Are Indie Books Being Squeezed out of Book Promo Sites?

NoIndiesI was at dinner with a couple of friends recently and my buddy reached over and grabbed my wrist. He told me that his wife was using his credit card to pay for books on her Amazon account. She was buying books every day, and it was all my fault. After he released me, she leaned over and said she couldn’t leave the house in the morning without checking her daily emails from three different book promo sites. We laughed it off and he admitted that secretly he was glad because even though she was buying more books than she had when she was buying print books she was actually spending less money.

She’d found those book promotion sites from Facebook posts that I’d promoted. Now she purchases books almost every day and she’s very happy. She doesn’t care who publishes the book; she just wants to find a good read, and sites like Bookbub, Peoplereads, and The Fussy Librarian offer great books. It’s just that simple. I’m one of many who post links to these sites and others and it’s helped them build their lists of subscribers. Things are changing though. A colleague pointed out to me recently that a book promotion website that we’d utilized in the past, (not one of those listed above), posted in their guidelines that their main emphasis was now on promoting mainstream published books. And they said they intended to only promote a limited number of independently published books. That means the majority of books on their site are published traditionally.

My first book had some major exposure in February 2012. In one weekend my book was featured on Pixel of Ink and Ereader News Today (twice). It was a very good weekend. Since then, little by little I’ve noticed that the major promotion sites are featuring more and more traditionally published books. I’m not referring to smaller sites; I mean the large sites that self-published authors rely on to get the word out about their books. In the past few months I’ve seen promotions featuring books by John Lecarre, Nora Roberts, Jude Deveraux, and Nevada Barr. In fact, when I ran a promotion a few weeks ago my competition for the day was a John Irving book. It felt great to be on the same page as an author who I’ve grown up admiring and I wondered if any of his readers might take a look at my book, but I also felt like saying, “Hey John, weird to see you here.”

To some extent self-published authors have shown traditional publishing houses and traditionally published authors a new way to connect with readers. We helped build the subscriber bases for sites that began with a few hundred or even a few thousand readers to the point where one of them now has a reader list of two million. There are a number of successful sites out there and the professionalism amongst them has grown over the past couple of years. The system they use to showcase books that are either free or discounted is excellent. Readers tell the sites what they want to read and the sites direct them to books that are either free or on sale. We’ve watched new sites come into play and Indie authors have supported them. Through posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social networks we’ve helped readers find the places to go to find deals on books and we’ve helped show them how to discover new authors. We’ve done the heavy-lifting.

Two years ago it was still relatively easy to be featured on one of the major sites. Today it’s far more difficult. Traditional publishers, or the smart ones anyway, see what we’ve been doing and they’re attempting the same things. Check out your favorite book site and have a look at the books that are featured. I’ll bet you recognize the authors and I’ll bet a lot of them did not self-publish. It’s an honor to be featured on the same pages as some of these authors but at what cost? Are self-published books being gently squeezed out? Does it mean that once again there are going to be some great books that readers won’t find because the sites are concentrating on non-Indie publications? Or, should we just be happy that we’re in the game and that it’s a relatively level playing field?

None of the sites I’ve mentioned in this article are the site in question which is limiting the number of Indie books they feature. And, I understand there needs to be ways to monetize services so that the owners of these sites can stay in business. I get that part. It just makes me wonder if we’re slipping backward a little bit. There are lots of ways to get the word out but the tried and true methods of seeing a solid return and selling books is by advertising through the book promo sites. If it’s difficult today to be featured on the major sites I wonder how difficult it will be a year from now.

Author: Martin Crosbie

Martin Crosbie is the author of five bestselling books whose newest release is a Kindle Scout winner. His self-publishing journey has been mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly, Forbes Online Magazine, and Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. Learn more about Martin at his website or his Amazon author page

54 thoughts on “Are Indie Books Being Squeezed out of Book Promo Sites?”

  1. From the comments on various group sites and in blogs I have come to wonder the same thing, Martin. It seems the trads are using our methods but giving us no acknowledgement for getting them there. But isn’t that how big business behaves in all areas? Let the little guy find the innovations and then piggyback on their success, gradually taking them over because they have the funds to do it on a bigger, more visible scale?

  2. The market is still in flux. A few years back I remember reading how almost every brick and mortar would be extinct by this time. Hasn’t happened. How many blogs and posts were claiming the big boys were going to close shop? Hasn’t happened.The big publishers have found a way to reduce their own marketing expenses. Sounds like a good solid business practice to me.Indie publishing is still in its infancy. it will evolve as marketing strategies keep changing. For me, it means we have to work smarter in how we market our books.

    1. I agree. The only thing that’s going to change is that things will keep changing – that’s inevitable. We can either stand still or try to move forward.
      It’s concerning that there are less opportunities and quite frankly, it’s concerning how powerful a small amount of promo sites have become. I think the answer is to keep trying to write THE book and support the smaller sites that are supporting us.
      Thanks for commenting.

    2. Amusingly a lot of the same blogs – and a lot of the same self-appointed indie spokesmen – are still saying the same thing.

      The real issue here is affiliate sales.

      Trad publishers using promotion sites is just solid business as you say.

      And its equally solid business to gravitate towards the big-name authors who will generate far more click-through sales – and therefore far more affiliate fees – than some unknown indie.

      We already see this with the indie authors – where the same big-name indies crop up month after month after month because the listing sites know they will generate the click-throughs, while unknown names find it harder and harder to get in, because the work is “not what our readers want”.

  3. Pretty much true. The big guys have seen that sale prices of 1.99 and 99 cents work. They’ve seen that bookbub works (I see more and more ads from trads there). Other sites that used to talk indie books don’t have to take a chance on mentioning us because there are plenty of sales by the big guys. The trads are even venturing into running their own book sites (they have been trying for a few years, but are getting more serious about it these days.) Lots of indies have had their own sites. Competition has always been stiff. It just got stiffer!

    1. Yes, it has, no question. And, Indie books have gotten better too – in content and presentation. This is what we always wanted though, isn’t it?
      Thanks, Maria.

  4. What Yvonne said. Oh, and this:

    Since the traditional publishers have less of a budget to spend for author promo/marketing than what they used to – print ads in expensive magazines, for instance – and traditionally published authors are by no means stupid people, they are going to look around and see what else is out there for proven, effective and probably less expensive marketing techniques, and use them.

    What I don’t get, it why the promo sites would care or have a preference towards showcasing trad published books over indie published. The fees in their pockets are the same and their readership seems to have been happy and satisfied with the indie books featured so far.

    Another astute and thoughtful post, Martin! Thanks.

    1. Having done some ads on my own site–if a trad book is bad, readers GENERALLY blame the author and publisher. If an indie book is bad, the reader may want to know why I didn’t read more of it/vet it better. In a lot of cases, there is still the very easy: At least the trad book will have been fairly well copy edited. And as the person doing the ad, I don’t have to check that.

    2. I think RJ may have answered that question below, and I certainly hadn’t considered it before. Trad books are often in the 9 or 10 dollar range. If BookBub features one of those books for a dollar or two it seems like a great deal. Whereas our 4 or 5 dollar books when reduced to a couple of bucks may not seem as enticing.
      Maybe we need to raise our prices? That’s a whole other article though.
      Thank you, Dianne.

  5. I actually don’t mind. I like it (as you mentioned) when my books appear alongside authors I grew up reading. I’ve also thought it was inevitable.

    It inspires me to up my game so that I can compete head to head with the Trad publishers.

    1. Yes Shawn, this is what I wanted too. I just would have liked to have had another six months or a year before they woke up to the fact that we found a way to connect with our readers while they were drafting rejection letters.
      Thanks for commenting.

  6. Glad I’m not using those sites to begin with nor dependent on them. Wouldn’t be surprised to see cost of those ads keep going up. How much $ incentive would it take from a big publ to price out majority of indies? Not much, certainly for me.

    Even in competing for libraries’ attention, self-published ebooks presented to them are in a special pull down separate category, rather than the landing page’s easy to spot easy to use search field.

    It does mean, though, to me, big publishing is getting serious about getting worried about crowding indies back out of easy (relatively speaking) view.

    It’s like a battleground has moved from simply buying up all the shelf and table space book buyers would see when entering a book store, to now buying the virtual space too.

    Joe Konrath el al might be more on target than I’d even realized.

    Oh, well. Just means the ride’s gonna get even more interesting 🙂

    1. Felipe, the costs are already rising rapidly. The key is to find a site that looks promising and get in there early before the price increase. BookBub at one point had a ridiculously good return, now, not so much.
      Congratulations on finding another way to connect with your readers!

      1. I have to disagree with Bookbub not offering a great return any more, Martin. My last ad with them cost $180 and resulted in $2500 in additional sales over the trailing 30 days. In fact, each of my Bookbub ads has done better than the one before it.

        1. That’s great, Shawn, good for you. I should have said that MY returns on BookBub have diminished. I’ve still come out ahead but the numbers for my last couple of runs haven’t been as strong. Perhaps I need a new book…

  7. Good one.
    I anticipated this a long time back, and it sucks. It’s fairly inevitable that if big publishers finally wake up to using BookBub or whatever they will drive up the prices and monopolize spaces. How long before doing an ad like that is as undoable for indies as ads in magazines were before this all got started?
    It’s not the end of the world for indie marketers. There are still things that we can do. But it gets tougher as the avenues close down. How many of those have you heard of in the last 7 years? It’s the same kind of attrition in new “greenfield” opportunity I mentioned in this article– https://www.indiesunlimited.com/2014/05/30/after-the-gold-rush/
    Indies figure out a way to get by. But it does, indeed suck.

    1. Linton, it extends to how indies’ titles that libraries can get are presented, away from the easy use landing page search box. All the titles are accessible via OverDrive, but in a completely separate unequally findable manner.

      1. That doesn’t concern me. Nor is it of much concern to most indie writers. But getting squeezed out of promo newsletters (which I value way more than sites) that show ebooks to tens of thousands of buyers… that’s trouble.

        1. I understand. My point, poorly expressed, was that there’s more than one piece being addressed vs indies, either competitively (who has the money to pay) or not-so-much (segregating, making titles harder to find). And there may be more to come (not idea what).

    2. You’re right, there are other things we can do, and we’re going to find other routes before the trads will. At the end of 2011 I wandered around an international airport handing out business cards to anyone who was reading a book on a Kindle or iPad. Didn’t see a huge sales spike but at least I was in there trying something. That’s the difference, and like you, I applaud anyone who is in the game and trying to find a way.
      Thanks for your comment, Lin.

  8. Thanks for letting us know, Martin. I hadn’t realized advertising sites had made this change. Certainly, I can see why traditional publishers would want to use these sites and get their reach, but I don’t see why the sites would choose to stop promoting indie titles that helped get them to their size and reach. Perhaps as one commenter said earlier, though, maybe they’re getting feedback from their readers indicating they want more traditionally published big name books. Traditionally published books are so expensive to begin with that it’s entirely possible that readers want more of those titles and the sites simply want to respond. But, it’s sad for indies who are getting squeezed out.

      1. $1.99 sale vs $14.99 reg; even I have to admit that’s a pretty good deal. 🙂 But I’ll pass. Though I’ve added it to my library of books to think about reading later on Scribd.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. Ten bucks reduced to a dollar or two seems like a better deal than three or four bucks reduced to a dollar.
      I have a friend who sells a boatload of books every month. When I bring things like this to her attention she says, “Martin, when I hear about this stuff I just go and write another book.”
      That’s probably the real answer.
      Thank you, RJ.

      1. Thanks– I am more a fantasy writer– but, I do enjoy a good story and have been working on sci-fi here and there– Sci-fi was my first love as a young girl after Shakespeare. lol

  9. Martin, I’ve found what you’re reporting to be true–and a lot of book sites are limiting categories. If an author was fortunate enough to get in at a site early on in the game, he/she will most likely still have a home there. We can find places, if we’re willing to pay the rising advertising fees. Indie authors will have to budget more for promotion than most of us did even a year or two ago…After all, writing is a business!

    1. The difference between most small businesses and writing is that the others usually get some temporary funding, either as start-ups or loans and are given five years to begin to make a profit. Writers begin with nothing and are expected to pay their way with that nothing right from the beginning.

    2. Linda, I agree. I appreciate sites like Fussy Librarian that posts the number of subscribers they have. At least that way I can judge whether the cost might be worth it.
      And, I think it’s important to spread the word about the OTHER sites that are working for us. For example, Free Kindle Books and Tips, although a smaller site, always gives me a nice little return. It’s a case of “your mileage may vary” but it’s important to know that for $25 I can sell a number of books and come out ahead.
      Thanks for commenting.

  10. I can see validity in the trends but think the threat is misunderstood. Virtual space in contrast to brick and mortar has no limits. Traditional publishing may very well be able to corner the best physical real estate for selling books but with virtual real estate it a different game.

    Even if all the sites mentioned were taken over by traditionally published books, it’s an easy matter to start a new site and offer more. The cost structure of traditional publishing still hasn’t changed enough to compete with indies, let alone Netflix which offers unlimited movies for $7.99 a month.

    In fact this never ending debate between indies and traditionals is missing the bigger change. Books are a source of entertainment and information, there are competitors (Netflix, Amazon Prime) that are a far better deal. Gambling on being satisfied by eight 99 cents books is a losing proposition to unlimited movies from Netflix for $7.99.

    We don’t so much need advertising as we do better books that readers will prefer over the competing forms of entertainment and information. Fighting amongst ourselves for an ever smaller piece of the pie sounds like exactly what our real adversaries would hope we continue doing.

    1. I’m not fighting, Marc. It’s competition and I’m happy to be in the game. As I mentioned, I just wish I’d had a little while longer to let the world discover my brilliance before the other guys caught on.

      Unfortunately, the real penetration comes from advertising on four, perhaps five, sites who have built up their subscribers list. Until the rest catch up, it’s going to be hard slogging unless we’re featured on those sites. BookBub has grown at an incredible rate in a short period of time. We need to see two or three others do the same.

      And, you’re right. If we produce a book that readers want to read, with the tools we have, we’ll find them. Writing another book and becoming a better writer can never hurt.

      Thanks for your comments.

    2. Theoretically, but no practically, Marc. Sure you could start your own FaceBook. But what are the chances that you will get any sort of major following for it? Nothing is stopping you from building your own amazon.com.
      And it’s the same way for book sites. The “land rush” allegory I invoked in my “After The Gold Rush” article here on IU is apt for this, as well. Infiinite space opened up, it got colonized, and some leaders in visiblility have emerged as that early fluidity has been hardening up. You see people trying to start new book sites every week… but they don’t get to be monsters, do they? Those who use these resources have been devleoping a feel for where best to spend time and money, and that “map” tends to feed into more hardening of the gel.

      1. Hi Linton and Martin,

        Your points are well stated and supported. In contrast I’m just going on a feeling here.

        The potential market for books is enormous given the pathetic reading habits of Americans (and probably the rest of the world as well). The market for existing readers might seem wrapped up, but it’s an very small percentage of the total population.

        There is an old marketing and perspective story that illustrates this far better than I can. Two shoe salesman are dispatched to a remote part of Africa to establish a market foothold for their respective companies. Upon arrival both salesman send telegraphs back to their home offices. The first salesman writes, “Situation hopeless, no one is wearing shoes yet.” The second salesman writes, “Situation has exceptional potential, no one is wearing shoes yet.”

        There’s no shortage of potential readers out there that the existing market model is not reaching. Find a way to connect with the heavy users of Netflix and all the existing sites won’t matter. In theory!

        1. Marc, you’ve hit the nail on the head, the market is enormous and potential is vast. Now all we authors need to do it teach the rest of the world to read!

          No problem!

  11. Perhaps one solution might be to incorporate your own small publishing house so that you can legitimately claim to be trade published. The fact that it has a short list, consisting (almost) entirely of your books, doesn’t matter, although the level of budget you wield could be an influential factor. The bigger houses, with their fat marketing budgets, will still get priority with the promo sites, but at least you’ll have a foot on the ladder. Make enough noise, and you might get bought out by one f the big boys. Then it’s down to you to negotiate the right conditions ensuring the continuing publication of your books as part of that deal.

    1. I have a “publishing house” (a DBA piggybacking off of my other freelance work), and it doesn’t make a darned bit of difference. The BookBub type sites don’t look at the paperwork. They look at the reputation. And the number of authors successfully published by that house.

  12. In my opinion the Indie books are not being squeezed out. Instead they are being showcased along side established authors who have gained notability. It’s the same ‘idea’ as being in a bookstore and on the endcap there’s a feature of a popular novel that became a movie. If you have already read the book or seen the movie, and you liked it… (chances are) you’re going to turn down the isle and see what else is offered in that category/genre. It’s just basic retail marketing. The websites are the same way just a different style. Someone is going to click on a famous author’s book to see what else they have written, at the bottom of most pages it’s going to show ‘others like this’.
    I am going into Indie Publishing because I want to do things my way. I know that it will be a challenge. I feel that no matter how my book is made available; I’m just happy that it’s out there.

    1. This is an excellent argument, Laura. Retail placement is key.

      Martin and other commenters make excellent arguments as well, and as Indies we need to keep our eyes open. However, I just ran my first paid advertisement for a murder mystery on BookSends, IU Thrifty Thursday, and the Choosey Librarian. The book went down into the 5,000 mark in that category… paid. That was a first for me and I frolicked about the house. 😉

      Because my book is a murder mystery it is the most expensive category on BookBub. I would love to advertise there, and I think they would sell lots of my book, but $600 is a big commitment for a $.99 book.

      What my recent marketing efforts proved to me is that advertising and promotion is key and I need to do it.

  13. Hi, we run a free book promotion site with 70,000+ email subscribers across various stores (47,000+ on Kindle US).

    We’ve noticed this too. It’s bound to happen.

    The traditional Publishers will

    1) Sign deals with the best indie authors when possible.

    2) Copy strategies and use their scale to drown out indies

    3) Turn off strategies that give indie authors a boost.

    *******

    There’s going to be a pretty bloody battle because at some point the Big 5 Publishers will realize that Amazon is only using them until it can sign up enough good authors on its own imprints.

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