As always, we first look at where we've been...
2012-2013: The Golden Era. (Some will say it started earlier or lasted longer, but these two years were the peak from what I saw.) Money came easy. I witnessed dozens of authors become overnight millionaires. Hundreds of authors hit six figures, thousands hit solid five figures and they all quit their day jobs. You saw a steady stream of 'I quit my job' forum posts all over the place. It was an amazing time to be a writer.
2014 was the year of Kindle Unlimited (which has since turned into a cesspool, but we didn't realize how bad it would get back then). This was still a heyday year. Almost everyone was doing well. The big drops in income hadn't happened yet.
2015 was the first year that was worse than the previous year. We didn't know it at the time. We thought we just needed to work harder and get a bigger mailing list, but in reality, this was when the first big restructuring of the industry (which started in 2014 with the launch of Kindle Unlimited) really hit hard and no one could stop it. This is also when smart authors started to up their marketing game.
2016 was even worse. This was the year readers got tired of newsletters, one of authors' best marketing tools (mostly because scammers emailed readers every day). For the first time, more authors went back to day jobs than quit to write full-time and scamming started to get bad. KU also had major failures...a page flip glitch meant that page reads were grossly under counted. Authors left KU in droves, some have refused to go back since. Everyone was learning FB ads.
2017 was the year of the scammer. Even though the scamming started in 2015, this year it completely gummed up the works...to the point where Amazon finally took legal action to stop the bleeding. Authors who could manage it went back to traditional publishing to stabilize their careers. Everyone was learning AMS ads.
2018 will be the year of divergence. Why do I say that? First, some background on the indie publishing industry...
It's important to understand that an indie career is driven primarily by technology. Publishing has agents, editors, marketing departments and book printing capabilities. Yes, indies have editors and cover artists, but none of that would happen without access to technology.
Why does this matter?
First, technology has shorter, more vicious business cycles. Innovation is king, so it's constant. Hence, we had KU, then the new version KU1 a year later, then KU2 and now KU3...all making big changes in how KU works (or doesn't as the case may be). Indies must be fast and agile.
When was the last time you read about a brand new publisher making big bucks? Pretty much never. If anything, a traditional publisher is more likely to go out of business than be the shiny new moneymaker everyone gushes about. But you see the latest tech whizbang in the news every other day, right?
Second, technology is scammed at a much higher rate than the traditional publishing industry. True, authors have been scamming the bestseller lists for decades, long before ebooks, but technology has meant that any author, anywhere can scam their way to the top. Hence, scamming has grown exponentially over time. Large scale access to technology changes everything, everywhere.
These first two have made indie authors different from the beginning. Number 3 digs into what's coming in 2018.
Third, technology for ebooks is not modeled after traditional publishing, at least not anymore meaning...it will diverge almost completely over time. Do you know how the Chinese like to read stories online? You should. There's only a billion of them and they are the origin of many technology trends we see in the US now.
Here's the thing, and why I call 2018 the year of divergence: Indies used to sell in all the same places as traditionally published authors. We had about the same shot at best seller lists that a traditionally published author got. We were more alike than different.
That is about to change.
The future coming for indies is one in which ebooks are NOT necessarily sold on the same platforms used by traditional publishers and indie book sales will NOT register in the industry like they used to. We will diverge and become more different than alike.
Will this transition be complete in 2018? No. But we will see it develop and make inroads we could have never foreseen back in 2012 when I started in this business.
Think I'm nuts? That Amazon will never lose? Here's the thing, KU's failures have created pressure to find a way to sell books. Because of the scamming, authors are looking for an out.
Maybe that's not where you are, but I've watched this industry for years, I know authors who are trying to find a better way. Most people see KU for what it is now: A very limited opportunity that cannot build or sustain a career for the vast majority of authors.
(And yes, there are always outliers, but that's why I ignore them. The 1% are not the trend. If you are doing fantastic, that's great, but you are not everyone and much larger numbers are crushed by the current market dynamics at play. Those are the people I'm trying to help.)
So we have this pressure of 'how can I sell books without the blackhole of scam that is KU?' at the same time different reading models and new technology are coming online.
Smells like opportunity to me.
Do you know what is happening already in 2017? Authors are jumping into new technology with both feet. They have nothing to lose now...it's not like KU will save them.
Haven't observed this yet? Don't worry, you will. I can see it because of my network...it's not widely available knowledge yet as of September 2017.
In 2018, we'll begin to see hints of how well up and coming tech is working. If any of it takes off, the big game in town won't just be Amazon anymore.
We could even see another little gold rush, similar to what we had in 2012-14. BUT to cash in, you have to pay attention. You have to know what you're doing.
Learn, learn, learn. Write, write, write.
My prediction for 2019, as of June 2018, is that it will be the year of reinvention. The market is merciless now. It will force you to figure out how to be competitive or it will drive you out of business. The things we've done the last several years don't work anymore, by and large. We need a new paradigm.
Starting in 2018, authors searched for solutions. Is it branding? Is it marketing? Is it craft? What is the magic bullet? Everyone was looking for the webinar, the class, the workshop to help them figure out how to carve a niche in a crowded market.
And internet marketers did their best to drown us alive in useless webinars. The real information went underground. Authors stopped sharing freely. Partly because the scammers made it hard to know who to trust and partly because dilution is the enemy of all great marketing techniques.
Why is marketing dilution so bad? The more people do the same marketing thing, the worse that marketing thing performs. Better to shut up and keep it to yourself.
The key going forward is to create an outstanding product at a medium-fast rate of speed (3-4 books a year) and understand branding and how to use various marketing outlets. The faster you acquire the skills to do this, the faster your business will grow.
Cooperative marketing (cross promos, group giveaways etc...) are still effective, easy, and great for beginners BUT also a mine field because the scammers are so pervasive, they get into promos too, and taint everything they touch. The solution is to vet who you work with carefully and build a trusted network of authors...which takes time, it's not overnight.
Nothing is fast now. You need to invest in your knowledge of craft and business to succeed. You can't expect to coast on a good book or good marketing for a mediocre book. It all has to hit hard.
Predictions for 2020...
This is still true from 2019: "The key going forward is to create an outstanding product at a medium-fast rate of speed (3-4 books a year) and understand branding and how to use various marketing outlets. The faster you acquire the skills to do this, the faster your business will grow."
The market conditions of 2020 will favor the savvy, the bold, the cooperative, and the innovative originals among us. If you aren't hustling to be a publishing rock star, are you even in the game? The answer now is going to be no.
You must find a niche, brand it with your soul, and be its rock star.
In addition, it continues to be the case that cooperating with other authors on audience outreach is still valuable. Newsletter swaps, cross promo etc... are all still useful.
Further, smart authors will diversify their business. It's becoming risky, I believe, to have all your eggs in one basket. If you've been around a while, it's time to take your experience and know-how and use it to create multiple streams of income.
Beyond that, I suspect the fast release model will start to hit a wall in 2020. It's not going to be about fast anymore, it's going to be about brand and being totally original, offering a quality experience readers can't get from any other author...not matter how slow or fast they release.
To be successful in 2020, authors also need to find high quality training to move the needle. Both on craft and marketing. Training is a massive growth hack because it saves you so much time and makes your marketing much more effective.
I've even started offering a few classes and a lot of free mentorship in the Wolf Pack Promotions group on Facebook trying to fill the void, BUT I'm a limited resource. My own personal issue with 2020 is going to be striking a balance between helping other authors--like so many who helped me in the early days of my career--and focusing on what I need to do for my business. (That's partly why I wrote my free Smarter Author Boot Camp...to give authors a quick level up without having to do it one-on-one over and over again.)
2020 is the year authors will need--not want, need--affordable services that save time and handle some of the marketing to-dos for them. It used to be that authors wouldn't pay for help until they were at a certain level in their career, but there is too much benefit now in outsourcing some of the digital marketing that goes into building a brand. DIY marketing is too slow in 2020.
It's also becoming impossible to manage all the digital marketing to-dos and keep up with writing anymore. Affordable services that provide high value will be godsends. (On the free, cheap side, get in the habit of funneling your procrastination into your marketing to-dos.)
With regards to retailers, so far, nothing new has appeared. KU continues to divide the market, but is now a mature segment of our industry and is pretty saturated. Word on the street has it that Apple will be working hard on ebooks this year, but there's no public announcement from them on that. There's a big push to do audio, but there are naysayers saying that ship has sailed.
You know what? In 2020, retailers are what you make them. Your opportunity isn't about a retailer, it's about your books and how you market them. It's about how you get readers to SEE you and want your books.
To that end, authors will continue to try different models of selling direct with variable rates of success. Direct sales will be increasingly important in the future, but there are few administrative integrations that shop services need to offer before it can really take off.
In terms of technology, we will see AI and increasingly sensitive pseudo-AI algos make inroads into our industry. This will create both opportunities and challenges. It won't be all sunshine and roses, but you'll be able to use AI to do some helpful things-->frex, you'll be able to automate pieces of your never ending digital marketing to-dos.
The downside of AI is a bit murky right now, but it's there. I highly recommend you dig up PBS Frontline's documentary Rise of AI and watch it (it's free on YouTube) as it's the most current synthesis of what we think we know. The implications are huge for everyone, but especially for those trying to make a living online.
The other big challenge I foresee is the push for data privacy. We saw the start with the GDPR rollout from the EU last year, and now California has a data privacy law, and there's all sorts of maneuvering behind-the-scenes as tech giants look for ways to use privacy to lock up their user base and monetize it even more OR challenge privacy laws in court (Facebook's current strategy).
Who pays for this?
Anyone selling something online will feel the squeeze from 2020 forward. The exact mechanics of it are TBD. Authors will need to be nimble and quick to navigate the overnight changes we'll see roll out this year.
Part of what feeds all this, by the way, is the lack of government regulation. Tech is still a Wild West where anything goes...until you're caught. There is increasing noise from the government that suggests legislators recognize there's an issue, but I'm not sure we'll see any meaningful regulation in 2020, though, given the political chaos that reigns in the US. However, in 2020 we'll definitely see more news articles and sound bites about it...so there's that much to look forward to.
Scamming is still very much present in our industry, but it has been fairly quiet. Botting (automating sales, reads, downloads etc...) will continue to reinvent itself and be a pest. Amazon will continue to refuse to report scammers to the FBI (for those in the US) or other enforcement agencies...which just emboldens the next generation of scammers.
Something most authors don't realize is that Amazon is committed to staying out of court and keeping things quiet. This is why you don't see any really serious legal deterrents to scamming. They'll shut scammers down, but they aren't really stopping them. The second Amazon changes their mind about that, though--if they ever do--people will go to jail.
2020 will also have a large power vacuum left by the implosion of RWA. For all its faults, RWA was one of the writing organizations most likely to go to the mat for authors at the national level. Authors will need national advocacy more than ever as AI is unleashed, but we lost that at the start of the year.
For example, Facebook's pseudo-AI algos, think romance is porn and have been rejecting ads and shutting down author accounts starting in the spring of 2019. There is no one to tackle that and all authors suffer for it.
Lastly, if you look at US economic history, economic downturns hit, on average, every ten years or so. We are overdue for one, although the era we live in is so warped and so many things have disconnected from their foundations or been actively subverted that it's difficult to say anything for sure. However, in 2020, authors should be saving money, paying down debt, avoiding debt, and thinking about sustainability and economic resilience.
We live in weird times,and while I hope the world will give us all huge wins for our hard work, past performance suggests that is not as likely as a recession. So heads up.
To sum it all up, 2020 is the year to...
Be savvy. Be bold. Be original. Band together. Innovate. Diversify. Learn. Save.