7 Reasons Why E-Books Are Great for Authors

Previously, I covered why e-books are great for readers. Now I’ll point out a few reasons why e-books (or, more specifically, self-publishing) is good for writers.

1. Freedom of Choice.

This is a point that’s beneficial to both readers and writers. Right now, publishers decide what we do and don’t read. Agents get 1,000 queries or more every month, but only select 1% of those to send to publishers. Publishers no doubt get many more (especially publishers that accept agentless queries), yet they select a very small percentage–probably also in the 1% range.

That means that every year, there are tens of thousands–and probably hundreds of thousands–of books that are never published.

Ever wonder what was in those rejected books?

The vast majority of people think that rejected books were rejected because they suck, and that published books must not suck. I know this isn’t true, because I’ve read published books so awful, I can’t imagine anyone would ever like them, and John Grisham could get no one to accept his debut novel, A Time to Kill, and he had to pay to self-publish it himself.

While certainly publishers weed out a lot of crap, there are plenty of books which end up rejected simply because the publisher thinks they won’t make money from it.

Let’s reinforce that point. A publisher exists to make money. If a book won’t make them enough money–no matter how wonderful a book it is–they will not publish it.

That means that when we pick up a traditionally-published book, we’re picking up something that’s already been pre-selected for us. We’re reading what someone else thinks we should read (and hopes we’ll pay money for).

Because anyone can publish an e-book, there is no longer a small number of companies dictating what we will and will not have access to.

2. Diversity of Topics.

In America, the largest group of readers (by far and away) are white women. And that trend seems to be growing–at least in respect to women.

Is this because men and non-whites don’t like to read? I don’t think so.

Kate Hart has a summary of YA book covers on her blog, and I think we can see why men and non-white women aren’t reading: there aren’t any books written for them. There are few non-white women shown on book covers, and there are almost no books that show only a male figure. Granted, that’s only a summary of YA books, but I think you’d find that trend pretty consistent in adult books. I mean, look at Christian fiction; I don’t think any of it’s written for a man, and I’ve never seen a non-white person on a cover. But that’s not because there aren’t men in church, and certainly there’s a large portion of the black population–especially in the South–which is Christian.

As Kate points out, there were only 9 black girls on the covers of over 900 YA books, but 30 white girls in formal dresses (and many more in non-formal clothing).

Maybe everyone who is not a white girl is tired of reading about rich white girls.

That’s where self-publishing comes in. No doubt it’s going to take a little while to get started, but I foresee a day when e-books will hold a wealth of diverse characters (and the diverse authors needed to produce them). That’s because people who self-publish have very different goals than traditional publishers, and they measure success differently. A recent survey of self-published authors finds that, while most self-published authors aren’t bringing in much money (50% make less than $500 a year), almost all of them are happy for having done it and plan on doing it again.

But money isn’t always the primary goal for self-published writers, they discovered, with only 5% considering themselves “unsuccessful”. The respondents were also still keen to continue self-publishing: nearly half plan to release more titles this year than they did last, and 24% have a whopping five or more works due for publication this year. (from: Steve Umstead: Paginations)

In other words, self-published authors are writing and publishing for its own sake. And that means they can write books for male Latinos, lesbians, and handicapped Asian boys all day long. Never mind the market for those types of books is small (now); for a self-published author, writing doesn’t have to be only about money. Writers can write to spread a message or empower a community. And it stands to reason that if enough people write books for a particular group, more of that group will start reading. If you write it, they will come (and read it).

3. We’re Returning to Our Publishing Roots

Some people may lament the lack of big-publisher control over what gets published (we’re back to that idea that self-published stuff is crap). But, in fact, a publishing monopoly is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the printed word.

Originally, there were no publishing companies. People who had a book they wanted to publish raised funds from wealthy patrons (the original form of Kickstarter), wrote a glowing piece of praise for their patron(s) in the front of the book, then sent it to the printer.

In the 18th century, everyone was printing their opinions (the original form of a blog) in pamphlets and distributing them. Broadsides were nailed up on the sides of buildings or on fences or wherever (hence the old signs “Post No Bills;” that was for property owners who didn’t want their fence or wall used like a bulletin board), and this was how people communicated their ideas to one another before Facebook.

Then publishing companies came into being, and at first it seemed like a good thing. Rather than having to go out and stump to raise money for yourself, you could submit your manuscript to a publisher and, if they liked it, they would print it at no cost to you. Instead, they would recoup their costs in a percentage of your sales. This allowed you more time to write and kept you from having to do that most unbecoming task–ask for money.

But, eventually, all printing presses came solely under the control of publishing houses, and self-publishing disappeared almost entirely. A monopoly was born.

However, that monopoly is finally breaking down. New advances in printing presses allows for the print-on-demand book. I can (and will) send my book to CreateSpace, and anyone who wants a printed copy can order one on Amazon. They will print it immediately (and in the United States, no less; my proofs were all made in Charleston, SC), and ship it to you. I don’t have to raise money to pay for the publishing up front and I don’t have to share my profits with a publisher.

4. Diversity of Writers

The most popular books tend to be written by a small number of authors. These popular authors are selected, groomed, and nurtured by agents and/or publishers into stars, the way horses are brought up to be Derby winners. They are read not just because they good and interesting, but because it seems everyone else is reading them (and that has a lot to do with marketing).

Then there are the middle market writers–people who make a living as writers, but who don’t have the fame and fortune. Publishing houses spend much less on marketing their works than on someone famous, like Stephen King.

By creating a tiered system, where a select few authors get most of the publisher’s resources, and the rest get little, it decreases the diversity of authors. People who aren’t getting big advances or perks are going to produce less writing because they have to spend more time doing the support work (marketing, etc.).

Of course, there’s a disparity among self-published authors as well. The previously-mentioned survey found that the top 10% of successful writers were much, much more successful than the 10-20% crowd. This is actually a common (although not easy to understand) mathematical principal. However, those people are at the top because they wrote stuff people like, not because someone decided they should be on top and gave them lots of money to make sure they got there.

Mind you, I’m not knocking top authors, who are usually really good writers (except maybe Dan Brown, who is just “eh” in my opinion). But there are usually people just as good who are not on top because they don’t have the money to do the necessary marketing. And, again, we come back to major publishing houses deciding who will and will not be successful.

5. Higher Profits

The simple fact is that self-published authors make more money per book than traditionally-published authors. The conventional thought is that publishers edit and design and market books and increase sales so much that they more than pay for their costs. And while that’s probably true for the highest-grossing authors, middle market authors may not be getting the best deal, as more marketing chores are falling back on them.

Traditional publishing can also limit your sales. For example, my husband was recently lamenting the fact that Take a Thousand Eggs or More–a cornerstone in medieval cooking research–was out of print and the price for the two volume set was over $100 and climbing. It’s not uncommon to encounter this problem, as academic books are usually printed in small runs and their prices start high and get higher as they become harder to find.

Now, imagine you are the author of that book. You are no longer making money from it, because the copies in circulation are all used. Unless you can find someone who will print it again, your profits are done. But let’s say you still have the digital rights to your book. It wouldn’t take much work to format it for digital publishing, and you could sell it as a single book for $19.99 (and keep 70% of that money for yourself). People who can’t afford the $100 printed copies would snatch up copies at $20 a pop.

Suddenly you’re making money again.

And, as I mentioned, small runs of academic books are usually quite expensive, limiting the number of people who can afford to own them. If, however, you print-on-demand or have an e-book option, you can charge less money and open yourself up to a wider audience. Sure, you’re never going to be on the New York Times Bestseller List with your book, “Medieval Bathtubs,” but by dropping the cost of a copy of your book from $49.99 to $19.99, you will find you not only sell more, but I think you’ll find you make more money in the long run.

6. Different types of work

Traditional publishing has long avoided short stories, novellas, and poetry. If you think you’re having a hard time getting publishing as a novelist, try being a poet.

The e-book market changes that, though. What was once confined to a small number of literary magazines can now be found on Amazon. I can’t speak to the popularity of poetry sales, but novellas and short stories seem to be becoming very popular. People have less time to read, but have these convenient little devices–like smartphones–that allow them to read wherever they are–on the subway, at the doctor’s office, sitting in a traffic jam on the interstate. Short stories and novellas are just the thing to fill up those short bursts of downtime.

And this is one market that traditional publishing is likely to never touch. Publishing individual short stories is not cost-effective and anthologies of short stories are notoriously hard to sell.

7. Easy to Edit

Oh, my God! There’s an error in my e-book! I’ll go into Word, fix it, save it as an HTML document, convert it to Kindle format and upload it again. Phew, tomorrow it will be up for sale in its corrected form.

It’s just that easy.

For print-on-demand books, like CreateSpace, there may be a fee to upload a new text (and there will be a longer downtime, because you will have to review the proof and agree to it before it goes back up for sale), but still, it’s not too hard to make changes after the fact. But for traditionally-published books–where tens of thousands are printed at once–there’s no getting a mistake out of them until the second print run (if you merit a second run). Granted, there are fewer errors in traditionally-published books, but I’ve read first-runs (including J. K. Rowling) which had typos. They’re like stains in whites–all but impossible to get out.

Independent Books and Independent Booksellers

The news article that started this two-part series was about independent bookstores which are against e-books because they threaten to put them out of business.

And, in one sense, they’re right: if people switch to e-books, there will be no need for bookstores–independent or chain (with the exception of used bookstores, which will survive for quite a while after the death of regular bookstores). This is just the way of the world, Luddites. You can smoke hand-rolled cigarettes over a pint of cheap beer and mourn the loss of your bookstore with your fellow-destitute business owners: those people who formerly owned video rental stores.

Or you can reinvent yourselves before death overtakes you.

Some independent bookstores have invested in print-on-demand technology, turning their little bookstores into little printing companies. Authors who go through them are usually guaranteed shelf space in the store, as well as fulfillment of online orders. For an added fee, the author can hand off their file and the store will do all the necessary formatting, design a cover, etc. They will even format it as an e-book and publish it for you through online retailers (just like a large publishing company).

Not only does this create a new form of revenue (one that’s growing in popularity, as more people want to self-publish), but suddenly their bookstore has unique books that you can’t find anywhere else. This is also a boon for people who publish books on local culture and history, which most traditional publishers don’t want to bother with because the profit margin is so low.

You can even get out-of-copyright books printed, so long as there is a copy of it floating around the internet (like on Google eBooks or Project Gutenberg). While e-books may make chain bookstores unprofitable and cause them to close up shop, book connoisseurs will still be going to these new independent bookstores to order printed books. Independent bookstores will have the opportunity to become the equivalent of a micro-brewery for beer connoisseurs.

Win-win for everyone all around.

The Future of Authors

Jon Carroll at the San Francisco Chronicle writes:

Apparently writers are now having to work twice as hard to stay in the same place. The New York Times reported last weekend that best-selling genre authors are now expected to produce two full-length books a year, rather than the traditional one.

When people want an author, they really want that author. They are unwilling to wait 11 months or whatever it would be for the next installment. Fans of whomever apparently gobble up whoever’s backlist immediately – and cheaply too; old books are so satisfyingly inexpensive.

It is also considered useful if the author produces an additional 40,000-word novella for e-book publication. This will presumably fill the void between the two books a year. All that popularity is very nice, of course, and lots of writers would love to be cursed by it, but jeez. About 140,000 to 200,000 words per year? Plus a plot? That’ll be interesting.

It used to be a commonplace that a writer who wrote too fast would create an error-filled, cliche-jammed manuscript. That still may be true, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Writers are now commodities, like corn or pig bellies. They’re measured in bulk. The more words Lee Child writes, the better he is.

Writers also need to commodify themselves on Facebook and Twitter. They need to drop mordant observations into the data stream, gathering followers and fans so they can announce the pub date of their next novel, “Honor the Blood” or “Chain Saw” or whatever it happens to be, in with their lively descriptions of their fascinating lives and thoughts.

Honestly, I could write at that pace if writing was my full-time job. But with the amount of time I spend on revisions right now, plus needing to format and design my books and cover, blog, and market everything, I’d end up pulling down more than 40 hours a week. The hope is, however, that as I grew more of a following, I could market and blog a bit less. Also, with some cash, I could hire people to do my covers and formatting for me. The goal would be to shrink my work week to 35-40 hours a week… unless I felt the overwhelming desire to write more.

Two other points to make about this article. One, it’s confirming what I’ve already said: authors need to sell themselves as much as their work. Authors need to become celebrities because, as books go digital, pirating will ensue. Unlike the recoding and movie industries, I don’t think digital is a bad thing (and I don’t lock my books up with DRM), but I accept the fact that pirating will happen. That’s where your celebrity comes in. Just as bookstores sell a lot of things other than books, so too will authors have to sell a lot of things which aren’t books (just wait; I’m already working on my CafePress products, to be released along with my first book). That’s just where things are heading for all artists.

The other striking point about the article is what’s between the lines. The link to this article was originally posted in the Amazon authors’ forums (a place where independent authors gather). People there pointed out that traditional publishers are apparently pushing social media marketing (which is, lets face it, the bulk of today’s marketing) onto their authors.

For e-books over $2.99, Amazon gives writers 70% royalty. The industry standard is no where near that amount. According to Fiction Factor, the average royalties on paperbacks is 7.5% and hardbacks is 15%. They don’t mention e-books, but I believe that authors are only making about 8%-10% on their e-books when a publisher has control of it.

70% versus 8% is a big difference.

If I understand print-on-demand books correctly, I will get to name my price above and beyond the publishing cost; I assume Amazon then takes a percentage of that. But it looks like I could make $1.00 or more per book–which is the same or more than if I went through a publisher.

As the indie authors on Amazon asked, if you have to do your own marketing anyways, why would you choose to make less money with a traditional publisher?

Even if you pay money for a book designer and an editor up front and out of your own pocket, you still stand to make more money doing it yourself because you only pay for those services once. When you contract your book with a major publisher, you will share your profits forever for the benefit of having them design your cover and do the edits.

Food for thought.