This is a post supporting a presentation to the Ashland Study Group introducing e-publishing through my eyes as a scholar interested in the industry, a writer who publishes, and someone who reads an amazing amount of books — many of them published electronically.
The publishing industry has been completely transformed in the last two decades. We’ve gone from a system where 7 publishing houses controlled the majority of what books we read to a wide-open system where anyone can be a publisher.
Today, it is estimated that 25% of book revenue comes from e-publishing. But that’s misleading. It only includes the e-published versions of traditionally published books. It does not include the independently published books by writers. That amount is estimated to equal the amount reported by publishing companies, if not surpass it.
Now writers are able to control their own careers, in ways they couldn’t before. And many writers are making a living off their writing.
A traditional publisher, sometimes called a legacy publisher, bought a writers book and owned all rights to it. In return, the writer received an advance, and after (if) the book started selling, would also receive royalties – 15% of the book sale. From that, the writer paid their agent. So from a book selling for $25, the writer might see $2.50.
When Amazon opened up e-publishing and made it easy for writers to do in 2005 or so, it changed that. Writers did all the work, including copyediting, creating a cover, etc, and then used an automated program to upload the book to the Amazon web site. Amazon has since created a lot of support tools for writers to market their books. In return, the writer kept ownership of the book, and received 70% of the book price. So my books which sell for $3.99 pay me $2.80 per book – the same that a traditional writer gets.
Independent e-publishing exploded. Quality varied from exceptional to awful. Traditional publishers tried blocking it, then co-opting it, and finally got into the business themselves. Now, you would rarely see a book published traditionally that doesn’t also have a digital version.
Amazon offered its own reader, the Kindle, Barnes and Noble followed suit. Other sites popped up from Ibooks which is an Apple App, to Kobo which is an independent site.
One of the most useful of the independent sites is Smashwords, which not only publishes on its own site, but offers a brokering service to other sites including Barnes and Noble, I-books, and two dozen others.
Here’s more from Geekwire.
A Writer’s Life
In the old days (2000) an aspiring writer seeking a publisher, first had to get an agent. That required a query letter, sample chapters, and lots of postage. Writers often bragged about the number of rejection letters they received. A personalized rejection was seen as encouragement.
The second way was writing conferences and workshops. The Writers Digest co-sponsored huge conferences where writers could take sessions on writing and on marketing, and for an extra fee meet with an agent who would critique a query letter for the writer. Workshops often put you in touch with successful writers who might then pitch your story to their own agent.
Agents then would shop your work around for you on commission. Agents became the first gatekeeper for the publishing houses who were firing editors and cutting back costs to cope with the falloff of the reading market.
Now? Even for a traditional published book, a successful e-published book may be the best way to get the attention of an agent or a publisher. So is a well developed self-promotion/marketing package.
But a lot of “mid-list” writers are going solely independent e-publishing. They’re demanding the rights back to their backlist of books and then republishing them online. New books may not even be proposed to a traditional house. Control and profits dictate which method works.
It’s also about skill sets. Even traditional publishers require writers to do much of their own marketing, but independent e-publishing makes it 100 percent the writer’s responsibility. The writer also has to contract out editing and cover design, and either learn to format a book or hire someone to do that as well.
One of the big upsides for established writers is that a book never goes out of print with e-publishing. Books published years ago are still available. As a new reader discovers the writer, they then have a whole backlist to explore.
When I went to Europe for ten weeks in 1994 one of my biggest challenges was finding books to read. I’m almost never without a book, but you can only backpack so much. I reread Anne Siddons’ Hill Country five times before I found another traveler who would swap.
Now? Millions of titles at my fingertips. I am never without something to read. (As long as my cell-phone battery lasts, at least. During a recent road trip that became the issue: making sure to charge the phone before camping.)
But it can be daunting. The gatekeepers aren’t there to tell you what’s good and what’s not. So of course a whole industry has grown up to help readers find books they’ll like.
Amazon’s review system is one of the most useful although it can be gamed – and is on controversial books and sometimes by the authors themselves. Several sites provide free books to people who are willing to read and review.
Other sites recommend books. Some are individuals who focus on a specific genre. Some are companies. Bookbub, for instance, sends out a daily list of books in various genres. They’ve been vetted — usually costs $250-$400 — and the authors agree to discount the price. Some are even free.
Goodreads is an extensive online community for readers and writers. You can belong to a book club, post your own reviews, or talk to authors about their books.
The online experience has also allowed writers and readers to engage with each other. (Not always in a positive way, but usually it is.) I recently read a book I admired A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell. I found her on Twitter and we talked about the difficulty in writing with Trump as president. I follow a number of my favorite authors on Twitter — some of whom have 10k followers and more.
I welcome comments! What has your experience been with e-published books?