Well, 2020 is officially in the books. And I don’t think I’m alone in saying ‘good riddance.’ It was undoubtedly a tough year for all of us. Even with indie author sales climbing in 2020, the specter of COVID-19 and shake-ups in the traditional publishing industry made for a terribly uncertain year.
Here we are, with 2021 on the horizon and full of promise. Today, let’s have a look at what Lulu’s got on tap for indie authors and how we’re working to help authors retain independence in the face of a constantly consolidating industry.
The State Of Publishing
It’s not often I’m willing to link to a competitor for reference, but Mark Coker’s predictions for 2021 on the Smashwords blog offer a succinct look at the state of publishing. I encourage everyone to take a moment to read it because I’m going to reference his post a few times.
First, we have to look at the state of traditional publishing. The most significant change there was the consolidation of the Big 5 US publishers (Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan) into the Big 4 with PRH’s acquisition of Simon and Schuster. Consolidation means efficiency for the publishers, but it likely means more stringent guidelines for authors.
Which should be (kind of) a good thing for indie authors. Traditional publishing has never looked less appealing for the majority of authors than it does in 2021.
But we also have to contend with the growing monopoly of Amazon. For a lot of authors new to self-publishing, Amazon might appear to be the only option. And many indie authors will point new authors to Amazon. As if publishing through KDP is a good thing.
Not to say that listing your book on Amazon is a bad idea, but if you publish with the biggest and greediest marketplace and you think you’re an indie author, you’re deluding yourself.
2020 thoroughly showed us that there is a difference between self-publishing and independent publishing.
The Difference Between Self-Publishing And Indie Publishing
Twenty years ago, the two terms were interchangeable. Today, not exactly. Because self-publishing really just means you foot any costs associated with publishing. That means publishing for free through Lulu, Amazon, or another online platform or paying a vanity publisher for the editing, design, and production services traditional publishers normally cover.
Independent publishing might follow the same basic course, but the author’s emphasis is on developing fans and growing their own, independent following. In this scenario, any retail sales are supplemental to the primary goal of selling through their own platform.
Coker uses a political metaphor to describe the difference: “In a democracy [indie publishing], power lies with the people. With authoritarianism [Amazon], power is consolidated under the control of a single supreme leader.”
It’s a little extreme, but I think that helps drive the point home. At Lulu, we get a ton of feedback from our users and we make updates (weekly since September!) to act on user feedback. Because all of our users are indie authors and we are acutely aware that we need each other to be successful.
Amazon (who I’m picking on, but aren’t the only ones) are so big they can shrug off requests for improvements. Their goal is to make it fast and easy for you to publish whatever you want. If it sells, terrific because Amazon gets their cut. If it doesn’t, Amazon will barely notice.
2021 Will Be The Year Of Indie Publishing
Okay, that’s maybe a little bold. In fact, I’d be satisfied with just seeing the indie publishing world retain the growth we’ve seen over the last year.
After spending all of 2020 surviving the pandemic and launching a top-to-bottom redesign of our site, Lulu is going to be focused on helping you become an even more successful independent publisher.
Our new site makes getting your book printed fast and easy; you literally just need the PDF ready and you can be ordering prints in under 10 minutes. And for authors who want to utilize our retail tools, the process has been reorganized to be clear, direct, and easy to follow.
But we’ll go one better in 2021. We’re adding more instructions to address the areas you’ve said aren’t clear. Our Help Center will get a facelift to help you better find answers to questions and contact our support team.
And (my personal favorite) we’ll be updating the Bookstore to include better sorting, improved categories, and search; and to make it easier to visually ‘browse’ content. With our search and sort capabilities upgraded, our creative and content teams will be able to start sharing curated lists like our Support Black Authors page.
The primary distinction between a self-published author and an indie publisher is direct sales. And it’s something you’re going to hear a lot from me and everyone at Lulu this year. You have to be your own best advocate. That means owning your reader’s experience and earning more than a percentage from sales.
First and foremost, when you sell directly to your readers, you’re cultivating a direct relationship. That comes in the form of social media connections or email signups. And don’t discount email; your mailing list will bring the best return on investment for your marketing efforts.
Helping you earn the most (money and followers) is the idea behind our Lulu Direct Shopify App. With Shopify, you can create an ecommerce site (or integrate their service into your existing site) and sell print-on-demand books directly to your readers.
In 2021, we’ll be emphasizing how important your website is with guides, videos, and more updates/upgrades to our ecommerce tools.
Monopoly No More
If you self-publish your book on Amazon and that’s it, you’re essentially buying into the ‘new traditional’ publishing.
Modern self-publishing means diversification. It means using a lot of different platforms and funneling readers and attention on your own platform. You need to be where your readers are and you need to convince those readers to come with you; both on a journey into your book and into your network.
A reader might buy one copy of one of your books. A fan will buy at least one copy of all your books. At the end of the day, you want fans more than shoppers.
That’s what 2021 is going to be about. Helping new and veteran authors find the right tools to achieve their goals and supporting the importance of wide, diverse marketing and publishing strategies.
I’ve got one more quote from Mark Coker before I move on. I think it sums up the direction self-publishing needs to take to embrace its indie roots: “Are you okay that a multi-billion dollar publishing industry continues to profit on the backs of starving artists?”
For everyone at Lulu, the answer is a resounding “nope.”
Self-Publishing For EVERYONE
Independent publishing, by its nature, is open and inclusive. And with the events of 2020 swirling around us, the executive team at Lulu took a look at our own diversity and inclusion policies.
It’s not something you’d see as an author publishing on Lulu or a reader shopping the bookstore, but 2020 has been a year of internal growth and improvement for all of us. Our office and culture have always aimed to be pretty inclusive. But late in 2020, we decided to put even more work into our internal culture.
We’re going into 2021 with new core values and a new dedication to our social, environmental, and community goals. Look for more B Corp content to start showing up with a renewed emphasis on sharing our story.
Staying On Theme
If you’ve followed Lulu for the last couple of years (or even just the last couple of months), you’ve seen that we believe strongly in providing authors a wealth of free materials. Don’t expect that to change in 2021. We still aim to help authors everywhere, on any platform, find success.
That success will continue through diverse publishing, independent marketing and networking, and great writing. 2020 was a rough year for a lot of us, but many authors still found success. We’re going to keep that going into 2021 with new technology, education, and publishing options to help you.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.