Print sales are up, so how can indie authors make better inroads into local bookstores? That is among the topics discussed on Self-Publishing News with ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway and book editor Howard Lovy. Together, they will bring you the latest in indie publishing news, including commentary, a technology update, and highlights from indie author interviews.
On this show, Dan and Howard discuss:
- Rising print sales
- An overview of artificial intelligence in writing and publishing
- What the rise in audio means for indie authors
- Inspirational Indie Authors
Listen to Self-Publishing News: Local Bookstores, AI, and More
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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. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript to Self-Publishing News: Local Bookstores, AI, and More
Howard Lovy: Welcome to Self-Publishing News with ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway.
I’m Howard Lovy, and together, we will bring you the latest in indie-publishing news, including commentary, a technology update, and highlights from indie author interviews. Self-Publishing News is brought to you by the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Welcome to Self-Publishing news with Dan Holloway. I’m Howard Lovy and also, welcome to our first full half-hour show, Dan. I’m excited, are you?
Dan Holloway: Yes, absolutely. Even recording on a Friday afternoon, it’s still exciting to talk about self-publishing for half an hour.
Howard Lovy: Wonderful, I’ll let you get on with your weekend soon.
But first, we always like to start by introducing ourselves and what we have going on in our lives and in our work. I understand you’re working on a new science fiction book, Dan?
Dan Holloway: Yes, it’s the first fiction I’ve written for about six years, I think. I’ve been writing nonfiction a lot. So, it’s a story about the last humans.
So, it’s a story where there are only six people left on earth, and they’re all in their 110s, and it’s a way of asking lots of interesting questions about the things we prioritize, and at what point we would stop doing things if this was the end of stuff.
Howard Lovy: So, it’s a documentary, then, very much grounded in our current apocalyptic situation.
Older characters though, I like that.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, I like writing older characters. So, what are you up to these days?
Howard Lovy: Well, I’m very happy that a book I worked on as developmental editor for an indie author has just been released. It’s called, Ballad of a Sober Man: An ER Doctor’s Journey of Recovery.
He’s an ALLi member who I’ve interviewed before on my Inspirational Indie Authors podcast.
Authors who have gone through traumatic experiences seem to trust me with their memoirs.
I’ve gone through my own share of trauma and approach this work without judgment and with lots of empathy. I edit memoirs about people who have hit rock bottom and climbed their way out, and I really do push them to dig deeper and tell readers, not only what they experienced, but how they experienced it. Bring us into their world. Don’t make us think about a writer sitting down years later and looking back.
So, I have cancer memoirs, and even a woman who recovered from heroin addiction. It can be a painful process to relive these memories, but rewarding when the book is released, like this latest one, and the author has said what they wanted to say.
Dan Holloway: That’s always the key, to get the author to say exactly what they wanted to say.
Howard Lovy: Right, and probably a little more than they wanted to say; I push them a little bit.
Getting into Local Bookstores
Okay. So, let’s start talking about the latest in self-publishing news, and I guess there’s kind of a good news, bad news thing. Print sales are up during the pandemic, and there are various ways indie authors, I hope, can be taking advantage of this, and one of them might be a service that connects readers with indie bookstores.
Dan Holloway: Yes, print is doing well. It’s one of the things that seems to have flourished. I think print sales in September in the UK were up 10%. So, people are still buying print books, even though they can’t get to the bookshop.
The slightly less good news is that they tend to be buying them from Amazon. So, for indie bookstores, that’s not so good. Although obviously, for those of us who publish direct on Amazon, that’s something to think about. It’s something that we often forget, and we think of print as not for us as Indies, because it’s only about getting in bookshops. But it seems that this is maybe a trend towards people buying more print online, which is obviously good for us.
But yes, the news in the UK is that bookshop.org is coming to the UK. They are operating in America at the moment. They were in the news, in my column, quite a lot at the start of the year in America, when they were taking on the mantle and the infrastructure from IndieBound, which was the app that many of us know, which is our way of tying books to indie bookshops.
And there was something similar in the UK, that never quite got off the ground, called Hive.
Howard Lovy: The idea is that, if you have an author website and you want to steer people toward buying your book, instead of an Amazon link, give them a bookshop.org link and that will connect them with a local bookstore?
Dan Holloway: Yes, they can choose the local bookstores that they want to use. So, bookstores partner up with bookshop.org. If a bookshop is partnered with them, then the person buying the book, wherever they’re based, can choose which book shop they want to support. So, it’s a really good way, if you don’t have a local indie bookstore, it’s a really good way of supporting an indie store somewhere else.
So, there’ve been a lot of high-profile indie bookshops early on in the pandemic who we’re using Kickstarter and GoFundMe, and other ways, to try and raise funds to keep themselves open, and this is a really good way of helping them do that. So, for example, City Lights had a campaign, which, as a poet, is the Holy Grail of all bookshops. So, I could buy all my online paperbacks in theory, from City Lights, and they could benefit from the sale, even though I’m just ordering it from bookshop.org. So, that’s the principle behind it. The problem seems to be, for indie authors, that the bookshops taking parts in the UK are doing so through Gardners, the wholesaler, and Gardners don’t always hold stock of indie books.
So, you can only sell your book through bookshop.org if Gardners have stock of it. It’s sort of up to Gardners on whether they do or not, it’s not like IngramSpark. And I think Ingram’s are the wholesaler of choice for bookshop.org in America. So, if you’re on IngramSpark, you’re automatically going to be able to have your books bought through bookshop.org. But that’s not the case if you’re through IngramSpark in the UK, because Gardners holds some Ingram books, but not all of them. It’s sort of a conversation you have to have with Gardners, and I know several ALLi members are. I think Margaret was talking about it, Margaret Skea who’s a great writer, a great ALLi writer, stalwart of London Book Fair, her books are all in Gardners, so she was saying that she knew her books would be available. But it’s an extra layer of work we have to do to try and make sure that Gardners are holding the stock.
The thing with IngramSpark is that IngramSpark is connected to Ingram’s, who are the distributor. So, if you use the IngramSpark program, then you automatically get to Ingram’s. Whereas, Gardner services, they don’t have that front end, they don’t have a publishing platform, they’re just a distributor and they choose which books to have. So, whereas if you enter the IngramSpark program, your book automatically goes through to Ingram’s. There’s no automatic feed when you publish your book, to get it into Gardner’s. It’s up to them whether they take it or not.
Howard Lovy: So, like indie authors do for everything else, we have to do it ourselves and be our own advocate. Is there anything else you want to talk about regarding general trends in print sales?
Young Adult Drives Sales
Dan Holloway: Yeah, the other really interesting thing about the print trend is that it seems to be driven almost entirely by young adult and middle grade fiction. That’s definitely something for Indie authors. I mean, young adult is a very big genre for indie authors. So, if people maybe aren’t thinking about print, but are writing in that area, then it’s definitely something that’s worth thinking about.
Howard Lovy: Lots of kids on lockdown with idle time on their hands are reading print books, that’s good to hear.
Well, thank you, Dan, for this news update, and we’ll be back in touch with the latest news next month.
Dan Holloway on Growth in Audio
Dan Holloway: It’s great to have the chance to talk about one of the subjects that’s been in the news this year in a little more depth than usual, and what better subject to start with than audio. I want to go over the main ways in which audio is transforming the landscape we live in as Indies, looking at the relation to podcasting, the growth in audio in general, whether it’s affecting our consumption of information in general, books in particular, and I also want to talk about the subscription model, which is how people are increasingly getting their audio content, and which could have profound consequences for how we make our living.
I want to start, not with Audible, but with Spotify, because in terms of audio content this is the behemoth in the industry, and in many ways it’s a possible indicator of what might lie in store for us. Either because Audible and others will end up tracking the same trajectory, because it might pivot more noticeably in our direction, or simply because the lines between podcasting and audio books are blurring. After all, it was only a few weeks ago Spotify were advertising for a head of audio books, and they’re just this month added tools for creators to add spoken word commentary to their playlists.
Spotify has, of course, been in the news of late, having spent a hundred million dollars to secure exclusive rights to The Joe Rogan Experience from next year. Last week, it was tying itself in knots over the fact that Rogan’s latest show featured Alex Jones, whose own Infowars channel has been removed from Spotify along with other platforms.
This in itself is a possible foretaste of what might be coming to our world. Sadly, I’m not sure the hundred-million-dollar paycheck is part of that. I don’t think even Mark Dawson in his wildest dreams would imagine that kind of a deal. Exclusivity, however, is something we’re already familiar with. We know it through Kindle Unlimited, and the more successful you are in the subscription world, the more of a thing it becomes. Scribd, Wattpad, Audible, all of them have exclusive original content, in a model clearly taken from media where subscription is more established.
I’m not suggesting this means that to be successful, we will have to become exclusive in the audio sphere, but we know from Amazon’s imprints, and the way they dominate the eBook charts, and personal experience of Netflix and so on, that when a platform has its own exclusive content, that’s what consumers see most of.
And then, of course, there’s the question of content. Spotify’s response to the embarrassing situation it found itself in is that, while it will take down channels that spread disinformation, conspiracy, or hate, it will not police individual guests on shows.
We’ve seen similar semantic torture elsewhere in the world of platforms, where recording artists have been required to sign up to what amounts to good behavior bonds in return for access to distribution. As indies, we’re also familiar with this. The Erotica community, one in which indies lead the way, has a history of having its content removed, either for displeasing a platform, or more often, displeasing a platforms delivery partners, usually PayPal.
Is the subscription model more prone to content controls in a simple marketplace?
Well, yes, I would say so for algorithmic reasons, but also, and possibly more importantly, for potential legal reasons. Marketplaces are very good at the “nothing to do with me, I just rent the space out” defense. Subscription services, they can’t argue that the transaction is between buyer and seller, and nothing to do with them.
So, I’ve spent somewhat longer than I planned on that, but as you know, matters of arcane tech and copyright law are my thing. So, sorry, I’ll move on to the other really big question.
How will subscriptions’ preferred all-you-can-eat format affect our earnings?
I won’t go into much detail on Audible’s moves in that direction, Mark Williams has an excellent account of the trajectory at The New Publishing Standard, but their recent Spanish store front employed the model. And it’s one that consumers in many markets are not only used to, from experience with Amazon Prime or Netflix, it’s one they increasingly expect.
The real question we don’t know the answer to is how this shift will affect the royalty levels paid to writers. We know from our friends in the music industry that Spotify has had a catastrophic impact on per-listen payments when compared to the download and store model. But there is far from universal gloom.
First, there’s the recent story from Scandinavia, where subscription audio platforms like Storytel and BookBeat have really taken hold. Norwegian writers have taken legal action to try and force their publishers to enroll them on more platforms, which in itself tells a story about what it means to be an indie. And then there’s the format of the audio book. As some of you will know, one of the things I do in my spare time is competitive speed reading. That means reading a book six to ten times quicker than I guess you’d call average, and that, sort of, pales in comparison to the avid fans in some genres. But while I know people listen to podcasts up to twice as fast, and probably some audio books a little bit faster, it’s simply not possible to be a super consumer of audio the way that one can be of eBooks or paperbacks. That means there will always be less demand on any funding pool. That said, I’m not wildly optimistic either; other industries tell us that the move from download to subscription creates a pricing model increasingly driven by the renters, rather than the producers of content.
So, to conclude, audio is the way more and more people are taking in words, and that has only accelerated during lockdown. Podcasts and audiobooks are those growing in popularity and, to a certain extent, growing together. And this comes at a time when subscription is increasingly the way people are consuming, both.
This provides many opportunities, as well as, to sound like a cliche, presenting many risks. As the experience of Norwegian writers shows though, not being beholden to the business plans of third parties, that is being an indie, is the one thing that is most crucial to make the most of them.
What is Artificial Intelligence?
Howard Lovy: Here’s the part of our monthly podcast where I’d like to talk about technology, and I know you, Dan are a technology optimist, and so am I.
Let’s talk about the landscape of Artificial Intelligence as a writing and publishing tool. Maybe you can give us a 40,000-foot overview of what we mean when we say AI in a writing and publishing context?
Dan Holloway: Yes, various different things. I’m sure in the months to come, we’ll come back and have a look at some, in some more detail as products expand. There are two different ways that we couldn’t think about artificial intelligence in relation to publishing; they’re both very much machine learning. We’re not talking about what Elon Musk and people might call strong AI. We’re not talking, at the moment, about things that can start to learn to think for themselves, and so on, and therefore come up with what we might think of as something genuinely original. Artificial Intelligence is very much based on sets of big data at the moment in the publishing sphere.
Some of it is using big data to help with the publishing side, and some of it is using data to help with the writing side.
So, if you think about the publishing side first, you have things like PublishDrive Savant, which is their artificial intelligence. And what that does, basically, it’s data set is all the books on their website. It looks at those books and then it looks at sales data and it learns what kind of book sells best in which kind of category. So, it’s all about market positioning. It’s like the Netflix algorithm. It’s the kind of thing that’s aimed at helping you to market your book better by knowing where to aim it. And in particular, they will help you to come up with better use of metadata for Amazon adverts, and that’s obviously something that’s really useful because it’s designed to take a lot of the trial and error out of Amazon adverts, the kind of thing that costs us a lot of money, because we might try something, find it’s not working, and then we’ve already spent the money on it before we try something else. So, it aims to get you a long way down that road before you, even get there.
Howard Lovy: By putting your book in front of readers who, according to the data, would be interested in buying it?
Dan Holloway: Yes, exactly. So, it’s reading books, in theory it’s analyzing the structure of books, it’s analyzing formatically, and then it’s marrying that up with sales data. So, that’s mainly how artificial intelligence is used in publishing at the moment as a marketing tool.
On the writing side, and this is the thing that gains the headlines slightly more, obviously artificial intelligence, you will know this as someone who has spent much of their life as a journalist, that a lot of non-fiction at the moment is actually already written by artificial intelligence, especially short online journal articles.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, that explains a lot. Why a lot of journalists like me can’t seem to get those jobs anymore. We’ve been replaced by robots; the apocalypse is here.
Dan Holloway: Exactly.
Howard Lovy: You know, I recently interviewed an author who also began a company that sells a product called Fictionary, you might’ve heard of it. They presented at the last Self-Publishing Conference. It’s a writing tool and an editing tool where it tells you what’s lacking in a scene, or what your thriller needs is this kind of scene. Is that considered artificial intelligence?
Dan Holloway: Yes. That’s the kind of machine learning that we’re starting to see with companies like Wattpad, where they, again, they read books, they look at the story arc. Wattpad, in particular, try and predict what’s going to make a good film, for example, because they’ve got lots of deals with studios.
So they look at what kind of books, that are on their shelves already, are going to make for something that works well as an adaptation for the small or the big screen, and they do that by looking at the structure. So, it’s exactly what you’re talking about. It’s, where’s the emotional hotspots, where’s the narrative arc going? Maybe it’s, like you say, missing a scene here, it needs some downbeats there, or it needs some more action somewhere else.
Howard Lovy: Wattpad has a base of, I don’t know how many thousands, of young people writing stories. Does it literally read all of them and say, okay, this one, that one and the other one, we’re going to make into a Netflix series?
Dan Holloway: Pretty much, yes. I mean, this data set is, I know we say this a lot, it dwarfs everything else in the publishing world. Wattpad, as a resource, it’s humongous and things routinely get millions, even billions, of reads in a way that we can’t even begin to imagine if we’re just publishing on Amazon.
One of the things I’ve been talking about a lot over recent years is the difference in scale between digital and audio book subscription in publishing and in the music industry, or the film industry and Wattpad is the closest we have in the publishing world to that sort of scale. So, they’re very good at it and they produce a lot of very big, hit television series and films as a result.
Howard Lovy: As a creative person though, who literally wrote the book on creativity, do you think that this would stifle creativity? If you’re told as you write your science fiction book that you need X scene and Y scene, and if not, your book just isn’t going to sell?
Dan Holloway: It depends on what I want out of it. If I want to sell books, then obviously that’s great. If the aim is entirely creative, then I can still see some really, really good uses for it. It might help me to think of doing things I haven’t thought of doing before, doing what it says, and then seeing what happens as a result is a really interesting experiment.
Howard Lovy: As long as it gives us suggestions and doesn’t force your hand.
Dan Holloway: Yes. Well, it’s like an editor.
Howard Lovy: Right, exactly. I always tell my clients, everything I tell you is a suggestion. Some suggestions are stronger than others.
Well, this is all fascinating. In subsequent months on this show, we’ll dig deeper into artificial intelligence and other types of technology that hopefully enhance the writing, editing and publishing experience.
Dan Holloway: Brilliant.
Howard Lovy: And with that, we’ll call it a day. Thank you so much, Dan. We’ll have much more to discuss in the coming months.
Dan Holloway: Brilliant, thank you.
Inspirational Indie Authors
Howard Lovy: Indie Authors usually have lived varied and interesting lives before they ever decided to become authors. They have backstories that inform their worldview, writing style, genre choice, and usually a deep well of experience from which to draw.
I also have selfish reasons for hosting the Inspirational Indie Authors podcast every Sunday. These authors inspire me to use my own backstory to become a better writer.
There are so many great stories told by ALLi authors and each one of them, a window into unique talents and points of view. Here are a few of the ALLi member authors who have inspired me this past month.
Karen Hill Anton is a black woman, married to a white husband, living in a small community in Japan. But Karen would be the first to tell you that none of those descriptions really matter. She would tell you that she has traveled the world and lived in many places. And in the end, all we have is our shared humanity.
She wrote a memoir about her travels called, The View from Breast Pocket Mountain, where she talks about her lifetime journey from New York city to Japan, where she became a popular newspaper columnist. She is accepted as a member of the community in Japan, which makes her wonder why the same thing cannot happen in the United States, where there has been a recent summer filled with racial strife.
Karen Hill Anton: I do live in a community of people who don’t look anything like me, but it’s like, you can make your place. You can make your place. When you’re accepting of other people, they’re accepting of you. That’s my feeling.
Howard Lovy: Mytrae Meliana’s story is both painful and beautiful.
She came to the United States from India as a teenager, and not only faced prejudice from the outside, but also within her own family, a culture that left few choices for women. After years of emotional and physical abuse, Mytrae at last found peace and a way to use her story to help others.
Her book, Brown Skin Girl: An American Indian Woman’s Magical Journey from Broken to Beautiful, is the story of how she got there.
Today, she is in a better place, both physically and spiritually, as a psychologist.
Mytrae Meliana: The journey of healing leads us into places to we can’t imagine. So now that, you know, my spirituality is open, it’s almost like a shamanic experience that people go through. That’s what happens, you know, as and when I work with them.
So, it’s a profound, deep healing and transformation and awakening that they get to receive. So, it’s wonderful for me.
Howard Lovy: Michael Sean Comerford spent the first part of his career as a journalist, moving from town to town. Turned out, life on the road was perfect preparation for what came after his newspaper career, which was writing a book about carnival workers.
He traveled with them, worked with them, talked to them, lived among them. In the end, he emerged with his book, American Oz: An Astonishing Year Inside Traveling Carnivals at State Fairs and Festivals. And to talk to him, you get a sense of Michael Sean Comerford is not yet finished with his travels.
Michael Sean Comerford: These carnival people in these traveling carnivals, their art is to make other people happy and, with them missing, we are the poorer, but also, we should think of them. One of the things I want people to take away is that, you’ll never see another carnival or state fair the same again, because the people that run these things, you’ll see them as real people, and not just as someone who’s putting you on a ride or someone that’s running your game.
You’ll see them as fuller human beings. It’ll be a different experience.
Howard Lovy: To listen to my Inspirational Indie Author Interviews, and to the other AskALLi podcasts, go to selfpublishing.org/podcast.
You have been listening to the Self-Publishing news with Dan Holloway. I am Howard Lovy. Our weekly self-publishing advice broadcast is brought to you by ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors.
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