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Self-publishing News 2021: Subscription’s Breakthrough Year And A Time Of New Technology

Self-publishing News 2021: Subscription’s Breakthrough Year and a Time of New Technology

In this week's Self-Publishing News Special, ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway looks back at 2021's defining self-publishing stories.

Dan Holloway head and shoulders

ALLi's News Editor Dan Holloway

As I look back at the biggest trends to come across my desk in the past year, may I wish you the very happiest of New Years. I look forward to seeing you on the other side. Or even sooner than that on tonight's #indieauthorchat at the usual 3pm Eastern, 8pm UK time when we will be looking back over the year in self-publishing.

It’s been a very strange year in so many ways. And you would have expected the news to reflect the uncertainty of the world. But while Covid has accelerated some of the year’s biggest trends, this has been one of those years when other inexorable changes have dominated. Some of them, like the growth of platforms and media providing new opportunities, have been for the better. Some, like climate change, have meant as an industry we are no longer able to ignore our worst excesses. And others have either brought out both the best and worst (NFTs) or fall into the “too early to tell” category (AI-generated narration).

Spotify and Subscription's Breakthrough

Let’s take a look at those big themes. Starting with the biggest of all. Covid certainly accelerated the growth of subscription reading. But, following a pattern we’ve become sadly familiar with, it was already growing exponentially – it just hadn’t taken off. This year it did. And after talking about the Spotification of reading for seemingly an age, it actually happened. Spotify, complete with its 178 million subscribers, bought audiobook platform Findaway. The move was part of a conscious bid to make Spotify the one stop shop for audio content. 

It’s not just Spotify that stepped up this year to fuel the growth of all you can eat subscription reading. Inkitt raised $59m to boost its paid subscription platform Galatea. And Kakao has spent around half a billion acquiring genre-specific platforms Radish and Wuxiaworld. And Audible’s all you can eat “Audible Plus” now serves 7 markets and counting.  

What we don’t yet know is the impact this will have on authors at a time when Audiblegate has already made many nervous. In music, revenues from streaming services tanked through the floor. But figures presented at this year’s Futurebook suggest the same might not happen with audiobooks. A lot of people are turning to audiobooks. And a lot of people consume them regularly. But there seems to be a sweet spot of around 2 books a month. Yes, that’s double the single credit that Audible offers readers in its standard plan. But it’s not an order of magnitude (or more) greater as some might have feared. Which means building an income stream in the new landscape might still be possible for indies.

NFTs and Digital Narration: A Year of New(ish) Technology

And that sort of segues into the next big news trend of the year: tech. Two technologies have emerged from the pack this year. First up is a possible answer to the question of how to make a living from audiobooks in a landscape where subscription dominates. The biggest barrier indies face is the cost of narration. Even where voice artists agree to a royalty share contract rather than an up front amount, this can eat into income for many years. And if income drops, that might make the market impossible to enter at all.

Digital Narration

Which is where digital narration comes in. This year saw digital narration move from obviously fake voices to ones so accurate that one provider, Speechki, found that most people can’t tell the difference. These synthetic voices, which come in an increasing number of languages and dialects, improve at pace thanks to machine learning. That means they are only going to get better. And do so quickly. The cost of narrating an audiobook this way runs into the hundreds of dollars – compared to thousands for a voice actor. Of course, this has its own issues. The biggest is the future it presents to voice actors. And this at a time when authors and narrators have acted together in holding Audible to account for Audiblegate. 


And then there’s the non fungible token (NFT). Blockchain was big a couple of years ago. Then it disappeared. And now it’s back as creators have sought to use the technology to create NFTs, digital first editions. NFTs provide a way of claiming unique ownership of something that is freely available in the public realm by guaranteeing the uniqueness not of the art itself but the token attached to it. 

NFTs hit the headlines when the digital artist Beeple sold one for $69m. Inevitably literature got in on the act. BooksGoSocial has led the way, although when I reported on the first major sale it was a more modest $100

One positive of the NFT trends is the use of blockchain technology that is less environmentally damaging than Bitcoin, whose energy hungry mining rigs have become notorious. Many use platforms like Solana, which promise net zero emissions. As well as lower “gas” prices for creators – the amount you have to pay to create a digital token in the first place.

Publishing Tackles The Climate Crisis

And this brings us to a final subject. 2021 is the year publishing at last started to confront its role in climate change. A group of publishers committed to starting a conversation in the wake of this year’s COP26. Publishing has many issues of course, but the biggest is its supply chain, which accounts for 98% of its emissions. Of course, not only do books often come half way round the world after printing. There is also the mark of shame that is returns. Returns of unsold books make up almost half the industry’s emissions. That’s a truly shocking figure. 

But for us as indies it offers some hope that here as elsewhere we can lead the way. Print on demand produces only a fraction of the emissions of other methods. Not only are there no returns, but much of the printing takes place in more local factories. This year Ingram Spark has opened several new print on demand factories globally, and the regular mass market supply chain has been hit by shipping delays and paper shortages. All of which suggests there might be a future in which we are at the vanguard of change, not lagging behind.

2021 was subscription reading's breakthrough year and other top #selfpub news stories for #indieauthors, in one quick read, by #ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway @agnieszkasshoes #digitaleconomy #publishingopenup Share on X

Upcoming Conferences and Events

Help us fill this with great online events in the coming weeks and months. I highly recommend this great list of online writers' conferences from Nate Hoffelder, some of which are indie-inclusive.

Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) – Zoom meetings the 2nd Saturday of each month

Over to You

Author: Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines, which has appeared at festivals and fringes from Manchester to Stoke Newington. In 2010 he was the winner of the 100th episode of the international spoken prose event Literary Death Match, and 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 for Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Transparency-Sutures-Dan-Holloway-ebook/dp/B01A6YAA40


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