Time to try Self Publishing?

Could self-publishing ebooks on Amazon be a useful new income earner for travel writers?

In my last post I speculated about the future of Frommer’s printed travel guides now that Google has bought them. It got me thinking about ebooks and self publishing. I already author an iPhone app to Seville and I retain the rights to that content across other media. So nothing to stop me publishing it as an ebook. David Whitley recently published Hardly Paradise: Anti-Postcards From A Grumpy Traveller a stack of his travel features as an ebook. It looks like it wasn’t a particularly complex task. And, get this. At the moment the writer gets 70% of the sale price (Amazon retains 30%). That’s a pretty good deal. So I took myself off to a seminar about ebooks hosted by Women in Journalism (yes, blokes are allowed to go along) - called How to write a best seller - how e-books have changed the rules.

The session was chaired by Alexandra Campbell, author and novelist (as Nina Bell) and panellists were Catherine Ryan Howard, author of Self-Printed: The Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing'); Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller, agent Antony Topping of Greene & Heaton agency, Caroline Hogg, commissioning editor at Avon (HarperCollins publishing), who specialises in commercial fiction. So – a good panel and a good chairperson too. Here are a few key takeaways for me.

Ebooks will revolutionise the marketplace
Philip Jones: “Publishers haven’t really woken up to the impact ebooks will have”. Booksellers however have. Big time. Antony Topping pointed out that whilst high street book retailers used to take a title on and order a good number of copies, they now order tiny numbers and won’t commit to more until they are sure it sells. This makes life difficult for publishers – what kind of print run, how big a risk? Certain kinds of literary fiction and  non-fiction are much harder to get off the ground now too. The future could see whole genres moving online only and the high street being the place you buy just the big photogenic coffee table books, complicated textbooks and really big selling works of fiction. Who knows? There’s innovation happening. Amazon has recently introduced a new category of ebook called Amazon Singles. Longer features which are typically much shorter than a novel, but more than a magazine article. Singles are priced $1 to $5. Typical word count is 5000 to 30,000 words. I think this idea is REALLY interesting. In the past, there was no way to easily sell work of this length. Magazines aren’t big enough, and publishers don’t want to commit to such low page counts. Ebooks have no such limitations. The format seems ideal for tablets and smartphones. You can imagine grabbing a sandwich at lunchtime and turning to your iPad to spend an hour reading about a $150 million bank heist. Lifted, by Wired and New Yorker writer Evan Ratliff is just 34 pages long. (NB I paraphrased these last few sentences from this piece in Wired.)

Certain types of eBook sell better than others
The winners at the moment are sci-fi, women’s fiction, crime and erotica – serial fiction is selling particularly well. If you have an idea for a book – better have the sequel and #3 and #4 ready to go soon after. Antony Topping: “Because journalists (like you people here in the room) are used to churning out the copy fast this could be an opportunity for you – if you can turn your hand to fiction successfully.” (I wonder if the other category that sells well is ‘How to write ebooks and make money’?)
Philip had a counter point which I agree with: “It takes time to create a great book – this new model doesn’t allow for that. To rush something out to the market can be a big mistake.” Antony agreed – he said that for him as an agent if someone comes to him with a manuscript that has already been self-published as an ebook it has been ‘tarnished’ and he’s less likely to consider it unless it has sold really well. (Then of course it’s a different ball game.)

Amazon owns e-publishing
There are other options – you can publish ebooks on the Nook (the Barnes and Noble platform and reader due in the UK soonish); Kobo (the reader is on sale in WHSmith in the UK) and Apple’s iBooks author - but Amazon is the one that shifts the product and that’s down to the Kindle. Antony suggested Amazon could start giving away Kindles for free soon. What interested me was the way the panellists spoke in hushed tones about Amazon. Amazon keeps its data about how many copies of ebooks are selling to itself. Only Amazon really knows what is selling. There are best seller lists – but the implication was that that algorithm is more complex than pure sales numbers. Could Amazon start to favour self-published ebooks where they take 30% of the sale and control the author relationship completely at the expense of ebooks from traditional publishers? What impact do reviews have on rankings? As Catherine Ryan Howard put it “Amazon pays my wages… they could change the rules tomorrow. It feels a bit like they are reeling us all in before whipping the carpet from under our feet”.
What’s to stop Amazon deciding to only pay 50% royalties rather than the current 70%? Not a lot.

Publishing an ebook on Amazon is easy
You go to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing page, sign up (which takes about half an hour) and upload your book and cover pic. Job done. According to Catherine there’s no real quality control. She quoted an example (which has since been removed) of someone uploading a book called ’50 Shades of Grey’ which featured 50 pages each with a different hue of grey on it. For a while it was a best seller. People used to price stuff on there at 99c – but nowadays there is some kind of price/quality equation in play in her opinion. People steer clear of the 99c price bracket because it denotes dross. The sweet spot for pricing is USD2.99 she thinks. Right now images just don’t really work – it’s just words. And that for me is a big disappointment. Travel books need images in my opinion. It looks like it will be a while before this happens. Maybe apps remain the better product for an online travel guide? (Actually – there’s no maybe, I think they do.)

Small could well be beautiful
Ebooks don’t have geographical boundaries the way traditional publishers and printed books do. Once you publish online anyone who speaks the same language can buy your book. This means that smaller more niche topics that wouldn’t sell enough copies in one market to be viable could well work when exposed to the worldwide market on line. So, write a really good book about say food for toddlers with milk allergies and you could be selling copies to people in Canada, Australia, the US etc etc. I can see a whole new discipline not dissimilar to SEO of people analysing the Amazon product list for ‘content gaps’ that would be profitable and then finding writers to fill them.

Presence and profile online are essential
Catherine the self-publisher talked about self-publishing being about entrepreneurship (above and beyond writing skills) and Caroline the publisher agreed. Even for a more traditional publisher authors have to be socially connected online – doing the twitter, blogging and Facebook stuff is considered pretty essential for new authors regardless of whether they’re self publishing an ebook or working with a publisher. A word that kept coming up was discoverability. To be successful an ebook has to pop up in search results – both in the Kindle store and elsewhere online too. That could be about choosing a really tightly defined niche and writing about that. It’s also definitely about thinking laterally when you upload your ebook about what tags to give it - one great example from Caroline was using the tag ‘Downton Abbey’ for a work of romantic fiction that happens to be set in the 1920s. People often want to find a book a bit like something else that interests them.

A final word from Catherine – who had some really smart stuff to day – “Self publishing probably won’t make you a fortune – it’s something to consider more as a sideline.

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