In the world of publishing and the world of the independent author, 2019 was a year of relevant stability...or adjusting to a new baseline of stability anyway. Some of the shock of 2018 has settled out and for most indie authors the sky is either no longer falling or it has already fallen (causing some to move on or give up).
Paid Advertising has Become Necessary to Succeed.
In 2019, indie authors learned to accept the new reality that Amazon's KDP is now "pay to play," meaning that Amazon has completed the shift away from the ability for content to gain any kind of organic traction to the new reality of needing to accompany great content with paid Amazon ads to drive discoverability. This is the lifecycle we've grown accustomed to with Facebook and others. What starts as organic ends with paid advertising. This will be the rule until a bold new platform finds a better way.
For those of us looking for the signs, we knew Amazon was heading in this direction the moment they deemphasized free content on their platform and launched Kindle Select. This has long been coming. Now it is fully here and accepted.
This shift to paid advertising on Amazon is what has opened the floodgates for information dealers on Amazon specifically in relation to publishing and storytelling. When we look back on 2019 a decade from now, we will remember it as the year that broke traditional publishing's back. But it will also be seen as a dead spot. Nothing major changed in 2019.
The longterm impacts of information dealers pouring into publishing were not widely felt yet, and the new solutions were not known yet. So it has been the status quo--a sort of superficial stability. Most of 2020 will be the same. Not until 2021 will the ride get choppy again as new solutions become viable and start competing to define the future of an industry that has been a dead-industry-walking for a decade already.
The hype over ebooks also ran its natural course during the year of 2019, and for the most part, we no longer have to listen to the hyperbole on either side about how print books are dead or about how ebooks were a fad. The reality is and has always been that ebooks would be a bridge technology that would eventually lead toward an optimized medium for digital storytelling.
Five years ago, I predicted that ebooks would already be trending down as the new digital model would be trending up. I failed to recognize how completely Amazon had captured the digital storytelling market built around an ebook infrastructure. Due to this infrastructure, we will be stuck with ebooks for several more years as more innovative startups will be forced to take a gradual and steady approach to replace the ebook with a more satisfying storytelling vehicle.
Future giants and early adopters will lay the groundwork in 2020.
In 2020, the combination of increased friction from information dealers and the spreading realization among authors that Amazon sees storytellers as vendors/suppliers and not customers will drive the market toward a new solution. The opportunity is increasing as consumer and creator frustration grows. We want stories, not commodities.
This shift will be driven first by innovative startups. Then it will be driven by authors. Once a new platform connects with authors in a similar manner that KDP did by offering authors a similar game-changing benefit, authors will flock to it. As authors flock to the new model, enough readers will follow to make the new model viable. Then it will be a matter of money and scale. Reaching the mainstream will certainly take 3-5 more years. At that point, the new model will need to be able to take the mantle of digital storytelling from the ebook.
So this is not necessarily something to watch for in 2020. The year 2020 will not usher in a replacement for the ebook. The next twelve months will not reveal a new giant in the publishing/storytelling industry.
But for people with ears to hear and eyes to see, 2020 will introduce the new giants. These startups will still be small, but they will be trending in the right direction and early-adopter authors will be focusing on them.
The signs are pointing to collaboration, serial storytelling, streaming, and machine learning.
Whichever form the future of digital storytelling takes, all signs are indicating that the future form will include a handful of characteristics we openly see consumers demanding in other forms of media consumption and entertainment.
Readers are demonstrating these same expectations. First among these expectations is that content be delivered on a near-demand basis. Readers don't want to wait months or even weeks for the next book. Therefore digital storytelling must become collaborative and serial. Creators must stop trying to carry the burden alone until their health breaks under the pressure. We cannot create content as fast as readers can consume it...without the help of a team.
Several writers working together can easily release serial content on a weekly basis or even a daily basis. And we will learn to do so in a sustainable manner. To facilitate this kind of continual content, streaming is the only thing that makes sense. To parcel stories out in little walled-off packets that are not searchable or easily discoverable would be a huge mistake. Streaming literature is the only sensible path forward.
And finally, machine learning will almost certainly be critical for helping readers navigate the ever-increasing ocean of digital content. Any retail platform or reader application that cannot learn along with the reader will not be helpful enough to justify leaving the current ebook infrastructure.
We must make the leap from trusting content creators to provide honest and accurate keywords and metadata to the future of machine learning. This is the only probable means of defeating the information dealer who would falsify metadata to generate high-friction sales.
The Bottom Line of Looking Forward
The year 2020 will not be a year of 20/20 vision for the vast majority of the public or for the majority of writers. 2020 will be a year of small-step progress for visionaries and players who will emerge much more openly into the public awareness during 2021 and 2022.
Amazon ads will continue to be effective enough to continue their widespread adoption among indie authors. At the same time, author frustration with Amazon will continue at a steadily increasing rate very much in line with what we saw in 2019. During 2020, perhaps 10% of indie authors will grow frustrated enough with the "damned if you Amazon, damned if you don't" reality to actively seek and embrace the emerging alternatives. These early adopters will be the first to be rewarded in 2021 as the winning model for digital storytelling emerges.
For most of us, and from most vantages, 2020 will be more of the same sort of artificial stability we experienced in 2019.