where the writers are

For all the positive talk in the media about eBooks, eBooks are only 20% of books sold, according to a USA Today article this year. That still represents a lot of books: 457 million eBooks sold last year, compared to 557 million hardcover books and a sea of paperbacks. Still, there’s a huge difference between being an “indie” publisher specializing in eBooks and a traditional publisher who gets books into bookstores. It’s a wide gap, a schism.

If you’re an author wanting your book published, this divide is worth understanding for which way you’ll go, indie vs. traditional. As much as I love how my books have come out, been received, and sold, it takes a hell of a lot of work to be independent, and there’s a glass ceiling when it comes to recognition and awards. Many a new author eagerly says, “I’m almost done with my new book, and once I proof it, I’ll self-publish it.” It’s said with the confidence of a new millionaire.

When I started my small company, White Whisker Books, in 2006, eBooks were nothing, and print-on-demand (POD) was the new big thing. When I couldn’t get my agent to send out my collection of previously published short stories (because he said there’s no money in short fiction), I created my company, trying to parallel in craft and marketing what big publishers did. After all, I’d worked as a senior editor for a house.

With POD, I didn’t have to have a warehouse of copies. Thus, my first book was The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, and its first review was in the Los Angeles Times. A few months later, Entertainment Weekly said good things about it. I sold over 2,000 copies of printed books that year—very good for a short story collection.

It gave me the idea that publishing was a single spectrum, from small publishers to large publishers. When eBooks started to take hold two years later, I quickly made Kindle versions of my books (I’d come out with a second collection of short fiction), and found that as my eBook sales rose, the printed versions declined. Since then, I see a huge divide between “printed” authors and eBook authors.

In the early days of eBooks (five years ago), people either loved eBook readers such as Amazon’s Kindle or hated them. My friends either read all their books on their new devices or proudly stated, “I read only printed books.” I was never just in one camp or the other. I read both ways.

I love my Kindle for trying out new authors or for when I travel. Where people landed on the idea that printed books would cease to exist, I don’t know. Radio didn’t disappear after television took hold.

As analyst Nicholas Carr explains, “We may be discovering that e-books are well suited to some types of books (like genre fiction)  but not well suited to other types (like nonfiction and literary fiction) and are well suited to certain reading situations (plane trips) but less well-suited to others (lying on the couch at home). The e-book may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book, as audiobooks have long been, rather than an outright substitute.”

This takes me to the divide. I was being interviewed on radio recently for my newest novel, a quirky thriller called Blood Drama, when one of two hosts asked me who were my favorite authors, people who have influenced me. I mentioned among others novelists Margaret Atwood, Tim O’Brien, Kurt Vonnegut, and short story writer Lorrie Moore, when I realized they were all traditionally published. However, I’d discovered them before eBooks.

The hosts asked me about how great it is to be a part of the indie movement. In turn, I asked them could they name a popular indie author? They were stumped. One of them thought they’d read about someone named Amanda. I told them that would be Amanda Hocking, out of Minnesota, whose paranormal romances no one would publish, so she published them herself, making her a millionaire. She has since signed with a traditional publisher.

I told them of Darcie Chan and J.A. Konrath. Ms. Chan’s agent couldn’t find anyone to take her literary novel The Mill River Recluse and suggested she publish it as an eBook with hopes a traditional publisher would then print it. The book popped onto the New York Times bestseller list and became the #4 bestselling book of 2012. Ms. Chan has since signed with a traditional publisher.

Mr. Konrath started in as a traditionally published thriller author and discovered he could make more money independently. His blog has become a major indie voice. He strongly feels average writers will make more independently than with big publishers.

While they’ve all made great money going indie, they also have print deals, and you have to consider these people are the outliers, the carrots on the stick to make you go forward. Hey, I want to be a carrot, too, and perhaps I’m somewhere around a radish at this point.

For a better picture of indie publishing, I looked at a few sources. According to Bowker Market Research, 12% of all eBooks sold are self-published—and self-published makes up just 2% of all book sales—not as large as I expected.

London’s Guardian newspaper last year researched self-published authors and found the average income was just $10,000, and nearly half of the authors made $500 or less. Ten percent of self-published authors made 75% of the sales. Thus, if you’re a budding author, you have to ask yourself, are you a good promoter, or are you at least willing to work hard at sales?

As Nick Morgan at Forbes magazine puts it, “Here’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the U.S. alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.”

Despite all these facts, I love overseeing all aspects of my books. I’ve been using an incredible editor: mystery writer Lynn Hightower. My book designer Deborah Daly used to oversee all the covers at St. Martin’s Press. I have a small army of readers and proofreaders, and I start publicity three months before publication. My eBooks sales have done well—sometimes over a thousand books a day depending on the advertiser I use.

Even though I focus my print books through Lightning Source, an arm of book distributor Ingram, print sales are a minor part of my income. This is the schism. My company is too small to work with bookstores. I am the entire sales force. At this point, I see that while one can make a living through eBook sales, one will not land on the name-authors’ radar.

Thus, now that I’ve finished my new mystery (title still being decided on), I’m about to call up my old agent to see if his world might now mesh with mine. Might he be able to sell the print rights to my book while I keep the eBook rights? I doubt this, but I would love to see a traditional publisher be able to work with my own marketing strengths, letting me be a partner somehow rather than a passive bystander.

It’s worth comparing the music industry to the publishing industry. The titans of music first dismissed music downloading, pricing both CDs and downloads high, so Napster simply gave music away. A whole generation expected their music to be free. Despite this, according to Nielsen and Billboard, last year’s music sales were still higher for physical albums than downloaded albums. CDs and vinyl albums aren’t disappearing, and neither will books, so the challenge for the indie author is how does one get a part of the printed book market?

I suspect we will see changes in this regard coming next year because more big publishers will troll for great authors among the self-published.

2 Comment count
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Great recap & insights, Chris

Your comments are an interesting complement to David Byrne's recent commentary in The Guardian, The Internet will suck all creative content out of the world The problem becomes how to get noticed by self-publishing, e-publishing or the traditional route sufficiently to make enough income to support your career.  Byrne contends that too many creative individuals won't make sufficient incomes and give up, as JA Konrath suggested in his blog, Quitting.  You either recognize it's hard and resolve to do the marketing work or you quit. Like editing and revising, you accept what must be done.  You accept it might be necessary for you to write without love, recognition or any income from your efforts, or quit.  It's up to us as creative individuals and writers to answer the question again, why do we write? 

Fortunately, I still have one fan of what I write and he keeps me going.  He pays squat but he gives me lots of love.  That fan is me.  It's important to me because I write for myself first. 

That's why I let myself read my books for free.  Actually, I barter to read them, offering myself cookies and pie, beer and wine, for the chance for me to enjoy my prose.

Cheers, M

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A Good Attitude

Thanks for your note, Michael. As most published authors know, you don't get into publishing to get rich (even if a few can). As for that sucking sound I hear where the creativity is going, I'm afraid it's the collective power of everyone's smart phones, which the Internet plays into.

I love your headshot, by the way. Your upbeat nature is a great attitude to have. I'll read Konrath's new blog shortly. I'm finishing my new novel and can't quit to read "Quitting." I love Konrath's positive sense of the indie world, but he's also found a way to still get print versions of his books into stores. He also has an agent, Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich, who looks for ways to keep his books out there.