E-Publishing – Looking Ahead and Getting it Right

By Barbara Alderton

. . . now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write merely for the sake of entertainment what would best be forgotten, or better still, be erased from all books.”

If you thought this was the latest scathing indictment of e-publishing you’d be wrong. In fact it was written by the Italian Classicist Niccolo Perotti in 1471 as a complaint against Johann Gutenberg’s new printing press – an invention he perceived as an excuse to trivialise serious writing and promote libel.

Fast forward to the present, to Ewan Morrison’s long and thoughtful article in The Guardian (30 January 2012) where he wrote: “Like the dotcom bubble, the commercial real estate bubble, the subprime mortgage bubble, the credit bubble and the derivative trading bubble before it, the DIY e-publishing bubble is inflating around us. Each of those other bubbles also saw, in their earliest stages, a great deal of fuss made over a “new” phenomenon, which was then over-hyped and over-leveraged. . . And when the e-pub bubble bursts, as all previous bubbles have done, the fall-out for publishing and writing may be even harder to repair than it is proving to be in the fields of mortgages, derivatives and personal debt. Because this bubble is based on cultural, not purely economic, grounds…”

Jeremiadic prophesies aside, the truth is – now, as in the 15th century – no-one really knows for sure what the future of publishing will look like, or where the escalation of e-book sales will eventually take us. Earning a living from writing fiction and marketing books has always been a challenge, some would claim more than ever, with the new-found egalitarianism that e-publishing has provided.

Nevertheless, the statistics speak for themselves. At the end of 2011 Amazon announced their customers had purchased millions of Kindle e-readers, pushing their e-books sales up by 175 % compared to the previous Christmas. During the same period Hatchette, Random House, and HarperCollins all reported e-book downloads in excess of 100,000. Data from BML’s Books & Consumer survey revealed that in the weeks leading up to Christmas (2011), 26% of adult fiction e-books purchased by volume (11% by value) were sold by self-publishers or e-publishers. The latest purchasing trends via BML, (February 2012) show e-book sales continuing to rise in volume, although the lower price-points indicate the overall value of sales is actually shrinking.

With the steady mushrooming of e-book sales, the closure of bookshops (data from the Local Data Company has revealed 72 bookshops closed during 2011) and with the prospect of up to 70% royalties on the sale of their e-books, is it any wonder new authors find the thought of e-publishing so seductive? …Especially after witnessing the over-hyped success of some Indie authors, like the prolific US paranormal writer, Amanda Hocking, who collected a shoebox full of rejection slips before going on to sell over 1.5 million e-books, allegedly earning $2.5 million in the process. Or, more recently, UK authors, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, who were snapped up by HarperCollins after their self-published novel Catch Your Death sold 42,000 copies – just one instance in a growing trend of self-published writers who have been signed up by traditional publishers after hitting the e-book bestseller list.

So, e-publishing is easy – right? After all, e-books cost nothing to print, there are no distribution overheads, you don’t need shelf space and the publishing time is much faster than the paper route – a matter of weeks, rather than years. Additionally, and in a departure from the past where traditional publishers have often bought and held onto as many rights as possible, e-publishers tend not to be so acquisitive – which means the writer can approach traditional publishers at a later date. New designing and formatting tools have made e-book layouts more sophisticated and significantly easier to produce, so now all you have to do is write and format your best-seller, Photoshop your cover, open accounts with Kindle and Smashwords, upload the whole shebang. . . and badaboom! A new e-publishing star is born. . .

…Except it’s not that easy. In reality, there are as many disadvantages and pitfalls to e-publishing as advantages. To begin with, average e-publishing sales are much lower than paper books (or ‘dead tree books’, as one e-published wag recently described them). Selling 500 e-books is considered successful in e-publishing parlance, and the cheaper the e-book, the more copies it will tend to sell. For this reason, it’s usually difficult for first time self e-published writers to sell their books for more than a couple of pounds. Then there are all the other elements to consider, that are costly in time and/or expense, like proof-reading, editing, marketing, and designing the book cover – all of which are absolutely crucial for e-publishing success.

Former journalist-turned-author Stephen Leather, when interviewed by Andrew Wilson for the Daily Mail (Sept 2011), after hitting the number three and four slots with The Basement and Hard Landing in The Bookseller’s 50 best-selling e-books of 2011, put it more bluntly: “First, write a good book.  The big problem with the explosion in epublishing is that the vast majority of books that are being self-published are just plain awful. Badly written, badly-edited, badly formatted. Most of the so-called “Indie” writers (who previously would have been described as ‘unpublished’) rush to get their work on-line and frankly most of them are wasting their time.  A badly written book isn’t going to sell, no matter how cheap it is.” He went on to say “The way to get your book into the bestseller list is to write a book that people want to read.  Word of mouth will do the rest. Too many Indie writers seem to think that you can create a buzz by just pushing your book down people’s throats. That doesn’t work. . . .” And his advice for producing e-book covers? “Ignore the platitude ‘Never judge a book by its cover’: a good cover is one of the most important secrets of e-book success. I pay a professional designer £350 a time for covers.  You don’t have to pay that much, but you need your cover to look professional.”

E-publishing is no excuse for bad formatting, sloppy editing and amateur book covers. The truth is that if a book’s worth publishing – in whatever format – it deserves to be published to the highest standard and with professional integrity. Every author owes it to their stories, and particularly to their readers, to get it right.

With the proliferation of ‘how-to’ books, websites and conferences, it’s easy to discover how to e-publish your book, though any writer with a serious interest in the process would be well advised to look at what’s already out there, and to talk to those experienced in e-publishing. For those wishing to explore this option for whatever reason – maybe as debut self-published authors, maybe as established authors with a backlist of books available for e-publishing – there will be experts on hand at HNSLondon12 to answer questions and give advice.