future of indie publishing

The Future Of Independent Publishing As A Solopreneur

Since posting my article about how Google is Killing Retro Dodo & Independent Sites, I have been inundated with messages by followers, friends, ex-colleagues and strangers.

The article received an overwhelming amount of attention which I wasn’t expecting, it was simply an update to inform my Retro Dodo audience, but it was swiftly picked up by the SEO community (likely because I have a small following on my Twitter and friends that do similar work to me) and caused an up-stir with many inputting their opinions.

I do try to read as many of the responses as I can, although most are opinions from accounts/people that have no experience building content brands. Some comments though I did agree with, even if it did hurt me to do so, because for me anyway, it’s hard to read negative feedback openly after spending 5 years of my life building my business.

But that said it’s a necessity for myself to learn, grow and adapt. Getting this much exposure on a site is a risk, for sure, but there’s an insane amount of value that comes from reading opinions of experts, and more importantly opinions of our readers.

It took a lot me for me to put emotions a side and accept everything that was said.

I will mention, that after reading thousand of replies and accepting all kinds of audits from “SEO Experts” I am very confident that nobody knows what the heck is going on, every review contradicts the next “expert” review in some form.

I take the patterns seriously, but one expert will say X works, when the next will say it doesn’t and this is what makes this industry difficult, it’s open for experts to never be “wrong”, which allows them to get away with average opinions, or audits backed by little proof.

Many experts can’t share what other brands, content sites or site owners they have worked with in the past due to privacy or NDA’s, so you literally have to go by their word which again makes proof in the pudding harder to consider.

The best expert to review your website and content strategy is you.

Deep down, you know what’s needed to be done, put the emotions aside and dig deep.

There’s a few things which I have learned, and I want to share them with you, because i believe the future of independent publishing is going to be incredibly diffuclt, one I honestly dread being apart of, but it’s mandatory for my business to stay a live and to give my community the brand they deserve.

How do we, as independent publishers survive?

I would like to mention, I am no expert, this information is coming from someone that’s business just got obliterated, from someone who had to let staff go, and from someone who only has 5 years experience doing this.

I am no expert, but it might help some of you notice patterns in your work, and if there’s advice that keeps popping up from those that document their work that you think might work for you, that’s a sign and it might help.

I have certainly over-optimised my website for search, there’s no denying it. I have followed the “niche site” crowd far too closely, and there’s a reason why many of us have been hit who read content from this community.

I do respect anyone that works in public, it’s incredibly ballsy, it puts their business at risk for the better, but sometimes the advice can be wrong, and no fault to them because we’re all testing, and sharing our work, so its best to take everything with a grain of salt, including this article I am writing.

I do believe Google’s recent update has been far too aggressive and I believe they’re evolving their search engine into a poorer experience for the user. But it shows where Google’s heading and how we as independent publishers can prepare for what’s to come.

Ignore Google’s Patterns

The recent patterns that Google have punished are websites that are purely built to create answers to Google search queries who also have very little “unique” content on their website.

This has created an algorithm change that has destroyed the businesses of content creators who run websites that want to help their community through search.

I get it, Google hate’s niche website creators and I admit that there are a huge percentage of niche sites that take full advantage of Google, creating low quality content that isn’t helpful, but annoyingly Google can’t tell these sites apart from truly incredible content sites that support human journalists.

Google’s Core Web Vitals makes it hard for us to create unique websites that don’t cost a fortune, so most of us use the same themes, the same web hosts, the same ad-managers, the same SEO tools and the same content layout.

It’s easy for Google to get mixed up here. That said, one of the world’s biggest tech companies should be smart enough to create an algorithm that can understand the differences between bad websites and good websites. Just because my website has the same content layout as thousands of spam sites that were created in seconds shouldn’t mean i get punished for that. It’s on Google to understand the difference, and not on me to have to study how to adapt or if adding a cart to my homepage helps Google’s patterns put me in the “good” category.

The best thing you can do is to not build a business that relies purely on Google, and this was the hardest pill for me to swallow.

I didn’t originally create a business to do that, but the tide took me that way for years, I followed the revenue, there’s no denying that. I followed the “niche site” crowd and ended up building a business that’s biggest revenue stream is Google Search, and I feel so stupid for doing so.

It pains me to see that I have floated down this path, and now me and my family are suffering because of that. Deep down I am disappointed with myself, I knew better and now I suffer the consequences of that.

Google’s patterns at this moment in time are straight up wrong, my original article shares why, so I don’t recommend following them. You’ll just end up writing posts for Reddit, or forced to inflate your domain authority. Once Google finishes this rollout I will write another post about future patterns.

The best pattern you can follow, is to not follow patterns.

Relationships & Stories

Content sites like mine are the hardest to grow, we are in the middle of the content eco-system, sat between AI content mills that create thousands of articles for pennies, and media goliaths that have a never-ending bank of cash and staff to produce content at speed.

To compete with this we must use ourselves and our experiences to our advantage. AI mills and media companies lack personality, they lack stories, and more importantly they lack relationships with the humans behind the content.

I believe our biggest advantage comes down to creating transparent stories about our niche that spill into our content, and to try and build relationships with the reader that makes your brand and your content unique.

Think of it like a coffee shop, the big mainstream brands have all the money, and a lot of foot flow, but lack true relationships or experiences with the shop, it’s why many love independent coffee shops that have unique offerings, quirky interior and staff that genuinely love their customers.

Independent publishing is becoming just like that. Our quirks are what make us unique, there’s nothing better than getting a coffee handed to you by the founder themselves or hearing how they sourced that coffee or why they chose the artwork in their shop.

Our uniqueness is a way to build unique relationships and stories that readers will remember, and it’s why I will be building more community focused content alongside more personal videos for Retro Dodo’s YouTube channel in the future.

Many will disagree with me because if the founder is found in the content loop then they become “stuck” as face of the brand, but being the face of the brand is our biggest advantage across the publishing ecosystem right now.

Build Truly Unique Content

This pairs well with building relationships and trust, but I want to write a separate section because I believe at Retro Dodo that most of our content is not truly unique.

I can say the same for many content sites, it seems that much of the content produced for the web is already regurgitated some somewhere else. Perhaps its news that you are covering, or a best list, or a review of that certain hotel, it’s likely there’s thousands of pieces of content on that subject.

We need to start creating truly unique content to our brand that’s found nowhere else. We have to start investigating, researching our niche, interviewing people and travelling to find truly unique takes that make our website a place for our community to find stories that they haven’t seen anywhere else.

It’s hard to produce, likely expensive, but it’s a necessity to building brand awareness and value away from the basic keyword focused content.

Find Alternate Traffic Streams

This is an obvious one, but it’s time to stop relying on Google traffic. Social traffic is just as unreliable i’ll admit, and harder to obtain but it’s the next best thing.

Building a social audience on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest will help with traffic, and although it requires a bit more work it’s now a necessity.

There’s also private communities too such as Reddit, Email and Discord to help with distribution. I often complain about how time intensive it is to maintain our social channels and our private communities but they do give lots of value and can generate great traffic if used correctly.

It’s cumbersome to have to learn new algorithms across multiple channels but as long as the content is high value with a good hook you should have success.

I am also looking into increasing our Google Discover traffic which counts for 20% of our overall traffic. I will tweak the titles slightly to entice clicks instead of using our pretty direct “X REVIEW” or “X BEST” titles.

I am also trying to get our website submitted to Apple News too, this seems like a reliable source of traffic that is used by millions.

Sell Something

No, not because it adds a cart to your website which some are saying is key to recovering traffic from the HCU but instead it adds another revenue stream that funnels from your traffic.

Depending on your niche this could be a digital product, a physical product or even a membership.

In my situation I did create a book for Retro Dodo in partnership with a publisher here in the UK and our second book is shipping in a few months. Although it doesn’t make boat loads of money it’s a great start.

Our community loved the book and it has already sold over 15,000 copies since launching in 2023 and it’s in many bookstores across the globe including Amazon.

Unfortunately for me it’s not something you can buy on my site and instead it’s through our publisher so as much as I do have a physical product for sale, i don’t own the full rights, nor do I earn 100% of the profits.

So, a future plan is to create a physical product that I own that can be sold across our website. It can also be showcased across our content too to generate a new stream of income and help retro gamers who may want to purchase it.

I believe every content brand will eventually have to sell something to survive. Content is no longer king… but I know what is.

Community Is King

Community will be the backbone for small independent publications. If you have no true community you won’t survive.

You need true fans to kick start the distribution of your content, to help spread to the word about your new product, or to give advice about how to make your content better, or to sign up to your premium membership in support.

Community will be king, just like I mentioned in the “coffee shop” example. It’s about creating a place that your readers feel welcome, and a place for your community to share advice, talk bout your niche and to eventually make internet pals.

The world is becoming a lonely place, so why not create enjoyable communities that your audience can come to, to talk about the things they are passionate about?

Physical Events & Meetups

One of my next “big things” for Retro Dodo is to create a gathering here in the UK that brings together our community, the brands we work with and the content creators who we collaborate with, all under one roof.

A paid event that celebrates your niche. It takes a lot of work and most events don’t become profitable for a good while, but once you get there it can become an entirely new revenue stream open to ticket sales, sponsorships and exhibitor bookings etc.

Unfortunately, because of the hit we have had at Retro Dodo i have to postpone our event until next year to gather the funds to make the investment, but I think it will be one of the most successful things we will create… if done right.

If you can create a publication that creates truly unique content, a product that helps your niche, a place that your community can feel heard and an event that brings your industry together, I believe you will create an incredible content business that’s foundations are eventually not built on… content.

That’s just my current thoughts and opinions. Content websites no longer exists, it’s about creating a multi-channel media company that creates content, products, service, community and events.

An Ad-less Future

I have added this section a few days after posting it, because it came to my attention that I think we may be moving towards a ecosystem where display-ads become void.

Let’s be real, display-ads are intrusive, they’re annoying and users don’t really enjoy them, which pains me to say it because my business runs on advertising revenue.

But when I sit down and look at how this landscape has evolved over the years, it’s obvious to me that users are avoiding websites with ads, and fast.

Look at the rise of Substack for example, it’s a clean UI with easy information, and at times users are even willing to pay for it because it’s useful/entertaining without distractions.

The rise of ad-less search engines and AI answering queries for us is another sign, look at Perplexity, Kagi and ChatGPT for example, it’s clear that users hate these ads.

It’s only really dawned on me that it could be possible to build an independent publication away from display-ads if there’s some kind of paid membership or a way for readers to tip the authors. This would also give the brand/author the freedom to write about what they want without having to adapt their content to Google’s “guidelines”, or having to inflate a domain authority or obtain links to make something seen.

After look at Substack, and seeing some visually pleasing content brands on there, A lightbulb went off in my head. Is Substack the future of independent publishing?

No ads. Pay for extra access. Physical events. Products/services. Podcasts… Freedom to create.