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Things I’ve Learnt About E-publishing.

... writing an e-book is just one part of the publishing business...
ere’s a summary of some of the things I’ve learnt about e-publishing. Depending on where you are on the curve, some things will be old hat, others completely new.
1. Creating the E-book.
If you have a manuscript ready for publication, creating the e-book file is straightforward. In fact, it’s the easiest part of the process. There are oodles of how-to articles on formatting and several free software programs available for converting a document file into an e-book file. I use MS Word 2003 and Calibre to create MOBI and EPUB files. It works for me.
2. Cover Art.
Every book needs a cover, even an e-book, except for e-books is an image file like a JPEG file. Some argue the cover art for an e-book is critical because often that’s all a reader sees when browsing titles. That’s probably true. It’s not difficult to spot the difference between cover art made by professionals and those made by indie writers. If you are not a whiz with a program like Photoshop, pay the money to hirer a freelance designer to create a cover. It’s part of the process.
The covers for brand-name authors have the author’s name in the biggest font and at the top because that’s what sells the book. For unknown authors, the catchy title should dominate.
3. E-book Reading Devices.
There’s more than one way to read an e-book: software installed on your computer, dedicated e-readers, tablets and smartphones. There will be other ways in the future. While computers and cell phones are ubiquitous, they have never provided a reading experience like a print book or the more recent readers and tablets.
At the gym, I see more and more readers. Adaptation has crossed a critical point. They are here to stay. Troglodytes, “I won’t give up my books,” won’t go away. All technology and knowledge experiences it. I can drive 10 minutes north of Waterloo, Ontario and, as I pass a horse and buggy, farm after farm has no wires running from the road for telephone or electricity.
For the rest of us, there’s room for growth. The penetration rate for e-readers and tablets must be less than 25% (a guess). There will be more tablets and readers bought in the future, and with it, more demand for e-books.
4. E-book Sales.
The growth of e-book sales in the U.S. is double digits. Sales in 2011 are significantly higher than those of 2010. It’s likely this growth will continue, but will, at some point, flatten because e-book sales are, for the most part, cannibalizing sales from the print market. In other words, there is a fixed amount of money spent on books. In the past, it all went to various categories: Fiction (30%) versus Non-fiction (70%); Hardcover versus trade paper versus paperbacks versus other. E-books have a growing piece of the pie. The biggest loser appears to be mass paperbacks. Hardcover fiction is also taking a hit.
While e-book readers and web sites make it easy to get an e-book, there are still two limiting factors. First, people have only so much disposable income to spend on discretionary items. They must choose between the myriad entertainment options available and there have never been more available to consumers. The stagnation of the world’s economy impacts negatively on disposable income. Second, it takes time to read a book and that time is finite. Free e-books get downloaded and stored away, but often aren’t read.
5. E-book Market.
Most of the textbooks I used in university (economics, finance, math) would make for terrible e-books. Graphs, tables, equation after equation. They don’t translate well into an e-book. Not at the moment. Besides, I always scribbled notes all over and lugging around 10 kilograms of books was my daily exercise. I wish my e-readers were more efficient at highlighting and note taking, but they aren’t there yet.
The point is: certain books will be more desirable as a print version than as an e-book. Think of those coffee table books with photo after photo.
But what does appear to work for e-books are certain categories of fiction and non-fiction. Romance readers are gobbling up romance e-books (think Harlequin Romance). Then there’s the airplane novel (suspense, mystery, thriller) a businessman reads as he travels from the west coast to the east. Those two categories have done well as e-books. (There are others, but I’m not aware of them.)
The e-book market has revitalized the moribund careers of many print authors and given them control and success they never experienced before. But these are seasoned, professional writers. For the neophytes, for the ones who may have landed an agent but no publishing deal, only a handful can point to sales and success. Most writers of e-books are not selling--as in--well over ninety percent are not selling and never will.
Out of print books and backlists will suddenly be available as e-books. The supply of books to readers will mushroom. Print authors, estates and publishers will see to it.
6. E-book Pricing.
A lot has been written about pricing an e-book. Any price under $5 won’t be the difference in a writer’s career. You may get a sale with a low price, but you won’t necessarily get a reader. You have to write a good book and follow it up with several more. That’s the only way you can make a living, a career, as a writer. Yes. There are exceptions, Harper Lee, but those exceptions represent an off-the-chart divergence from the norm and you can’t expect it.
If you think, all I have to do is price my book low enough, I’ll get some traction and I’ll have it made, well guess again. The books people want to read have higher prices, not lower. The price of books by Stephen King, James Patterson and the like are higher because the demand is there. The demand curve is steep. People want it. They want it now and they will pay more, not less. Charging less would mean everyone involved leaves money on the table.
Your price point is not the issue. Even free is not the issue.
7. Distribution.
The product development cycle at a traditional publisher is typically 12 to 24 months. The route is straightforward: Writer, Agent, Publisher (Legal, Editing, Marketing, Sales, Promotion), Printers, Distributors, Retailers.
E-books shortens that cycle. Web sites have made it so simple to create and upload an e-book that you can have a product up in days. That’s good and bad.
8. Promotion.
Every year agents and publishers fight over the current hot name in the public eye. From Oliver North to Paris Hilton. They do so because they know if they get the right book on the market, they can use the name recognition to generate sales. It works. But unless you have some claim to fame, promotion of you and your books will be the hardest part of developing a career as a writer. There will be days where you’ll wish you were Sisyphus.
9. The Independent Stigma.
Prior to e-books, many unpublished writers found a vanity press and had a thousand copies of their book made up. They sold a few and the rest, in boxes, collected dust in the attic. There was a certain stigma attached to such books. They were considered inferior like some member of the lowest caste in India.
The e-book has changed that, but not completely. Whether I read my novel or a Grisham novel with my Kobo, they look the same. There’s no texture difference from the paper, no difference in the binding. It’s black letters on a white background. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. There are: the quality of the writing and the name recognition of an author.
Without quality writing, e-books won’t create name recognition for a writer.
10. The Earth Is Shaking.
In the last month, a major indie writer signed a print-only deal with a major publisher. He created a writing career by being his own e-book publisher. The publishing world is changing. People have written about the weakening powers of agents and publishers, and it will be interesting to watch as it changes. It will. For them, the boulder is rolling back down the hill.

Update: 2011.09.16 Fri.
Thanks to Michael Haynes (twitter @mohio73) for providing link on the most recent sales stats from PW (Link). Interesting.
Posted 2011/09/15 at 08h14ET in E-books, Publishing.


  1. Lots of good thoughts here, James! I completely agree on most of your points, especially how there's still a stigma against independent authors. The biggest thing we can do as authors is to produce the best-quality writing we can.

    You might be interested to read my article that I published today around a similar topic: I'd love to hear what you think!


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