Truthfully? I was dubious about e-publishing.
Not as a reader. I love my e-reader — in fact, I now much prefer to read books electronically.
But I’ve been a full-time writer of fiction for well over ten years now (with another ten years of “paying my dues” before that), and let’s just say: I’m used to being disappointed by the publishing industry. I’ve had a few very successful years in my career so far, but I’ve also learned that, um, it’s not really realistic to count on that kind of success year after year.
Sometimes the reviews are good, but the sales are bad. Sometimes Barnes & Noble doesn’t like your cover, but it’s too late to change it. And sometimes the movie version of your book doesn’t get made, even though it had a very impressive A-list director attached.
This isn’t my approach to everything in life, but when it comes to book publishing, you might say I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best to keep one’s expectations a little, um, low.
Short of Suzanne Collins, I don’t think I know a single long-time author who feels otherwise. Keeping expectations in check might be the only way to stay sane, since writers have so little control over how their work is received (and purchased!).
So a year or so ago when everyone started buzzing about e-publishing, I thought, “Huh. That’s cool. Yes, yes, I’m sure it will change everything.” And like I said, I was enjoying the technology with my own personal reading.
But other than that, I didn’t give it another thought.
The thing is, I had a number of older titles that were yet not available in e-versions. I was getting a lot of email from readers saying they wanted to buy these books, but they couldn’t. A couple of the books were out-of-print, and a couple of others were sort of in-print, but their editors had long since moved on, so one really cared about them at my former publishing house.
I really didn’t want the hassle of figuring out how to e-publish myself, so I asked the publisher, “Please will you e-publish them? I know people are interested — I get emails all the time!”
But they were dragging their feet, so finally I said to myself, “Screw it. I’ll just do it my damn self.”
I honestly didn’t think I’d make any money. I was just doing it because, hey, I’d worked hard on these puppies, and I wanted them to be read.
I started last spring with just one book, The Order of the Poison Oak, the second book in the Russel Middlebrook series that began with Geography Club. Truthfully, Amazon makes it really, really easy to self-e-publish, especially if you know a little HTML.
I designed a cover, pressed “publish,” and promptly forgot all about the whole thing. But a month or so later, some money turned up in my checking account.
A surprisingly large amount of money.
Okay, so it wasn’t enough to retire on, but it was enough to get my attention. When you’re earning a 70% royalty, which is what Amazon pays, you don’t have to sell that many copies to make a surprisingly decent chunk of change.
Was this a fluke?
I tried publishing the same book with iTunes, but it was almost funny how difficult they made it — it was instantly clear to me that iTunes (and Steve Jobs) did not care about books in the least.
So I turned to Smashwords.com, which allowed me to publish the book for every other e-platform (at a slightly lower royalty rate than Amazon, about 60%, since they take their own cut).
Once again, I assumed I was wasting my time — that Amazon so dominated the e-market that it was barely worth it to e-publish elsewhere.
And once again, I was completely, 100% wrong.
E-publishing, which had been a very low priority — just satisfying my curiosity, really — suddenly became a very, very high priority.
My agent and I worked on getting the rights back to some of my other titles, and I now currently have four previously published books that I have re-published myself as e-books: (1) The Order of the Poison Oak; (2) another sequel to Geography Club called Double Feature (which was traditionally published as Split Screen, a name I always hated); (3) a mystery about a girl in a group home, called The Last Chance Texaco, and (4) a psychological thriller called Grand & Humble, a book that won the Scandiuzzi Washington State Book Award a few years ago.
And again, I’m not making enough money to retire, but you know what? I’m actually making a lot more money from these older titles than what my publisher was paying me in royalties (usually a year or so after the sales). If these sales keep up for a few more years, I’ll probably make more from my self-published e-versions than I ever made from their traditionally published versions.
I know! Who knew? It turns out the hype about e-books isn’t just hype.
(Seriously, there are now ads for the Nook and the Kindle on TV. When was the last time you saw ads for anything book-related on TV?)
Just when the book publishing industry had bludgeoned me into a quivering mass of pessimistic goo, it turns around and gets all “morning in America” on me.
I still have books forthcoming from traditional publishers, and I have other projects that I hope will sell to traditional publishers. There is still something to be said for bookstores, and industry reviews, and awards — and the legitimacy and respect all these things bring. Speaking gigs, for one thing. (It all boils down to money, doesn’t it? But hey, we all gotta eat!).
But just because I’m still writing for traditional publishers doesn’t mean that, just like almost every author I know, I’m not also writing an e-book original — specifically, the fourth book in the Russel Middlebrook series, The Elephant of Surprise, coming in 2012.
“Follow the money,” Deep Throat said, and he had a point. We writers do what we do out of love for the craft and for our stories, not for the cash. But again: hey, we gotta eat!
Weirdly, I think I’m in something an e-publishing “sweet spot”: I’m not successful enough to have publishers pounding at my door (and paying me huge bucks). But I’m familiar enough to some readers that my e-books don’t simply disappear into the ether, like I guess they do with a lot of amateur, non-traditionally published authors.
The other cool part of e-publishing? The amount of control that we authors have. I hasten to add that I will never publish any original book without first hiring both a freelance editor and a copy editor.
But this time around, I can write exactly what I want, not the pitch my publisher agrees to because their marketing department says it’s what people will buy.
I can choose my own price — and experiment if I want. And — yah! — I finally get to choose my own book jackets (like the ones a terrific graphic artist named April Martinez did for my e-book versions of Double Feature, Grand & Humble, and The Last Chance Texaco).
The world of book publishing is changing, and for once, it’s seems to be changing in my favor, and it’s totally freaking me out!
Next thing you know I’ll be out smelling roses and whistling happy tunes, and then where the hell will I be?