Slave to the Algorithms
How the race to satisfy one company’s voracious appetite has shaped the self-publishing world.
Four years ago, I took the leap into the world of self-publishing. I hadn’t even written a book before let alone tried to publish one. My writing had been confined to a handful of essays sold on job boards and scouring the then free listings on Duotrope for interesting short story prompts
Only forty eight months in the past and it’s already the “golden years.”
When I self-published my first novel there was a flood of advice available. eReaders had started to gain momentum a whole six years prior — an eternity in our rapidly upgrading world. Self-publishing gurus had had plenty of time to master the sales funnel, the pitch, and the almighty algorithms which provided a mainline into consumer consciousness.
In those four years, publishing schedules have tightened dramatically, and the sheer volume of books released has increased exponentially. More books, faster releases, that became the key to success.
Some of this bloat can be attributed to simple supply and demand. As more and more titles arrive on a digital tsunami you have to stack things higher and higher to keep your feet dry. And that there have always been more aspiring writers than a market to support them has been an issue since Gutenberg unleashed the printed word to mass consumption.
What is different though in this brave new world of unfettered digital publishing, eclipsing even the slowly merging traditional publishing world before it, is that increasingly only one mysterious algorithm controls the flow: Amazon’s.
Rituals surfaced to keep this inscrutable beast satisfied, many the digital equivalent of sacrificing goats and burning entrails: Get fifty reviews and Amazon will shine their blessed light down upon you! Feed search terms into the interface and Amazon will whisper the best possible keywords! (She does whisper to you — and you alone as the search bar is personalized to your login…) When you gain bestseller ranking, the algorithms kick in and Amazon will sell your book for you…
But the true gurus offered more disciplined advice. The most common roadmap given concerned the number of books. Writing a series was essential. Standalone books? Those would quickly be lost in the torrent.
In the beginning, the suggestions were modest. Trilogies became the rage. Write three books and, if you could stand it, wait to release them once they were all complete. Early on the advice was to stagger each book release by a few months. Then months became weeks.
Today? Inside my inbox is an email from a guru suggesting staggering the release over five days.
Not only did the release schedules condense but so too did the magic number of books. Three became five. Five turned to seven. Now the big players, the real success stories on the genre circuits, recommend you need to have published closer to twenty before the real rewards kick in.
With such a regimented path to success, “going wide” became a foray into the wilderness. Competition in the publishing world, dwindled. An author’s ultimate success depended on how they rated with the mighty ‘Zon. That required precision production and release reliant on their deadlines.
Meanwhile, the busy authors, slaving away at their keyboards, never stopped to ask if this all-powerful force wasn’t simply reacting to consumer demands but shaping it…
Nobody has time to absorb all the likes, tweets, headlines, emails, texts and assorted bits and bytes which bombard us daily. Letting algorithms sift through the detritus and serve up only those items worth our consideration is supposed to make our lives easier, more productive. Overwhelmed readers facing a near infinite selection of titles on digital shelves are no exception.
But is “easier” actually “better”?
So, you like science fiction books? Wonderful, here’s the latest from our company imprint. As for the rest, we’ll gladly recommend those titles which sell well because we’d hate to see you read a bad book — if it sells, it can’t be bad, right? You like to read about politics? Why here’s the latest tell-all by a former Washington insider, one which we just finished pruning all the negative reviews from. They weren’t legitimate, don’t you know? We know. We routinely stamp out questionable reviews to protect you, our friend. Oh, and we see you recently purchased a sex toy from our site. How about we add this illustrated manual of sexual positions for your pleasure?
Don’t worry, it’s just between us. All for you.
But is this really an altruistic force only concerned with finding the best books for you? With that assumption, conscious or not, you’ve been dragged closer into an intended orbit. As this single algorithm’s influence grows, it becomes less and less clear whether a reader’s buying habits are driving market forces or the leviathan tug of a ravenous beast.
Reader surveys, for example, rarely list unending series or an intimidating number of books as a prerequisite to their purchase. In fact, many regular readers often comment on noticeable dips in quality as stories stretch to appease marketing demands, a trick most often the province of traditional publishers.
And this isn’t the only shift toward a traditional model caused by this rapid centralization.
The really big self-pub authors, in their drive to continually trip the ever-shortening discovery cycles on Amazon, have already transitioned toward the James Patterson school of thought. No longer an author but a brand, they seek out co-authors and/or ghostwriters to help feed the insatiable beast.
Meanwhile, the remorseless algorithm continues to elevate the work of the busiest few while the barrier to entry — the number of books needed and the frequency of release — grows.
In four more years, how many books will it take? Fifty? One hundred? Will Amazon recommend authors with anything less?
Once a wide-open frontier, the realm of self-publishing has rapidly consolidated, mimicking the traditional publishing world in both appearance and content. And while self-publishers (like myself) continue to chide the gatekeepers, increasingly they find themselves corralled under one banner, fenced in by one inescapable string of code. The gate is left open but there’s nowhere else to go. Beholden to an algorithm so ruthlessly efficient, the chains aren’t even necessary.
Could be I’m paranoid. This could be the natural effect of market forces. A path toward least resistance driven by what is just the most efficient system for marketing and delivery.
At least, that’s what your good friend the algorithm will tell you.