do the heavy lifting for you, it's on you to build your audience.

Royal Road - Patreon Serialization

Many authors have enjoyed great success through serializing webnovels on Royal Road and similar platforms. They publish their books on Royal Road to attract an audience, then direct readers to Patreon to earn subscription income. Then, once a volume is complete, the author publishes the book on Amazon. Rinse and repeat accordingly.

Amazon here is thus treated as an adjunct to the main business. Instead of relying on Amazon's algorithms, the author taps into an existing pool of readers on the webserial platform who are eager to support his work. Patreon and other alternatives bring in the meat of the income, and allows the author to provide a tiered subscription service to capture even more revenue.

This approach requires a specific strategy. The author must be prepared to write lots of chapters and post them consistently over the long haul. He must understand what is popular on the webnovel platform and on Patreon, and write to market. He must understand that he is up against tens of thousands of other stories just like his, and must have a means of market differentiation and audience capture and retention.

This strategy probably isn't going to work for authors who don't have the right writing style, and aren't able to write to the audience on Royal Road or their platform of choice. But there are other options available.

Substack

Substack is an online mailing list, with the option for paid subscriptions. This lends itself nicely to webserial novelisation, especially since it is more reader-friendly than Patreon. It is easier to read longer fiction articles on Substack than on Patreon, and perhaps even Royal Road and other webnovel platforms.

This might be viable for authors with unconventional writing styles and / or preferred genres. I know at least one PulpRev author who is attempting to build an audience on Substack.

Discoverability is going to be the main drawback. Substack does not have a native recommendation feature like Amazon that points the reader to other stacks that he may like. It is therefore on the author to drive his audience to Substack. Compounding matters is that unlike Royal Road, Substack is primarily oriented towards non-fiction readers.

Not only that, Substack doesn't offer the option of tiered subscription fees like Patreon does. This minimalist approach might be sufficient for nonfiction authors or writers hyper-focused on a single product, but it also leaves money on the table compared to Patreon.

I don't know of anyone who's built a successful fiction career on Substack. It's still early days, of course, but anyone who tries this route will be forging into the unknown.

Crowdfunding

This is the approach I'm most familiar with. The author creates a book or a series, then goes on a crowdfunding platform to raise the funds necessary to produce the book. If successful, the author will be able to zero out the cost of production before publication, and perhaps even turn a profit. In the best case scenario, through stretch goals, the author can raise the funds for more books.

However, every book represents a significant investment of time and energy. Clearing the cost of production alone is a significant hurdle for your average author. Receiving compensation for the time and energy spent on the book would present another challenge. High-value high-demand products like video games and comic books might attract the funding and attention necessary to cover this hidden cost; books are a dicier proposition for anyone who isn't a high-profile author. Even though Saga of the Swordbreaker is my fourth crowdfunding campaign, I still haven't been able to raise enough money to cover the time and energy costs of writing.

Furthermore, crowdfunding still doesn't solve the distribution problem. Funding the book is one thing; distributing it is something else. Since the author isn't likely to cover his own time and energy costs through crowdfunding, he must offer the book for sale somewhere. To eliminate dependency on Amazon, that means going wide.

Welcome to the Blockchain

Blockchain technology offers exciting new possibilities—and also perils.

Decentralized social content platforms like Hive allow a quick and easy means of monetisation. The author posts content on the platform, other users upvote the content, and everyone rakes in a share of the rewards.

I've been posting on Hive (and before that, Steemit) for years. I've built my reputation and the kind of audience that attracts hundreds of upvotes per post. It's not anywhere near the number of upvotes a whale can command, but it's a nice chunk of change, for which I am extremely grateful.

However, Hive rewards are heavily dependent on the current value of the Hive currencies. When prices go up, it is a cause for celebration. When they drop, it can be frustrating. Income from upvotes fluctuates daily, even hourly. If you're not a whale who posts popular content daily, it cannot be considered a viable source of income. And I'm not a whale.

Not only that, anyone entering Hive is by now a mid to late adopter. They have to play catch-up with everyone else on the platform. It is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's not viable for someone who needs money now.

Over the past few months, I've seen discussions about turning books into non-fungible tokens and offering them for sale. The catch is that NFT books cannot be priced at market rates on Amazon and elsewhere. The gas cost of minting the NFT alone would make that a non-starter. An NFT book must by necessity be priced at tens or even hundreds of times that of a regular book just to cover minting costs. And the buyer will also have to pay a not-insignificant sum in gas fees, further driving up the actual price.

However, the BSV blockchain offers a potential solution to this problem. Minting an NFT on the Ethereum blockchain requires the artist to potentially shell out hundreds of dollars per transaction thanks to gas prices. With BSV, the NFT could be written for less than a dollar. Likewise, purchasing the NFT is equally cheap. Nonetheless, the cost is still non-zero, whereas publishing on a traditional ebook platform is free, and must be taken into consideration. Such ebook NFTs can be found on canonic.xyz.

An NFT book must be valued in the same way as an antique book, or as a work of digital art. Today, savvy traders buy and flip NFTs to turn a huge profit. They see the value in digital art NFTs. Will they do the same for NFT books? That's hard to say at this point. While NFTs are the hot new thing, I don't know if this craze will extend to books as well if the NFT traders aren't trading books.

We have to assume that the primary buyers of book NFTs today are wealthy patrons who believe in the value of the technology and the author—not so much the book itself. They purchase the NFT to show their support for the author and the platform, not necessarily because they're primarily interested in reading the book.

Influencers with a wealthy and tech-savvy cult following such as 0HP Lovecraft might be able to make this work. But if you're not such an influencer, it's probably going to be a non-starter.

Unless there's a sea change in the creative economy.

Neo-Patronage

During the Renaissance, the wealthy supported up-and-coming artists through a patronage system. The artist was able to earn a living and create masterworks. The wealthy in turn earned bragging rights for being the person who made such art possible. We could see a return to such a model.

Elle Griffin discusses the possibility of creating an angel investment fund to support artists—including writers. The investors agree to fund the writer, and in turn earns a cut of the writer's royalties.

I don't think this will work out for most writers, for the very simple reason that most books won't earn a significant amount of royalties. Investors will demand a return on investment, and the royalties most books earn will barely cover production costs. The kind of author who can launch a book and earn the kind of royalties that would attract an investor is the kind of author who doesn't need an investor.

If we take the idea of attracting patrons or angel investors, and incorporate crowdfunding and blockchain technology, here's how it might work:

An investor or group of investors agree to fund a writer's salary. They direct their social media followers to him, and the followers in turn also send more money his way. The writer is then able to work full-time on the book. He may provide real-time updates on a private website or Substack. When he is done, he sends a copy of his manuscript to everyone who supported him—and to the original investors, he gives them an NFT of his book.

The value of an NFT does not lie in the NFT itself. A digital NFT isn't scarce. An NFT can be easily reproduced simply by taking a screenshot or by copying and pasting the NFT elsewhere.

The value of the NFT lies in the transaction. It is in the irrevocable record on the blockchain that shows conclusively who purchased a copy of the NFT. Armed with this proof of purchase, the patron can boast to his friends and say, I funded this writer, I helped to kickstart a new genre, I am a patron of the arts. In so doing, he signals that he has excellent taste, he can recognize trends, and he has plenty of money to spare—which reinforces his reputation and opens new doors.

An investor may also receive a cut of the royalties from book sales. But I don't expect this to be a substantial return on investment, unless the investor is also an influencer with a huge following, who regularly points his audience to the book he helped to commission. In this scenario, more than just offering financial support, he is kickstarting the author's career.

The key to making this work is in segmenting the value proposition of the author and the book. To the super-wealthy, value lies in the social status that comes from backing an artist, in having a stake in the creation of new art, and in being perceived as a patron of the arts. To the regular reader, values lies in the book itself, and in the knowledge of being able to support an artist. An artist with this business model needs to communicate both value propositions fluently.

Of course, this is just one possible scenario. There are many, many roads to success, and technology is opening more roads to success.

I am quietly optimistic of the future of publishing—a future where an artist is not dependent on the whims of Amazon, or any single platform to make a living.

But we must make it happen.

(And if any investor were so inclined to support my writing in the way I've described above, or in some similar manner, feel free to contact me.)

Want to participate in the new creative economy? Back Saga of the Swordbreaker here!

1 comment:

  1. I have been reading Galaxy's Edge and related material since the beginning. I have been using a Kindle for nearly all of it. I would prefer to pay the same price directly to the author, but also realize it's not as practical as it could be.
    I would like to point out that since Amazon knows my reading history it has been using the next Galaxy's Edge and Forgotten Realms titles as the ad on my Kindle for the past week or more. (Not every time, but consistently.)
    Not sure what that means for the rogue employee, shadow ban, megacorp interest , etc., debate. But it is at least curious.
    J

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