Are publishers ignoring the goldrush?


Buying back the rights to a debut novel and republishing it yourself as an ebook sounds complicated, but it's not, writes DECLAN BURKE, who is selling his for 99 cent on Kindle

Eightball BoogieEightball Boogie

That may not sound like a lot of books sold, and in truth it’s not. Worse, given that the ebook of Eightball Boogieis retailing for 99 cents and 86p, the royalties aren’t going to buy me a Greek island retreat any time soon.

Here’s the thing, though. It didn’t cost me a red cent to publish my novel to Kindle. Furthermore, I have no overheads and no distribution costs, no returns to worry about. And while sales of 108 copies in six weeks doesn’t sound like a lot, ebooks don’t have the same shelf-life as conventionally published books.

Once an ebook is published, it stays published forever. And the kicker there is that ebook sales are incremental – the more books you sell, the more books you sell. Of my precious 108 copies, two-thirds were sold in the second month, as the five-star readers’ reviews on Amazon started to pile up.

Is my book selling simply because of its bargain-basement price? Victorine Lieske’s experience suggests that it is. You probably won’t have heard of Lieske, who publishes her novels solely in ebook form, but the American indie author has sold over 60,000 ebooks in the last 12 months.

“Certainly low pricing does help some books sell well,” says Lieske. “I know I wasn’t selling many books until I slashed my price. However, if you look at the Top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, there are quite a few books that are priced higher than a paperback book would be.

“If people really want to read a book, they’ll pay a higher price for the convenience to get that book delivered wirelessly in an instant.” When Lieske published the romantic suspense ebook Not What She Seemsin April 2010, she sold seven copies in her first month. In February 2011 alone, she sold over 28,000 ebooks. Pricing is a crucial issue for her as she considers a number of offers to have her book published as a paperback.

“If I publish myself,” she says, “I can price at $2.99. If I sign with a publisher, I’m looking at my book possibly being priced at $9.99 or higher, which is not fair to readers and will ultimately mean fewer sales. If a publisher were to put in a contract that they wouldn’t price my book higher than $5, I would be much more likely to sign with them.”

Lieske’s sales curve mirrors that of Amanda Hocking, currently the darling of ebooks evangelists. Hocking originally self-published her Trylleseries of urban fantasy novels as ebooks, and last month signed a four-book deal with St Martin’s Press that is reputed to be in excess of $2 million. Meanwhile, Hollywood-based production company Media Rights Capital announced that work has begun on the screenplay adaptations of Hocking’s novels, the clearest sign yet that Hollywood is finally taking the indie ebook seriously.

But while Hollywood embraces the ebook, the publishing industry has yet to come to terms with the electronic phenomena. Susanne O’Leary began publishing titles from her conventionally published backlist in March 2010, along with a self-published title, Swedish for Beginners. By February 2011, O’Leary was selling in excess of 1,000 copies of her ebooks alone.

“The publishing industry shouldn’t fear epublishing,” says O’Leary, “they must embrace it, because this is the future and the future is here. Especially for the fiction market. In America, ‘real’ books are jokingly called DTB’s, or ‘Dead Tree Books’, which is an indication of what is already happening over there. I think ‘real’ books will always be published side-by-side with ebooks but the ebook market will be the bigger one. In addition, I think that publishers make a mistake in not publishing the e-book version of a book at the same time as the ‘real’ one, as the two markets are not the same.”

Allan Guthrie’s debut crime novel Two-Way Splitwas nominated for a CWA Dagger award, and subsequently won the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year in 2007. An agent as well as an author, Guthrie has recently begun publishing his own novels and novellas as ebooks.

“I find it odd,” says Guthrie, “that at a time when ebook sales are escalating, more publishers aren’t setting up ebook-only imprints and acquiring titles for those new lines like there’s no tomorrow. It seems like a no-brainer to me that you could put out cheap digital editions first, see what flies, and produce paper versions of the more successful ones (and print on demand for the others). So to me it seems that digital and print can be complementary. But then, I’m not a publisher. At least, not of anyone other than myself.”

The incremental increase in ebook sales experienced by Guthrie, O’Leary and Lieske also applies to Stephen Leather, a best-selling author of conventionally published crime thrillers who has recently begun publishing his backlist in electronic form.

“As far as writers are concerned,” says Leather, “I think we’ll see a growing number turn to self-publishing ebooks, simply because of the numbers. In terms of royalties, writers get a much better deal publishing ebooks through Amazon than they would get from a regular publisher. If you price your book above $1.99 on Amazon, you get to keep 70 per cent of the sale price. If you drop the price below $1.99 you get to keep 35 per cent. The average publishing deal for a regular book would be between 8 and 12 per cent.

“Most regular publishers,” he says, “would pay an author between 17 per cent and 25 per cent of the money they receive for an ebook. So if the publisher is getting 70 per cent, then the author would be lucky to get a quarter of that 70 per cent, or 17.5 per cent of the selling price. So I think publishers are going to have to start looking closely at their royalty structures.”

It’s not just the royalties that will have to change, however. Leather believes that a genuine revolution in publishing is underway. “Publishers will also have to take back the role that they relinquished to agents over the years,” he says, “and start to look for new talent again. In America, Amanda Hocking has gone from selling more than a million self-published vampire and zombie ebooks to signing a $2 million deal with a leading publisher. I think the smart publishers will all now be looking for the next Amanda Hocking. And the best place for that is to take a look at the ebook bestseller list.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before we see the back of paper books. But there’s no doubt that within the next few years we’ll see ebook sales overtake the sales of conventional books. The big question is whether or not the traditional publishing industry is going to be able to adapt to the new markets. I think they will, but I think the transition is going to be painful.”

Susanne O’Leary’s Virtual Strangers, co-written with Ola Zaltin, has just been published as an ebook. Stephen Leather last month published his Jack Nightingale novels as ebooks. Allan Guthrie’s Killing Mumis currently at number 27 in the UK Kindle crime/mystery charts, while Victorine Lieske’s Not What She Seemsis at number 10 in the UK Kindle romance charts


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