Posts Tagged ‘e-readers’

Self-publishing becomes an option

April 10, 2011

The timing has been interesting. Just as I’ve been collecting rejection notes for my more recent novel, there have been a spate of news stories about the increased profile and viability of self-publishing.

You probably know the old image of self-publishing. It was called the “vanity press,” and people paid a lot of money to publish a hundred copies of a book that was too lousy for anyone to want to read. The image was like going to the high school prom with your brother as your date — in a word, loser.

But technology — in particular, e-books and print-on-demand books that can be sold online — are changing that.

Two events that recently made headlines in the publishing world, and even rippled out into the broader media:

One of Amanda Hocking's e-books

  • Amanda Hocking, a 26-year-old unknown writer from Minnesota, started selling her paranormal young-adult novels online in March 2010. She priced them really low, from 99 cents to $2.99, and sold them primarily as e-books through Amazon and other sites. By the end of 2010, Hocking had sold 164,000 books. In January 2011, she sold 450,000. Last month, she signed a deal for over $2 million with St. Martin’s Press for her next four books.

Barry Eisler's new e-book

  • In March, best-selling thriller writer Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 deal from a conventional publisher to self-publish his own books. This was a man-bites-dog story: In the olden days, someone would have self-published with hopes of moving on to a conventional publishing contract. But here someone with a solid track record in conventional publishing was leaving a six-figure contract to go the solo route.

What’s happening with all this? Basically, the development of Kindles, Nooks, iPads and other devices for reading digital manuscripts has created a viable market for e-books. And when people can download books rather than buy paper copies, it  cuts out a lot of overhead and middleman costs — printing, distribution, etc. — and allows authors to sell directly to readers through sites like Amazon.

The economics change. Former literary agent Nathan Bransford has a good blog post on this, where he notes that in traditional publishing, an author typically gets 10% of the list price of a hardcover or 7.5%  of the list price of a trade paperback. By contrast, e-books that are self-published and sold on Amazon give the author a cut of 70% if the list price is between $2.99 and $9.99, or 35% if the list price is above or below that window.

So say you go the traditional route and publish a hardcover book that lists for $25. You would get $2.50 for every copy sold.

If you self-publish that same work as an e-book on Amazon for $9.99, you would get $6.99 per copy.

That difference adds up. Selling 10,000 traditional hardcovers would give you $25,000 in royalties. Selling 10,000 self-published e-books would give you $69,900.

That’s just a random example — there are of course lots of details that vary by publisher, price point, format etc. And the self-published author has to pay costs such as copy editing, book jacket design and marketing that would be covered by the publisher in a traditional arrangement.

But even so, there’s the potential for a lot more profit with self-publishing. There’s also more room for an author to exercise control over the design and publishing process. And in reality, authors have to do most of their own marketing these days — even with a big, respected publisher — so in that area, at least, there is less of a gap between self- and traditional publishing than there used to be.

There are of course a zillion mucky, tarry pits that one can fall into with this. The folks out there shouting “Huzzah! Now anyone with a keyboard can be a successful author!” are being either naive or duplicitous. The two big hazards of self-publishing are quality and marketing.

Quality: Without agents and editors to vet and polish manuscripts, it’s possible to publish things that are not quite ready for prime time — or are just plain garbage. Most of the self-published stuff on the web right now is badly written, cliched, and filled with grammar mistakes and typos. Even Amanda Hocking: I’ve only glanced at the first pages of a couple of her books, but I hope that one of the things she gets from her $2 million contract with St. Martin’s is a good editor.

The upside of self-publishing is it gives authors more control over the final form of their work. The downside is that some authors really should have less control over the final form of their work.

And then marketing: So you self-publish your book, list it on Amazon, create a lovely web page for it, hold a book party with 40 of your dearest friends and… then what? How do any readers ever learn about your book as it swims little circles in the vast Pacific Ocean of published and self-published stuff?

There are more than 100,000 books put out by conventional publishers each year, and probably hundreds of thousands more being self-published now. So anyone contemplating self-publishing better enjoy marketing and have a darn good plan to make their work stand out.

Where does this all leave me? I’m still in the investigating-and-learning phase, trying to figure out what is involved in doing a good job of self-publishing. I recently joined a self-publishing group at the Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco, where a bunch of writers bring in a guest speaker each week to talk about some aspect of the self-publishing process.

I’m also not sure how to determine if/when my novels are ready for self-publishing. Over 20 years of newspapering, I got used to having editors — some authority figure who reads what you turn in and says “yup, good to go,” or “nope, go back and re-work that lede.” I can certainly hire a freelance editor to go over my novel manuscripts, but there’s still no one in charge other than myself to say “good enough!” and give a final thumbs-up.

I’ve spent the past year trying to be self-critical as part of  revising my work. How do I know when it’s time to shift from the self-criticism of rewriting to the self-confidence of publishing?

So there are lots of questions, both for me personally and for this nascent industry as a whole.

But the main point is — self-publishing is now a viable option.

It may not be the equivalent of going to the prom in a limo with the high school quarterback, but it’s no longer going with your brother.


P.S. Want more info? Check out this excellent interview of both Hocking and Eisler by San Francisco literary agent Ted Weinstein.

My brain needs re-roofing

January 26, 2011

A good thing about reaching midlife: You know a bunch more stuff than you knew when you were, say, 20.

A bad thing about reaching midlife: You’ve forgotten some of the things you used to know when you were 20.

This is hammered home around here on a pretty frequent basis with teen homework. I’m sure I used to know trigonometry, and physics, and the details of the Homestead strike but darned if I remember enough to be of any help.

That’s okay with me, since Sam really shines when it comes to an encyclopedic memory for scientific and historical facts.

Where it bugs me is with books.

Becca’s homework this week was reading Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. A dutiful English major, I know I read it in college. I remembered it took place in an office. But that was all. I couldn’t hold up even one teeny bit of a conversation about it.

Similarly, I read a ton of Graham Greene and Isaac Bashevis Singer novels in 1984-85 when I was living in Israel. There was a used English-language book store called Sefer veSefel that I frequented. I remember scooping up Greene and Singer paperbacks there every week, secure that whatever I brought home would be a great read. Greene in particular was one of my literary inspirations, someone I aspired to emulate. Then 25 years went by without my reading either of them… and now, for the life of me, I can barely remember anything of their work.

It’s like my reading brain is a roof with a 20-year lifespan. It’s good for a while, but after a certain point, it wears out. The warranty expires. I need to re-roof. I need to re-read things that I’ve read already.

This is really annoying since I feel I can barely keep up with new books that demand to be read. Books by friends. Best-sellers. Critically acclaimed books. Classics that I missed. Books with some stylistic or thematic connection to what I’m trying to write.

And on top of that, now I need to start plowing through my entire college and 20-something reading list again?

This seems tangentially related to the spread of the Kindle and other electronic reading devices. One thing that is psychologically satisfying about old-fashioned paper-and-binding books is that you can put them on bookshelves when you’re done. They accumulate. Not only do all the colors and sizes and fonts look pretty lined up together, but they give an illusion of accomplishment. Each one is a trophy — consumed, digested, incorporated into our thoughts and memories. I look at my bookshelves and feel a sense of achievement at how much I have read and how much I continue to read. It all adds up.

Of course it’s a hollow achievement, if you look at it in the broadest terms. No one’s giving out prizes for reading 1,000 or 10,000 books. There are good people who read a lot and good people who read a little. On my deathbed, I am probably not going to be lying there thinking, “My life was worthwhile because I read every single novel by Hemingway.”

And now this decaying-roof of a middle-aged brain calls into question the significance of my trophy-bookshelves even more. Okay, I’ve read all these books, but if I’m forgetting them, what’s the point? Here on this shelf is Flannery O’Connor, whom I adored in college but haven’t read in 20 years. Just down the row is Moby Dick, which stretches for a whopping three inches but from which I can only recall the first three words.

BUT…. these paper-and-binding books have a physical face to remind me that they’re there. I can’t walk past their shelf without noticing them. They yell at me if I have forgotten them. They call out to be picked up and re-read.

If they were on a Kindle, they’d vanish into the files of cyberspace when I was done reading them. Sure, they’d be stored as bits and bytes somewhere, but I wouldn’t see them unless I actively looked for them. I’d be less likely to remember them. I’d be less likely, 20 years later when my roof-brain springs a leak, to pick them up as a patch.

My mind is proving to be disturbingly fickle when it comes to retaining what I’ve read. So I really like having paper-and-binding books around as memory aids.

If a book is read on a Kindle, and there is no living-room shelf to store it on, does it make a sound?

Could e-readers like the Kindle create a real market for short stories?

December 5, 2009
(Disclaimer: This is a writing post, not a Bat Mitzvah post!) 

Finally — something I’ve seen about e-readers that is actually exciting and potentially good for writers!

The New York Times on Sunday had a story about how the Atlantic is going to start selling short stories for the Kindle, starting with two stories by Edna O’Brien and Christopher Buckley at $3.99 each. You can find the story here.

It struck me that e-readers could revolutionize the market and economics for short fiction. Imagine if you could buy a short story for 99 cents, like a song on iTunes…. You could buy one each morning to read on BART. Buy one on an impulse to read before bedtime. Email a link about a story you liked to a friend, and then she’d buy it…

I’ve never been motivated to write short stories because I felt there was no real market for them.  Okay, one lucky writer per week gets to be in the New Yorker and then a handful of writers appear in little journals that hardly pay and that no one besides other MFA students ever reads. But something like this could potentially create a mass market for short stories.

And if writers could self-publish to the Kindle, keeping all the revenue for themselves…. 99 cents per story purchased (which seems like a more attractive price point to me than $3.99) would add up pretty quickly.

I could imagine a bookstore/social network Web site set up to display, categorize, and review short stories. Kinda like Amazon does for books, with readers reviewing and giving stars to ones they like.

People eagerly waiting for new stories by writers they like. Very prolific writers turning out a story every week for a mass of waiting fans. Clicking a box to learn that if I like short stories by Writer X, then I may also like stories by Writer Y….

What do you think? I haven’t been excited about the idea of e-readers for novels or books. But short stories…. hmmm!