The Self-Publishing Train Wreck Is Upon Us

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the self publishing train wreck

Self-publishing is evolving and suffering from growing pains.

The self-publishing train wreck was always an accident waiting to happen, and although there has been no crashing noise and screaming sirens as yet, all the signs point to the fact that the self-publishing train wreck is very close to happening.

In recent and not so recent times a number of signals have turned bright and dangerously red, but for many self-publishers, they appear to be colour blind to these signals and still think all the signals are go, go go, green.

But the red danger signs of the self-publishing train wreck have been appearing for some time. Perhaps it started with the end of the Sony Reader Store in 2014 and recall that Sony was, in fact, the pioneer of the ebook.


Then we had the end of the ebook retailer, Diesel Ebooks, who kept promising to return from the dead for a long time. It finally did, but in a new form to offer ebook stores to authors.

Soon after, Smashwords announced the loss of Flipkart, and that Oyster was closing down. On top of that, there was also the announcement that Scribd was cutting romance ebooks from its subscription service.

A little later on, Barnes & Noble dumped its UK Nook business by selling its UK Nook ebook business to a supermarket chain. The ramifications of that sale for UK Nook customers was a disaster.

If these were not signs of impending self-publishing problems, I don’t know what was.

Other than closures, interest in self-publishing also began waning, which was a sign that all is not well.

I only had my gut feeling about this, but by chance, I was doing some research on self-publishing trends and came across this graph from Google Insights, which seems to indicate that interest in self-publishing seems to be gradually falling away.

Self publishing trends

Interestingly, from the same results page of Google Insights, came this graphic of regional interest for the search term of self-publishing, which proves that self-publishing has not been a global success at all. Four countries do not add up to a global phenomenon.

self publishing geographic trends

However, with all the closures and failed ebook businesses, on top of diminishing interest and lack of global sales potential, the self-publishing train thunders along in the belief that all the lights are green, when in fact every signal is flashing alarmingly red. But why?


The Magical Amazon Effect

Amazon has done a splendid job of convincing self-publishers that Kindle has been such a worldwide super success and that if you hop on its magical Amazon KDP train, fame and fortune awaits.

Stories abound of superstar self-published authors who have struck it rich with Kindle ebook sales. I am sure you know all their names too, because, in reality, there have been very, very few. Make a list of them and see if you can get past five or six names.

But the dreamers have been convinced by the success stories of a few outliers and have in countless thousands jumped headlong into KDP self-publishing with no idea at all about book marketing, but with a firm belief that if they have written a book, they will make a fortune.

Since 2009, this trend has continued unabated, with hundreds of thousands of new Kindle ebooks being published each and every year by new hopeful authors.


But the end was always in sight, and now after years of publishing far more ebooks than the market can possibly buy, borrow, get for free or read, self-publishing needs to recalibrate.


The BIG red light! Kindle Unlimited.

The last red warning light was Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU). Sure, everyone knew that ebook subscription was coming, and although a few had tried and failed, Amazon is not one to fail.

When KU hit, it caused a huge storm of protest from self-published authors, who believed their income would take a hit.

For most, it probably did to a degree. But that was all to change when Amazon had a change of heart after only a few months and modified the rules for KU, quickly dropping the promise of an author being paid per ebook borrow, to Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP) Read, or in layman’s terms, authors getting paid per page read.

So from around $1.40 per borrow, which was way below most author’s selling prices, KENP now gives a return of less than $0.005 per page. Yes, under half a cent!

For a self-published author with a title priced at $3.99, it is not difficult at all to say that a return of a half a cent per page is indeed a self-publishing train wreck.

In my own case, I have a 290 page novel with a selling price of $4.99, but under KU, I get $1.45. And do you think Kindle readers are silly? Of course, they happily pay $9.99 per month, to get my $4.99 ebook for (next to) nothing.

So I got $1.40 under KU 1.0 and I get $1.45 under KU 2.0, so what’s the problem? Easy. At least I got something for a borrow under the original KU, but how many readers read a whole book?

Can you imagine going to McDonald’s and saying, “hey, I only had one mouthful of my burger and only ate half of my fries, so I’ll only pay for what I ate.” Or, if you rent a car, and you don’t drive it every day that you rent it, do you get a refund?

I have read my copy of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy more than twenty times. Should I pay for every time I have read it? I have a hardcover copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses but have never got past page 100. Should I get some money back now?

This is the problem with Kindle Unlimited, and why it will be a big problem for self-publishing authors. It defies all free market, sales logic and fairness, but it does obey the perverted value system of the Internet, which is that everything should be free, or very close to it anyway.


So where does self-publishing go now?

Self-publishing as it has been since 2009 is dead. It was all so simple back then. You wrote a book, published it, and readers bought it, or not. There were no conditions attached.

Even subscription borrowing had some merit. You borrow it; I get paid. But now, it’s a convoluted disaster. I do not want to get paid for someone reading five pages of one of my books and then thinking, “oh damn, no vampires. I’ll try another book then.”

For me, it was back to square one, and prepared to wait out the self-publishing pain ahead, the headlines, the enquiry, the aftermath and all the squealing and yelling.

I exited KDP Select at my earliest opportunity as I enrolled under KU 1.0 when things were fair. They are not fair now. Secondly, I reverted to open distribution of my ebooks via Smashwords originally, but I recently changed over to Draft2Digital.

This is not to say that I am thrilled with aggregation, or that Apple, B&N or Kobo offer anything startling, but at least they all honour a genuine ebook sale. If I get fewer sales, well so be it.

Lastly, I refreshed my paperback backlist and made sure that all of my promotional links were directed not only to my ebooks but also to my paperbacks. You know real books.

When I started in self-publishing, these things called books were what made me money. As I noted above with the graphic about regional interest, there is a whole world out there that still love books.

Ebooks are a basically a US and UK thing, so to be honest, why should I concentrate all my efforts on two countries, which are the home of Amazon and Kindle Unlimited, and together are the cause of the loss in earnings for self-publishing authors.

No. I don’t want Amazon’s perverted half-eaten hamburger and fries ebook model, thank you very much.

I’ll wait out the disaster ahead, but with one saving grace in mind. Self-publishing has one outstanding and unique benefit, and it is that a self-publishing author retains total rights over their ebooks and books, so they can do whatever they please.

So my pleasure is to say, no thank you to your exclusivity and slashing of ebook earnings, Amazon. I’ll take my books and ebooks elsewhere.



Derek Haines

Webmaster and Writer at Just Publishing Advice
A Cambridge qualified CELTA English teacher and author of 18 books with a life long passion for publishing in all forms.
I started my working life as a lithographer and spent over 30 years in the printing and publishing business.
Originally from Australia, I moved to Switzerland 20 years ago. My days are spent teaching English, writing and wrestling with technology while enjoying my glorious view of Lake Geneva and the Alps.
Derek Haines

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Derek Haines

A Cambridge qualified CELTA English teacher and author of 18 books with a life long passion for publishing in all forms. I started my working life as a lithographer and spent over 30 years in the printing and publishing business. Originally from Australia, I moved to Switzerland 20 years ago. My days are spent teaching English, writing and wrestling with technology while enjoying my glorious view of Lake Geneva and the Alps.

48 thoughts on “The Self-Publishing Train Wreck Is Upon Us

  • July 27, 2019 at 11:08 pm

    I’ve been looking into taking my books off Amazon, reasons to de-self-publish, as it were. And believe it or not, for those of you who are “kicking ass” and “taking names,” by all means, continue to do so. I wish you the best of luck.
    I don’t know why you write, any of you.
    I write because I am good at it, because I am breathing, because it’s what I do best.
    I am, after all, only what I do, not what I dream.
    I’ve been getting a sense of trouble in the waters lately with Amazon, and not because of anything I’ve read online about it, but just my own experiences going through the self-publishing hoops. Nothing big or shocking, no red lights. More like, I’m a swimmer lost at night out in the Pacific ocean. I can’t see them, I just get a sense of movement as sharks swim by me under dark waters, knowable only as a current stirring against my legs.
    Sharks rarely eat people, but that’s no reason to tempt them if they’ve been having a slow day.
    With that in mind, be careful where you swim.
    Amazon is a very big shark.

  • May 14, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    So, countries in which English is not the primary language don’t tend to Google the phrase “self=publishing”? Shocked, I tell you! Shocked!

  • May 17, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    “I have a hardcover copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses but have never got past page 100.” And here I thought I was the only one. (-:

  • April 20, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    As a new author who hasn’t even finished his book these kind of things very much concern me. I see the market as over saturated and getting more so with marketers who proclaim that they can help everyone get a book completed quickly. If everyone who can write a book does then you have a whole lot of people writing similar content who may not even be skilled at it. Its like the music industry where there is whole lot of people who want to be stars but very few openings. This does not even cover the diminished returns from an economy where people keep expecting more for less money, even for quality content.

  • January 22, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    Sounds like the only thing you’re lamenting is how KU now pays you. Please note that KU is NOT the whole self-publishing world. It’s a slice, true a big Amazon slice, and yes, people are trying to make their most money any way they can. Well, KU isn’t it. However, I never drank that Koolaide because exclusivity has always been a bad idea unless you are with a traditional publisher. They have huge distribution networks and you might make some money there.

    Also, businesses come and go as they always have. They can’t run unless they have a great business model and they make a profit. Many of those places shutting down that you talked about weren’t great businesses and obviously weren’t making money. Others will spring up and therefore take the spot of those lost.

    The only way to make great money in self-publishing is to take advantage of the options, all the options. Meaning you need to be everywhere: Smashwords, Amazon, Draft2Digital, SeatoSkyBooks, to name a few and in print. Once you have diversified your books, as you continue to write and publish, you can then start making a living.

    And as long as you have a decent, well-put together book, you shouldn’t have any problem…

    • August 22, 2019 at 1:29 am

      Your books being listed everywhere is not a sales and marketing strategy. There are millions of books; nobody will find yours. You need a marketing plan, a blurb that gets curiosity and a team to help you.

  • January 22, 2017 at 5:02 am

    Lauren Blakely hit no. 1 on the NYT this week with a self-published book. I hit no. 2 in December with a self-published book. Vi Keeland hit no. 1 last summer. You keep whining about how the death of self-publishing is upon us while we keep kicking ass and taking names.


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