Is The Indie Fiction Market Over-saturated?

A writer friend of mine asked me this question a few weeks ago, and I found myself answering in great detail. 

Just in case you were wondering the same thing, here’s my (modified for public access) answer.


Is the indie fiction market oversaturated? 

If you look at the whole publishing industry as a monolithic monster, then you might think that there are too many books, that readers can’t possibly find or read everything out there.  How can your book gain any visibility in a sea of fiction that never goes off the shelf?

But even the indie fiction industry isn’t a monolith.  You have to break it down.

The traditional publishing industry is imploding in slow motion.  They just can’t get their heads around the new reality of publishing. 

In a period when more people are reading than ever before, and spending more hours a week doing it, the traditional publishing industry is cutting back the numbers of books they release and still doing nothing with their back list, and still trying to throttle ebook sales. 

Most of the world is broke, right now, and won’t pay more for an ebook than the print edition.  Readers will happily buy, instead, the $3 ebook by the author over here with the great cover and better blurb.  (And, man, have indie authors got their shit together these days!). 

Still on traditional publishing:  now we have the big four NY publishers instead of the big five, thanks to the merging of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster (PRHSS) so the crunch for them is only going to get worse. 

And, by the way, don’t believe what PRHSS says about “nothing will change”.  Things will change (otherwise, why merge?)  For the first six to 12 months, PRHSS will abide by their declared “don’t be afraid, nothing is changing!”  Then they’ll start cutting.  Hard.  I figure that about July or August this year, there will be a clearing of the house.  Editors and authors will be looking for new homes and some of those authors will head straight for indie publishing (if they’re not already hybrids).

So it looks like the indie publishing scene is blowing out, with millions of titles that readers can’t possibly hope to even learn about, let alone buy and read, so why bother?

Here’s why:

Indie fiction is slowly stratifying into Kindle-Unlimited or Wide publishing models.  In fact, I will go out on a line and say that 2021 is the year when this divide really starts to make itself felt.  Authors have started to figure out that these are two almost completely different models of publishing that require different writing, publishing and promotion–in fact, every facet of indie publishing is affected by which side of the KU/Wide line you stand on. 

And each of those models have unique readerships.

KU Readers

KU readers can’t get enough books…but they have to be the right sort of books. 

The books that KU readers want are “more of the same, but different”.  They’re usually rabid fans of a single genre or sub-genre and want only more of that single narrow niche of stories.  They rarely stray outside that niche for their leisure reading.

If a KU book doesn’t engage them by being familiar and comfortable in the first couple of pages, they return it and get another.  Why not?  It doesn’t cost them anything.  They have an extremely low tolerance for anything truly new or novel.  

In additiona, they’re being served AMS ads on every single book page they look at, giving them the names and covers of books just like the one they’re looking at.  KU readers’ seek-and-find muscles have atrophied.  They get their next read served to them.  Often, they don’t even have to leave their reading app.  Amazon pops up the very next book up on their screen when they reach the last page of the current one.

So there are a LOT of books in KU, especially in the primary genres (Romance, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Mystery-Suspense-Thrillers), and as long as they meet the readers’ expectations, they do well. 

The others?  They sink to the multi-million ranks and are never seen again. 

There might be a plethora of KU titles, but only the top 10% or so actually get read. (This is purely arbitrary – I really don’t know how deep the KU readers search–but what I do know is that the search gets shallower with each passing year) .  

So the other titles—as much as I hate to say this—just don’t have an impact upon readers. KU readers float upon the surface and rarely even have to hang a hook over the edge to snag another book.

Yet, as these lower-ranking books never get unpublished or go out of print, they just sit there, building up at the bottom of the pool.  When people talk about there being “too many books”, they’re roping the titles stuck in the sludge into their estimation, and they really shouldn’t.

Not Every Failing Title is Badly Written

BTW, let me clarify here:  Just because a book has sunk below the 3M rank, does not mean it isn’t worth reading, badly written or “crap” in any way, shape or form. 

There are a ton of reasons why a book will sink and you, as a writer, are aware of most of them:  Failure to release a new title quickly enough to keep the backlist lifting, bad covers, bad blurb, failure to promote in any form, etc., etc., etc.  There’s other more obscure reasons:  Marketing the book in the wrong genre.  Wrong price, wrong categories, bad reviews from impatient readers.  Or perhaps the book simply shouldn’t be in KU in the first place.  And then, yes, there are a fraction of these sinking titles that are crap, but not all titles failing to rise to surface of the KU pond can be smeared with the “crap” label.  Most of them are perfectly well written fiction.  There’s just a lot of moving parts in this industry and any one of them can sink your book.

Wide Readers and Wide Books

Wide readers are a different species.  They’re author-centric and series-centric, and only after those two criteria are they genre-centric. 

You might think that KU readers are series-centric, but they’re not.  They’re KU-centric.  If the first book in a series is in KU, they’ll read it, but they absolutely will not pick up book 2 if it isn’t in KU, no matter how much they like the first book.  There are too many KU titles out there to regret passing on the series.  They’ll find another nearly-the-same title in a few minutes and forget the one they just loved.

Wide readers, on the other hand, are actively looking in a dozen different places for their next read.  Not just their favourite bookstore, but also their local library, review blogs, author newsletters, BookFunnel promos, Facebook groups, Reddit boards and, oh, a thousand different places. 

Wide readers like reading a well-told story and if it’s a little different, or even a complete outlier, they’ll still give it a go if it’s by their favourite author.   They’ll also give a book a go even if it’s a little bit out of their usual preferences, if they’ve had a strong recommendation from other readers, or one of their trusted sources. 

They will also hang in there for an entire series, if they’re enjoying the story.  They like reading a whole series.  They have acquired the skills to hunt down the next books in a series and many of them are technically comfortable with ereaders and side-loading, and will buy/acquire books from a variety of sources:  Book stores, libraries, Project Gutenberg and other public domain sources, BookFunnel promos, etc.

All of the above I know for a fact, because my romance street team is very nearly the same members as my science fiction street team and my urban fantasy street team (all three different pen names).  Those members found their way to my pen names.  And many of the SF and UF reviews say something like “I’ve never read xxx before, but I loved this!” or “I didn’t like SF before this, but now I love it!…”  And no, I didn’t tell them about the pen names.  They figured it out for themselves, because they’re interested in my writing, no matter what name is on the cover.

So, is the wide market saturated, then? 

Nope, because readers just don’t see the books out there that haven’t been written by their favourite authors…until they discover a new author.  Then they devour everything they’ve written.

Wide is much like KU in that there is a great many books at the bottom of the pond, made up of the same badly marketed/packaged/promoted and badly written books.

And again, these wide titles never go out of print or are withdrawn, so the bottom levels build day after day and get counted along with the books near the surface, even though no one has looked at the title for a couple of years.

Books in this new age just don’t go away as they used to even twenty years ago.

You have to look at the top of the pond, where everyone is fishing. 

There’s enough books to give even the most discerning and picky reader titles to read whenever they want, and that’s exactly as it should be. 

I don’t think the market is oversaturated.  Books don’t go unread because people have too much to read.  They just haven’t heard of that book or author yet.  But the book never goes out of print, so they’ll get to it eventually.

It makes getting your book in front of the right readers more challenging than it has ever been, but there are ways to get there if you understand the market. 

Building your platform and building your reader community is more critical than ever, now.

I think the people complaining about oversaturation are those who think they’re competing with every single book ever published.  They’re really not. 

Or else they can’t figure out how to develop their platform and readership. 

OR — and this is a big mistake I see a lot of authors falling for these days — they’re listening to an expert, or watching a super-successful author and mimicking them, and what they’re doing is dead wrong for their platform, their brand or their genre.  That is; they’re using KU tactics for Wide distribution or vice-versa. 

They’re failing because they don’t understand the market, and blaming their failure on “oversaturation”.  Maybe readers would buy their books if the author was using the most efficient and proper way to get the book in front of them–and that isn’t as difficult as the oversaturation-moaners make it sound like.

The other biggie for indie authors who speak of oversaturation, these days, is that they’re in too much of a hurry. 

Indie publishing genre fiction is a long term game now. 

In the beginning, authors like Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking rushed to the top of charts and danced a jig there because indie was so new the paint still reeked.  Now the industry is maturing (it’s still got a way to go before it plateaus, but it’s getting there), and it’s no longer possible to game your way to overnight success. 

There is instant success for a lucky few, but luck has always been a factor in publishing, even when there were a dozen major New York publishers and no indie publishing to speak of (which was less than 15 years ago). 

Now, if you want success (whatever that means to you individually), you have to buckle up and develop your career over years, not months. 

  • Twenty books minimum, all with great packaging and strong writing,
  • preferably in the same series or at least in the same sub-genre,
  • a responsive, active email list, and
  • wide distribution and I mean wide – reading apps, paperback, hardcover, ebook, audio, foreign translations, TV rights.
  • You must understand copyright and licensing, too.  This will help you distribute your books as widely as possible. 

Get all that in place and you’ll start to see the revenue streams trickle in.  Stay with it over the long term and the stream turns into the Columbia River.  

Only, the oversaturation crowd can’t see that putting a book out there and getting a trickle of sales as a good thing.  Multiplied over twenty books, or a hundred books, the trickle adds up.  Yet they want all that money right now.  They’re trying to force the market to give them an income, instead of letting it rise naturally over time. 

Time is the great leveller. 

The effect is already showing.  The first Kindle was launched in 2007.  We’re coming up on 15 years of entrepreneurs and hacks hopping onto the money-maker and squeezing it dry, dropping shitty books and plain blah books into the market. 

Authors who suck at writing or who are not in it for the long term (they thought they’d “try” writing, found out how hard it is, or how bad they are at it and have given up), and authors who are not doing anything to be discovered (don’t care to, or don’t know how to)—their books have sunk to the bottom, too, but are still available, still counted, even though they’re covered in mud.

And all those hacks and opportunists are gone, or are going.  Their books will be forgotten and never found again.  

That leaves writers who actually care about writing to produce and release good, solid fiction…including you.


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