An Honest and Brutal Reflection on the Publishing World in 2023

Picture the scene…

It's early 20th century, London. A street seller is holding the final edition of the day's Evening Standard, several hundred newspapers fresh off the press and packed with the day's latest news for Londoners to read on their commute home.

“Standard, get your Evening Standard!” the seller calls out above the sound of the horse drawn carriages and light foot traffic.

Let's imagine the same street, the same part of London, but flashing forward 100 years, to the turn of the Millennium. Cars, buses and taxis have replaced the carriages, the noise of these vehicles creating a level of background sounds that are twenty times what they were in the first scene. Add to that the crowds… tens of thousands of people compared to hundreds in the first one. All talking on mobile phones, lost in their own world. The shops along the street are blasting out music, and adverts. Perhaps a few radios are playing too. And, for the sake of imagination, that sole Evening Standard seller is now joined by ten other newspapers, all trying to get the message out, all having to scream to have even the slightest chance of being heard.

That's a lot of noise!

Well, as a published author for over a decade, with a birds-eye view on what has taken place in the digital world during this time, I want to be very honest here. If you picture that second scene, the digital world is that, multiplied by ten.

Not even a megaphone above the crowd is enough, as all the sellers need a megaphone! And, crucially, it's the way it was designed.

A solo voice, without magnification, today has no chance of being heard. It's impossible. The digital world (which for nearly everything we do, is the world) is simply too noisy.

What Do I Mean?

I'm writing from an author's perspective, but the reality is the same for all creatives. Artists, musicians, singers… In the modern world, the game has been rigged against us. The creator once more remains the least important piece in the money-making puzzle.

Let us scoot back a decade or two and I will explain what I mean. Before Amazon broke onto the scene (and they started as a bookseller, remember) the sole credible option for authors was to find a traditional publisher (Traditional = a bricks & mortal office with a whole host of staff and overheads, who would carefully select the books they would publish, and would bring it to the market).

Authors earned around 10-15% per sale under this model, and it was in place from almost the dawn of time. For so long, it was the only model. And pre-internet, it worked well, if not always making the publishing house richer than the authors they represented.

Anyway, Amazon arrived (and with them, in time, an entire generation of alternative hybrid publishers (Hybrid = a not-necessarily physical building with the cost of huge overheads, these publishers could therefore offer better terms, as well as being more willing to dive into the digital marketplace). They labelled the old model, these Traditional publishers as the Gate Keepers, which they were, Editors deciding who became published.

Amazon, with their launch of KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) in their own words destroyed that gate, stating anyone could publish with them. They heralded a new day, offering better royalties to authors, a fairer deal all around, without charging the author for anything (they would only make money when the books sell). By selling online, and the launch of the first Kindle devices (and subsequent other eReaders from all these others publishers), the eBook revolution began. And some early adopters (I think romance/erotic authors flourished, as eBooks gave these readers a greater freedom of reading such material in public without being spotted) became rich through this.

They became the model a whole bunch of world-be authors now wanted to replicate.

The Amazon Gold Rush was on! It seemed there was nothing to hold anyone back. Amazon rose to become the giant they are today, and those early pioneers became wealthy themselves. All is good, right?

What's not to like?

Well, much like the first and second scenes I portrayed above, the same has happened online too… and it hasn't needed 100 years. This is happened in less than 10!

Today, the online world is every bit that crowded, noise-filled mayhem where only those with the loudest voices (read: Biggest Megaphone) have any chance of being heard.

It's a screaming match… which is exactly what Amazon and the other companies want.

Why?

The easy answer is money. Amazon, for example, began selling books and now sell anything and everything and some more on top. They are also a billion dollar company. Yes, this is through sales. Facebook too are a billion dollar company, yet they don't sell anything.

The key change happened when they introduced advertising.

These are the megaphones. Every platform (including the search engines like Google) now does it. While it wasn't what the internet was created for, paid advertising is now what makes the internet work. There, I said it. (And by work, I mean for the few people who created these companies).

Marketing (Read: Getting word out about your new books) HAS to be hard, because otherwise the entire paid advertising model would crumble. If I, for example, could sell 1000 books a month from purely organic reach, therefore not spending anything on ads and earning enough to make a living, then what are the other advertisers paying for? No, that wouldn't suit Facebook. So it has to be impossible to sell organically. It's how the algorithm has been built, been designed. Because then the only option is paid advertising, which serves the purpose that these platforms were made for.

And it is everything that is wrong with the current system. Because, to sell anything on Amazon now, you need to advertise. That's either on Amazon itself (they have their own in-house advertising) or on social media, where you are offered the use of the platform's megaphone to announce to that audience, in the hope that some will buy your product and therefore let you recoup your outlay.

Yet, the more this happens, the more people there are forced to do it. Because, the potential rewards are great! There is no denying the fact. But only a few will ever make it, and all the while these Big Tech firms will get bigger, stronger, richer, and the cycle will then only continue.

The voice of the creative is lost! A phantom, impossible for organic, unpaid reach of their creative work to find enough ears to make a living from it. After all, when the street is that noisy, only the person right next to you has any chance of hearing you. And before that person might mention you to another, they've been hit with a dozen other ads, all demanding attention, all aimed at catching their focus.

The New Gatekeepers

Amazon (I mention them, because this is who I'm exclusive with, but the others are also the same) have become the very thing they said they were replacing! And remember the better royalties? Well, unless an author gives up what they'll earn from a book to pay for advertising, they won't sell anything. Do you see what's happening here?

The old model was this; Traditional publisher offers an author a poor 15%.

Amazon comes in offering 70% on an eBook!! But… that money is soon needed to pay Amazon to sell a product in their own shop, so the net result is this: the author earns way less than 15%, usually closer to zero! Wow, how did we get from that to this? Amazon earns 30% on the sale, plus all the money paid for the adverts!

Why is it so hard to market?

Let me put it like this… it has to be! Do you see it? All social media platforms exist solely for marketing purposes. That was always the end game, the money maker. And it worked, too. These firms are multi-billion dollar industries in themselves, their young founders billionaires many times over. Facebook has no products to sell, no services they offer (aside from advertising, that it, and then that's not actually a service anyway). They merely give you the chance to speak to their audience.

That's it!

Boom, advertising kicks off. Because who doesn't want to have instant access to 2 billion users, right? Even to reach your own audience, you now need to pay. At the time of writing, my Facebook author page has 2.7k followers. My last post for the launch of three books only reached 355 of these people. That's a little over 13%. They even give me a price to reach a 1000 of these people. Users on the platform who have all, at some point, pressed LIKE. Users who have chosen to connect to my page to hear updates. Users, therefore, who are not getting what they asked for!

What are they seeing instead? Adverts, of course. Tonnes of them. Because the User is the product.

Is that it then?

An awful lot has happened in the tech sphere in the last decade. I've seen it in my 11 years as a published author. My early, organic successes with my debut book (when I had no following, no readers) are a long way from what happens now, when I have a much larger following, many more books and yet nobody hears, nobody sees.

I think change is coming.

I don't know when, I don't know what it will be, but just like Amazon's reaction to the Traditional model, someone, at some point, will say enough is enough. Something new will emerge. For a time, it'll be the White Horse, as Amazon began.

Maybe I'll then be well placed to be an early adopter?

All too soon (unless the movement is truly creative-centred) it'll become monetorised. The founders of whatever new thing will look to cash in. Thus the cycle will be repeated, with a few outliers, a few early millionaires, and the rest of us just trying to hold onto their coat-tales.

Reality Hits ā€“ 11 Years And Out?

The simply reality is that I've been stuck in this system and disillusioned by it for way too long. If you don't have money to advertise, and thus are not selling books, and therefore not earning an income that would give you money to advertise, then you just aren't going to change.

Yet, even if you do have money to advertise, there are no guarantees about anything. True, you will be charged fully for your advertising. That is guaranteed, regardless of success. So, most likely, in the cycle above, even if you have money to advertise you only break even (in 2021 I didn't even manage that, despite spending ā‚¬1000s!) What's the point?

Cherry Picking came out on 27th June, 2012, therefore 11 years ago on Tuesday this week. On Tuesday, my 11th anniversary as a published author, I signed a full-time contract to work in a school from August 2023. I have 28 books written, am 11 years into a career, get told all the time by readers that I'm an excellent writer, and yet I need to stop. Need to find something new. My books need to become a passive, sideline income as I pursue a career that actually pays.

I'm sure I've not written my last book, but it does look different from here on, at least in the foreseeable future. It's certainly not the way I expected things to go. It's far from what I hoped would happen when I first went full-time.

Maybe things still will take off? 11 years isn't all that long, but then again, with the noise now deafening, how is anyone meant to find me online with so many others screaming for their attention?

Do I rely on word of mouth? I think it's been my best friend from day one, and despite the wonders of the internet, I don't see it being bettered ever.