Monday, September 27, 2010

E is for Everyone: E-Books and Self Publishing

I don't know how many of you read J.A. Konrath's blog, but he's been publishing his out of print backlist on e-books himself. He just hit the $100K mark on book sales. If you've ever considered a self publishing career (or any publishing career really), go spend some time on his blog. Konrath's been very candid about what he makes and what he's selling and how he's done all of it. It's a fascinating look at this side of the business.

My first thought when I started following his posts, was that it made perfect sense that he was doing so well. He has a sizable backlist (all the right had reverted to him), spent years building a following, has a popular blog and platform, and has readers waiting for his next book. He has the perfect situation for a self published scenario.

But Konrath's latest post says that this works for any author. He lists new authors who are doing this as well, and being successful. I admit I met this with skepticism. The hardest part about selling books is telling folks you have a book. If you have no one marketing your books, how would readers ever know about them?

Then something came to me last night that made me reevaluate this.

Now, I'm not an e-book reader. I don't like them, though I imagine a day will come when my issues with them will be overcome and I'll enjoy them as much as a traditional book. Technology is like that. But I know folks who love e-readers, and I thought about how they buy books.

One is a writer and is exposed to books all the time. She hears about a book, and goes to the e-book store and buys it, just like traditional book buying.

Another looks at the low-cost area of the e-book store and finds stuff that looks interesting. He'll buy a specific book when he wants it, but he wants books for his cool new gadget and he doesn't want to pay a lot for them.

This is when it hit me. This is one reason why Konrath (and perhaps those new authors he mentioned) are successful. E-books are purchased differently that traditional paper books. Those with e-readers probably also have other gadgets and are used to being able to click a button, spend a few bucks and buy something to entertain them. (There's a ap for that) Authors pricing themselves in that affordable range are sitting in prime e-book real estate. That's the "front of the store displays" for e-books. This is where e-book buyers are browsing.

With today's technology, the times they are a changing. If I had a backlist, I sure as heck would be following Konrath's advice and turning them into low-cost e-books. If/when my books go out of print, I can see myself doing this. I can even see going this route for any future books I write that a traditional publisher doesn't want.

Would I ever try this first and skip the traditional publisher?

I don't think so. I've been very lucky with my publishing experience so far. I like and find a lot of value in what they offer me. As publishing evolves, that will no doubt change (for better and for worse in some areas), and I'll naturally do what I feel is best for my writing career, but I'm happy where I am.

It's interesting to watch those future options unfold, though. There are more opportunities for writers now than ever before. And don't let the doomsayers tell you differently.


  1. JA Konrath is one smart cookie that's for sure. I wish I had some back list titles. Maybe if my regency series doesn't go, I'll put that out there under a pen name. Great post thanks.

  2. Konrath is paving the way to the future. The only reason I haven't Kindled my backlist is the issue of cover art. We don't own our cover art, even if rights to the books have reverted to us. And covers need to be different for thumbnails online than for actual books on a shelf. But I'm working on it...

  3. Would anyone mind explaining what a backlist is? It's a term I keep hearing a lot, but I'm not entirely sure what it means. Thanks!

  4. Backlist is just the "previously published" books of an author. New releases are frontlist, everything else is backlist. Someone just did a great blog post about the difference between front and back list and midlist and I can't find it. If anyone remembers seeing it, please post.

  5. You so nailed it Janice. It's the purchasing style that's different for e-book readers. It's hard to imagine how new authors can have much success but maybe that's just because I am still thinking in the trad print mentality - way back with the caveman to quote Konrath. Exciting times. Especially when backlisters and even out of print books can potentially make you money.

  6. I read Konrath's post last week, and the funny thing is, when he listed some example other authors who were doing well self-publishing… I had already READ Amanda Hocking. I'd been browsing Amazon, noticed the cover art for Switched, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had been self-published.

    I've been seriously considering the self-publishing route. I like how up-front you are about if you'd self-publish and what. It actually makes me more inclined to try it, even though I'm still researching some technicalities. I'm curious to see what kind of following I could build, and I'm very glad I'm not a cat, because otherwise, my curiosity would've killed me long ago.

    I've therefore been intentionally looking for self-published books to buy, to get an idea for what types of things are missed in them. Clicking on the cover for Amanda Hocking's book on Amazon (and checking out her website, and e-mailing her, and receiving her helpful reply) altogether ended up in me discovering that low-priced e-book market. I'd heard of it, yeah. But I hadn't thought of going to look for it.

    That's made me look into self-publishing even more, and some of the Print-on-Demand services actually allow lower price points on books than they once did, so a self-publisher could offer a print version of their book at the same or even sometimes a lower price than a traditional publisher. (Not sure how their physical quality compares, just yet.)

    This is a little scary, because it means the slush pile can move onto the customer. Hopefully, that means folks in general will gain greater appreciation for how quickly agents/editors/etc can tell they won't like a book. I fear, though, that readers seeing their grammar errors "codified" in PUBLISHED! NOVELS! will only worsen the common abuse of the English language.

    Sorry if my comment's too long. >_<

  7. I think you hit the major issue when you wrote "The hardest part about selling books is telling folks you have a book." Absolutely. Is it possible that your e-book is noticed on Amazon and starts climbing the ranks and starts getting lots of great reviews? Yes, but it's going to be difficult and often you won't know exactly why or how it all got set off.

    I have friends who are professional software developers. They are making i-Phone aps in their spare time. It's good stuff. Yet, it is extremely difficult to get noticed on the Ap Store. There are hundreds of thousands of aps out there, how do you get noticed even with a great product at a low price? The answer is, you get lucky or you have a major track record.

    Agents and publishers are gatekeepers. It does not guarantee quality, but you certainly have a higher expectation of quality if a book is published in the traditional manner. e-book publishing removes the gatekeepers. It can be good, but more likely, you'll see more and more books published that way. How does the reader sort out the likely good books from the bad?

    I think this area is where the publishers need to step up their marketing. It's the one huge benefit to having a publisher in the e-book world. They'll get you noticed and their good name will help convince people of a good product.

    Will some people still go dumpster diving trying to find the gem amongst the detritus? Sure. But I doubt the majority of readers will do so.

    That's just my opinion on the subject. I don't think it contradicts your take on it though.

    btw, I just got my new Kindle last week. I read the latest Robin Hobb book on it and I'm hooked. I like it a lot. And, I went dumpster diving to see what I could find. Nothing yet, although I did pick up some Sherlock Holmes for $3. Doyle has a great style.

  8. From what I've read, the biggest selling points for e-books are the cover and the price, so if you're going to pursue e-publishing, find a good designer and set a low price point. How is this different than traditional publishing? Gate keepers. Without gate keepers, publishing is a mess. The entire market becomes a slush pile, only we have to pay to sift through it. The market will mature as publishers figure out how to handle it, but until then I'm shooting for traditional publishing.

  9. Exactly. Finding good books now is easy since so many blog and talk about them. I wonder if blogger's roles will increase as self publishing takes off? Will self pubbers submit to bloggers same as the big houses? With they become the *new* gatekeepers? I can see e-book only blogs popping up.

    I can also see the middle man occupations popping up more. Book promoters expanding their services, more editors doing freelance work, more illustrators doing freelance covers, designers (like me) doing more layout design. I think it'll become easier and easier to self publish (and cheaper).

    Self publishing isn't going to be for everyone, and I always recommend a long, hard look at the industry to anyone thinking about it, but there are avenues open to writers and book lovers now they've never had before. The stigma isn't what it once was.

    I can even see blogger groups, where you have a half dozen or so writers blogging, forming their own publishing company to sell their books. They already have a platform and way to promote their work, readers coming to their blogs. Seems like a natural outlet for many.

    It'll also be interesting to see how book stores adapt to this. Wouldn't it be cool to have an e-book account with a store, you wander through the shelves and just scan or enter a number into your e-reader and poof! you download the book? You can still browse the shelf and page through the book, but you have the opportunity to buy it there electronically, and then go have coffee with your friends in the restaurant area. I can see book stores enhancing the social hub they're starting to create now.

  10. Janice,

    I don't think you need to "skip the traditional publisher" to be able to do this. Your publisher should get the print rights to your book, but there's no reason why you can't negotiate to keep your electronic rights. In which case you can do the ebook thing on your own.

    Best of both worlds.

  11. True, though standard contract is to sell those along with print rights. Too late for me now, but it's something folks can discuss with their agents (if they have them) going forward. I know e-book rights are a hot topic with agents right now regarding how they're being handled.

  12. Thomas Hardy10/04/2010 4:01 PM

    I spend a portion of my time watching digital trends. These digital trends tend to mimic the life cycle of larger traditional trends, but they do so at an accelerated pace. For example, a given industry may come into being, grow, reach it's peak and fade away over several decades. In a "ripped from today's headlines" example, we have Blockbuster whose decades long video rental dominance has now met with bankruptcy in the wake of Netflix and digital distribution. The digital equivalents of these trends happen in a fraction of the time, with events played out in a couple of years instead of decades. Once upon a time it took many years for a new industry or technology to take hold and build up a critical mass.

    When I look at self publishing, I see a digital trend that has a strong potential to quickly build to a critical mass. The important question, I think, is to ask yourself “Where are we on the curve of adoption and what does that mean?”

    Today the self-publishing market is huge right? So easy to do, so many people doing it. And success stories from today’s market are big news. But we are very early in the curve of adoption. If the self-publishing market explodes to be 100 or 1000 times what it is today, it will become even more easy to get lost in the clutter. As one poster above put it, the slush pile gets moved to the customer’s e-reader. The easier it gets to do, and the more success stores we hear to fuel the growth, the faster and further it will grow.

    Making oneself visible in the e-reader store today is one kind of challenge. Making oneself visible in a few years will be a completely different kind of challenge. Think of YouTube as a corollary. A few years ago, when relatively few videos were posted, the best quickly rose to the top of the popular lists. When you look at it today, there’s so many videos hidden by obscurity that you have no way to learn they exist. A vast library of quality videos exists that do not see the light of day except by those that know of them already. It’s not a perfect example, but I think you can see what I’m getting at. When the number of self-published books reaches a critical mass, readers finding your book by stumbling across it will become less and less common.

    Unlike YouTube though, readers will often be paying for the product before they know the quality. Factor in the number of books that get purchased in a year by a reader as compared to how many YouTube videos you can watch in a single hour and the challenge becomes even more daunting. It won’t take long before readers are too jaded to spend money on anything that is not well reviewed, advertised or in some way differentiated.

    Another potential parallel is the App market for the iPhone. When the iPhone was new, software development teams made up of one or two people created apps and launched them. It was a brand new gold rush. Single developers made millions in just months. Flash forward to today. The App store is big business now. Individual developers see increasingly shrinking revenues because it’s not an empty space waiting for anyone to come along and post something to buy. Big companies have divisions dedicated now to making iPhone apps. Hundreds of thousands of apps are ready for download now. But the buying public only has so much money to spend and it is now divided between a hundred thousand publishers instead of a couple of dozen.

    So as we look at the e-reader market, ask yourself “Where is the trend going, and what does it mean to me?”