It’s been an apocalyptic week, even for these dystopian times! Here in North Carolina we’ve been largely confined to barracks due to the air pollution caused by the Canadian wildfires. Yesterday was a red alert here, today is orange (but feels worse). Some parts of the country are at purple alert, on the cusp of critical. It feels very much as if we are reliving the Victorian smog over London, one of the joys of the First Industrial Revolution.
If Klaus Schwab is correct (God forbid!) and we are now in the process of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, can we expect any better? Progress is seldom hazard-free, and it often benefits a small group of people to the detriment of the proles. Without going into the politics and the pros and cons, I wanted to highlight a change that crept unnoticed (by me) into the world of independent publishing.
I was dimly aware of so-called “AI” that could allegedly write stories with just a few keyword prompts, and I had seen a few examples of AI art. I did not, however, realize how prevalent AI had already become in my industry. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a Twitter furore in which a book that had been entered into this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off was accused of having an AI-generated cover. I witnessed a virtual lynch mob by self-confessed digital-age Luddites, but things quickly calmed down. The author wasn’t deemed culpable: he was duped. He commissioned a new cover, and all seemed well.
Until I bought a pre-made cover for my forthcoming release.
The cover was certainly impactful, and captured the essence of the book perfectly. It garnered way more interest on social media than any previous cover of mine, and pre-orders were stacking up nicely. And then I received an email from a blogger who had kindly agreed to showcase the new release, informing me that he had been told the cover was AI generated. The next morning, my book was at the center of a new Twitter storm. Thankfully, most people were understanding, and a few offered helpful advice (such as how to spot AI in the future).
I contacted the cover designer, and she graciously offered to work on a replacement cover. This was a relief, as in some cases I have heard about, the designers run for the hills when the accusation of AI is made.
To cut a long story short, my encounter with AI has made me realize how perilous, how close to the end, my indie publishing career has come–and not just because of AI, which is the latest hurdle among many to be overcome.
I first self-published in 2009 (The Resurrection of Deacon Shader). I had finished the book and produced a print-on-demand paperback with the view of gifting copies to friends and family. I posted it on Facebook, and another author suggested publishing it on Amazon Kindle (which I had not heard of until then). I did so, then released a few more books, and I was lucky enough to be on the tail end of what I now consider Kindle’s “golden age”. I sold thousands of books and gave up working as a psychiatric nurse as a result.
Things changed when Amazon rolled out Kindle Unlimited. Sales nose-dived, and whilst page reads initially compensated for this, they soon declined. After that, Amazon brought out PPC advertising, and sales dropped even further. Visibility, it seemed, was reduced so that authors would pour money into advertising. Going wide helped a little, but the other platforms never reached anywhere near the level of those original Amazon sales.
I moved into audiobooks, and had great success early on. For a few years, ACX made it possible for me to continue to self-publish full-time. And then Audible brought out a subscription program, and sales died overnight.
I started to work with an agent, but it soon became apparent that the industry was in a bad way. After a few years, the best she managed was an audiobook deal, and a poor one at that (but at least they got Steven Pacey to narrate it!)
I moved into ghost-writing for three years: hard work but rewarding. It was a great experience, but I needed to get back to writing my own material after that.
Not wanting to commit six months to a year to a new novel that might sink without a trace, as several of my non-Nameless Dwarf books had done, I decided to give Kindle Vella a go. Vella is Amazon’s attempt to move in on Wattpad’s territory. A few years ago, I had tried Wattpad and had several hundred story follows. Perhaps Vella, which offered royalty payments, might be a way to keep things going.
Initially, I was shocked at how low the royalties were, but then I had the pleasant surprise of a bonus payment. It was only about $150, but I thought I could improve on that. The next month that I used Vella, I quadrupled my episode likes, reads, and “faves” and yet the bonus dropped to $50. I asked Amazon how this could be–surely they had made a mistake. Their answer was vague and noncommittal. It was also disheartening when, out of the thousands of readers of my Nameless Dwarf books, the several thousand followers on social media, Amazon, Book Bub etc, only two people followed the story! I’m not sure if this is because readers don’t like Vella, or because they’ve had enough of the Nameless Dwarf! Either way, my flirtation with Vella came to an abrupt end. Indie was feeling less like a business and more like exploitation by the major platforms, who seem to expect writers to provide free content for their subscription programs.
And then I saw the cover!
I set up a launch for the reboot of Husk (now to be called The Hunter). Within hours it had more social media engagements than any of my previous books. Things were looking up. I secured a Book Bub promotion. The rest, you already know.
I’m grateful to the designer for offering a replacement cover, and there’s still a chance the book might take off. I am, however, doubtful. I think I’ve had my day as a relatively successful indie writer. It’s looking as if my time and energy might be better spent on other things. I’m not saying I won’t self-publish again, only that I don’t have the enthusiasm for it that I once did.
The replacement cover
I have a nearly completed novel that I intend to pitch once it’s been through several revisions. After that, I’m not sure yet. I do have several works in progress, and a couple of Nameless Dwarf stories just dying to see the light of day. I’ll have to see which, if any, have the most potential nearer the time.
It’s been a fun journey, and self-publishing (especially the Nameless Dwarf books) made it possible for my family to buy a house, a car, and all manner of things we probably don’t really need. Those days might be gone, but the books remain, and they still bring in a nice, if diminished, income.
AI is just the latest difficulty I’ve encountered. I wonder what will be next.
What are your feelings on AI-generated content? Will a time come (will it be soon?) when there is no further need for human content creators? Human workers in stores, utilities etc? Humans at all? Klaus? Bill? Sektis? I’d love to know your thoughts.