ELECTRONIC PUBLISHING—A BRAVE NEW WORLD
by Denise Little
Electronic publishing has gone from a novelty to a major part of the book industry in the last twenty years. It’s been a boon to writers and readers, and a challenge to major publishers and conventional bookstores, and it’s shaking up the literary world every day. It is a joy to be able to buy book two of the latest series I’m reading at three in the morning from the comfort of my bedroom, but that convenience is shaking the very foundations of traditional publishing. And, as in any new frontier, there are sharks swimming in the waters for the unwary. So I thought I’d weigh in on where the market has been, and where it’s heading.
By the end of 2015, which is the latest year totals are available, electronic publishing (by dollar sales) was more than half of all newspaper and magazine publishing, and it was approaching half of all book distribution as well. There were unexpected signs of strength in print publication—book sales were up compared to ebook sales for the year. But it could be a blip. Time will tell.
But there is no denying it’s causing a cataclysmic upheaval in the book world. As a reader, it’s been a wonderful thing for me. I have five Nooks and a Kindle. I’ve always got a fully charged ereader with me, and I’ve bought so much material for my readers that I’ve got thousands of books in my library. I used to carry a book everywhere. I’ve now got the option of carrying a couple of thousand books with me, ready to read whenever I have the time, without even stretching my purse seams or pocket. It’s put a dent in my wallet, sure, but the weight of books is no longer a problem. In fact, now I’ve got a whole bookstore with me wherever I go. If I don’t have handy Wi-Fi, I can pull out my smart phone with my reading app, and I can get most of the books published recently with the simple tap of a button. I used to worry about being bored because I had read everything that’s with me. Now I worry that I can’t read fast enough to keep up with it all.
But for traditional bookstores, it’s terrifying. A snippy kid with an iphone is as able to navigate the publishing world as an experienced bookseller. Traditional publishers are terrified, too. They worry that bookstores will go bankrupt. They worry that their bestselling authors will be threatened by digital thieves making their expensive new releases available for cheap or free. And they worry that a herd of new digital companies will out-compete them. All of those worries are founded on fact, and because of it there has been tremendous downward pressure on pretty much every income stream in the industry. Advances for writers have been falling for everyone except bestselling authors.
But for writers, it’s been liberating in many ways. For new writers, it has been an amazing frontier where literally anything they write can be published and made available to readers. Imagine that! In the old days, writers faced astronomical odds of being published. Roughly one in 50,000 books that were started ended up professionally published. Now any writer can post anything on the internet from the moment of creation, where it can be read by millions.
Monetizing that work is more problematic, but there are plenty of ways to do it for writers who are clever.
So let’s take a look at epublishing in all its various forms. It’s a business still finding its feet, and it’s in flux at the edges, so this is a snapshot of something that’s changing even as I write about it.
The basic advantages of epublishing are many. Among them are:
· Lead time. Typically it takes 18 months to two years for a project to go from acquisition to publication with a traditional publisher. With an ebook publisher, that lead time drops to three weeks to six months, depending on how much editing and packaging it provides. If you self-publish, it is instantaneous.
· Royalties. In traditional publishing, royalties run from a low of three percent for a new author without an agent to a high of fifteen percent for a bestselling author with a top agent. Royalties for ebooks run the gamut, but typically run 70 per cent for the author.
· Environment. Book publishing the traditional way is tremendously hard on the environment. Hardcover books and trade paperbacks are shipped to bookstores fully returnable. Roughly seventy percent of them are sold. The rest of them are returned to the publisher. They can then be resold, remaindered, or pulped. Mass market paperbacks are shipped to bookstores on a one way trip. If they don’t sell, they are pulped. In every case, there is a roughly thirty percent waste of paper to print the books, plus cartonage to ship them, and energy to get them where they go. Ebooks are 100 percent efficient.
· Shelving. In stores and in homes, books take up room. Lots of room. The last time I moved, I had 30,000 pounds of books. I go house-shopping with a measuring tape to find out if a place has enough available wall space to handle my bookshelves. But my ebooks live in the cloud and fit in my purse.
· Finances. Most publishers take at least a year to pay a writer after the advance is earned out. And they do two royalty payments a year. Most ebook publishers get advances to writers at least quarterly. Some flow payments to the writer as copies are sold.
· Reach. The ebook market is as international as the internet. The market is worldwide in English.
There are also considerable disadvantages to epublishing. Among them:
· Money. Advances
are low to non-existent. You’ll make way more for every copy you sell, but the
average sales-per-title of an ebook is 500 copies. I know a couple of authors
who are bringing in 7 figures a year on their self-published ebook sales, but
they are the exceptions, not the rule.
· Fame. Those
authors who make so much money with their do-it-yourself ebooks still aren’t
household names like Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, or Janet Evanovich. They
may be rich, but they aren’t well-known.
· Marketing. Print
publishers do a much better job of marketing than epublishers. They have people
on staff to push their books with contacts, experience, and a bunch of tricks
up their sleeve. Those people do an uneven job at best, but when it works, it
really works. Reviewers in print magazines mostly review only print books, and
that really makes a difference, especially for new writers. Advance reading
copies from established presses have far more market penetration than ebook
publishers. Remember, bookstores don’t sell ebooks, so they don’t have a stake
in handselling ebook writers. Ebook writers have a lot more hands-on
involvement in marketing their work. For some writers, that’s a godsend. They
aren’t handicapped by having to run everything by an indifferent publisher. Other
writers haven’t the energy or the inclination to self-promote. And the
self-promotion makes a huge difference in the sales of ebooks.
· Editing. Publishers, both regular and ebook, have people who edit—and a good editor makes a tremendous difference for a book. On the whole, traditional publishing seems to do a better job of editing, and the books are more evenly produced and packaged than ebooks. That’s changing, but right now major publishers have the upper hand in quality control.
So the answer to the eternal “traditional or epublish” question isn’t straightforward. If a writer writes fast enough, the correct answer might even be both. Keep one series in ebook and another in traditional publishing. One thing is sure—if you make a big enough success of your ebooks, a traditional publisher will find you and offer for them. So the right answer might be to put your efforts into whatever works.
So you’ve decided to epublish.
How do you go about it?
You can go the publishing house route or you can self-publish. At this point, most of the writers I know who are doing ebooks exclusively are self-publishing.
Here are some of the most recognized do-it-yourself self-publishers out there right now:
CreateSpace—The dominant name in epublishing is CreateSpace. It’s pretty much a
do-it-yourselfer’s epublishing dream. They offer everything from bare-bones,
no-cost book set-ups to full professional editing, cover design, marketing and
distribution help. They’ve got a simple platform that even a complete newbie
can manipulate. You can find it on the web at CreateSpace.com, complete with
handy downloads and video tutorials. For well under two hundred dollars, if you
are willing to work through all the templates and designs and layouts yourself,
you can come out at the end with a good-looking ebook ready to sell and a place
to sell it from. CreateSpace will provide templates for making a cover, laying
out the interior of the book, and finishing touches, all for free. If you want
help, they’ll provide it for a reasonable price. They will edit your prose for
sixteen cents a word, starting with a $160 minimum. They’ll design your cover
for $399, lay out your book for $249-$349, ready it for Kindle conversion for
$79, and give you an index for $35. You can add interior images for $35 for up
to 30 images. They’ll help you market your book (for a fee of $250), set up an
ISBN (free to $99) and a Library of Congress number ($25), even sell you a review
in Kirkus. One of my favorite things about that is you can also pay Kirkus
not to print your review after they‘ve given it to you. (Kirkus reviews
are notoriously snarky.) Finally, they provide a personalized book store. One
of the nice things about CreateSpace is that you can order preview copies to
check that everything is working before you publish your book. Once you’ve got
it ready to list, CreateSpace will maintain your files and your bookstore ($39
the first year and $5 each succeeding year). After you’ve gone through the
gauntlet you’ve got a professional-looking book ready to sell. Congratulations.
You are both published and a publisher. One advantage to CreateSpace is that
you can get trade paperbacks as well as ebooks from them, so that gives you
flexibility to work through the regular book market or the internet. There are
readers out there who still insist on paper copies. You can get hard copies for
yourself at author’s prices. Because CreateSpace is affiliated with Amazon,
you’ve got a in at a good bookselling platform, both for your ebooks and you
CreateSpace, LuLu will enable you to put your book together mostly for free, or
give you help with it for a price. Unlike CreateSpace, they provide multiple
formats for your print books, including hardcovers. They maintain a selling
space for the people who publish through them which they claim is the world’s
largest indie bookstore.
is an exclusively epublishing platform that gives you the option of publishing
for iBooks, Overdrive (Public libraries use it), and international formats. It
can be used for free, or you can pay for its services if you want more help. They’ve
got a lot of free downloads to help with editing, layout, and marketing. They
also have a YouTube channel with good stuff. It was founded by an author, so is
seriously author friendly. One of their unique services is a Coupon Manager,
which lets you manage customer giveaways and discounts that help authors run up
· Blurb—This is also an exclusively ebook site. You can set up your ebook for free for any number of fixed platforms. Each new platform is $9.95, and there is an additional fee for flowable platforms like iPads and Kindles
Epublishing is a brand new world, so you have to be careful as a buyer and as a writer. Make sure that you buy your ebooks from a reputable website. I know several readers who keep a separate refillable credit card to use with their ereaders. (Green Dot and Walmart offer them.) That way, if their reader or book-buying website gets hacked, there is a limit to the damage the hackers can do. If you are a writer, make sure that you check out any publisher with one of the writer’s websites, like SFWA’s Writer Beware, or RWA’s PAN website.
I love ebooks, even if they are making the worlds of traditional publishers and bookstores quake at the knees. They are here to stay. So enjoy them!
Maybe you won’t have the 5000 or so ebooks I do on my readers. But they sure are great to have.
© 2017 by Denise Little.
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