Digital Books: Seismic Shift or Fad?

by Jon Lewis

Thanks to eReaders like the iPad, Kindle and Nook, the distribution and consumption of digital books is exploding, and it’s causing a ripple effect throughout the publishing industry. But what does it really mean?

Will brick and mortar stores exist in ten years? How many of the big six publishers will survive? Does anyone need an agent any longer? And if an author can get a 70% return from an independently published novel and only somewhere between 10-15% on a traditionally published novel, will authors abandon the old model and go straight to market with their own stories?

Right now, depending on the source, digital books represent anywhere from 8%-12% of the market, which means that most people are still buying books the old-fashioned way. But as the price of an eReader drops, how much longer will that last? Purists insist that the smell of the pulp and the texture of the paper are simply too potent to ignore. But do kids born in the last 5-10 years hold that same nostalgia for a physical book? More importantly, why does any of this matter? Here’s why . . .

Thanks to Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and other members of the eBook vanguard, it’s never been easier to get published. In fact, you don’t even need a publisher to make your book available to the masses. Simply write your story, create a cover, follow a few easy steps so you know how to format the book and where to upload the file, and voila!

Though percentages vary based on the price you charge for your book and the retail outlet, you’ll get about 70% of the price the book is sold for. Wow! What other business will you find where you get a 70% profit margin? But I can hear you asking, “if it’s that easy, why does anyone go through a traditional publisher?”

It’s a fair question.

The advantages to working with a traditional publisher are (1) top-tier professional editors; (2) attractive cover design and interior layouts; (3) physical copies of your books into retail outlets from coast-to-coast; (4) promotion and marketing; (5) up front money.

All five reasons are valid, but for me the first is the most important. Editors are invaluable. They do so much more than ensure your grammar is correct. It’s like having Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf working as part of your team, and I don’t want to ever give that up.

However, there are a growing segment of authors who feel they are not receiving a fare share of the digital publishing profits. When a book is sold online through a traditional publisher, that publisher receives 70% of the sale price, and in turn, gives the author 25% of those profits, or 17.5% of the sale price. Then the author’s agent gets 15% of that, leaving the author with 14.875%.

Those authors believe you can hire freelance editors, artists and graphic designers to fill key roles that publishers provide for a fraction of the price (i.e. that extra 56.125%). And that publishers only offer a very limited amount of publicity and marketing unless you are an author who sells millions of books—and let’s face it, few of can sell like James Patterson, J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. And as to the up front money, the argument is that if you are patient, you’ll make more money over time.

Amanda Hocking is an exciting example when it comes to independently published authors. She couldn’t find a home for her books, but she didn’t give up. She worked hard at her craft (the key to success) and then decided to post them online. She told a few bloggers about them and they gave her great reviews. She didn’t sell a ton of books in the beginning, but a year later she sold over a million books, and made over two million dollars. But here’s the catch. She just signed a four book deal with St. Martin’s Press for another two million dollars. So if self-publishing is so great, why did she sell out and go the traditional route? (Note: she’s addressed that question on her blog).

Then there is Barry Eisler, who recently passed up a five hundred thousand dollar deal for two books so he could self-publish them. He believes he can tap into his fan base and make more money over time. That’s a lot of up front cash to pass up no matter who you are.

So who is right? Who is wrong? Will traditional publishing last or will publishers go away? I can’t answer that question. Nobody can. But I can tell you that I’m going to keep one foot in both camps.

I’ve been blessed to work with some of the best and biggest publishers in the world—Scholastic, Hachette and Thomas Neslon. But not everyone is going to have that chance, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t talented or your book wouldn’t sell. Look at THE SHACK, not to mention Amanda Hocking, JA Konrath and many others who are experiencing amazing success.

Independently published authors no longer carry the scarlet letter. The stigma is gone. But you need to understand that catching lightning in a bottle like Amanda Hocking did will not be everyone’s story. And if your book isn’t good enough to be published, self-publishing won’t help it. It’s not a short cut, but it is another outlet. And that’s exciting.

To track trends on independent publishing I highly recommend the following blogs:

  1. Dean Wesley Smith http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/
  2. Kristine Kathryn Rusch http://www.kristinekathrynrusch.com/
  3. JA Konrath http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/
  4. Mike Stackpole http://www.michaelastackpole.com/
  5. Barry Eisler http://www.barryeisler.com/
  6. Amanda Hocking http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/

While I was growing up, I moved a lot. I went to 3 elementary schools, 2 junior highs, and then 3 high schools in three different states. To cope with it, I wrote stories. Then I went to college, got a job and had a family. I stopped writing. But I couldn’t stop forever. I started writing early mornings, late nights and weekends. Now I’m lucky enough to say that I write full-time. I also blog in hope to help other people get published, too. You can visit my blog at www.jonslewis.com.

Note: Right now, Jon’s first YA novel, Invasion, is on sale for only $.99 on Amazon for the Kindle. In Jon’s words, the novel is “Kind of like Fringe and X-Files with a bit of Alex Rider and Maximum Ride.”

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