2012 was a landmark year for self-publishing, seeing not only the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors, but also the publishing platforms Draft2Digital and Kobo Writing Life, and the advertising medium BookBub, all of which are still significant players. Since then, indie authors have rocked the book world non-stop. Here’s a round-up of the defining changes year on year – which show how far we’ve come, how fast we’re adapting and innovating, and how we’ve changed the face of publishing forever. This is ten years of self-publishing.
Publishing historians are likely to note 2012 as the year that the self-publishing sector took off, its achievements making it unignorable from then on. “Self-publishing is coming out of the dark corners,” reported The Guardian newspaper in 2012, with some surprise, “and is making its way into the mainstream.”
New figures from Bowker– the agency that issues ISBNs for books published in the US – had just revealed that the number of DIY published books in the US had exploded, tripling in the five years since the Kindle and iPhone were launched, to reach almost quarter of a million titles.
A few important milestones made that year, and the explosive decade that was to come, possible. Before 2012, the biggest year for e-books was 2007, which saw the launch of the Apple iPhone and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
Phone reading was still well in the future but KDP, Amazon's e-book publishing platform for indie authors and other small, independent publishers, was an instant game changer. Launched at the same time as the Kindle reader, and attached to the biggest online store in the world, it changed publishing.
The iPad followed in 2010 and by that time, countless US and UK authors were exploring this new opportunity. While some vowed “No, never”, those who had taken the leap were loving it.
For self-publishing in print, the biggest year was all the way back in 1996, when Ingram Content Group founded Lightning Source, a print-on-demand platform for the publishing industry. There was also BookSurge founded in 2000 in South Carolina, acquired by Amazon in 2005 and renamed CreateSpace.
Amazon further expanded its dominance in 2011 by launching ACX for audiobooks, another innovative platform that allowed authors and narrators to split costs and income.
And then came the most amazing decade.
2012: Hello Kindle Millionaires
Bowker released its groundbreaking figures about self-publishing, which didn’t even account for the untold number of authors who, at that time, weren’t even bothering with ISBNs. Even without those, Bowker found self-publishing in the US had grown by 287 percent to 235,625 books between 2006 and 2012. E-books made up 37 percent of that total, with 87,201 released in 2011, and were the fastest-growing sector, up 129 percent since 2010, with print growing 33 percent in the same period.
“This is no longer vanity presses at work,” said Bowker's general manager Beat Barblan, adding that four self-published authors had seven novels on the New York Times e-book bestseller lists.
As Bowker was releasing its figures, more new authors were sharpening their digital skills. And trade-published authors with backlists big and small were turning to their publishers in droves, to get back rights that were lying moribund.
Self-publishing authors were using price as a competitive advantage, seriously undercutting trade-published authors on Amazon and Apple, with 99c books, but still taking home more money than they had through trade publishing. Thus we saw the first “Kindle millionaires”, people like Rachel Abbott, Amanda Hocking, Paul Pilkington and HM Ward. And, of course, the two best known self-publishers of all.
Erika Mitchell took her Twilight fan-fiction and created 50 Shades of Grey under the pen-name EL James. The three-book series has netted more than $95m and counting today, more than $5m (£3.9m) of that came from the movie rights which the savvy Mitchell sold to Hollywood with a producer credit.
The equally savvy JK Rowling launched her Pottermore website in 2012, to “give something back to the fans” and manage her e-books. Although Rowling did give her publisher Bloomsbury a share of e-book revenue, she sold all the digital editions of the books through the Pottermore website, disintermediating Amazon and being one of the first proponents of “selling direct.”
2013: Hello IngramSpark
Despite all this activity, many indie authors hadn’t yet got into print. Robin Cutler, then working for Ingram Content Group, wanted to change that. She had worked at CreateSpace, and knew that self-publishing authors and other micro-publishers needed a more nimble platform than Lightning Source, their existing POD platform designed for trade publishers. In 2013, Ingram consolidated its centrality to new publishing with the formation of IngramSpark.
There are other large print-on-demand companies around the world but they have no wholesaling or retailing network. IngramSpark also serves as an aggregator for e-book distribution, but it is its print operation that is so central for indie authors, with distribution centers, sales offices and connections to book retailers in the US, Australia, the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
2014: Hello Kindle Unlimited and Author Earnings Reports
Amazon, still innovating, launched Kindle Unlimited (KU), allowing readers to download an unlimited quantity of e-books and audiobooks for a set monthly fee – “Netflix for e-books.” Also revolutionary was how authors were paid – not for books purchased, but pages read.
Back then, trade houses didn’t publish books through the KU program, so the competition there (which included the books listed in the Kindle Countdown Deal charts and elsewhere) was other indie authors or small presses.
From the start, KU elicited strong feelings. Some authors objected to exclusivity on principle. Others were concerned about the compensation model – Amazon put up a pot that authors had to share in, which meant payment was totally at Amazon’s discretion. There was also concern about the growth of scammers in the Kindle store, especially as Amazon used an algorithm to identify abuse of the rules, which caught many innocent authors. These hardworking authors had their ranking stripped and lost page reads, while in the words of community activist David Gaughran, “big scammy whales” too often got away with gaming the system. (This is still a problem.)
This year also saw the introduction of Author Earnings Reports, the brainchild of indie science fiction author Hugh Howey and a tech partner Paul Abbassi (known at the time as Data Guy). Using an innovative method of scraping online platform sales, the research revealed that existing data, and the rest of the industry, were completely underestimating indie authors’ e-book sales.
KU and Author Earnings reports also led to a new big debate in the self-publishing sector. Indie authors no longer talked about trade publishing versus self-publishing. Now it was KU versus wide.
2015: Hello Diversity
Now that trade publishers had woken up to the success of self-publishing, they were proactively combing the Amazon, Apple and Kobo lists for authors with proven sales records, and offering them irresistible deals. A number of million-dollar advances made the headlines. Meanwhile, Amazon had been cherry-picking bestsellers for its own publishing imprints for years (without the huge advances but with significant marketing boosts on the platform). Many indies signed up, some to stay put, some to return to KDP after a time.
Alison Baverstock, professor of publishing at Kingston University, released research that corrected many misconceptions about self-publishers and concluded that “self-publishing was turning a corner, at last being seen as part of publishing in general.”
Arguments began to emerge about diversity and trade publishing. It became clear that the best way to nurture these qualities was to encourage underrepresented writers to self-publish their books and access their own readerships who understood their world view and were hungry to see themselves reflected in books.
New genres like urban fiction, fan fiction, and LGBT stories expanded far beyond anything anyone had imagined possible and indie authors saw firsthand the power of micro-niching over mainstreaming.
2016: Hello KDP Print and 20 Books to 50K
Amazon quietly launched a print service called KDP Print and began adding features. Meanwhile, a science fiction and fantasy author, Michael Anderle came up with a concept that spoke to a lot of indie authors: “I had released two books in November of 2015 and was starting to make $12-$15 a day from these two books… I said okay, if I can get 20 books all making this $7.50 a day I could make $50,000 a year and retire my wife, who was the main breadwinner in the household: 20 books to make $50k.”
This idea gave birth to his publishing company, LMBPN, and the author Facebook group 20 Books to 50K. Their huge, lively, global conferences, from Edinburgh to Las Vegas, revealed a hunger in authors for live self-publishing focussed events, and a propensity in some indie authors for fast-track production.
2017: Hello Algorithms
As the number of recorded self-published books in the US crossed the million mark, more indie authors were giving advice about how to influence “the algorithm” that drove recommendations in Amazon’s online bookstore. The algorithm was referred to in the sort of hushed tones previously reserved for gods or kings.
Amazon, by now estimated to command more than a third of all book revenue and 70 percent of e-book revenue, took another commercial jump with the launch of its advertising platform. Some authors began to invest heavily and a growing army of experts and would-be-experts emerged to help authors navigate an increasingly complex ecosystem on the book advertising side, with social media advertising, especially Facebook, also driving significant sales.
Meanwhile we saw a major drop in revenue at the “vanity presses” that preyed on indie authors. Author Solutions, notorious for its unsavory practices, lost many of its key partnerships, notably its connection with Penguin Books. Tate Publishing & Enterprises in Oklahoma, another poor player, imploded in spectacular fashion, with its founder arrested on charges of embezzlement and extortion.
Trade publishers continued their experiments in the self-publishing space, but largely floundered, failing to understand the psychology of the independent author or offer anything of real value. Two of their ventures went to the wall in 2017, most notably Macmillan’s Pronoun and (to fewer casualties) Bonnier’s Type & Tell.
Any notion that self-publishing meant the end of print was dispelled when US figures recorded self-published print book sales increasing by 38 percent in 2017, the fifth consecutive year of print growth. The growth was driven by a 50 percent increase at CreateSpace.
2018: Hello Ads for Authors
With the rise of paid advertising, Amazon, Facebook and other social media outlets started to pare back organic reach. It was no longer possible to upload a book and sell copies without giving full attention to marketing and promotion.
In France, bookshops revolted after a prestigious prize shortlisted a self-published novel by Marco Koskas, refusing to “jump into the wolf’s mouth,” they said, meaning Amazon KDP. Amazon powered on, absorbing CreateSpace into KDP Print late in 2018.
Meanwhile, Author Earnings closed. As Nate Hoffelder of the Digital Reader said, the website had passed through the classic formative stages: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then attack you, and then you win”. Co-founder Paul Abbassi turned the winning information into BookStat and locked the information behind a million-dollar paywall, with access granted to trade publishers only. The indie authors who had made Data Guy’s name never saw a report, free or paid, from Data Guy again.
2019: Hello SelfPub3
This was the year when indie authors woke up to business. They were not just writers, but publishers too. As part of this important mental shift, ALLi renamed its professional membership category as authorpreneur membership, expanded the business models that made authors eligible, and published a guide SelfPub3. This guidebook recognised the start of a new era for indie authors. As author confidence and connections with readers grew, and platforms like Patreon, Substack, Podia, PayHip, WooCommerce and others emerged to connect creators directly with patrons, ALLi encouraged indie authors to better their publishing business skills.
Stories about Amazon KDP book purges, account closures and poor communications lead more authors to “go wide”, publishing on a variety of platforms and Romance novelist Erin Wright and friends start the Wide for the Win group on Facebook.
Indies take to more formats as well as more platforms, as audiobooks take off. The UK Publishers Association announced that audiobook downloads hit a record £31m sales in 2017, up 22 percent on the previous year. It was the same everywhere and indie authors were seizing the audiobook opportunity, through ACX, platforms like Author’s Republic, Findaway Voices, and Lantern. And using BookFunnel and other file delivery platforms to sell audiobooks, as well as ebooks and PDFs, on their own websites. Others were licensing audio rights to third-party audiobooks imprints like Tantor and Podia, leading to more conversations about how indie authors manage their publishing rights.
While traditional publishing organised around the print book, indie authors tended to prioritise e-books, as they were less complex and cheaper to produce, with audiobooks second. Reports now emerged of indie authors releasing in audiobook first.
Bookbub, the most effective e-book marketing platform, launched Chirp for audiobook advertising. And Google brought good news with the indexing of podcasts, making them easier to find and giving authors a highly effective way to market audio.
2020: Hello Covid
2020 brought us the Covid pandemic and publishing, like all business, was deeply affected. Those indie authors who had built digital businesses found it generally boosted their businesses, as more people while those who centered on print books and physical outlets (such as bookshops, other physical retailers and weekend markets) moved to digital.
According to Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords (now Draft2Digital) indie e-book sales in the first pandemic months were up 20 percent on average over the same months the previous year across most major e-book retailers, and more books were being written and self-published than ever before.
An investigation by indie dark thriller author Susan May revealed that Amazon ACX/Audible was secretly deducting money from author incomes on the platform, making writers pay for the customer exchange program. The company granted some concessions in response but at the time of writing, authors are still being forced to pay for returns that are not returns–alongside other issues. This fight is still ongoing – see the Audiblegate campaign for more information.
2021: Hello Creator Economy
In most territories, book sales soared in 2021 as they had in 2020, with all formats, especially digital, posting solid gains globally. BusinessWire estimates that the global book market grew from $87.92bn in 2020 to $92.68bn in 2021 and Grand View Research predicted this will reach $124.2bn by 2025.
Most gratifyingly, young people were found to be reading more. Juvenile fiction was up 11 percent and juvenile nonfiction 23.1 percent, while sales of young adult fiction and nonfiction are runaway, up 38.3 percent and 21.4 percent.
Indie authors found themselves well placed to meet this demand in 2021, as an ecosystem of global digital opportunities and multiple business models continued to evolve. From a publishing perspective, indie authors increasingly found themselves having more in common with other creative entrepreneurs like artists and musicians – innovators and makers – than with authors fixed on the traditional route of handing over creative freedom, control and to a third-party publisher.
Audio sales continued to increase and the two big audio stories that year were acquisitions. Stockholm based Storytel bought Audiobooks.com for an enterprise value of US$135m and Spotify spent an undisclosed amount of money to acquire Findaway Voices.
The creator economy flourished. Apple and Spotify allowed podcasters to charge for their podcasts or for premium content. Twitter introduced a tip jar and paid tweets. Medium and Substack saw steep rises in author income from reader subscription payments. Selling books on social media platforms also became easier, with improved Facebook and Instagram stores, product tagging and other features.
2022: Hello NFTs, AI and Blockchain
This year, print publishing is seeing several cost increases for paper and packaging materials, as well as an increase in the cost of labor and operating safely during the pandemic. The effect is to raise prices for print books, especially POD books.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) became obvious in every aspect of publishing, from marketing to translation to audiobook narration and writing, particularly for non-fiction. And pioneering indie authors like Laurence O’Bryan and Joanna Penn are highlighting the potential of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which give authors the ability to release special editions or bundle extra digital files, such as video, graphics and audio files with a book.
What makes NFTs different from other premium digital content online is that it is traded on a blockchain, which keeps a record of its unique status and tracks any resales. Each time it is sold on, the original author benefits with a percentage micro-payment. This could be a game-changer – instead of competing on price with free and 99c e-books, authors can compete with offerings of greater innovation. It is early days for these technologies and the challenge, as ever, will be getting readers aboard.
Platforms like Twitch, Patreon, and Cameo enable authors who have reader followings to monetize like never before. Today over 2 million creators make six figures or more on YouTube, Twitch and Instagram. Sponsored influencers are worth over $8bn and this is expected to grow to $15bn by 2022.
What Doesn’t Change
The self-publishing landscape of 2022 is light-years from 2012, but certain fundamentals do not change – creating intellectual property assets, understanding copyright and licensing, writing regularly, improving publishing and business skills, keeping a creative attitude of exploration, expansion and learning by doing. And patience. Lots of patience.
The heart and soul of what we do as authors and publishers has stayed unchanged. The job has always been to engage hearts and souls with our stories, our rhymes, our ideas, our imaginings, our craft skills and presentation.
What's most notable as we look back over the decade is the incredible shift in author confidence and empowerment. The next 10 years will be even more amazing. We can’t wait.