By Vani Gupta
In 1996, following rejections from major publishers, Matthew Reilly printed a thousand copies of his novel Contest, which he then sold to bookshops throughout Sydney. The following year, it was discovered by a commissioning editor for Pan Macmillan Australia. Since then, Matthew Reilly has become an international best-selling author. It is this type of success that the e-book industry’s self-published and self-titled “indie” authors hope to achieve.
A Google search of “self-publishing e-books” returns 2.7 million hits. Every listing on the first page of results is a guide to self-publishing. With instructions so easily available, it’s unsurprising that in January 2015, Author Earnings estimated 33 per cent of total daily e-book sales were accounted for by self-published works, outstripping the authors published by the Big Five publishers – Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster.
Getting one’s book accepted by one of the Big Five publishers is notoriously difficult at a time when the economics of publishing are tight. Publishers are cautious, advances are small and contracts hard to secure.
The rapid rise of e-books, e-readers and print on demand has made self-publishing easier and more affordable. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and iBooks all have self-publishing programs, and websites such as Smashwords allow writers to publish their own stories free of charge.
One such success story is Hugh Howey, whose novel Wool was published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) system in 2011. After the series grew in popularity, the writer signed a print-only deal with Simon & Schuster to distribute Wool to book retailers, while retaining full rights to online distribution.
FicShelf, an online publishing platform, reported the proportion of self-published bestsellers written by women is almost twice as large compared to traditional print publishing. Sixty seven per cent of the top-ranking titles across self-publishing platforms such as Blurb, Wattpad, CreateSpace and Smashwords were written by women, compared to the top 100 traditionally published titles on Amazon, of which only 39 per cent were written by women.
K.A. Tucker was self-publishing her own Young Adult stories via Amazon’s platform for a few years before Ten Tiny Breaths, an adult contemporary novel, was picked up by a division of Simon & Schuster in January 2013. Her established fan base and proven success attracted the publisher to her work, and the writer was signed to a four-book series.
Overall, the digital market has been positive for publishers as well as authors. Although sales of print books declined, e-book sales have continued to rise. The profit margin of e-books (with no manufacturing, warehousing, shipping or returns costs) is higher, even at the lower price.
Carolyn Reidy, Chief Executive Officer of Simon & Schuster, told Publishers Weekly that in the most recent quarter, e-books accounted for about 26.3 per cent of all revenue. This number was higher than it had been in 2014, indicating that the e-book market continues to grow steadily.
As Publishers Weekly reported in the first quarter of 2015, revenue at Hachette Book Group USA declined 12.3 per cent compared to the first quarter in 2014. The revenue decline in the U.S. was partially due to lower e-book sales, an overflow of consequences from the struggle between Hachette and Amazon regarding ebook pricing and revenues.
When an agreement was reached in November 2014, James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research, told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s a victory for Hachette in that they get to set the consumer prices of their e-books, while Amazon wins in that it has given Hachette an incentive to keep prices lower”. Other publishers, such as Simon & Schuster, had also agreed to a similar compromise.
Hachette’s new contract with Amazon started in March 2015, and since then there has been a gradual disappearance of e-book discounts on Hachette books, causing a decrease in volumes sold. Despite the slump, the e-book format still accounted for 28 per cent of Hachette’s revenue in the most recent quarter (down from 34 per cent last year).
“Self-publishing has become a lot harder because there’s a lot more competition,” said Joel Naoum, publisher at Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint Momentum. “To a huge extent, Momentum is competing with these self-published authors. They’re in the areas that we’re trying to work in.”
E-books have increased the likelihood of coming across anything from commercial genre fiction to private memoirs, business books and self-help guides. This can have both benefits and downsides. Connor Tomas O’Brien, a writer and web designer, notes in The Emerging Writer that too many self-publishing authors undervalue the importance of editing, design and market expertise. Websites such as http://www.badebookcovers.com and kindlecoverdisasters.tumblr.com catalogue some of the results.
Joel Naoum says, “There’s no quality control – you might look at a book in a bookshop and think it’s got an ugly cover, but then you see what happens when you let somebody do it themselves.”
Another caveat for those considering the self-publishing stream is Amazon Kindle Unlimited, a subscription model similar to the concept of “Netflix-for-books”. It allows subscribers to download and read up to 750,000 titles across Amazon’s e-book library for a monthly subscription fee. This has proved immensely popular with readers since the program launched in July 2014.
Mark Coker, from Smashwords, cautioned authors about the possible downsides to exclusivity, as it prevents their books being available at other retailers’ websites. Many self-published authors owe much of their audience to Amazon, and may not be concerned about exclusivity itself. Authors are now getting paid less for downloads via the Amazon subscription model than they would for specific purchases by readers.
“The Kindle Unlimited program has scooped up those readers who may be willing to read books that are a little bit cheaper, and not by as well-known authors,” says Joel Naoum. A huge portion of those readers now access books through the subscription system, for even less money than before.
Meanwhile, the payout to authors via KDP Select, the program used to fund indie author and publisher participation in Kindle Unlimited, continues to drop. In April 2015, Amazon was paying authors $1.33 (US) per e-book read, which may be a profit for authors who typically price their books at $0.99 for purchase, but is a reduced profit for the self-publishers who typically charge closer to $3 or $5, of which they may receive approximately 70 per cent if the book is purchased by a reader.
In an interview with the Alliance of Independent Authors, FicShelf’s CEO Monique Duarte said, “On physical books, let me be clear – e-books, online periodicals, etcetera – these are just different ways of experiencing reading. Although we are an online company, and focused on e-publishing, we want it to be part of our legacy that physical books are available to readers, too. I see print on demand as one sure sign that technology is evolving to protect printed books.”
Changes in the publishing world continue to present new opportunities that were previously unimagined. If using your Kindle makes you nostalgic for the smell of books, there is a steady market for candles and perfumes that replicate the smell of chemically decomposing mould on paper. And they’re only a click away.