Everyone knows publishing is in the process of deep structural change. As Richard Nash observed, those who are waiting for all the technological/e-publishing dust to settle and for things to “return to normal” are going to be intensely frustrated. There is no final state of rest in view. Change from here on out will be continuous, creating both the greatest possibilities and the deepest instability in the publishing industry.
In many parts of the world, anyone with a credit card, a computer or reading device, and the Internet can now obtain hundreds of thousands of books effortlessly.
Similarly, in many parts of the world, anyone with a credit card, computer, a teeny bit of savvy, a little more tenacity, and not more than $100 can now produce and distribute a book, in either print or e-book format, worldwide.
We are talking here about e-books and books distributed through online vendors, and a market limited to those who have computers and reading devices.
The question: how to find those who want to find you? E-books, as Hugh McGuire has noted, are not as discoverable as physical books. Unlike a “real” book, which we can see someone reading on a bus or spot on a coffee-table or in a book store, it is harder to find things online with this kind of accident. Discussions of how to develop an audience for books, therefore, often devolve on discussions of metatags, the most effective means to use social marketing, more sophisticated data correlation or searches keyed on embedded references.
If I could answer that question I would have everyone with a pulse crawling to my door. I have heard and read much about how to sell books on the Internet: the advice is always to use all the social network sites: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., to build up a big following, launch your book through them, and go viral via word of e-mouth, but in my experience, the saturation of all these sites by errant hucksterism makes them almost useless for selling much.
But this new world does provide enormous opportunities for writers and also publishers of books not expected or intended to reach large audiences, and books produced in this way for even very small audiences can be profitable. Not wildly profitable, but profitable. As Chris Anderson demonstrated in The Long Tail, digital production and distribution now allow a business to flourish on the basis of a large number of small discrete transactions.
In e-commerce, if you sell hundreds of thousands of books, it doesn’t matter whether you sell five each of tens of thousands or tens of thousands of five books.
Google, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s, etc., have detailed records of purchases. Right now this is used very crudely, but, say, if I think my book might appeal to someone who likes Proust, Robert Walser, Kawabata, Muddy Waters, and the Berg Violin Concerto, I can find that person. Change Proust to Louis Lamour; I can find that one. The data correlations could be used to approximate a sensibility or taste.
I put a book up on Amazon, The Brilliance of Naked Mind. It’s for the narrowest of audiences—very Buddhist. Once it was up and running, I used Facebook, wrote a few letters, and gave away 10 physical copies ($4.65 each). The POD book sells for $17.95, and I make $6.25. (And I’ve only invested about $80 in producing the POD version.) Within a week, it returned more than three times my very minimal costs. Sales were given a most welcome lift by a gratuitous sectarian attack.
Then I decided to put the book up on Smashwords as a kind of experiment. This was not so easy, and I couldn’t make it work. So I found a very nice romance novelist in South Carolina who agreed to format it for... $25. Selling the e-book for $2.99, I’ll get about $2. If I sell it for less, I make 30%. It’s a very different model. The elements are in place, the range of possibilities open. We’ll see what happens.
Douglas J. Penick is a novelist and lyricist who also writes on evolving cultures.