The Miami Books Fair is one of the nation’s marquee literary events, a bustling weeklong consumer fair held every November for the past 29 years, featuring hundreds of authors and events, as well as exhibits from publishers and booksellers.
So it was notable that this year’s pre-fair coverage in the Miami Herald included a lengthy article by author and journalist Carlos Harrison that heralded the latest industry trend: an “explosion” in self-publishing.
“The publishing world is being upended and reinvented,” Harrison observed in the piece, “part of a movement using the power of e-books and the Internet to lead publishing into a new frontier, and through the biggest upheaval of the industry since Gutenberg’s press.”
The rise of self-publishing was also evident among fairgoers, who packed into a November 17 panel discussion on self-publishing, hosted by the Copyright Clearance Center and moderated by CCC’s Christopher Kenneally. The panel featured some of the top players in the self-publishing business: Smashwords’s founder and CEO Mark Coker; author and marketing consultant M.J. Rose; Jenny Pedroza, who originally discovered and published E.L James and Fifty Shades of Grey; and Matt Cavnar, v-p of business development at Vook.
While some in the traditional publishing industry remain skeptical of self-publishing, if the 2012 Miami Book Fair is any indication, self-publishing has already gained wide acceptance among both readers and would-be authors. At the Saturday panel, the question at hand was not whether to self-publish or whether self-publishing was viable, but how to self-publish—and how to do it well.
“I’m told that 400,000 self-published titles will appear in the U.S this year,” observed Kenneally, as he got the afternoon talk started, noting that in just a few short years, self-publishing has gone from a small and often derided sector of the publishing business to a full-blown “revolution” that is now making it possible for people to express themselves in ways that were “not allowed or were not available in the past.”
The panel began with two examples born from the self-publishing “revolution.” First up, Jenny Pedroza told attendees how she and her partner discovered and published one the greatest commercial successes in history—E.L. James and the Fifty Shades trilogy, through the Writers’ Coffee Shop library, an online community of more than 80,000 members who write stories, post them, and comment on each other’s work. James, Pedroza said, took nearly a year of encouragement and no small amount of convincing before she agreed to publish her books through the Writers’ Coffee Shop. “She really didn’t want to do it,” said Pedroza. “In hindsight, she should have done it sooner.”
Pedroza recalled a “very intense,” editing process for James—adapting the Fifty Shades narrative into more of a book form from what was essentially an online serial, where every installment had to end “in a sort of cliffhanger.” But once published, and after months of building an online following, sales were “amazing right off the bat.” Indeed, so good that Pedroza said she and her partner had no choice but to cut a deal with a major publisher, Random House.
Every author should be so lucky. But Pedroza’s takeaway: in the online world, there is now ample opportunity to connect with fellow readers and writers alike. Online, Pedroza noted, E.L. James had already developed a devoted following. And when her book was published, she had benefited from their feedback and their support, which proved to be the cornerstone of her historic success.
Cavnar followed with a timely example of organizations taking advantage of the self-publishing boom: conservative pundit David Frum’s instant e-book on the 2012 election, Why Romney Lost. Vook, Cavnar said, provides “turnkey” e-book publishing for a range of self-published authors as well as organizations and media companies—including Newsweek/Daily Beast, for which Frum writes. Cavnar said Newsweek contacted Vook in the days before the election, saying that Frum was so convinced Romney would lose, he had already written the book on why he lost—with everything but the final ending.
“We got the manuscript before the election, copyedited it, turned it around, did all the creative services, and the book was done, finished, approved by everybody and approved by all the stores, and we were watching the returns come in, waiting to hit publish.”
How does the Newsweek experience relate to self-publishers? “You should no longer say that you want to be a self-published author,” Cavnar said, “what you need to be is a self-published publisher. To tie it all up in a bow: look at what Newsweek did. Don’t look at the process as you having a masterpiece you just want to get out there. You have to get a good cover, good branding, and you have to get your marketplaces right. Yes, the means of distribution is now in your hands. But you have to think like a business. I am Newsweek—that’s your motto.”
For Mark Coker, founder, CEO, and “chief author advocate” of Smashwords, the only real surprise is how quickly self-publishing has evolved, which he owes to the rapid advance of e-books.
“I expected e-books would grow fast,” Coker said, “but they have grown faster than almost anyone predicted, and it has been a boon to self-publishers.”
Coker told a tale familiar to many in the audience—the story of how he and his wife went through the whole traditional publishing process: writing a novel, getting an agent, and generating significant interest from houses, all of which eventually passed. “That’s when I came up with the idea for Smashwords,” Coker says, “because publishers shouldn’t be standing in the way.”
Smashwords, which offers a range of self-publishing options, has ramped up quickly. In 2012, Smashwords published roughly 100,000 e-books, and while Coker readily acknowledged that few of these books will ever go on to great commercial success, that isn’t the point. The point, he noted, is that with the advent of the e-book, any author can have a shot at finding an audience. “The reason self-published authors didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell in the past is that they couldn’t get the bricks and mortar distribution. Up until just a few years ago, you had no choice but to work with a large publisher because they controlled the printing presses, they controlled the distribution, and they controlled the knowledge of professional publishing. These are the three things we are looking to unlock and make available to everyone.”
Coker said he was not only was confident that self-publishing would continue to grow, but would eventually come to dominate the publishing world. “Authors now have the opportunity to publish low-cost e-books at prices as low as free, or 99 cents, or $2.99, and they can reach the bestseller lists,” Coker said. “And this is all happening just now—a year ago this was hardly happening at all. In two or three years, I think almost all bestselling books are going to be self-published books.”
Bestselling author and marketing expert M.J. Rose was more measured. “I’m the voice of doom,” she told the audience, to laughter. While technology has unlocked distribution, “discovery” remains the major roadblock to success for self-published authors. “We used to discover books in bookstores; we had lots of newspaper reviews; TV shows had novelists on.” Now, at least half of the places where fiction was traditionally discovered by readers are completely gone, Rose said. “The process of discovering books is getting more and more difficult, and when that happens, the big names take up a lion’s share of the sales because everybody buys what they are seeing.”
Commercial fiction is becoming increasingly a hits-driven business—but self-publishing, she cautioned is no magic bullet. “There can be too much of a good thing,” Rose said, bemoaning a digital world where readers can now download so much free material that they will never get a chance to read most of it—and if you never get around to reading that free e-book you downloaded, you will certainly never be able to tell anyone about it.
“Having 100,000 people downloading your book,” she said, “doesn’t mean 100,000 people are reading it.”
“Let me first say, the voice of doom is right,” Cavnar quickly observed, as the panelists turned to the practical aspects of good self-publishing. “If you’re going to just write your book and put it out there and expect it to perform, it will not perform. You will have zero sales.”
So what are the basics of success in self-publishing? Not surprisingly, self-published success looks a lot like traditional publishing success. For example: cover design, Cavnar began—you must design a cover that looks professional and will stand out. And, design your cover for digital screens and mobile devices—simple, large readable type, rather than intricate images.
“You need to hire an editor!” Rose quickly interjected—a point with which the panel all quickly agreed. Self-publishing can offer great distribution, Rose noted, but the content is 100% your responsibility. “And you cannot do this yourself,” she stressed.
On the marketing side, make sure you have a Web page, a place where you can send any and all traffic you generate. Specifically, make sure you can capture e-mail addresses. Cavnar recommended the service unbounce.com as a cheap, effective way to capture the e-mail addresses of your readers. Next, self-publishers need to put a link in their e-books that will allow people to sign up for a newsletter, and then, you have to actually send a newsletter. He cited Stephen Elliett’s “overly personal e-mails” from the Rumpus.net as a good example, and recommended mailchimp.com to fulfill newsletter delivery.
The newsletter came as perhaps the biggest surprise to audience members. “It’s about outreach,” Rose explained. Rather than depending on people to come to your site, it is critical to reach out and market to your readers—and you will not get e-mail addresses and customer contacts from Amazon or any social network site—you, the author, the panel stressed, must own the relationship with your reader.
Use social networks, like Facebook and Twitter—but do not rely on them. Again, the panel stressed the need to forge direct relationships. Whatever you get for free from a social network, Rose explained, is something they can take away from you later—so do not build your business on them. “For years, I built up a MySpace presence,” Rose said, “only to have MySpace now mean as much to the world as chocolate-covered ants.”
Kenneally then raised a key question: to print—or not to print?
Coker was emphatic in his response: “I think print is dead for self-published authors, with the exception of subject matter specialists doing nonfiction who do a lot of public speaking and consulting and can sell the book in the back of the room.” Coker said Smashwords authors sell about 100 e-books for every print book they sell—and, e-books are increasingly what readers want: $2.99 or less in many cases, with immediate access, as opposed to $16.99 for a print book that has to be shipped.
Coker told the audience he’s looked at the data from Smashwords, and, no surprise, a free e-book will get downloaded more than 100 times more any priced book. As one would also expect, lower prices equal more sales. The question for authors, Coker said, is at what price will earn you the most money.
Coker said Smashwords data suggests that the best price for an e-book is between $2.99 and $5.99. “We found that between a $2.99 price and a $10 price, you’re going to earn about the same amount of money,” Coker said. “So, if that is the case, which price do you choose? The lower price, because you’ll sell six times more copies. Remember, when you sell a book, you get two important benefits. First, obviously, you get money in your pocket. But you also get a reader, and you can gain a fan. And a fan can be forever.”
Coker then pointed to the royalty issue, a big part of the price question. Generally, as a self-publisher, you’ll make anywhere “from a 60% to a 100%” royalty on a self-published title he said, which offers self-published authors a competitive advantage over traditional publishers. “Self-publishers have an opportunity to outsell, outcompete, outdistribute, and outmarket the larger publishers,” Coker explained. “You have the opportunity to sell low-cost e-books, while the major publishers can’t put all of their prices down to 99 cents or $2.99. Their business models aren’t set up to compete there. At Smashwords we distribute to Apple, B&N, Sony, Kobo, all the same retailers—except for Amazon. And we’re seeing our authors hitting the bestseller lists and outselling some big-name authors. That’s because we’re doing books at $2.99 and $3.99, and large publishers are doing them at $12.99.”
On the question of free e-books, none of the panelists were keen on the idea of giving away your work. Rose suggested that, psychologically, there was a “get what you pay for” thing at work, and that people are in fact more likely to actually read something they’ve paid for. Cavnar suggested using free e-books only as a limited promotion and only if it enables you to capture e-mails. “If you are going to do free, you have to get something for it.”
At the end of the session, audience questions mostly reflected an acceptance of self-publishing. Which is the best service to use? How does one find a good editor? What about copyright registration and protection? None of the authors seemed deluded by visions of literary grandeur—but some expressed frustration at the inability to even be considered by a traditional publisher or agent, few of whom accept unsolicited manuscripts, much less read them. Acknowledging that difficulty, Rose called self-publishing “the new slush pile,” noting that self-publishing offers authors a chance to prove their talent, drive, and hustle.
Then came the question long expected. “Everyone is writing a book,” an audience member suggested, “but most of them shouldn’t be published.” What about the role of traditional publishers in “curating” literature? The question recalled the days of vanity presses, noted Kenneally, when opportunistic firms preyed on authors, charging them big money for garage-loads of badly produced books. But that, Kenneally noted, is not the self-publishing of today’s digital world. As for whether we still need publishers to be gatekeepers, Coker respectfully disagreed. “I think every writer has a right to be published,” he said, “a right to have a chance to be read. I think readers are the new curators.”