Today on the Self-Publishing News podcast: Traditionally published debut authors find they're getting frustratingly little in the way of support. A German survey finds that young people are reading more, but they're getting their recommendations from TikTok, which is being banned around the world. And once striking Hollywood writers return to work, will they just be finishing up scripts begun by AI? News Editor Dan Holloway and News and Podcast Producer Howard Lovy discuss these and other stories making the news this month in indie publishing.
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Listen to Self-Publishing News: Debut Authors and MoreOn the Self-Publishing News podcast with @agnieszkasshoes and @howard_lovy: Traditionally published debut authors get frustratingly little in the way of support. Also, will AI replace striking Hollywood writers? Click To Tweet
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About the Hosts
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle.
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcripts: Debut Authors and More
Howard Lovy: Hello, and welcome to the May 2023 edition of Self-Publishing News from the Alliance of Independent Authors. I'm Howard Lovy, ALLi news and podcast producer, and book editor at howardlovy.com. Joining me is ALLi news editor Dan Holloway. Hello Dan, how are you?
Dan Holloway: Hi, Howard, I'm very good. It's actually starting to be sunny here in Oxford.
Howard Lovy: Wonderful. Yeah, it's sunny here in northern Michigan, but it's still cool temperatures but we're used to that. In fact, who knows, we might even get another snowfall here. It's come to expect that.
Kindle Select prices increase
So, let's move right to the news. I think you have what I think might be good news for authors, but you tell me, Kindle Select prices have gone up.
First, tell us what Kindle Select is and what that means for authors.
Dan Holloway: I'm not sure it's good news for anyone, but Amazon. So, Kindle Unlimited is their subscription service, which covers any books that we decide to put in KDP Select and also a number of magazine comic subscriptions as well.
At the moment it's $9.99 a month. It's going to be going up from, well, subscribers can lock their price in until August, and then it's going up to $11.99 a month.
Howard Lovy: And all that profit will go directly to authors, right?
Dan Holloway: Well, I've not seen anything on where the money is going yet. So, I'm sure Mark Williams and others who keep a close eye on such things will check the size of the pay-out pot and also keep us informed about what that means for our page reads, which is obviously how people get paid; they get paid per page read.
The amount in the pot has been steadily going up, the price per page read hasn't really been going up for a long time, and I'm not sure it's going to go up as a result of this.
They might do what they usually do and have a dramatic leap in the first month, which makes it look really spectacular, and then stagnate thereafter so that no one realizes that actually it's a real terms decrease; that's something that these people tend to do.
But yes, it might also squeeze some readers out. Subscription pricing is changing all over the place. So, Netflix, for example, has introduced its ad-supported streaming service. So, ad-supported streaming is something that's becoming more widely talked about in the streaming and subscription area in general.
Though Kindle hasn't yet, I think.
Howard Lovy: Does that bring down the subscription price if it's ad-supported?
Dan Holloway: It brings down the subscription price, provided you don't mind adverts, yeah. But Scribd currently has its price at $11.99 a month. The equivalent for Kobo is $9.99. So, it's sort of within the ballpark.
Howard Lovy: Yeah, well, people have to make decisions. We're subscribing to a lot of services these days, between Netflix and HBO and whatever TV streaming service you want, and then books and audiobooks; it all adds up.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, for me it's Discovery+ Sport, so I can watch the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia at the moment. So, it's all about cycling.
German study shows young people are reading more books
Howard Lovy: Well, we'll keep an eye on that. Meanwhile, there's some good news, I think, in a new German study that shows that young people are actually reading more, but the caveat to that is they're getting a lot of their book recommendations from TikTok, which is sort of on its way out, legally speaking, in the United States. So, give us a rundown there?
Dan Holloway: I'm really interested to talk to you about this, because I've not really seen it very much in the UK at the moment, but the bottom line is that, yes, the study of 16- to 29-year-olds in Germany shows that they're reading, the phrase used is more intensively. So, people who are reading are reading a lot more.
The figure has gone up in the youngest of those brackets, the 16- to 19-year-olds from seven and a half books a year to 12 books a year. So, that's almost doubling, and it's a book a month.
So, there's an annual survey that comes out about reading habits in the States, which is significantly less than a book a month. It's more like one or two books a year for the people who do read.
Howard Lovy: I'm embarrassed to hear that.
Dan Holloway: It's a lot of people are reading, and it's growing and it's getting more intensive amongst the younger generation, and one of the things that seems to be driving the intensity is social media book communities. So, I've even started seeing things on YouTube asking whether social media is destroying reading, of course, because the usual classic spin that someone's doing more of something so therefore that's something must be being ruined.
So, I think the worry is that people are so concerned to be seen to be reading stuff, and they're telling their friends they're reading stuff, and they're buying books almost as an aesthetic rather than actually reading and engaging with them.
But whatever the reason, they are buying lots of books, and one of the things driving them is the emergence of online book communities, which are often themed book communities. So, as part of research into some of my books, I've been delving deep into the dark academia community, which is an interesting place.
Howard Lovy: The dark academia, huh?
Dan Holloway: Yeah, the sort of, secret history is the text for dark academia, things set in grand, classical-sounding schools where sinister things happen and everyone wears tweed and carries around leather satchels and wears Doc Martens.
Howard Lovy: Sounds like Hogwarts to me.
Dan Holloway: There's a lot of wizardry that goes on in the books and it's, yeah, it's a really interesting trend, but it's a trend that has grown up on social media, and BookTok has been a big part of this. So, YouTube is part of it but a lot of people, and especially in Germany, are getting their book recommendations through BookTok, and they're getting them because they're part of these communities which are, sort of, identities. In the way that, I don't want to lump you in with me, but I think we are roughly the same age, and so when I say when we were young, the similar sort of thing happened with music. So, I think we were both children at the time punk was taking off. We were certainly growing up at the time when the goth movement was taking off. So, we identified with these cultural groups that were branded around bands that we liked, and it's similar what happens now on BookTok and so on with communities based around books, and particular types and genres of books.
But like you say, TikTok is on the way out in America, and I'm really interested to find out more about this because I've reported on it but been scratching my head while I've been reporting.
Howard Lovy: If you're a government worker, I think with the federal government at least, you can't have it on your phone, and I'm assuming that means, I don't know if that also means the kids of government workers can't have it on their phones.
Individual states are beginning to ban it as well, and the concern is security, and China spying, and things like that. Whether that's paranoia or not, or whether there's something to it, I don't know, and I'm not sure what could be done about that or whether these communities on TikTok are going to move elsewhere.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, I'd be interested to see if they do move elsewhere, because TikTok obviously is a very particular format. It suits particular types of content and lots of places have tried to replicate it. They haven't been very successful. Certainly places, there was all this stuff when Elon Musk took over Twitter about how it was destroying Twitter, and people would migrate elsewhere. So, for a little while everyone started talking frantically about Mastodon and so on, but nothing has really happened and nothing has really changed, because a lot of this growth happens organically and doesn't happen through a mass migration from somewhere else. It happens because something captures the imagination.
So, I don't know whether things will move from TikTok somewhere else, or whether something else will just come along at some point.
Howard Lovy: Yeah. Well, it changed something in what I'm doing. A part of this book I'm writing involves musicians going viral on social media, and my original draft had TikTok, and I deleted that and just said, social media, because by the time this book comes out, I don't know where TikTok is going to be.
Dan Holloway: Exactly. I remember when I was writing a book in 2008/2009, this was something a beta reader picked up; I talked about the main character who was staring into their iPhone. And one of my beta readers said, you can't use the word iPhone because there won't be any, they won't exist by the time the book's published because these things are fads.
That was at least one where I had the last laugh.
But it is interesting about Germany though, just to make one final point on that. That it was Frankfurt Book Fair that last year gave TikTok, essentially, free run of the fair. So, they gave them centre stage on the last day of the conference and said, you curate the content here. People from the BookTok community on every day were given sort of access to all areas passes to Frankfurt, and produced all sorts of really interesting content, and we're doing things that were really engaging readers through using TikTok with book fairs that you don't necessarily associate with that kind of audience.
Howard Lovy: Well, yeah, that's wonderful. If people are culturally and socially associating themselves with genres of books, that's wonderful for everything that we do.
BookSeller release a study of traditionally published debut authors
So, let's move the focus from the readers to writers, and we have news about, The BookSeller recently did an in-depth study of debut authors who have been traditionally published, and the picture is not a pretty one. Tell us more about that.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, this is one where you want to sound neutral about it, but you're just like, hmm interesting, because obviously this is something that is in our minds as indie authors. One of the reasons many of us became indie authors is because the thought of dealing with publishers, it feels almost toxic. But also, we are aware that a lot of the things traditionally associated with publishers and a lot of the help you would traditionally associate with being published is no longer there.
So, a lot of people like Sam Missingham of the Empowered Author have done a lot of work in raising awareness over the years of the fact that, it doesn't matter whether you're traditionally published, you still have to do your own marketing by and large.
The support that you might think is there often just won't be, and this survey has really confirmed that picture that support isn't what it was or what people thought it was going to be.
So, half of the respondents said that their experience as a debut author had a negative effect on their mental health, and the main cause for that was lack of support, and lack of long-term support.
So, even when they were given a launch event, they were literally given a launch event and then that was it. There were stories of people having to buy their own cakes for their launch event, have their own bookmarks printed.
Howard Lovy: So, they may as well be indie authors?
Dan Holloway: So, you may as well be indie authors, yeah.
Howard Lovy: You picture a whole PR machine behind you if you're traditionally published, and it turns out that's not the case maybe, at least not for debut authors.
Dan Holloway: It's really interesting because the publishing world is absolutely fixated on debut authors, and yet debut authors seem to get treated really shoddily, and there's something that's amiss with that.
Debut authors are much more likely to get published than people who've already been published in many ways because you've got this thing that they're still fresh, they're not tainted. They might be the next big thing. Every debut author might be the next big thing, whereas someone who's had a book out already is unlikely or less likely to be the next big thing, because you've already got an idea of what their sales will be like.
But they're still not doubling down on supporting these potential bright new things. So, it's almost as though they've signed authors up and then are throwing money and hoping that something will stick. And the model for the publishers is that it's like, they're saying about advertising, that 50% of it works and you don't know which 50%. They just sign up a number of authors and they know that one of them is going to work, but they don't know which one.
Howard Lovy: Yeah. Now are we talking about the big giant publishing companies, or are we also talking about midsize publishing companies?
Dan Holloway: Yeah, we're talking about all sizes.
I think it will be no surprise that people from smaller houses felt slightly better, because you get a slightly more personal treatment, and you probably have slightly lower expectations going in to begin with. You know what you're signing up for if you're with a small indie publisher.
Whereas, if you're with Penguin Random House or Harper Collins, you probably expect something more.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, it looks like all you get is the name behind you, but not much else.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, I don't want to be really negative, but it doesn't feel good, and it's not something I would want to put myself through. Certainly, as someone with a long history of poor mental health, I would not want to be in the position of being at the mercy of a publisher who is then going to put that on me. So, being an indie author feels like I'm much more in control of that process, and I absolutely do know what I'm getting myself in for because I'm the one getting myself in for it.
Howard Lovy: Exactly. Right, and I think most of us, and most of our listeners are of the same mindset, that we want to do it ourselves, we want to control it, and if we succeed or fail, we'll do it on our own terms.
Dan Holloway: I think that goes for hybrid authors too, to a certain extent, is hybrid authors tend to be eyes open, and they tend to go into publishing deals for very particular things. So, some authors will keep eBook rights and have print-only publishing deals. Some will be publishing deals in certain territories where they feel that a publisher can help them more than they could do as an indie. So, it tends to be that hybrid authors, I think, are much more focused. So, although we think about them all, you're still going to have your traditional debut, you are nonetheless going to be a little bit more aware of what you're getting yourself into.
Howard Lovy: Maybe this will convince more traditionally published authors that indie is the way to go, and by the way the Alliance of Independent Authors is a wonderful resource for writers who are thinking about this.
The latest AI news for indie authors
So, I hear our tech music in the background, which means that it's time for our technology corner. And of course, technology these days primarily means AI.
We'll start with the Hollywood Writer's strike, and there's concern that when they eventually go back to work, they'll find that they've already been replaced by a machine. How realistic is that fear?
Dan Holloway: That's a really tough question to answer without getting into legal trouble, isn't it? My instinct is that there's, I think like we were saying beforehand, that this horse has left; AI is going to be involved in the writing industry.
Writers are very concerned that they don't want to become finishers, I think is probably the term I would use. That what will happen is that AI will produce an idea and they will be left to polish it up. So, this is rather like we've seen in the luxury automotive industry, that what happened with automation is you get things compiled by machines, by robots, and the finishing is done by hand.
Howard Lovy: Right, and we were talking about this before. I don't think it's an either/or proposition. I think AI in the best of worlds can help a writer come up with different scenarios, different ideas, but it still takes a human being to hone it, to finish it, to make it a work of art. Maybe I'm just too optimistic, I don't know.
Dan Holloway: I guess there is a fear of devaluing the human element artistically, but also literally devaluing it, if it's a numbers game, because writer's rooms can be quite large. If that's reduced, how much is it going to reduce the number of people who are involved on a project, for example?
So, on a major television series, how many people do you really need working on a 26- episode series if you've got AI producing everyone's narrative arcs and all you are doing is making the dialogue sound better, or fine tuning the characters?
And do you really need that really big team of, I don't how many writers you have, but it's well into double figures?
Howard Lovy: Yeah. So, do you think that Hollywood writers are rightfully afraid right now?
Dan Holloway: It depends on what they're afraid of. If they're afraid of losing their jobs, then absolutely. I think I've been saying this from the start, that people who aren't worried about AI creating things of value to audiences don't understand the tech, because it's clearly going to create things that audiences value.
If you want to keep humans involved in the process, we need to find ways to keep humans involved in the process, and I'm optimistic that we can do that, but it's not going to happen by magic.
And companies have a vested interest in keeping their readers happy and making a profit. As writers, we tend to think that everyone has a vested interest in keeping writers in work and supporting writers; I think that's a very naive view. Obviously, we have a vested interest in that. Whether we might say that culturally there's a vested interest in that, from society's point of view it might make for a better society, but the businesses who produce books, screenplays, to what extent they have a vested interest in it, I think that's really optimistic to assume that.
Howard Lovy: Right, and we're seeing this change happening almost in real time right now. You can demand certain things on the picket line, but if you're talking about an industry that doesn't operate that way anymore, it just doesn't matter.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, talking of that, I remember vividly, talking again about how old we are, in the 1980s-
Howard Lovy: I remember it well.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, when newspapers stopped printing in the old-fashioned printing presses and went digital, and that was the Print Setting Union. So, it's hard to imagine nowadays that there was such a thing as a print setting union.
Howard Lovy: Oh, sure, yeah, I lived that that change. When I first started at newspapers in the early eighties, we physically pasted up everything. This was before desktop publishing, and I would cut my fingers with exacto knives and literally bleed on the pages, and then suddenly QuarkXPress came, and we were paginating, and an entire paste-up department just disappeared.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, I remember going around to my local newspaper and compositing, and there were little strips of metal with the letters on that would be clattered out from a machine that you typed into, and they'd be composited to form the pages that the ink would then be spread on, and it was a manual process.
Howard Lovy: Yeah, so now if we have younger listeners, they're bored to tears right now about the good old days.
Dan Holloway: I'm not sure it's the good old days, I think that's part of the problem. It's just the way it was and the way it will be is different from the way it was, and that's always been the way it has been, to use lots of different tenses.
Howard Lovy: Well, that's how I'm trying to think about AI right now. It's happening and we have to learn to live with it and to be creative within it.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, and if we give up, then we might as well give up as it were. So, we have to be optimistic.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, is there any other news in the world of AI?
Dan Holloway: I guess there's lots of other news, and Google have been doing all sorts of things that I will try and catch up with for this week. They may or may not be that interesting to people.
But one thing that did particularly catch my eye is, we were talking about subscription earlier, so Scribd, which is one of the big subscription reading services, has changed its terms of service. So, it's put an AI clause in there to say that it's not allowing any companies that train large language models to use what it's calling ‘full content’ provided by its publishing partners, which is only available through its digital subscription service. So, that I think is a way of saying you can't scrape our databases, basically, just to train your AI.
But the use of the word full content, and only available through digital subscription, is still not a blanket ban, but we are seeing more and more organizations putting these clauses in because I think they realize that authors aren't going to publish through them if they don't.
And that came across with, it was Findaway and Apple, when it was found out that they had terms that would allow AI models to just scrape their content.
Authors didn't like it and so I think everyone is now realizing that they need to put these clauses in there if they want to keep authors writing for them.
Howard Lovy: Yeah, the problem is enforcement though. How do you know if an AI is scraping your content?
Dan Holloway: Yeah, exactly, because literally all you need to do is, and this is what the UK's failed data mining exception would've done, is all you would've needed to do is pay for the subscription once, then you've got the content, how on earth do you check whether that content's been used to train something or not?
I guess you write a book on something that's never been written about, and then you ask ChatGPT to produce an essay on that subject and see if it's there.
Howard Lovy: We'll keep an eye on this and other stories, and we'll talk again next month.
Dan Holloway: Fabulous. Thank you, Howard.
Howard Lovy: Thank you, Dan. Bye.