There will continue to be stories like this

A new scandal has put a spotlight (again) on the way indie publishing operates these days, and let me just say, this one’s a doozy.

Why? Well, it has a little of everything, and it’s being amplified by the righteous anger of a traditionally published author who (commendably, for the most part) takes no prisoners.

I’m not going to rehash all of it. There are plenty of excellent conversations on the subject. The two most interesting (in my opinion) come from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Derek Murphy. There’s also everything Nora Roberts is saying, about which, more below. And, there’s everything under the #CopyPasteCris hashtag.

In brief: a romance writer named Cristiane Serruya was caught plagiarizing large tracts of text from author Courtney Milan, among others. Serruya copped to it, but in a response that claimed it wasn’t her fault. It was the fault of the ghostwriter she hired through Fiverr.

That metastasized the conversation almost immediately, because plagiarism and ghostwriting are two distinct flashpoints in this market; they aren’t usually part of the same wildfire.

Then it got worse, when it turned out Nora Roberts was one of the other authors plagiarized. (Last I checked, the number of authors was more than thirty.) Roberts, a traditionally published author, then condemned not just the plagiarism, but also the practice of employing ghostwriters for fiction.

Then she went even further, condemning permafree and $0.99 books. Her argument appears to be that the existence of these price points creates a publishing environment where bad actors (plagiarists, etc.) thrive. In other words, if there weren’t cheap books, there wouldn’t be a market for this kind of fraud in the indie publishing industry.

That’s where we are right now.

A quick summation of my thoughts, so we can move on

Plagiarism: bad.

There are no nuanced versions of this to debate.

Ghostwriters: not inherently bad.

The most interesting angle I’ve seen (I first saw Rusch make this point, but it may have originated elsewhere) is that the use of ghostwriters opens up the person who hired them to potential legal hell that I don’t think anybody fully anticipated before this story broke. Ghostwriters, A: make more money the faster they work; B: get paid in advance of publication; C: do not have their name on the product. I am absolutely not saying that ghostwriting as a way to earn money is bad, and I’m also not saying writers who use ghostwriters are bad. I’m saying the risk is obvious, and should be self-evident.

Permafree and $0.99 price points: not bad.

As I said above, a key argument Roberts appears to be making is that the market’s allowance of super-low and free price points creates an environment in which scammers thrive. (Her definition of scammers is, essentially, ‘authors who use ghostwriters to rapid-release books’, which is entirely too broad, but I’m not going to re-litigate a point that has been covered elsewhere.) Loss-leader products—which is what permafree and low price points are—is a long-used sales technique in every industry where products are sold. Telling authors who are succeeding with this approach to stop doing it, is about as useless as telling readers to stop acquiring inexpensive books on principle.

Punishing the successes

Something that’s been true for a long time in the publishing industry (and, I suspect, everywhere else) is that we all stink at assigning blame for things that are a consequence of a marketplace reality. That is, we blame those ahead of the curve for the fact that the curve exists.

Amazon itself is a decent example. The traditional publishing industry was trending in the wrong direction long before Amazon became a force. What made Amazon a force was taking advantage of existing weaknesses. They didn’t create those weaknesses; they exploited them. Criticizing Amazon for the methods used in that exploitation is perfectly valid (and I agree with a lot of that criticism) but Amazon didn’t create the market forces that allowed it to thrive.

In other words, the publishers were already in trouble.

I think the same kind of scrutiny can be applied to aspects of the indie marketplace, because it’s slowing down.

I’m speaking now of the ebook market, which is where indies have thrived since 2010, when it was a boom market. The boom’s clearly over, and has been for a little while: I put the slowdown at around 2014 or 2015, but your numbers may vary.

During the boom, there was more growth in the marketplace than there were books to fill the need. After? The market is less rewarding for new authors; the demand for quality becomes more insistent; and the things that used to work—in writing and in marketing—stop working so well.

There are a lot of downstream consequences of this kind of slowdown. One of those consequences is to blame the authors who are succeeding, for the ways they are succeeding.

That’s an extremely roundabout way of saying that permafree and $0.99 books are not the reason other books aren’t selling; everyone is selling less.

Arguing that the authors who are succeeding by doing things you do not do (e.g., rapid-releasing, loss-leader pricing, using ghostwriters) are responsible for the current market realities is missing the point. The market is slowing down.

Which brings us back to the issue that started this current mishegas.

Cascading effect

One of the truisms of indie publishing is something along the lines of, ‘the best marketing for your book is the next book’. Everybody figured out the market—and now I’m mostly talking about Amazon’s ecosystem—rewarded new releases with free visibility. This meant the more books you put out, the more your success snowballed.

What’s been happening over the past two years, though, is that there are so many more ebooks out there (both in sheer overall volume, and in the number of new releases on average per week) that the sales boost from this free visibility has shrunk. Authors who could anticipate a drop in sales, with some confidence, when their book hit the dreaded ‘thirty day cliff’ (that’s when their newest book is no longer considered a Hot New Release by Amazon) was becoming a twenty day cliff, or a two week cliff. The tail was getting shorter, and the sales valley between new release peaks was getting deeper.

There are solutions to this problem. One is advertising. Amazon online ads can replace the loss in free visibility with purchased visibility. AMS ads worked really well, for a while, and weren’t that expensive, at first. But then everyone started trying it, and the cost-per-click necessary to get the needed visibility went up, at the same time the effectiveness started going down. (Note: I am sure there will be authors reading this who have a positive ROI for AMS ads, and will insist it still works fine. Big-picture, I think my assessment holds; individual results can vary.) There are also Facebook ads, which were tremendously successful at first, (and still are for many) but are now less successful.

Another, cheaper solution is to publish more often. If the valley between each peak is getting deeper, just introduce more peaks, and maybe you won’t have to worry about the valleys so much.

It makes sense, and it’s something I’m striving to do myself. The difference is, I’m pushing myself to go from 1-2 books a year to 2-3 books a year. What do the authors who were already producing 6-8 books a year (and up) do from there?

This is the answer to the question, why would anyone hire ghostwriters? If you’re an author who has been maintaining a level of income for the past few years by constantly pushing yourself to write faster (in part, perhaps, to offset the cooling market), eventually you’re going to have to either slow down, or burn out. Or, option three: you can keep the pace of releases up by adding a writing staff.

If you do it well, and your readers are cool with it, more power to you. Again, I’m not here to support or condemn the employment of ghostwriters as a practice. Authors who do it are taking advantage of a marketplace that rewards a rapid release schedule, that’s all. They’re not stealing from me, because I’m not participating in a zero-sum marketplace. (Side note: such a market actually does exist, sort of, in Kindle Unlimited, because of the way authors are paid in that artificial environment.)

There will continue to be stories like this

The ebook market is still settling, though, which is the real problem here. It’s how we end up with a story about an ‘author’ who turned out to be a brand-name attached to a series of ghostwritten acts of plagiarism. As long as there are writers, growing desperate to get the indie ecosystem to work for them, and bad actors preparing to take advantage of that desperation, we’ll end up with Authors Behaving Badly. As long as there are stories of Authors Behaving Badly, there will be complaints that those authors have Ruined Everything For Everyone Else.

It’s perfectly appropriate to excoriate someone like Cristiane Serruya. But blaming the part of the indie ecosystem that made someone like her possible, not just for her, but for the fact that the marketplace in 2019 isn’t working the way the marketplace of 2013 worked, is going too far.

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