Thoughts on Publishing: Self-Publishing; is it Legit? Does it Pay?

Ten years ago, no author of any stature would consider self-publishing. That’s starting to change. J. A. Konrath is a thriller author who’s fully embraced self-publishing and the ebook. Wil Wheaton chose to self-publish his book Star Trek, Memories of the Future. However, "starting to" isn’t the same as “already happened.”

Many review websites won’t even consider self-published books; some won’t even bother with small-press books. If you can get a self-published book into a bookstore, inevitably it will be placed in the "local author" section, even if it’s a genre book. There seem to be few ways to get self-published books noticed unless you’re already an author with some sort of a fan base.

What can change this situation?

Some self-published authors take what they’re doing seriously. They make certain their books are edited properly. They pay attention to having an attractive cover and a good interior layout.  I believe they should go further and take the concept of self-publishing seriously.

Those authors could take time to review other self-published books. If such authors reviewed a book favorably, the book would stand a better chance of getting noticed.  It would also help if those authors would band together to form associations. Such associations, both general and genre-specific, could promote standards for self-published books. They could publicize reviews and hand out awards to quality books. There would also be the mutual support and encouragement such writer’s groups offer.

Those two steps, reviews and associations, would go a long way towards making self-publishing a legitimate option for authors. They would show that a self-published book isn’t necessarily a crappy vanity project. They would promote good reasons for self-publishing, and prove that good works can come out of this process. These would also address the other question about self-publishing: can you make money from it?

There’s something to be said about the artistic freedom that self-publishing offers. It’s also true that some authors are making money putting out their own work. But right now there is the question of whether or not it pays financially to self-publish.

The answer to that question for the moment is, “Not unless you’re already an established author with a decent-sized fan base.” As was stated above, it’s hard for self-published books to get reviewed or placed in bookstores. Advertising is risky; there’s no guarantee that money spent will result in books being sold. It’s a Catch-22: you have to be known to make money, but you can’t make money until you become known.

The two ideas presented earlier to make self-publishing more legitimate would also help to make it more profitable. Lesser-known authors would get a boost in sales from reviews by better-known authors. Associations not only offer mutual support, but there’s the good publicity that can result from awards.

Offering more legitimacy to self-publishing would in turn make it a more viable choice for the author who also wants to make a living from writing. There are things that can be done now to get to that point in the future. I’m not certain if I’m ready to self-publish all of my fiction. I would like to know that, if I come to that point, I’ll be able to find readers and to earn good money. If these ideas are pursued, I might get to that point sooner rather than later.


Thoughts on Publishing: The Ebook and the Bookstore

The ebook is a real threat to the bricks-and-mortar bookstore in more ways than one. First is the impact of the technology itself. Ebooks can be bought anywhere at any time. That’s a direct challenge to the idea of going someplace to buy physical product, like going to a store to buy a book.

There’s also the effect the ebook might have on major publishers. The ebook makes it easy to self-publish, and puts small presses on the same level cost-wise as the majors. This could cause the majors to make less revenue, and thus publish fewer print books. Fewer print books published means fewer books on the bookstore shelves. Fewer books on the shelves means less income for the stores.

But this suggests one option the stores could choose to fill their shelves. They could be more open to self-published and small-press books. They could even move those books out of the usual (and sometimes hard-to-find) “local author” section and place them in the genre sections where they ought to be.

There’s another option the stores could try. As mentioned last time, one interesting result of a 2008 survey on the book business suggested that bookstores were becoming as much of a place to socialize as to shop.  If stores are places for readers to socialize, then presumably among the topics readers would discuss would be books they’ve read. Right now, such an in-person recommendation means a search of the shelves, or a note to download the book later.

Enter the ebook kiosk. Instead of searching shelves, a customer goes to a kiosk. Ideally, each section would have its own kiosk.  The customer enters an author name or book title. The screen shows the best matches.  All the customer needs is a valid credit card and an e-reader. Choose the ebook, swipe the card, then connect the e-reader wirelessly to the kiosk (or have a file emailed). Once the transaction clears the ebook is sent.

Question is, will the stores embrace these ideas and ones like them?

Increasing small-press and self-published books will require bookstore employees to be more savvy about such books. Stores will also have to step up their own efforts to promote books and rely less on publishers. For the chains, it means profiting by selling fewer copies of more books.

For independents, it means being more genre-friendly, something that literary-centric independents have shunned. As for the ebook kiosk, that will decrease the space stores need to have. Can the chains survive with stores that are smaller in size?

This is the problem the stores are facing in this new publishing enviornment. Dealing with these new problems will require some outside-the-box thinking. Will bookstores be willing to find creative solutions and embrace them fast enough to stay open?

What do you think? Post a comment and let me know.


Thoughts on Publishing: The Future of the Ebook

I’ve written before about the ebook and where it might be headed. I’d like to go into a little more detail this time. The ebook is the future of publishing, of that I have no doubt. When is that future going to arrive? Is it here now, or are those that say it’s here overhyping the situation?

It’s true that in the last couple of years the ebook has boomed after years of broken promises. Amazon’s Kindle has a lot to do with it. Amazon has produced an e-reader that’s attractive and functional. It doesn’t hurt that they did so after becoming the dominant online book retailer. Right now the ebook accounts for just over 5% of all books sold; within a year that number could be 10%.

Sounds like the print book is in real danger, right?

In 2008 Kelly Gallagher of Bowker conducted a survey on book buying. There are a few aspects of that survey that stand out for me on the topic of ebooks. The report stated that the average age of readers was 44; the average age of the buyers that purchase the most books was 50; and that two-thirds of the books bought that year were purchased by those over the age of 42. This says to me that Baby Boomers are still the dominant readers and book buyers.

What does this mean for the ebook? There does appear to be growth in the adoption of ebooks among Boomers. But this is a generation that laughed with comedians who joked about not being able to program VCRs or understand computers. This is also a generation that’s starting to reach retirement age. One of the faculties that diminishes as one ages is eyesight.

This says to me that as long as Boomers are the main book buyers, they’re likely to prefer print to the ebook. Sure, e-readers can increase font sizes. I’m just not certain that a generation that wasn’t raised with technology, and that has been slower to embrace tech than their kids, will drive a boom in ebooks.

That same survey suggests that while Generations X and Y are more tech-savvy, they read a lot less. They also buy fewer books than the Boomers, print or ebook. They have more entertainment options than their parents and grandparents. Reading is one choice, but it’s one that not as many choose as before.

There will be fast growth in ebook sales over the next few years. I suspect that this will slow down in five years, going from a couple of percent increase a year to one percent or less. It’s likely that the next boom in ebooks will come when Boomers begin dying off in large numbers. As that happens print books sales will plummet and ebooks sales will come to dominate the publishing industry.

But there is one odd aspect to that survey that’s worth pondering. It stated that young people preferred physical bookstores while older people preferred online shopping. What does that mean?

I think that means that among those of Generations X and Y who are readers, they view reading as partly a social activity. They go to the bookstore to read, to talk about books, and perhaps to meet authors at signings. If that’s true, how does the ebook fit into this notion?

In a way, it doesn’t. You don’t buy ebooks at physical stores; you buy them alone and online. Buying ebooks isn’t a social but a solitary activity. So if younger readers do view reading as partly socializing, how eager will they be to abandon the print book and the socializing that goes with it?

Perhaps very eager, perhaps not so much. That question does lead to the next consideration in this discussion: how will the stores fare?

In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think about where the ebook is going, so please post a comment.  Stay tuned...


Thoughts on Publishing: Small Press Publishers

Right now there’s lots of talk about whether you should publish with one of the majors or whether you should self-publish. There is another option for the author with a book to sell: the small press.

Small press publishers are defined by how many books they put out a year and how many copies of those books they print. Some small presses release only a few books a year; others release a few every month. Small press books generally have print runs of a few thousand copies or less.

One of the traditional advantages small presses have had is that their shorter runs mean they need to print fewer books to make a profit. This has allowed them to fill niches that the majors usually ignore. This is an even bigger advantage today. The majors are more willing to follow trends and more willing to only publish bestsellers than they used to be. This gives small presses wide latitude to publish anything that the majors aren’t accepting. If you want proof, look at what types of genre fiction the majors put out, then compare that with what the small presses are releasing in those same genres.

Print-on-Demand (POD) is the great boon to the small press. With POD these presses have the ability to print as many or as few books as they need when they need them. The prices their books sell at might be higher than the prices mass-market paperbacks are sold at. The good news for the small press is that the majors keep raising the price of paperbacks. Right now a small press novel sells anywhere from $4 more to double what a mass-market paperback does. That margin is likely to decrease as time goes on.

The ebook is another positive development for small presses. The ebook allows a small press to release a book at the exact same cost as a major publisher spends. The ebook gives the small press a reach beyond bookstores. The only problem is there’s no consistency on pricing. I know one small press who sells their ebooks at prices only a few dollars less than what the majors are charging.

The internet is a bit of a mixed blessing for the small press. One important plus is global reach. Before the internet a small press had the problem of how to get word out about their books. Now a truly good website with the right meta tags, perhaps augmented by pages at social network sites like Facebook, can give a small press the same access to the world that the majors have.

The pairing of the ebook with the internet is also a positive. One problem the small press has had to face is how to get books to readers if the press had trouble getting into bookstores. This is especially true of chain stores which sometimes make difficult demands regarding returns and discounts. The internet allows direct access to readers; the ebook gives instant access. Together they offer the small press the opportunity to avoid the chains and their unfriendly policies.

On the other hand, there’s the problem of getting noticed. Small press books, novels in particular, can have a hard time getting access to review sites. Small presses don’t have the money to buy banners or other ads. This leaves book marketing up to the authors themselves, with or without help from their small press publisher.

Authors (published and otherwise) should pay more attention to the small press. While they face some of the same pressures the major publishers do, I think they’re in a better position to survive those pressures. Small presses are often run by one person or a few people. They can decide how profitable they want their press to be. This frees them from the demand to produce bestsellers, and to produce more while spending less than last year.

That’s the real danger the majors are looking at. Their corporate owners want more revenue at less cost. That could mean fewer print books from the majors, as well as overpriced ebooks. The former would result in fewer books on store shelves. However, that provides an opening for the small press, assuming the stores are willing to deal. If the stores have the will to be flexible with the small press, their shelves could be filled with product. That scenario could end up shifting publishing in a very dramatic way.

It’s all speculation right now. But it does suggest that authors ought not assume that their only choice is the majors or self-publishing. They ought to consider their third choice, the small press publishers. They could be just what the author needs.