The CEOs of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple were grilled on Capitol Hill yesterday, stepping up the anti-trust chatter that has been percolating over the last few years. While some of you might be tempted to reflexively dismiss these hearings as political theater, many commentators seem to agree that this time feels different.
(Disclosure: I used to work for Google many moons ago.)
Political sands have shifted. Public sentiment towards tech companies has soured — companies who were once almost universally loved. Well, at least in the case of three of them; Amazon always attracted some measure of criticism, I guess, probably given the particular companies it disrupted.
Indie authors, especially, perked up at the news of these hearings, given that three of those places are where we sell most of our books, and the fourth is what many of us predominantly use to drive sales of those books.
Whatever your personal feelings on these individual companies, their effects on society, or the forces driving these hearings (please: no politics in the comments), the mere prospect of anti-trust actions creates uncertainty in business terms, at a time when we already have a significant amount of it. Which makes this an excellent time to examine how well your author business is future-proofed, given the average indie author’s dependency on this set of companies currently in the anti-trust spotlight.
No doubt some self-publishers will use moments like this to talk up the benefits of being truly independent and selling direct and cutting ties with the likes of Amazon and Apple completely. I personally prefer taking a more pragmatic approach, using these companies on my own terms, while always trying to move my customer relationships closer to home, and build my audience on land that I control.
I will happily use Google to drive traffic to my website, where I will use various content marketing techniques to both sell books and increase my mailing list. I have no problem using Facebook (or spending money on Facebook Ads) to increase website visits, boost book sales, and expand my mailing list further. I will take any opportunity I can to tap into the considerable global customer base at Apple and try to bring as many of those readers over to my website and my mailing list. And I always jump at the chance to grab any visibility going on Amazon which has the biggest audience of all when it comes to selling books, of course.
But even on Amazon, I’m not spending any effort increasing something like Amazon Follows, because I want people on a list that I control, not one that Amazon controls. And Amazon really does control this platform tightly, ceding very little of that power to me.
Amazon doesn’t share any form of user data with me, or let me communicate with those following me either. Which is a problem as Amazon doesn’t even bother notifying my followers when I have a book out, except in the most ineffectual way imaginable. Amazon doesn’t even tell me how many people follow me on Amazon — which is so reflexively secretive that it actually makes me chuckle.
Hey, it doesn’t take much these days.
The illusion of control is stronger somewhere like Facebook. It feels like you control your Page — you have a say in how it looks, and can communicate with those following you on the platform… with certain restrictions, of course, and you can never guarantee everyone sees an important message, even after paying handsomely for the privilege. But Facebook shares a lot more user data, and it feels like more of a partnership.
That is an illusion, of course. Facebook can pull the rug out from under you at any time, as many authors have found out when a rogue AI decided to ban them from advertising, or even shut down their Page completely, without ever giving a reason why, or allowing them to mount a proper appeal.
And that ultimate lack of control is laid bare when you realize that you can’t export your list of followers and take them with you anywhere else, in case you want to get ahead of any trouble, or quit the platform for whatever reason. So, while I will build a platform on Facebook, because of the sheer size of their audience and the power of that advertising network, my ultimate aim is to move that customer relationship to somewhere I have the level of control that I need.
None of the tech companies — whether that’s Google or Apple or Amazon or Facebook — will give you that control. You never “own” the spaces they allot you, or the customer relationships you develop on their platforms. Someone once described it as “digital sharecropping” which is a great analogy.
Bringing It All Back Home
I’m certainly not of the view that you should avoid any entanglements with these companies. That’s a tough row to hoe in 2020. What I am saying is that your ultimate aim should always be to move that customer relationship somewhere you do control.
Your website, your mailing list.
And that goes double in times of uncertainty — and we certainly have a lot of uncertainty right now. There is no telling how this public health crisis will play out globally, but one thing that seems locked-in is some form of economic downturn almost everywhere. And probably a significant and extended one in many places.
That is never welcome, of course, but indie authors should also be aware that the digital parts of publishing are probably more insulated from an economic shock than the bits of the book business which relies on moving lots of paper around the place and selling it in physical stores. Readers having less money is never good, on many levels, but indies should also keep in mind that books are a relatively cheaper form of entertainment, especially at the prices we routinely sell at.
I’m not saying we are immune to the deleterious effects of a downturn, but we might be insulated from the worst of it — at least initially. There’s no telling how something like that will play out once it gets going, but I’d be a lot more worried if I was a bookstore owner or a traditional publisher or otherwise overly reliant on print sales.
On the other hand, if these political winds keep blowing, and anti-trust actions really get rolling, and one or more of the big tech companies gets pulled down into the mire, there’s no telling what effect that could have. But it’s almost certain that any negative effects would be more keenly felt by self-publishers (and digitally focused small presses) than traditional publishing.
It’s all a big ball of uncertainty for everyone in the book business.
But rather than worrying about it, take that energy and turn it into something positive. Instead of fretting about how dependent you are on outside forces, instead wrest back some of that control and start plotting out a path to self-sufficiency.
For example, if Google went offline tomorrow, I would lose a lot of website traffic, but it wouldn’t kill me. If Facebook got broken up or shut down, I would lose one of my main sources of new readers, but it wouldn’t put me out of business. Even if Amazon disappeared overnight, that would really, really hurt me, taking away a big chunk of income.
But it wouldn’t destroy me because I have a lot of my readers on my mailing list now. And once you have a large list of readers, you have a much better chance of surviving anything the world throws at you, because you can always start again…. without starting from zero.
Practical Steps to Independence
If you haven’t started a mailing list yet, do it today. If you have a mailing list but you are only using it to announce new releases, consider pivoting to a more regular newsletter so you can really unlock the power of email marketing.
And if you already have a regular newsletter, then start really zooming in on your key metrics and make sure you are not missing any opportunity to optimize your whole operation. I’m not just talking about subscriber count — there’s too much focus on it — but your open rates and click rates and unsubscribe rates and general engagement levels as well.
That first email in your welcome sequence might look good with a 60% open rate. Now calculate how many subscribers you would have today if it had been 65% or 70% over the last year. Or 90%. When you run those numbers, you will see that even a moderate increase in key numbers like this can have a huge effect over time.
Growing a mailing list is a slow burn, so be patient. You don’t need to do everything at once or become an email mastermind overnight. Try and make small incremental improvements on this front every week and you will be amazed at where you are in twelve months.
It’s the best thing any author can do to future proof their business, guarantee their independence, and protect their income. No matter what happens next.
If you are not a self-publisher but this post has you thinking that publishing some of your work digitally might be a smart play right now, well, I don’t disagree. The latest edition of my self-publishing guide is free on all retailers. Get yer download links here.
If you are taking a bare bones approach to email right now and need a little more convincing to switch to a regular newsletter, I strongly recommend this post on unlocking the power of email marketing.
If you are sold on the idea of doing more with email and want to read The Best Guide Ever written by a genuine expert, then Newsletter Ninja by Tammi Labrecque is what you are looking for. I liked it this much.
For the nuts and bolts of how to set up your own mailing list I now have two pretty cool resources for you. My new reader magnet is a short book called Following which will teach you all that and walk you through all the steps in setting up your own website (and Facebook Page). But the only place you can get this book — meta alert! — is via my mailing list. Sign up here.
Oh and SURPRISE! I have a course now. It’s called Starting From Zero and will teach you how to publish your books like a pro, how to lock down your author branding, how to build an excellent reader capturing platform, and then how to construct a marketing plan to throw your book into the charts, one which works with the Amazon algorithms rather than against them.
It’s 100% free, initial reviews from students are phenomenal, and over 2,500 authors have already started it since it launched on Friday. Yeah, just a little ahead of projections on that one. Enroll here.