I tend to talk a ton about the future and about big picture stuff. I'm not always the best about helping people connect this stuff with the here and now in a manner that feels actionable. Now that we're satiated with yearend and decade-end summaries along with forecasts of the coming decade, I wanted to address how we can take action on all of this stuff in an effort to "future-proof" our hopes and dreams and livelihoods as writers.
To do this, we're gonna address three things:
- A critical shift in thinking that we writers have to make.
- The two tectonic shifts (one past and one future) in the high seas of publishing that are actively forming the seascape upon which we must navigate.
- Some practical steps to future proof our livelihoods as writers by building a compelling author brand.
First, we have to shift our thinking.
If you’re anything like me, you entered into your writing career with the idea of writing a book or several books and then finding someone (an agent, a publisher, etc.) to spread your genius into the world so you could sit back and make money while doing nothing but writing. What I learned over the first couple of years is that for my dream to become a reality I needed to become more than just a good narrative writer. I needed to become an entrepreneur. I needed to become a publisher. I needed to become a marketer, a formatter, a designer, a sales copy writer, and more.
I become an independent author, but struggled for a few years due to so much of my tasks being outside the scope of writing books. And writing books was what I valued, and therefore writing books is what I thought I should be doing all the time. It wasn't until I had been forced to dig deeper into business and marketing that I realized the fault in my mindset that had been holding me up.
I had failed to incorporate the concept of author brand into my writing career. What's the difference you may ask? Well, my ever so astute readers, a writing career centers around sitting at a desk and writing stories, articles, posts, etc. (what I thought I would be doing). An author brand centers around creating, acquiring, and managing brand assets that consist mostly of intellectual property and that build a consistent brand story (what I actually needed to be doing). Author Brand is much larger in scope than just the writing career. Every author brand involves a ton of writing, but by acknowledging the importance of the author brand the writer is reconciled with all the other necessary aspects of the business.
Why is this such a big deal? Why can't I just focus on writing great stories and let the rest take care of itself? I mean, is thinking about an author brand really a radical shift? [Spoiler alert: the answer is, "Yes." The reason has to do with the way readers are increasingly finding and consuming content.] Before we answer that million dollar question in detail, let's create the backdrop by shifting the discussion toward two tectonic shifts in publishing.
Here are the big picture basics you need to know to navigate the publishing high seas safely into the future.
Publishing has gone through a tectonic shift over the last ten years. Just as we offer slavery as the cause of the American civil war, we can offer Kindle Direct Publishing as the cause of the first tectonic shift in digital publishing. Get my meaning? Sure, there are more complexities and nuances to what actually went down. But the short answer is that Kindle Direct Publishing rocked publishing.
Evaluating the first Tectonic Shift: KDP
The pluses of KDP have been exponential increases in accessibility and control. KDP tore down the content gates and allowed anyone with a word processor and an internet connection to publish content to a vast audience. No need for an agent, a publisher, or a lawyer. Of course any organic traction that existed in the Kindle store during the early years is long gone, but KDP still allows exponentially more access to readers than we writers had fifteen years ago. In addition to this access, KDP allows writers to maintain ownership, and thus control, of their intellectual property. Amazon only asks for a cut of the royalties in exchange for the access they provide.
Those were the obvious benefits KDP brought to the industry. What about the drawbacks?
The downside of KDP has taken more time to come into focus mostly due to false contextualization. We've misidentified our relationship with Amazon as that of customer rather than correctly identifying our relationship as seller/supplier. We failed to recognize Amazon for what they were and what they are: a retailer, and now an ad platform.
Once you learn to interpret their actions through the correct lens it all makes sense. Amazon values original content as a commodity valuable for selling Amazon Prime Memberships.
The real cost of all the access to readers KDP made possible has been the commodification of story.
This isn't the place to dive deeply into what the commodification of story means. For now, it must suffice to say quality narrative doesn't factor into selling Prime memberships. (ie. the majority of the content doesn't have to be good.) Therefore, as storytellers AND readers, we don't share the same values as Amazon. This isn't an indictment against Amazon. It's an indictment on indie authors for assuming Amazon had any motivation to be our champion or friend outside of financial gain and market share.
It turns out that the downside of KDP's tectonic shift in the publishing industry was that the hegemony over publishing shifted from a stalwart of traditional publishers to an online retailer and advertising platform that has commodified story and used it to leverage a loyalty/membership subscription.
So...for us writers, this means that our stories are not Amazon's primary concern. That's reserved for Amazon Prime. Our stories aren't even a secondary concern. That's reserved for all the commercial goods Prime members buy as a result of their membership. Thus, content creators are reduced to a tertiary role, and our importance has nothing to do with the quality of our narrative. We are evaluated by our marketing and sales prowess.
This is the problem that will inevitably lead to the second tectonic shift in digital publishing.
Predicting The Next Tectonic Shift: ???
First off, there is no going back. The next shift must preserve or improve on the current access and control that KDP provided us. And the next shift must provide the same ease of access for readers. In other words, the next shift will build off of the goods KDP delivered.
But, the KPI (key performance indicator) driving the next shift will center around quality narrative rather than commodification and leveraging (ie. friction). To do this the next shift will disavow competitive ad spend and it will focus on stories as its primary vertical for revenue. The next shift will replace current levers of abuse (reviews, rankings, etc.) with reading behavior analytics that exponentially improve suggestions on what to read next and solve the problem of discoverability without exposure to being gamed by bad actors.
In other words, the platform must be primarily driven by storytelling. The reason that such a story-oriented platform (or network of services) will become the next tectonic shift in digital publishing is that it will GREATLY reduce the friction that both reader and writer are experiencing on Amazon currently.
Story Consumption is evolving due to technology, society, and new consumption and delivery models being applied by content providers. Readers’ desires and consumption behaviors are evolving. Some of this has been driven by the readers. Some of this has been driven by services such as Kindle Unlimited. Much of the evolution is being driven by the desire for profit and has relied on high-friction marketing tactics. Check out this recent post for a deeper dive into "binge culture" and how evolving reader demands will continue to shape publishing into and beyond the next shift.
If we are able to feed into the positive aspects of the emerging "binge culture" while reducing friction from the commodifying and leveraging (ads, reviews, rankings) forced on us by Amazon, we can forge an alternative experience that will usher in a second tectonic shift in the publishing industry. This time the result will be an experience of connectivity and control that reduces friction for all parties and keeps the quality of the narrative front and center.
In my opinion, it is unlikely a single company will arise to create the next tectonic shift. Rather a coop or network of author-first services should create APIs that enable a smooth user experience for authors and readers—a single, complete vertical for publishing from story creation and licensing to story consumption and monetization. Each of the necessary pieces exist in the seascape already. We need to create a network that effectively provides a sustainable, alternative pathway to success for authors so that Publishing can be rescued from its current endangered state at the hands of large information brokers.
Building an Author Brand can future proof you against the coming shift.
It's only important to know about the past and future of these tectonic shifts so that we can safeguard our livelihoods and dreams in regards to our creative efforts. The past shift and the future shift have changed and will further change how readers interact with us and our content. These changes have led to readers identifying even more closely with author brands rather than with individual books or even series.
Readers will continue to demand rapid release content from the brands they love. It is up to us writers to figure out how to serve quality narrative to our readers according to their new desires (and while using the current infrastructure available to us), rather than succumbing to the negative commodifying aspects foisted upon all of us by the current Kindle Unlimited "buffet-style" subscription model.
(A quick note: None of this means we should stop successful tactics while they are still working. It means we should prepare ourselves for the future by making sure we don't neglect the longer term strategies that will certainly endure.)
This brings us full-circle to your author brand. A strong author brand will always remain powerful and relevant for those readers who identify themselves with that brand. Apple, Carl's Jr., and Nike are strong examples of brands that tons of consumers desire to identify themselves with. Once the brand loyalty has been built, the company doesn't have to work nearly as hard to sell new products. Fans of the brand already know they want the next Nike shoe or iPhone.
Either endeavor to sell each individual book or endeavor to sell the author brand once and let the reader champion each individual story for you. That's the power of a successful author brand.
And so finally we are ready to layout the basics steps in developing your author brand!
First, you have to create a brand story that you can communicate via sales copy. Does your author brand have to be genre specific? Not always. Does it have to be audience specific? Definitely.
In order to be audience specific, you guessed it, you have to define your audience. Once you've defined the audience, you have to make a promise to them to create the content they want to read. Do this through your brand story and your actual stories.
Next, you have to deliver on your promise to the readers within your author brand by providing them with regular and consistent content they enjoy.
Finally, you'll need to create a mission statement you can quickly express to others. A mission statement has less to do with your genre or the rules of that genre and more to do with why you write stories in the first place. What themes are important for you to explore? What experiences do you want your readers to come away with? In what ways do you want to challenge them? Inspire them? Entertain them?
The answer to these questions is your author mission statement.
Don’t stumble into these things. Define them and own them. Intentionally incorporate them with every story. This is the stuff your readers may not be aware that they come to your for, but they will still be disappointed if you don’t give it to them.
Some of you might want to stop here, but to fully future proof yourself against the inevitable second shift in digital publishing, I highly recommend you find author partners. Part of maintaining a healthy, strong author brand is delivering on your promise regularly and consistently...over and over and over again for years. For most of us, this means a team. The future of publishing is going to be easier for those authors who have assembled passionate and talented teams around a shared author brand.
For more details on each of the steps involved in building an author brand, check out my post specifically on creating an author brand.