Where self-publishing and ebooks stand in late 2014

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(1) “Ebooks have grown exponentially and reached a healthy balance by 11/14,” says Mark Coker, head of Smashwords in a no-nonsense delivery at BAIPA (Bay Area Independent Publishers Assn) on Nov. 8. Here is a much-abbreviated summary of Mark’s very enjoyable 10-point presentation. When Mark began Smashwords, about it 8 years ago, ebooks accounted for .5% of the books published. Today they are 35% of the U.S. total. But in the last year that growth has held steady at about 35%. That may represent a rough new balance between bound books and ebooks in the future.

(2) “The stigma of self-publishing is disappearing,” Mark feels. It’s no longer a sign of failure, a last resort, or a desperate “inch from evil.” The growth was led by romance writers, with Amanda Hawkins the pivotal figure, who first cracked the million-copy ebook threshold. “It’s best for all publishers if there’s a healthy selection of traditional and self-published books available for choice.” But Coker assured the audience that the indies have the flexibility to outsell, outcompete, and underprice the big traditional producers.

(3) Writers earn a much healthier bite of the royalties by indie publishing, 60-80% of the list price, versus about 25% net royalties (12-17% of the price) of the traditional houses.

(4) “The big (traditional houses) just don’t understand self-publishing.” They couldn’t make money from writers, so they had to fleece them. They turned to vanity press, like Author Solutions (bought by Penguin), and then give bad, over-priced service to those they otherwise wouldn’t let publish at the top level. “They should just abandon the vanity approach,” say Coker.

(5) The democratization of the publishing tools is what freed the indies from having to use the overpriced, underpaid, and tortugian-produced big-press book process. Indies today have full access to presses, have much freer and faster promotion venues, can change prices in minutes, and can play with pre-ordering, free copies, two-for-one, and many more means to put their printed products in others’ hands.

(6) “Keep your eye on the ebook subscription services,” Mark advised, “like Oyster and Scribd where anybody can pay $10 or so to read any book in their catalog—and those book publishers with the catalog products are paid as if the whole book was sold if a small percentage is actually read. Amazon also has a form of this through Kindle Unlimited but the model isn’t very friendly because you must give them exclusivity of use and Kindle pays a much smaller percentage from a pool, which seems to be about $1.50 a read.

(7) Mark discussed the new court decision between Amazon and Hachette. The decision revolves around the agency model. Let me pass on this because the decision is so new that the dust hasn’t cleared sufficiently to see who won, who lost, and how it will affect indies (like us). See future blogs here and elsewhere for emerging clarifications.

(8) Ebooks are going mobile. Lots of selling abroad. Apple iBooks sell 45% of their eproducts overseas.

(9) Mark got a laugh when he said that he had read that “self-publishing creates a tsunami of dreck.” He agreed that lots of self-publishing books are mediocre in appearance but he felt, overall, there is “more high quality content in books than ever before.”

(10) Yet selling books is getting harder. Now there’s a glut of high quality print and it is harder to reach readers. Add to that that the growth in books is outstripping the readership, and folks read less in part because of the many other was to learn and be entertained. There are fewer major publishers, fewer agents, and lower advances in the traditional arena. “But don’t despair: ebooks are immortal, they sit there waiting to be found forever. And right now there has never been a better time to publish, when there are more world readers than ever before.”

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I must remind blog readers about an overlooked element of self-publishing that largely circumvents the usual paths but uses all the now-available presses—and can be pre-tested for title, author, theme, price, and format before a word is written or a page published. That is the niche field, which is always begging for more tightly-focused books and where the selling price is largely determined by how well the book answers one critical question or defines a new process (or an old process done in a new way). As many of you know, this is my area of specialization so let me send you to a list of related products that might help you explore this indie and traditional field.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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