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.

Putting Your Work on Amazon

A friend of mine is now thinking about publishing on Amazon, and he had a couple of good questions about how to do it. Since I’m on a roll with posts about self-publishing this week, I thought I’d answer his questions here:

1: Did you put your story there in Word format or convert it to HTML? They seem to want it in HTML but I don’t recall you ever mentioning that. I don’t have a new copy of Word, mine is a 1995 version which I doubt would save it in proper 2012 HTML. I do have a current copy of Open Office, so that should work, but I’ve never tried it before.

I actually uploaded my story to Amazon already in .mobi format–which is Amazon’s proprietary format. Even if they don’t require you to do that, that’s one less thing they have to do so, presumably, it makes your work go live sooner (my story was available a few hours after I submitted it).

If you want to convert your story to .mobi before submitting it to Amazon (this also gives you the ability to look at it on your reader and make any necessary formatting changes before it goes live–which is exactly why I did it that way) then I highly recommend downloading Calibre E-Book Management. This will allow you to convert your work (or other people’s stuff that you’ve downloaded) into a variety of other formats, including the formats for Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Sony e-Reader, and just straight up .pdf. I use this software to convert my work to .mobi for the Kindle and to convert public domain works which are .epub files. (Kindle will read .pdf, but not .epub.)

That being said, before Calibre will convert your Word document into one of those formats, it has to be saved as an HTML document. So you’re right back to that issue. (Incidentally, Smashwords also requires documents in the same HTML format.)

I have Word 2003 at home (the older version of Word) and it has the ability to save as HTML (even though it’s an older HTML form than what 2007 has) and Calibre didn’t have a problem converting it. Going back to 1995 might be a stretch, but you can try it and see. If Calibre can’t convert it, Amazon can’t convert it either. If it does convert it, and the formatting is okay (it should be, unless you have a lot of images associated with it), then you can just upload that .mobi file to Amazon directly.

The other option, as you mentioned, is using Open Office. And, actually, it seems to work better with Calibre than Word anyways. From Calibre’s user’s manual:

When saving as HTML, be sure to use the “Save as Web Page, Filtered” option as this will produce clean HTML that will convert well. Note that Word produces really messy HTML, converting it can take a long time, so be patient. Another alternative is to use the free OpenOffice. Open your .doc file in OpenOffice and save it in OpenOffice’s format .odt. calibre can directly convert .odt files.

If it were me, I’d go the Open Office route (and do all my future writing in it!), let Calibre convert it, then I’d give it a read-through on my Kindle. Make whatever changes you need to in OpenOffice, have Calibre convert the new version, then upload that to Amazon.

2: One of the required options is to choose to use DRM, the digital rights management option that encodes your work so it can’t be copied illegally. I know DRM is uniformly hated in video games and music, but is it something that I should check and did you use it on your story and your future works for sale on Amazon?

I did not use DRM and will not. Maybe there will be a big explosion in book piracy, but I kind of doubt it. And I don’t think DRM is the way to combat it, since hackers are always one step ahead of technology. I think the future is not selling art so much as selling a brand–movies, products, endorsements, etc. Your art gets you famous, but selling your name and image is what will make you money.

You better believe I’m going to sell t-shirts and bumper stickers and anything else I can think of in the future. “Selling out?” I can’t wait until I have enough name recognition to effectively do it.

My personal feelings on the matter aside, there is a practical reason to not go DRM. If you enable DRM, then honest people will not be able to convert their paid-for book into a non-Kindle format. What happens if their Kindle breaks and they get a Nook as a replacement? They can’t convert DRM books to Nook’s format. They also can’t save it to a computer to back it up.

Unlike the recording industry, I am of the opinion that when you’ve bought my work, you have the right to read it on your Kindle or your Nook or your computer or your iPad or your television screen (there’s probably a Wii app for that)–just as you have the right to read your paperback book in the tub, the bed, the car, on the beach, etc. In fact, if you read the legalese at the beginning of The Last Golden Dragon, you’ll see that it specifically says the purchaser has the limited right to convert the story to other formats and save a back-up copy. I put that in there because I didn’t want there to ever be a question of whether or not it was legal to do that.

If you do DRM, your readers will not have that option.

Don’t Sell It Too Cheap

As part of my investigation into self-publishing yesterday, I ran across this blog post by one of the successful independent authors mentioned on Expert Message Group: Why Your Novel is a Tall, 6-Pump Vanilla, Breve Latte Grande, Extra Hot, Heavy Whipping Cream, Extra Dry Cappuccino (Or It Should Be). The author, Elle Lothlorien, did an actual experiment with her book, comparing her sales when it was cheap, versus when it was more expensive.

She not only made more money when it was considerably more expensive, but she made more sales and had better reviews.

She likens it to over-priced Starbucks coffee: if something is expensive, people will think it’s good whether it is or not. I think there’s something to that logic, although I think it’s probably more of the other thought, which is that cheaply-priced work is associated with amateur writers.

(I just had a sudden vision of the hooker theory: the cheaper the hooker, the more she’s associated with drugs, alcohol, and venereal diseases. High-end call girls offer the exact same product, but the perception is that they’re clean and are decent enough that you can be seen in public with them.)

Expensive = good is not the way I approach reading books. I shop at thrift stores and yard sales and used bookstores (my husband and I recently dropped about $80 in credit at McKay’s in Knoxville). I like a bargain, and I know that perfectly good stuff can be found in less than upscale places.

And, as my Dave Ramsey bumper sticker once said:

(That’s past tense because said sticker got ripped off my former vehicle, not because I changed my mind about debt.)

I know I’m weird. I know I don’t shop or manage my money like the average American. So I almost certainly should not use myself as an example of how people shop for books. I think Ms. Lothlorien is probably correct: most people give more consideration to higher-priced items because there is a perceived value based solely on the price.

So, after giving this some thought, I decided to experiment for myself. I originally listed The Last Golden Dragon for 99 cents because it’s a short story and I didn’t think anyone would pay more than that for it–despite the fact that one of my pre-readers suggested that I charge more because he said he’d be willing to pay more for it.

It’s been available for almost two months and I’ve had 18 purchases (I’m excluding free downloads because all the rules of snobbery are broken when stuff is free). I just upped the price a dollar, so let’s see if I have more sales (or make more money; I’ll consider either a success) in the next two months.

Something else I need to work on is my Facebook page. I started it, but let it languish (new posts are announced on it automatically, but that’s all the activity that happens on it) because Facebook did not make it easy for me to access and use. But they seem to have corrected that problem. What’s more, I have 49 Likes. I estimate only about half of those are friends and family, because I think the last time I checked the numbers on it (when it was nothing but friends and family) it was about 23. I haven’t been advertising it on the blog, so I’m wondering where those 25 or so people came from.

That’s probably a sign I should make better use of it. And to that end, I’m off to do some research on what, exactly, you should write on your Facebook page to keep people interested in your brand, but not annoy the hell out of them.

Reconsidering Self-Publishing

I have been reading an article on authors making a living by self-publishing. And, I have to say, it’s making me rethink my reluctance to self-publish my Acceptance trilogy.

Until 2010 Amanda Hocking was just writing as a hobby. She wrote 17 novels in her spare time until April 2010 when she decided to self publish her books to the Kindle store. By early 2011 she had parlayed those books into $2 million in sales, and was averaging selling 9,000 units per day. The subjects of her books range from zombies, to vampires to fantasy worlds. Not long after hitting the Kindle Million Club, she signed on for a 4 book deal with St. Martin’s Press, earning a $2 Million advance, something completely unheard of for self published authors. Some of her stories have also been optioned to film.

Michael’s road to publishing is a varied and exciting one. He is a fantasy writer who, like Amanda Hocking, can’t stop writing even if it means there is no market to publish. When Michael finished his series Riyria there were six books in total. He was met with resistance from agents and publishers, and felt his only way out was self-publishing. Even though it carried a big stigma at the time, Michael and his wife formed their own publishing house, Ridan Publishing. They published the eBooks for Michael’s series and priced them at $4.95, which is high compared to other successful eBooks. After the release of the fifth book, things began to take off and the Sullivans approached major publishers again. This time they were offered a large advance by Orbit, Hachette’s fantasy imprint. Michael’s titles have been switched over to Orbit and he now has major distribution, and by October 2011 he was selling 10,000 units/month.

As a publishing agent said, the publishing industry acts as a filter. That applies both to the fact that they keep genuinely bad things from being published, but they also filter a good writer’s work through editors and make it as clean as possible (although I was less than impressed with Philippa Gregory’s editors/publishers recently). I find the latter idea very appealing, because nothing bugs me like an obvious typo caught after something’s already been printed. Never mind that I’m currently cleaning up Acceptance for the second or third time (that’s only grammatical edits; that doesn’t count several more content edits); I will miss stuff. And I know, when I read anything–independent or traditionally published–those errors stand out like a sore thumb.

But at the same time, I can be something of a control-freak when it comes to things I’ve created, and I’m very much there when it comes to my Acceptance trilogy. Which doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t accept constructive criticism–I just had a friend read and review my second book in the series, and based on her comments, and my husband’s, I’m planning a pretty major edit–but, ultimately, I want to call the shots when it comes to my characters and my plot. I don’t want someone to say, “This is great, but we want you to make this major change before we publish.” When you’re dealing with a series of books that have already been plotted and are in various stages of writing, you can’t make serious plot changes without blowing them all up.

Self-publishing also relieves me of word quotas. My Acceptance pre-readers all wanted the first book to be longer, although I couldn’t do that due to the fact that traditional publishers don’t seem to want to touch a new author who writes anything over 110,000 words. At this stage I would not be willing to go back and add more to it–I do have it the way I want it now–but it does relieve the pressure on future books. I think word quotas are a good thing–some people go on too long (some people would say my blog posts go on too long)–but I need and want more flexibility than I’ve been seeing out of traditional publishers.

I also like the idea of retaining rights over my work, so if I want to release the copyright before my death and make it free for everyone (something I plan to do), I can do that.

When I say “self-publish,” I mean both print and e-book format. While short stories don’t work in print (not unless you make an anthology), I have made proof copies of two of my Acceptance novels and The Flames of Prague. CreateSpace (a division of Amazon) makes it easy to have print books. The drawbacks are that they set the cost of the book (due to printing costs, obviously), and that I make a fraction of the printed price (a dollar or less per $15.95 book–although I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the return I’d get with a traditional publisher too).

As soon as the book exists on CreateSpace, it’s available on Amazon. My e-book options are completely independent, and I can choose to also publish my e-book only on Amazon, or I can take it through Smashwords and have it not only on Amazon, but in many other places as well. The major drawback with Smashwords is that their formatting standards are more onerous (in my opinion) than just publishing to the Kindle, simply because they have to translate the book to multiple formats, so the book’s formatting has to comply with many different platforms, not just one.

I’m still experimenting with self-publishing with my short stories, but I’m going to give more thought, now, to self-publishing my books.