E-Books and the Struggling Author

I have a Sony PRS-505 and it’s my preferred choice when reading books. It also has a hefty price tag as does the Kindle and pretty much 99% of all e-readers on the market. I acquired my e-reader shortly after I’d published my first novel, an e-book, with a start-up e-book publisher in the U.S.

I didn’t carry any illusions into my decision to sign with them, I was just bloody glad that someone out there thought my novel about a 40-something superhero was entertaining enough to publish. That was back in 2008 and now flash forward a couple of years to a slightly wiser and slightly more successful author, the question arises: would I do it all again.

Probably not.

Now before anyone decides to throw trash at me because I’m besmirching the good name of e-book publishers and of course their stable of authors, I want to make a couple of things clear. First off, e-books represent about 5% of sales in publishing. That number is expected to grow in the coming years and over the past twelve months, we’ve seen an explosion in the number of print publishers starting their own e-book imprints. This is an anticipatory move, in my view, because while e-readers are still pretty damned expensive, they’re starting to drop in price, and they’re now for sale at that great North American mecca of retail shopping, Walmart.

Yes, digitized books are slowly but surely becoming destigmatized and as the price of e-readers drops ($150 for a Kobo reader as opposed to $350 for a Kindle) the likelihood of middle class bibliophiles purchasing one will increase dramatically.

But …

What about e-book publishers?

There’s a large number of e-book publishers out there – some are scams and some aren’t. Some report their sales figures and some don’t. Some have brand identification and consistently put out a good product while others, not so much. If you’re an author, you really do have to put on your thinking cap and do a little bit of research into an e-book publisher because they’re not all created equally and as a result, you can expect low book sales if your novel isn’t a torrid erotic romance. This might have to do with the quality of the books at a given publisher, but in actual fact, my gut tells me it’s about marketing and brand.

You are an unknown author and if you choose to accept an offer of publication with a little known e-publisher, the chances of your book making any money are pretty damned slim. Even if you accept an offer from an established e-publisher, how do they market your book? Print publishers work very hard to ensure product placement at major book stores, but e-publishers are still pretty much unknown to the book-buying public who actually own an e-book reader. That’s why Kindle, despite it’s high price tag is a resounding success – you have to be living under a rock not to have heard of Amazon, and this is one of the reasons Amazon has started its own publishing arm.

Mind you, if you sign with an unknown e-publisher, they’ll probably get your book listed on Amazon, but will it sell? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it.

I’ve been able to end my relationship with my e-book publisher because my book wasn’t selling. No, the book didn’t suck – it’s just that I was (and still am) an unknown author struggling to get his book noticed with a largely unknown e-book publisher in a market where e-books make up about 5% of books published in a world where e-book readers aren’t owned by the vast majority of consumers.

And that’s really the critical factor I’d recommend any author to consider before they decide to submit to an e-book publisher: does my novel have a ghost of a chance of making any money at all?

Yes, there are some e-book authors who’ve developed a following and make a fine living writing e-books, but remember: they’re the exception and not the rule. Even if tomorrow morning a Kindle drops in price to $50.00, does this mean that readers are going to buy an e-book from a largely unknown e-publisher? I doubt it: they’re going to buy from an established retailer like Amazon and they’re probably going to purchase something from a bestselling author whose book is published by a known print publisher who just so happens to digitize their books and who sells them on Amazon or Chapters or Barnes and Noble.

I’m going to make a prediction and it might not be a popular one, but here goes:

I think that in five years, we’re going to see a ton of small e-publishers disappear. I think we’re going to see measured growth for e-publishers who are a known quantity, and I expect that large publishing houses are probably going to buy them out if they’re profitable. In ten years, I expect we’re going to see e-readers as being mainstream and affordable, and that the major print publishers will have an e-book imprint and will be selling e-books direct from their own corporate websites as well as online venues like Amazon.

What this means for the struggling author is that the small independent e-publishers will probably be gone and that e-books having become mainstream will follow the same rules as print books from a major publisher – get an agent.

It ain’t pretty, but in truth, there’s a helluva lot of bad e-books out there. There’s a lot of scam publishers and there’s a market flooded with e-books from e-publishers nobody has ever heard of before. That’s the reality of e-book publishing in 2010.

I’ll close by stating an old rule of sales: people buy from those they like and trust. People trust major publishing houses and they know established brands. This is bad news for small e-publishers, but publishing has always been a risky venture. Authors still face incredible hurdles on their way to publication, but as the price of e-readers goes down, the more mainstream they will become. When the average Joe can afford one, he’s going to buy his books the same way he buys print books: from someone he knows and trusts and from an author he’s probably heard of.

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