Indie publishing is not independent

Previous post: The Long Slow Ramp of Death.

A funny thing happened on the way to the indie publishing revolution. We stormed the Bastille and threw off the oppressive aristocracy of Traditional Publishing. We mastered EPUB and MOBI. But somehow, we found ourselves saddled by a self-crowned Emperor Amazon.

What we think of when we think “indie publishing”, vs. what we got instead

Under the Emperor, we’ve won a lot of battles, it’s true, and it has been glorious. We all laugh at those silly aristocrats complaining that their $15.99 ebooks don’t sell.

Some of the grizzled veterans in the back mutter, “At least they still have their heads.” They’re not wrong. Not all revolutions are so kind and gentle.

And anybody can publish on Amazon now, right? Well, almost anybody. (No gatekeepers? OK, maybe just timid gatekeepers…)

But is it truly independence then, if we rely solely on the benevolence of our mighty Emperor? So far, he has been benevolent and understanding. So far… so keep your nose clean, don’t say anything too outlandish, and maybe he won’t notice you.

But even if we don’t descend into the fever swamps of conspiracy theory and “they came for the annoying people, and I said nothing” retreads, is it good for anybody if one seller makes all the rules?

If you’re an independent author, take this quick quiz (and yes, the correct answer to each is technically “it’s complicated”; just give the simple, primary answer):

Who sells your book?


Who distributes your book?


Who markets your book?

Amazon. (If you’re smart, you’re answering “Amazon and me on my mailing list”…)

Is it “independence” when we’ve traded the old aristocratic TradPub gatekeepers for the One Algorithm to Rule Them All?

How did we get here?

Let’s talk about network effects (via Wikipedia):

A network effect (also called network externality or demand-side economies of scale) is the positive effect described in economics and business that an additional user of a good or service has on the value of that product to others. When a network effect is present, the value of a product or service increases according to the number of others using it.

The classic example is the telephone, where a greater number of users increases the value to each. A positive externality is created when a telephone is purchased without its owner intending to create value for other users, but does so regardless. Online social networks work similarly, with sites like Twitter and Facebook increasing in value to each member as more users join.

The more people use a network, the more valuable the network becomes, and the more difficult it becomes for competing networks to arise. This is why everyone you know is on Facebook. And this is the moat around Emperor Amazon’s castle:

Amazon’s network effect is more subtle: there is an aspect where your shopping on Amazon improves my experience through things like rankings, reviews, and data feedback loops. Just as important, though, are two additional effects: first, the more people that shop on Amazon, the more likely suppliers are to come onto Amazon’s platform, increasing price and selection for everyone. In other words, Amazon, particularly as it transitions to being more of a commerce platform and less of a retailer, is a two-sided network. There is one more factor though: Amazon’s incredible service rests on hundreds of billions of dollars in investments; that fixed cost investment has to be born by customers at some point, which means the more customers there are the less any one customer is responsible for those fixed costs (this manifests indirectly through lower prices and better service).

This is why we’re not having this conversation about Smashwords or Barnes & Noble or iBooks: at this point, as booksellers, they’re the also-rans. Sure, you can pick up some business from them. But we need to be honest: nobody’s selling you their advice on how to perfect your iBooks algorithm strategy.

Instead, everybody’s talking about whether they should grant Amazon exclusive rights to sell their ebooks in Kindle Unlimited. Exclusive rights.

Because Amazon has all the books,

…and Amazon has all the reviews,

…and Amazon has all the apps,

…and Amazon has free two-day shipping,

…and Amazon has all the best prices,

…and Amazon has all the money,


Amazon has all the customers.

And you know, it used to be nice, back when the Emperor truly cared about us and about making our lives better.

His initial offer was really good: he made publishing easy for the individual. He had roads built for us to walk on.

He had cool, crazy ideas. Some of them even worked.

But now, the Emperor is off somewhere in Russia, and winter is coming, and we’re all sitting here in the Indie Commune talking passionately about how to convince the Emperor’s algorithms to give one of us a chance at fame and fortune.

This isn’t “indie” publishing. This is D- publishing.

So what do we do, smart guy?

I don’t know. Not yet.

I mean, I have ideas, some less harebrained and/or crackpot than others.

But I think the first thing to do is to have some honest discussions about the situation with the authors who man the barricades. I know the discussion has already started in corners here and there. So let’s move the elephant out of the corner and into the light, where everybody can get a feel for it.

There’s a comments section below. You know how to use it.

You tell me:

What did I get wrong?

What did I get right?

Are you OK with the status quo?

If not, what the heck should we do about it?

Vive la indie révolution!

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