Field Report from the E-Book Revolution

As the E-book insurrection continues apace, things change on the landscape (some would call it a “battlefield”) almost weekly. Today your intrepid reporter issues a few notes and predictions which I am typing inside a tent somewhere in the literary DMZ:
– Physical shelf space continues a precipitous decline. Print sales are down 25% this year, so bookstores are folding or increasing their stationery footprint at the expense of physical books. Book buyers increasingly browse and buy online, adding to the woes of brick-and-mortar.
– E-Readers are going to explode this Christmas (again). Last year Kindles and Nooks broke the sack on Santa’s back. This year St. Nick will be lugging Kindle Fires all over the universe.
– E-fiction (what Mike Shatzkin calls “narrative text”) is already 25% of the total market. Look for it to be close to 50% by the end of next year. Shatzkin thinks it’ll be 80% within five years.
– This puts increasing stress on the Traditional Publishing Industry (TPI) because print is what made it and sustains it. TPI is doing what it has to do to survive, which comes down to keeping and making happy their A-list authors, and reducing overhead and advances (which of course means less money to invest in new and midlist authors).
– Agents are feeling the pinch, too, since their bread has been buttered by advances. That’s why many of them are transitioning into e-publishing hubs for their clients. The dollars and sense [sic] of this is still being worked out. An agent might broker a deal with a digital house like Open Road in a somewhat traditional manner. Others might offer actual e-publishing services, which raises conflict-of-interest and competency issues. Literary agent Jason Allen Ashlock argues that, “workflow restraints, small staffs, capital concerns, and the modest revenues generated by most digital properties will prevent most Agent-Publishers from adequately managing and effectively publishing more than a few titles.”
– Authors who are succeeding at being completely independent are those who are able to bring entrepreneurial analytics to the task. If you’re going to publish successfully as an indie, you have to think like a business. You have to think about genres and branding and marketing and design and all the aspects of bringing a book to the world. Authors like Bob Mayer, who are trained in strategic thinking, have an advantage. Business skills can be learned but it takes time. For that reason authors may decide to partner with a digital publishing entity. There are way too many variables to discuss here (percentages, length of time for rights, what marketing advantage is offered, and so on). Suffice to say you’ll need to be just as sharp about the details (where the devil is said to hang out) when signing away any digital rights. 
– New and frustrated authors are attracted by the nice royalties they can earn by going indie, but you still have to move units to make dough. And to do that, you have to get noticed in the ever-increasing content tsunami. The two bottom line requirements are: consistent production of quality books coupled with creative marketing efforts. Those who are able to deliver the goods at a brisk pace, and are savvy about promotion, have the best chance to reap rewards over time.
– The greatest benefit of indie publishing is speed. It’s hard to wait 12 – 18 months for a physical book to appear. Over the course of a year, from March to March, I will have eight new books out. Three of them traditionally published (one of these is non-fiction), five of them indie originals (and I’m not counting the 7 backlist books I have all the rights to and will bring out next year). I love this! Why the heck not? I love to write and my e-book income in the first 6 months surpassed my latest traditional advance. I say it is okay for writers to make money doing what they love. Radical, I know, but there it is.
– I like TPI. I wrote a nice open letter to that effect. But we all know there is a vicious business spiral going on. Imagine you’re the Ty-D-Bol man and a giant has just flushed the toilet. TPI is in that little boat, hanging on for dear life. Conference rooms all over Manhattan must feel like they’re swirling.

– BTW, did you know Robert Ludlum did voiceovers for those Ty-D-Bol commercials?
For writers considering the indie trail, the times are both challenging and refreshing. But you have to be realistic. The metaphor that e-book publishing is a “gold rush” is no longer apt. There were some early strikes for the bold (e.g., Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking) but now things are reaching a market equilibrium. That means: an indie writing career is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to train (learn to write), get plenty of nutrition (critical feedback) and then run a smart race (strategize with business thinking, pick your spots, make your moves).
And while huge success is not guaranteed, the nice thing is the race is now open to anyone who loves to run.
So what is your current thinking on this ever-changing landscape? What do you think the future holds, say, a year from now? 

NOTE: I want to amend a response I made earlier this week to Paula Millhouse, who asked about the advisability of putting a book online before getting a deal. I said Nay. David DeLee respectfully dissented. So I asked my agent about this, and he said it was true a couple of years ago, but things have changed. Publishing online will not kill a potential deal if the book performs. No guarantees either, of course, but that’s always been true in the writing game. Thanks to David for the prompt.  

30 thoughts on “Field Report from the E-Book Revolution

  1. The Ty-D-Bol man. Now there’s a blast from the past. LOL!

    I have no predictions but an observation and a quandary:

    E-books have completely taken over my brain. I went to a museum today and was browsing the books in the gift shop, but instead of being tempted to buy the book, my first thought was “I wonder if it’s available in e-reader format?”

    As a writer: a year ago I would have been scared to death to try and indie publish but now I’m willing to give it a go. The only thing that worries me is the fact that consistently, I hear the advice that it’s not just about quality (hopefully no problem there) but quantity–having sufficient product to offer.

    If you’re a slow writer but you have a backlist, I don’t suppose that’s much of a problem. But if you’re a new writer with no backlist, THAT is a scary amount of pressure to produce. I haven’t quite figured out how to handle that obstacle. Until I win the lottery (difficult since I don’t play) I can count on the process of writing to continue to be slow.

    What DO new writers with only 1-2 manuscripts under their belt do? Do they just sit back and stay out of the game till they have more manuscripts under their belt?

    BK Jackson

  2. It’s tough as nails for a new writer. But I think regardless of how much the industry changes, there will still always be middleman type companies getting the content to the masses. That’s why I’m going to put my effort into getting an agent rather than trying to do it all independently.

    So many of the authors who champion the potential of self publishing got their start in traditional publishing and gained fans that way.

  3. The past traces a trail in my wake, like a meteor, fading as I pass, never to be relived, as I plunge into the inscrutable future that I try to analyze and predict as I prepare for impact. The mystery of my journey ahead is frightening as I envision monsters and demons waiting to devour me; yet, I charge ahead. I know that great discoveries and rewards are awaiting me. All I need is courage and perseverance.

    I have experienced forging into the future while trying to pull the past along with me, trying to live in the future the same as I had lived in the past, trying to be in the future what I had been in the past, but that always failed. The past was a teacher, the past set me on my course, but the past does not go with me, does not hold my hand as I cross the frontier into the future. I am on my own, living by my wits, learning how to survive and prosper in a new reality.

    My current project is a five volume series. I am writing to the highest level of perfection I can achieve and editing will be to the highest standards of our trade. Only when the product is ready will I seek publication. Only then will I worry about what the world has become.

    My goal is to be prepared with a product sustainable in whatever future I find. To be prepared for that future, I keep current of the trends in the publishing industry, assess the risk, and plan and re-plan my response. I will be ready to publish by whatever method is most suitable when my work is ready to be shared with the world. Then I move on to three more book series I have planned.

    The future is scary, but bright with opportunity. Bring it on.

  4. JSB,
    Great post today, and I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say. Anyone entering into indie publishing must think and act with a business mentality and they must understanding they are no longer just a writer, someone who can and will be “taken care of” by editors and agents and publishers. Today’s writer will need to be in control of all aspects of their career and must wear two hats — author AND publisher.

    Also, the landscape is changing so fast, things that were true just six months ago, may not be true now. In addition to all the great advice you give here, I would add one thing, the indie writer must keep informed about the current state of publishing, and keep an open mind to the new and different ways of doing things. The old ways aren’t going to work anymore, and new ways are being created everyday. A very, very exciting time to be a writer, IMO.

    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny – a Grace deHaviland novel

  5. Great post, Jim. Love hearing updates on your personal experiences too. What an exciting time for authors! I also liked what you said about this being a marathon where quality & consistency will help to sustain an author, plus a little creative promo. This IS a business & all aspects of the brand an author cultivates requires nurturing.

    Now I’m donning my helmet & getting back to the trenches. Keep your head down, Jim. Wouldn’t want you to get hit by shrapnel in this E-book revolution. Have a good Sunday.

  6. Great report, Jim. My publisher recently released an original short story by my co-author and I for 99 cents that included a generous preview of our new thriller THE PHOENIX APOSTES. The first format they chose was for Kindle. I expected some of our fans to ask if the story was available in print. But no one did. They just wanted to know when they could get it for their Nook or Sony or some other e-reader. So far, the workd “print” has not come up.

  7. Wow,

    James Scott Bell mentioned my name on the internet. And, he thought enough of the question I asked this past week at TKZ to have a conversation with Donald Maass about it.

    I can die and go on up to heaven now. My fifteen minutes…awesome.

    Thanks, Jim.

    And thanks to David DeLee for the contrasting opinion. Your wisdom and foresight into the “other side” I thought was important.

    Numbers are important if you go indie. Numbers are what this whole publishing game is about anyway, right? Numbers come from word-of-mouth, and marketing.

    Before the numbers though, comes craft.

    That’s the most important lesson of all. Thanks to all the Kill Zone authors for bringing the lessons back to that.

    I’m with Clare on that one – back to the trenches…

    Happy Sunday, Folks!

  8. Very good article.

    I have a Kindle and a Sony reader, and have read only one paperback since I bought them.

    I too, when I see printed books I would like to read, have the thought “I wonder if that’s available in e-reader format” going through my mind.

    As a new writer who would like to quit her day job to write, I doubt it would benefit me to sell my book as paperbacl/hardcover because the E-book revolution is now here.

    I know many people who swear they would never own an e-reader, and I was once one of them, until I held one in my hands and read a book from it. I was hooked instantly and there was no turning back.

    Like it or not, they are addictive and some have so many bells and whistles, it’s hard NOT to like them.

    I use my Sony Touch-Screen PRS650 to read books and magazines, take notes, highlight, listen to music, carry my favourite pictures with me… the only thing missing is Wi Fi but that’s fine with me.

    I bought it specifically for editing my own documents while away from home.

    Right now, I just need to finish editing my novel, “Stella’s Plea”, and it will be on its way to the Big Wide World of e-book publishing.

  9. Great comments. Let me pick up a few threads:

    BK wrote: The only thing that worries me is the fact that consistently, I hear the advice that it’s not just about quality (hopefully no problem there) but quantity–having sufficient product to offer.

    This is really no different than the print world. You’d be expected to turn out a book a year, maybe even a little less. Publishers never published a book. They published a writer, someone they could take a risk on because he or she keep producing for them.

    The dark side of this was sometimes there’d be a huge advance and the books would not sell through (or completely tank) and the writer would be seen as “damaged goods” to the TPI. Now such a writer has new life.

    So don’t “sit back.” Keep writing. That’s what writers do. And we don’t stop.

    Paula wrote: Before the numbers though, comes craft.

    Okay everyone. Copy that, print it out in BIG BOLD LETTERS and keep it on your desk. That is a truth that has not changed and will not change.

    Lester wrote: My current project is a five volume series. I am writing to the highest level of perfection I can achieve and editing will be to the highest standards of our trade. Only when the product is ready will I seek publication. Only then will I worry about what the world has become.

    That is correct, long-range discipline and planning. Thank you for not tossing up what is not ready.

    Taylor wrote: So many of the authors who champion the potential of self publishing got their start in traditional publishing and gained fans that way.

    It’s true that a fan base and backlist are tremendous advantages. But a self-publisher can build these the same way one has to in print, with the added benefit of being able to publish more in less time.

  10. Okay, I guess that’s where my sense of things is off–I can understand the book a year methodology in print format, but the impression you get from the overall e-book tidal wave is that a book a year isn’t good enough any more.

    On the other hand, the cool thing I’m enjoying seeing is the re-emergence of more short stories, so I assume that’s one of the ways authors bridge the “impatience gap” among readers.

    BK Jackson

  11. BK, that’s a great point. I have two novella-short story collections out. Watch Your Back and One More Lie. This is a real boon because the short form print market has been virtually non-existent (and low paying) for decades. No longer true. I am making novel-type lettuce from a form I’d maybe get a few hundred bucks for in the past. Those old pulp writers had to write for peanuts. Now it’s macadamias for sure.

  12. Watch Your Back is an excellent collection of short stories.

    It was one of my first Kindle purchases, but definitely not the last.

    E-readers are taking over as so many have pointed out. I just ordered an autographed hardback copy of The Queen, by Steven James because I love his thrillers, but that’s become a rarity these days. A special occasion.

    My letter to Santa this year has a Kindle Fire on the list…

  13. Great insights, Jim. Going forward, I’ll probably do a mix of traditional and indie e-book, and see how it goes. I expect that authors will prosper over time in the new publishing world–we’ve just got some new and unexplored roads on the map. It will still take persistence, focus, and good writing to succeed, no matter what.

  14. Wow, Jim! I’ll be reading this post and the links over and over again for awhile. Having just got my first book published this year and a new one in the series coming out next year and the year after I feel blessed, but I’m trying to think through the pub business changes as fast as everyone else. I rely on my agent and posts like yours to help me figure out this crazy business, which seems to be unfigurable most of the time.

    There are so many tsunami changes going on what does the just published newbie think about after crafting a good book? My mind is filled with marketing strategies but the competition is fierce. A full time day job and family matters and what I hope is the beginning of a long time publishing career boggle the brain.

    What should the newbie author do so as not to be swallowed up by the Ty-D-Bol wave and lost forever?

  15. What should the newbie author do so as not to be swallowed up by the Ty-D-Bol wave and lost forever?

    Jillian, you are in a great position with your print deal and the readers you’ll gather as a result. Those readers are your life raft. You won’t get swallowed by the wave, you’ll ride it and you can make adjustments as you go. You have a great agent in Rachelle, too, so it’s all good, even though the currents are raging and shifting.

    And it can’t be said often enough, don’t let anything keep you from writing the best books you can.

  16. Interesting post Jim. I wonder if we are in the middle of an eBook ‘bubble’. In the 90s, there was the dot com bubble, where companies made lots of quick and fast money, and then crashed – and then the recent housing bubble.

    Could we be in the middle of an eBook bubble? I was reading Bob Mayer’s recent blog where he suggests that soon traditional publishers will be lowering their eBook prices to be on a par with .99 and 2.99 which seems to be the norm for self-pubbed ebooks. When that happens the playing field will be levelled and traditional publishers will come out ahead. Once again.

    Ebook authors are riding the crest of this wave, but I wonder if it will last.

  17. Good question, LInda. Traditional publishers face a bit of a quandary here. If they lower prices they’ll have to raise the royalty split, which means lower margins. The reason they’ll have to raise the royalties for authors is that their authors are going to want make something, too, and 25% is not enough at the lower price point. Then the question is, is 50% of the low end enough for the publisher’s overhead?

    Too, authors will ask what marketing advantage they get from the TPI in order to justify giving up the full 70% they get publishing directly.

    The challenge for TPI, I think, is to find those creative ways to offer a marketing advantage, which they might be able to do by paying actual money (like they do now for print co-op) to Amazon and B & N. But they’ll have to limit what they can spend, just like they do with co-op, which means, again, serving A list authors primarily.

    Meantime, I don’t know that the competition or saturation is going to mean anything new or different for writers tying to gain a foothold and then grow a readership.

  18. Great report!

    I agree 100% with what you’ve written here. I’ve just published my first thriller as an indie digital edition, Squatopia, and so far had no bites.

    Even in these first few days, I can tell it’s definitely more of a marathon than a gold rush, because despite claims that Kindle’s streets are paved with gold, we all have to find a way to make our book stand out – in the early months in particular – or we risk never selling at all.

    Here’s a question though. Can we apply the marathon idea to books as well as authors? Do you think there’s such a thing as a slow burner in indie ebook publishing, or is it the case that a book which fails to sell healthily in its first 90 days will never take off?

  19. Very informative. The thing about agents is particularily interesting. Authors still need someone to advise them and help them with the business side of things – an agent without a sense of what’s going on is going to be quite harmful to an author’s career. I’ll keep all this in mind, as I’m currently searching for an agent. Thanks

  20. or is it the case that a book which fails to sell healthily in its first 90 days will never take off?

    Absolutely no rule like that. In fact, if you continue to write well, your new books will help sell your backlist, which never goes OP.

    But it depends on the book, too. I checked yours out and you have to know it’s got real challenges to break out into popularity. I base that simply on the book description on Amazon.

    Also, I checked your thriller page and there is no sales copy and no click-through. I had to go over to Amazon and type in the information.

    These are all things that “thinking like a business” involves.

  21. This explosion has created a new job description…

    Marketers for E-pub. Authors could hire them for 5% of sales to link up all that cool stuff JSB just wrote about…

    We have singlehandedly boosted the American/worldwide economy with this digital Revolution…

    Authors rock. We are the original forward thinkers.

  22. Great post, Jim. And great comments.

    If I could respond to Anonymous, who remembers Ty-D-Bol man. I am a new indie author/publisher with only four completed manuscripts, and the fifth in the editing process. I put out my first eBook earlier this year, with another eBook novel coming out in December. I have learned a lot with the first release, and the next one is coming together much easier. I plan releasing 2-3 novels in both eBook & print format throughout 2012. After getting rejection letters for more than six years, it was a thrill to finally take matters into my own hands and forge ahead.

    If you have not jumped into the eBook/POD publishing pond yet,anonymous, I urge you to consider doing this soon. Make your novel the very best you can while spending the bucks for good editing, good cover design, and good formatting. Then, when you’re ready, launch that puppy and never look back. I don’t think you will regret the plunge.I don’t … and I am having a great time.

  23. Mark is an example of what I’m talking about here. I know how hard he’s worked and continues to work. He has a long term plan and he’s in control. Keep an eye on him.

  24. James as always, you set a bountiful table of food for thought. I am wondering…are there any figures which indicate that people are buying more books? Does the increase in the sale of e-books equal or exceed the decline in purchase of physical books, in terms of dollar sales? And — this is a different question altogether — are e-books creating more readers and/or book purchasers? I think that the answers to those questions will determine whether traditional publishing will survive in the long term. To do so, they will need answers in the affirmative.

    One other point…the biggest complaint I hear from e-book purchasers concerns the quality of the book. Spelling and punctuation errors are a distraction from the narrative flow of the story. I am not pointing any fingers — no one is a worse proofreader than I am — but if you put something up independently have someone, or a few someones, go over your ms. first.

  25. Joe, everything I’ve heard says people are actually reading more when they get an e-reader. I was talking to a fellow just this morning who said he’d gotten a Kindle and was doing more reading than ever. People are anxious to download content, if the price is right.

    And oh so true: pay for proofreading service.

  26. I’m buying and reading more at the lower end of the pricepoint since I went Kindle. Instead of picking up books at garage sales, I’m browsing Amazon, following up on friend’s indie books, searching out freebies, etc.

  27. Joe,
    In response to your comments. I agree, the quality of the work is paramount. Get help editing, writing a great blubs, doing good covers, and formatting. All a part of the publishing that the indie writer must learn to do well, or outsource (for a flat fee, never for a % of the work, ever) to be successful.
    As to how various formats are performing, here’s a link to a site I was given on another list:

    Bottom line: Month of July 2011 to July 2010
    Hardbacks were up 33.9 %
    e-books were up 105.3 %
    Adult paperbacks were down 29.2 %
    Adult mass market was down 29.0 %

    For what its worth,
    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny – a Grace deHaviland novel

  28. The AAP numbers re:hardbacks are a little hard to interpret. I don’t know what they include (textbooks?), but it seems counterintuitive, esp. when it comes to fiction. Other sources indicate hardback sales down, which comports more with the rise of e-book sales.

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