My friend Marina blogs in Italian and English in her Space of Entropy, and is a fine writer with a number of great self-published books. She is also notorious for her habit of telling things as they are, and not as they should be. An attitude much appreciated by the Devil, if you remember your J.B. Cabell.
So when she told me she was writing an overview of the Italian indie book market, I asked her if she was willing to publish the first draft of her work on Karavansara. Marina was so kind she accepted, and here is the first installment of this fine article, that will keep us reading for the whole weekend.
In thanking Marina for her kindness, I think I’ll point out that I have encountered much if not all the horrors she describes.
So here we go – enjoy, please don’t laugh too loud, have pity for our plight and please comment if you feel like.
Let’s start with the basics: the number of people speaking (or reading) Italian is small. It’s damn small, compared to the number of English speakers. If you ask wikipedia, it will tell you that, as of 2012, there were 69 million native speakers of Italian in the whole EU, plus the people who count it as a second language.
“What’s the number of readers in Italy, where the majority of people reading Italian reside?” you may ask. Well, it’s low.
Data from 2016 says only 40,5% Italians had read at least one book in the previous year for entertainment reasons (so, school/work related books weren’t considered).
1 in every 10 families had no books at home.
Until 2013, in Italy there basically was no indie publishing market. Yes, there were some online platforms which would publish and sell indie ebooks, but those platforms were rife with problems. The issues ranged from technical, to monetary. Some authors had to threaten legal actions just to get paid their dues by these first platforms.
Then, in 2013, Amazon made its KDP platform available to Italian writers too, and the flood gates opened. In the following months and years, the number of indie published books has, predictably, skyrocketed, and with that the number of online retailers selling traditional and indie ebooks. The future was at hand. We finally were free to publish what we wanted, how we wanted, free from the constraint of our very own, very Italian, big publishers. Free to follow our whims and hearts and Muses.
Also, free to work in the Ghost of Markets Past.
I’m an avid podcast listener, I’ve read plenty of ebooks and articles on the world of self-publishing. I’ve jotted down tons of tips and ideas and nuggets of practical advice from all that wealth of knowledge. And every time I listen to a new episode or read a new book/article, I always know that Italy is like a smaller version of what the English-speaking indie landscape looked like in 2010.
So, ladies and gents, Greetings from the Past!
It’s not 2010 anymore. It’s not even 2013. The market can’t be that immature! Something must have changed, right?
Well, not so much. The first thing that is still the same, is the general perception of what being indie means.
Indie authors are usually rounded up with any other kind of figure of the publishing underworld that lacks coolness: vanity authors; talentless hacks; con artists looking for a new money avenue; naive idiots convinced they found a backdoor to the lucrative (?) world of publishing…
And it doesn’t matter to which category exactly we are assimilated, the underlying theme is always the same: indies are not professionals. If you’re professional, if you aspire to have a proper career on the proper side of the publishing business, putting out your self-published ebook is a huge no-no. There’s no tarnish to your reputation like having self-published an ebook! Don’t think I’m exaggerating, because I’m not.
Covers and blurbs
What sometimes gives credit to the general perception of the indie world as being populated by dilettantes fumbling around, is the fact that, as I said before, in 2013 the floodgates opened. And with the floodgates open, every kind of thing found its way into the stores. If you browse through the Italian ebook markets, you’ll find every example of what not to do:
- covers that may have been drawn with crayons by a kid still in elementary school ;
- covers with unreadable lettering, when there’s lettering at all;
- covers that illicitly use copyrighted material;
- covers and book descriptions containing liberal amounts of typos;
- book titles containing the names of famous authors, just to appear in the search results for those famous authors;
- book titles containing strings of keywords;
- book descriptions that end with heaps of keywords, sometimes in the form of hashtags;
- machine-translated books whose title and description make no sense (not to speak of the actual content);
- ebooks so poorly formatted that they are riddled with thousands of random exclamation marks;
- ebooks composed by one part actual ebook and one (or more) parts advertising material.
When the average reader sees all this, their obvious reaction is “All self-publishers are incompetents, I better stick with reliable, professional, trad-pubbed books!” Sometimes, even we find it hard to object.
Scammers and bots, with a dash of silence
So, if all self published material is rubbish coming from a bunch of incompetents, how can so many indie ebooks spend weeks around the top of the various genre charts, or even have hundreds of five stars reviews on Amazon?
Yep, you guessed it. Scamming, that’s where the hundreds of five stars reviews come from!
Who needs a natural, organic growth of their sales based on the quality of their work, when one can pay a review site to get hundreds of five stars reviews, each blander and more generic than the next?
Better yet! Why pay a click farm, when you can create your own secret review group on one social network or the other? There, you’ll be able to easily organize with your fellow authors so that A buys B’s book and five-stars it, and in exchange B buys A’s book and five-stars it! Genius, right?
If the number of readers in the Italian speaking market is low, the number of readers who leave reviews is even lower. On average, less than 15% of sold copies transforms into a review, and we’re not talking “less than 15% of 10,000 books sold”. We’re talking “less than 15% of abysmally few books sold”, as we’ll see later on.
As for professional reviews, well, the silence is deafening. Genre blogs and e-zines are inundated with material of (greatly) varying quality. They may even be honest, when they answer “maybe in one year time…” when asked by a perfect stranger if they’d like to read and review an indie-pubbed ebook.
If and when they actually consider your enquiry, since most e-zines won’t touch an indie ebook with a 10-foot pole.
(Needless to say, if said indie ebook were to come from a friend of a friend, the story would be quite different, since Italy is the land of do ut des, of a favour for a favour.)