2014 / Monday

E-books: Working for Saavy Romance Writers but Not So Easy For Others

Su-Lin Tan

E-books: not exactly sounding the ‘ping’ of the cash register.  Image, ‘e-ink to paper’, by Luis Perez and used under Creative Commons licence

E-books: not exactly sounding the ‘ping’ of the cash register.
Image, ‘e-ink to paper’, by Luis Perez and used under Creative Commons licence

To book readers, the sweet sound of a page turning may be almost as engaging as the story itself. But readers today are more likely to hear the sound ‘woosh’, ‘click’ or ‘ping’ as they swipe their Kindles or iPads.

Since Amazon’s Kindle appeared, the sight of someone staring at electronic pages on a flat luminous device has become commonplace. And while it may seem easy to publish an e-book, making it a profitable enterprise may be more challenging than it seems.

Digital strategist Steven Lewis, who conducted a workshop at the Festival entitled Online Marketing for Writers, and colleague Australian writer Dave Conford conducted a survey of self-publishers in 2012 and found that while the average revenue was about US$10,000, the reality is that half the self-publishing authors earned less than US$500 from their self-published books in 2011.

Emergence of the e-book: The e-book is an electronic version of a printed book that can be read on a computer or a specially designed hand-held device, called an e-reader, such as a Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iPad. They are tablet computers that download books using the Internet and store them electronically.

From the 1930s to 1960s, there were attempts at producing the electronic book. But it was Michael Hart, of Project Gutenberg, who changed books as we know them when he digitised the American Declaration of Independence in 1971.

Traditional publishing houses such as HarperCollins and Random House started selling electronic versions of their books in the 2000s. Amazon’s Kindle appeared in 2007.

The e-book phenomenon: “The publishing landscape is changing,” says author Jennifer Cooke. “A lot of authors are publishing themselves, especially those who can’t find a traditional publisher to publish their books. The publishers themselves are scaling back on their lists, because they are encountering a revolution of the e-book.”

Getting one’s memoirs showcased in bookstores, for example, is notoriously difficult. Publishing houses receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts a year; most end up in envelopes marked ‘Return to Sender’.

While self-publishing may offer new hope, author Emily Chantiri is cautious. “With all the changes happening with my traditional publishers, I thought this is a good chance to try self-publishing. But it’s not easy, full-stop.”

Costs: Jennifer Cooke agrees with Emily Chantiri.“Your book has to be formatted. You can format it yourself but you have to be adept at HTML. There are guides on how to do it but it is fiddly and time consuming. It is much easier to get someone else to do it for you.” She says she and a co-author found an expert and paid US$400 to get the job done.

Emily Chantiri says, “I know a lot of people who have spent up to $10,000. If you want to put out a little booklet on your website, that is fine, but you if want a top class book, I don’t think you can do it for $400.”

Both Jennifer Cooke and Emily Chantiri are right.

These “experts” are called aggregators. They take a manuscript and turn it into a format ready to publish as an e-book on online book retailer sites. Some aggregators also provide marketing, editing, design, ISBN acquisition and copyright services.

Australian aggregator Australian eBook Publisher, which provides standard formatting of e-books, also provides additional services – at a cost.

“The marketing side is extra service,” director Amanda Greenslade says. “We also provide an additional editing service when people ask for it. We also have different budgets for specialised graphics or illustration.”

Emily Chantiri says returns from her e-book are currently low because she hasn’t been marketing.

“I have just done two radio interviews, an article for Marie Claire; it’s slowly coming through. It is as commercial as you want it to be,” she says.

Thus, aggregation and marketing costs can range anywhere between a one-off US$249 to 50 per cent of book sales.

Valerie Khoo, director of the Australian Writers’ Centre, says self-publishing can be profitable but it depends on how entrepreneurial writers are.

“Writers must ask themselves what their goal is – to make money or to be read as much as possible. They have to treat their e-book as a business. How successful they are will be a function of how much they put in,” she says.

Dave Conford and Steven Lewis’ survey reflects this. Self-publishers who paid for story editing, proofreading, cover design and e-book formatting made 35 per cent more than the average self-publisher.

But when it comes to marketing, the survey says authors who do a lot of marketing do not necessary make the most money. The right price of the e-book matters just as much.

Credibility and Pricing: Pricing a book can also be a difficult. Price an e-book too high, and there will be cobwebs hanging off it; price it too low and the writer’s reputation could be damaged.

“I don’t want to sell my book at 99 cents. It is not what I am at. If I do books with other publishers, I want them all to be at a certain level,” Emily Chantiri says.

Then again there is a positive to selling your life’s work for 99 cents. As Jennifer Cooke says, “You are prepared to discover a book at 99 cents.”

Wading through the money side of self-publishing can be tough when you find yourself knee-deep in small print on the Kindle royalty page.

Revenue: In 2012, Amazon reported its e-book sales surpassed hardcovers for the first time in the United States.

But Dave Conford and Steven Lewis’ survey showed the top e-book authors have an agent, made money from a subsequent traditional deal, write more than 50 per cent of the time and are in the romance genre.

The evidence seems to point to the fact that it is the prolific and well-funded romantic writer who will make it in the e-book world. In contrast, a “quarter of the survey’s respondents have little chance of getting a return on the costs for their book”.

Reader sentiments: According to Amanda Greenslade, there are something like 70,000 e-books being released a month. The convenience of the e-book is the main reason for its popularity.

“I am of the age where Ineed glasses for close reading. I can just adjust the font on my Kindle screen,” Jennifer Cooke says.

The future: Self-publishing can be complex and perplexing which is why, for a long time, traditional publishers have been able to take the distribution load off writers so that they can focus only on “giving birth to their baby and sending it out into this world”, as Jennifer Cooke says.

But there is a good case for self-publishing. “It is worthwhile doing, particularly if you are a first-time author and have no hope of getting above the pack or parapet with mainstream publishers,” Jennifer says.