Will DIY e-Publishing Kill the Book?

Ewan Morrison is famous for last year’s bleak Edinburgh Festival address diagnosing the publishing industry as in ‘terminal decline’.

Yesterday he tapped into the zeitgeist again, with a Guardian article warning of the fall-out for writers and publishers when the ‘self-e-publishing bubble’ inevitably bursts.

Digital technology has made self-publishing cheaper and easier than ever before. Not only are there no printing costs, but distribution – once involving trudging around bookshops on foot (and considerable ongoing postage costs) – is now as simple and accessible as a few clicks of the mouse.

The star: Amanda Hocking

And just as any film nerd with a dream can look to Matt-and-Ben’s Good Will Hunting as inspiration, aspiring e-novelists have their own DIY success story to aspire to.

Amanda Hocking needed to raise $300 to travel to a Muppets exhibition in Chicago. With seventeen unpublished paranormal romance novels on her laptop and a shoebox full of publisher rejection letters, she decided to sell them on Amazon to raise the money. She had six months; when her self-imposed deadline came, she’d raised over $20,000 and sold 150,000 copies. In twenty months, she’d made $2.5 million dollars – and sold 1.5 million books.

This month, 27-year-old Hocking’s first ‘traditional publishing’ book, Switched (a fast-paced romance about changeling trolls – and the most successful of her e-books) will be released in Australia. It’s just one of the outcomes of a $2.1 million publishing deal with St Martin’s Press in the US and Pan Macmillan in the UK.

Bubble bubble, toil and trouble

Most self-published authors sell less than 100 books a year. Recent figures suggest 48% of them are sold for under $2.99 per copy and 28% for 99 cents or less.

For the most part, the profits are made by the manufacturers of e-readers (which are expensive) rather than the creators of e-books (which are insanely cheap, sometimes even free). And, of course, by the big e-booksellers like Amazon and Apple’s iBookstore.

Morrison calculated that over twelve months, ‘with five million new self-publishing authors selling 100 books each, Amazon had shifted 500 million units. While each author … made only $99 after a year’s work.’

Australia’s e-landscape

‘Australia is some years behind the US and the UK when it comes to the availability of e-books, though it has finally started to play catch up over the past year or two,’ says Matthia Dempsey, editor-in-chief of Bookseller and Publisher magazine.

It’s been a period of massive change for the Australian book industry. We’ve seen the declining fortunes of physical bookshops, epitomised by the demise of the Angus & Robertson and Borders chains (representing roughly 30% of the Australian market), a steep rise in consumers buying books online, and a growing awareness and embrace of e-readers. A year ago, Booki.sh, an Australian-based e-book platform, was launched.

And late last year, Dymocks, Australia’s sole surviving major book chain, launched the controversial D Publishing, a company that creates both print and e-books, distributed via the Dymocks website: for a fee and with a restricting rights clause that has been heavily criticised.)

‘I think it’s safe to say the awareness of e-self-publishing as an option will be on a steep upward curve at the moment for most would-be Australian writers,’ says Dempsey.

The e-author: Angela Meyer

Angela Meyer is one Australian writer who has happily dabbled in self-e-publishing, publishing her three of her short stories as stand-alone e-books. They’re available on both Smashwords and Amazon; two are priced at 99 cents and the third is free. ‘I did it partly as an experiment to see if anyone would read or buy them,’ she says. ‘I also wanted to extend the life of stories that were previously published in journals but were never available digitally.’

Her free story, ‘You Will Notice that Hallways are Painted’ – which inspired the novel she’s now writing – has had ‘a couple of hundred’ readers; some have gone on to purchase the other stories. ‘It’s worked out pretty well for me.’

Most readers have come through Angela’s blog, Literary Minded (she’s Australia’s best known literary blogger) and her social media accounts.

Visibility is a problem for most self-e-published authors. It’s very cheap and easy to publish an e-book, but most get no readers because they’re lost in the crowd of millions, without the backing of a publishing house for promotion. ‘If you look at Smashwords you can see just how much rubbish is on there,’ says Meyer. ‘My strategy to “rise above’ was to have edited stories with well-designed covers, and to have them available via the social networks I’d already established.’

Money for nothing and writers for free

Morrison worries that the proliferation of ‘so much writing-for-free’ (or ridiculously cheap) will lower the price consumers are accustomed to paying. He fears this will have a similar influence to that of the many websites that don’t pay writers – that it will devalue writing and make it harder to make a living.

‘I’m pretty convinced by the argument that paints the recent past as an unlikely-to-be-repeated golden age for writers in terms of advances and their ability to make a living as a full-time author,’ says Dempsey. ‘As in other major creative industries, the web and digitisation has fragmented the market, making it harder for most to make the kind of profit they once did.’

Lisa Dempster, director of the Emerging Writers Festival, believes it’s ‘a misnomer’ that there have been periods where it’s been easy to be a writer. ‘The struggling-writer-in-a-garrett is a cliché for a reason!’ She says, ‘I don’t think the low price of e-books is the thing that is going to sink the writing industry. Personally, after such a long time of free digital content, I think we’re starting to see a shift towards consumers being willing to pay for work that they know will be good quality online.’

Dempsey is also hopeful. ‘As some readers of cheap self-published works already admit, when you wade through enough bad writing you do become more willing to pay a little more, and that little bit more recognises the role played by the traditional gatekeepers: selection, investment, editing and so on.’

Where’s the cream?

The Australian writing folk we spoke to weren’t as gloomy as Morrison about self-e-publishing, though they all agreed that most writers who think they’ll follow the glittering path of Amanda Hocking – or even make a living from it – will be disappointed.

Dempsey and Dempster believe genre plays a role in what kind of books have a chance of succeeding. ‘It would take a brave person to self-publish a literary novel, however self-published romance novels and travel books are booming,’ says Dempster.

Ultimately, though, success depends on expectations. ‘I think that for writers who see e-self-publishing as a chance to make their writing available for non-financial reasons, and who are not labouring under the notion that they will make a living (let alone a fortune) out of it, the ease with which it is now possible to publish a book would be a welcome development,’ says Dempsey.

‘You could make the case for the new self e-publishing ecosystem functioning as a kind of public slush pile … a way of being a part of it – with the hope of being noticed by traditional publishers or newer e-only imprints and publishing houses.’

Amanda Hocking’s publishers – not surprisingly – agree. ‘It’s always been the same, since the days when people were self-published from the back of their car,’ Matthew Shear of St Martins Press told The Guardian. ‘Cream will rise to the top.’