What Your 2023 Business Year will Look Like…Maybe

In January, I generally like to post about goals for the coming year, goal-setting, and motivation.

But I’ve come across a bunch of articles and reports lately that speculate on what 2023 and onward might look like for indie authors, and realized that goal setting is useless, if you don’t have a good idea of the shape of the environment where those goals will be achieved.

You can set a goal to write a million words this year, for example, but if Amazon shuts down its book division, then your priorities—and your goals for the year—will abruptly change.

[Amazon may not shut down the book division, but it’s possible the changes they introduce will be nothing short of revolutionary, for indie authors.  Check Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s forecasting post here.]

One of the articles I read and then re-read just today, was “The Coming Death of Commercialized Art” on Amazing Stories.  It’s a long-ish, but thoughtful and disturbing overview of AI encroachment into publishing.

Beyond the article’s assertions, most of the current discussions around writing AIs lean toward it being inevitable that commercial fiction writers will be replaced by AI, even though the current generation of AI produces fiction that feels soulless.   The Amazing Stories article says it will happen within the next two generations of AI (we’re currently on GPT-3).

GPT-2 was released on February 14, 2019.

GPT-3 was released on June 20, 2020.

The article doesn’t say what writers might do instead, but most of the common alternatives (editing, for example) will also be wiped out at the same time.

There might be an interim period when human writers are required to monitor and direct the AI writing the stories, and maybe get writing credit, but as the AIs improve, we’ll be no longer required. 

Ursula Le Guin said in her acceptance speech for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation:

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

When GPT-4 is introduced, are our only alternatives to start thinking about alternative careers sooner rather than later…or move into “high art” literature?

Neither is very appealing to me. 

A third post that added to my general dismay about the near future of indie publishing was another Kris Rusch post, “Business Musings: Advertising: The Year in Review Part 6”. 

In the post, she explains that advertising is no longer working for indie authors.  Algorithm and data-driven authors (such as Chris Fox, Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle – the last of whom has been so comfortable working exclusively with Amazon algorithms that he doesn’t bother with an author website) are finding that none of their advertising and algorithm manipulations are working anywhere near as well as they once did. 

[And it’s interesting that Martelle and Anderle are cooindinators of the 20 Books to 50K Facebook group, which has until now been fiercely focused upon Kindle Unlimited as the “only” sensible way to make money writing fiction.  That philosophy is currently changing.]

In summary

Amazing Stories has tried very hard to convince writers of pulp fiction (which is a majority of indie authors who are making decent bank, these days) that pulp fiction writing will be taken over by AIs in the near future.  So will the cover art that goes with it.  And the editing.  And the building of ebooks, too.  They hint, via quotes from Le Guin, that we all learn to write literature instead.

Kris Rusch has suggested that Amazon’s book division will go through radical changes in the near future, leaving many of us scrambling to replace the primary source of our monthly fiction income.

And finally, Rusch’s second post about the failure of advertising implies that the average indie author, who doesn’t have an entire marketing department and technical help, plus limitless advertising dollars to experiment with and figure out what advertising will work, should instead find alternatives.

It’s pretty grim, isn’t it?

A Modest Proposal

And no, my tongue is not firmly in my cheek, a la Jonathan Swift, as I write this. 

I’m being modest about my suggestions, because most of what I’ve been reading lately has convinced me that, like William Goldman’s assertion about Hollywood, nobody in the indie publishing knows anything.  Not anymore.  So my suggestions might be utterly wrong.

I offer them, anyway.  Use them as a starting point, and think about the near future of your own writing business.  There is plenty of evidence that the industry is shifting under our feet, so thinking about future strategies now and maybe pivotting your business direction will save you from the chaos of change later on.  (As a reminder, Amazon has, in the past, dumped massive changes on indie authors with little or no warning.)

The one thing I would strongly encourage you to not do is carry on as you have been for the past few years.  That model won’t work much longer, because everything is changing.  You need to change how you do things, too. 

My Suggestion 

I’d like to think there is a middle road here. 

When automobiles were widely adopted, the guts of the passenger train industry imploded.  But trains didn’t disappear altogether.  After a lot of pain and rethinking, the train industry is still alive and well today, but it’s not the primary form of transport that anyone thinks of first.

The train industry struggled.  It bled.

On the other hand, when electricity was introduced, along with light globes, candle-makers didn’t go out of business and they didn’t turn their craft into a high art form, either (although some of the carved candles made today come close to high art). 

Candles are still hugely popular, but they’re artisanal objects, now.  I know many people who love candles, and are brand loyal.  They buy candles from the same source(s), over and over again.

We don’t have to have candles.  Even the preppers have other light alternatives for when the power grid goes down.

But we like candles, and I suspect every single household in the western world could find a candle or two in their cupboards or on their sideboards.

Bring that to bear on indie publishing:  None of the sources I’ve quoted so far have mentioned platform, or reader community.  None have spoken of brand loyalty as an effective strategy for building and maintaining your own reader community, using a powerful, multi-faceted platform to communicate with them.

Building your own independent customer base frees you from the tyranny of Amazon changes, AI take overs, and advertising failures (I haven’t paid for click-based advertising in over two years).

New forms of publishing, including crowd-funding, fiction apps, and more, will add even more independence to your business. 

What you write becomes the other aspect of this future scenario.  I suspect that indie authors who don’t want to wade in the literature pool will develop fiction that I will call “original pulp”. 

If the AIs churn out pulp fiction that is “the same, but different” stories that whale readers consume in great gulps, then indie authors need to take a step or two up and create entertaining genre stories that veer away from “the same, but different” formula that has driven popular fiction for decades.

Humans are capable of being creative.  AI cannot.  It imitates.  It collates and summarizes, and gestalts.  But it cannot come up with a fresh, original idea by itself. 

We indie authors can dream up original stories.  We can deliberately choose to depart from the tried and true tropes, and instead develop stories that are utterly different, yet still provide the touchstone emotional experiences that readers expect in their favourite genre.

Readers who like your style and your story-telling will be like candle lovers.  They will linger to pick up your next book, and the one after that.  In the meantime, they might consume AI created stories, but they will soon learn the difference between the two. 

Afterall, there are plain white house candles that do the job, and there are gosh-wow candles like this one from the artist Klomo on Etsy:

And the third facet to my suggestion is to embrace the AI technology and use it to assist your fiction writing.  Not to write original content, but to help you spread your original content as far as you can. 

AI audiobooks, and AI foreign translations are two aspects that you can jump into right now. 

AI cover art will improve quickly and might be the next tech assistance you can adopt. 

Think about the year ahead and make plans

Now it’s your turn.  Do some research, and future-proof your business, as best you can.  It’s possible you’ll guess wrong.  After all, none of us knows anything about our industry, these days.

Think about:

  1. Where you derive your income and where that revenue will come from in the future.
  2. What you will write in the future to meet reader needs.
  3. And how you will let readers know about what you’re writing, that isn’t advertising dependent.
  4. How you can harness the coming AI revolution to build up your business for you, instead of competing with it.

If you’re thinking about future developments, you won’t get caught flat-footed when they arrive, even if they’re not what you expected (change rarely does look like what you expected). 

Keeping a weather eye on industry changes gives you flexibility to respond positively and to thrive (even if thriving takes a hell of a lot of hard work) while other authors watch in dismay as their writing businesses implode when major developments arrive “overnight”.

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