Over the last month I’ve seen a flurry of articles on hugely successful ebook authors, and indications that their success is part of a wider trend. In January, the month when Amazon announced that ebook sales had overtaken all forms of print volumes, 12 of their 20 ebook best-sellers in the horror genre were by self-published authors, in a field that included Stephen King. http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/01/guest-post-by-terri-reid.html
Twenty-six year old Amanda Hocking is the best selling ebook author on Amazon’s kindle store. Since April, 2010, she has self-published nine ebooks and sells 100,000 a month, at prices ranging from $0.99 – $2.99. Amazon’s pricing allows her to keep 70% of the profits, where traditional publishing would give her 30%. http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2381193,00.asp
One of many articles on Amanda’s success quotes an anonymous publisher as saying there is no traditional publisher in the world right now that can offer Amanda Hocking terms that are better than what she’s currently getting, right now on the Kindle store, all on her own. http://www.novelr.com/2011/02/27/rich-indie-writer
Terri Reid’s self-published ebooks are in Amazon’s top 20 lists for 10 different genres. Her previous day-job included advertising and market research, and she references she some interesting discussions on the meaning of “ownership” and “value” in the digital age. Everyone instinctively feels that an ebook is not worth as much as a paper copy and shops accordingly. (One mathematician calculated the optimum price for ebooks as $2.99-$3.99). Reid suggests that the traditional “agency model,” where the publisher sets the price is not going to work in this arena, and says, “Apparently Ken Follet’s publisher raised the price of his ebook from $7.99 to $9.99 and sales dropped 48%.“
Reid further claims that: “Publishers were, and still are, trying to slow the growth of ebooks in order to protect their business model, which is built around selling paper. How has that been working out for them? Not very well.” (I referenced Reid’s article in the first paragrah, but here it is again: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/01/guest-post-by-terri-reid.html Note: last night I downloaded Reid’s The Ghosts of New Orleans for $2.99 from Amazon and will review it here when I finish).
Not long ago – like maybe last year – traditional publishing offered writers a huge carrot – the certification of legitimacy. USA Today reported that Hocking sold 450,000 ebooks in January, 2011, so I doubt that she worries too much about that. http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2011-02-09-ebooks09_ST_N.htm
For a traditional game with winners and losers to endure, winning has to be possible. At the 2007 San Diego Writer’s Conference, I heard an editor of adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy explain that traditional publishers, with their “stable” of known authors who are guaranteed to sell, have no financial motivation to risk an unpublished writer. “If you want to break into this market, your best bet is to get some short stories in print,” he said.
I heard the same thing at the CWC February lunch, from a prolific local author of romance and romantic suspense, Kimberley Van Meter – that increasingly, not just editors but agents too, are not willing to risk unpublished authors, no matter how good the work seems, and that was always the sustaining idea: if I write something really really good, I will make it into print.
Let’s assume that is still true, and I hustle and get some short stories or articles in print, and then write something really really good and, dream come true, in a couple of years it’s on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Then what happens? I suspect that despite all the hype about “building your online platform,” Donald Maass is still correct – bestsellers happen by word of mouth. How did you hear about Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code? Somebody I knew raved about the books in both cases.
That seems to be what happens with ebooks as well. After writing her whole life, Amanda Hocking had tried the agent submission route with no success. The self-described muppet enthusiast was broke, but wanted to attend a Jim Henson exhibit in Chicago in October 2010, so at this time last year, she told her roommate: “I’m going to sell books on Amazon through Kindle, and I bet I can make at least a couple hundred bucks by the end of the summer to go to Chicago.” http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/2010/08/epic-tale-of-how-it-all-happened.html. She uploaded two books, sold 45 copies in two weeks, and thought that “wasn’t too shabby.” In her case, the breakthrough came when she discovered book review blogs and asked the authors to consider her work. Those digital voices launched her path to success.
Hocking writes young adult fantasy, and as word of her success spreads like wildfire online, you can almost hear the keystrokes of 10,000 writers hurrying to finish their vampire ebooks. Everyone knows about gluts and bubbles from recent economics. There’s not enough time to read all the good stories now (or separate the wheat from the chaff), and there will be even less as the ebook revolution kicks into gear.
Still, there is a democracy-loving part of me that loves this kind of populist development. Different, but similar to they way I felt watching how cell phones and Twitter helped spark the revolution in Egypt, and how it made me feel to realize my own career in technology had, in however small a way, helped it happen.
These are exciting times to be a writer. I’ll close with a quote from Joe Konrath (link in the first paragraph). Konrath, a traditionally published author, was an early adaptor and advocate of epublishing, who writes:
The future isn’t Big 6 publishing houses vetting manuscripts, rejecting the majority, taking 18 months to publish, and then insisting upon ebooks with high prices and DRM, all the while paying authors one third of what the house makes. The future is smart, talented writers doing it on their own.