Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The E-Book Self-Publishing Market and Why I Worry

May 11, 2011
I, like a great many people, have self-published a number of books as e-books. I'm not new to self-publishing, my book CATFISH GURU was published by iUniverse (and for those of you too young or who have short-term memory loss, the type of hype we're seeing now about e-book self-publishing is almost identical to that seen when print-on-demand publishing took off, although the primary difference now is that people are actually buying the e-books).

For the traditionally published novelist with several out of print book titles, this is totally awesome. $500 or $1000 in sales might not be of interest to a publishing house, but they sure as hell are to most authors. (Although those days are coming to an end. Publishers aren't going to let e-book rights loose, which is why we're seeing some traditionally published novelists abandoning their publishers and self-publishing).

For traditionally published novelists with a good audience who want to try something a little different and their publisher isn't particularly interested, it's also terrific.

For some traditionally published novelists who have been dropped by their publishers, usually because of sluggish sales, this is fantastic. (And unfortunately, I know literally dozens of seemingly successful novelists who have been dropped by their publishers over the years and they're just a fraction of the ones who have been. In reality, flat sales, negative sales and slow sales growth these days tend to result in getting dropped; publishers are primarily only interested in spectacular sales).

For some people, like Joe Konrath or Amanda Hocking or Scott Nicholson, they are making tons and tons of money via e-self-publishing. It's great for them.

There are a lot of, shall we say, "inexperienced" writers who now feel that e-self-publishing is the key to their writing future, they no longer have to listen to those "know-nothing arrogant gatekeepers" of traditional publishing, they can slam up whatever they've written and make a bundle of money. And tons and tons of writers are doing just that.

And most of them aren't making any sales, or are making very few.

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, recently commented that they have fewer than 50 writers making $50,000 or more a year from their e-books. Dudes - that's worse than in traditional publishing, and he's got a hell of a lot more authors throwing their shit against the wall hoping it'll stick. He describes it as a typical power curve, which is to say, very few at the top end with a long tail of everyone else at the bottom end.

And that makes me wonder whether or not some of these writers - including some of us traditionally published writers who are experimenting with it and not making tons of bread off it - might eventually say, "Y'know, maybe I should go back to focusing on traditional publishers that pay advances, have distribution and handle all the cover art, layout, pre-marketing stuff, etc."

A lot of people think they know where the e-book market is going, but I doubt it. They were almost all wrong a year or two ago. It may level out. It will almost assuredly level out.

And I'm unconvinced that just because people bought your $1.99 or $2.99 or $0.99 e-book that they'll continue to buy your books ... unless they liked them! Because if your book sucks, no matter the price, you're not going to get repeat buyers. My understanding of the typical e-book reader is that once they've got their Kindle or Nook or whatever in their hands, they need to buy content. But often they've just spent $200 bucks on the device, so they download a book or two of their favorite readers, then they go shopping and see a bunch of books for cheap and they buy a bunch, then they'll slowly start going back to their favorite authors, the book du jour, the New York Times bestsellers, etc.

So I'm having a hard time seeing how some of what's going on is going to be sustainable.

Of course, I could be wrong.

The market could continue to grow and people might continue to buy significantly more cheap books than they'll ever find time to read.

Or the market may become so saturated with $1.99 and $2.99 books that book buyers will start to think that number translates to: self-published, unreliable crap. And there will be so many of them anyway that it'll be damn near impossible to tell which are good and which are garbage.

Or they won't care and it'll continue.

Or they'll become so enamored with cheap books that the idea of paying anything more than $5 for a book - in any format! - will start to seem like highway robbery, that the publisher's are greedy and trying to rip them off, and it's just some rich author trying to get richer...

I don't actually know. It feels like a bubble to me rather than a long-term trend. I may be wrong. Probably I'm wrong. But you've heard the old expression about "if it sounds too good to be true..."

14 Comments:

Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I'm thrilled someone finally mentioned that we saw this same hype a few years ago when pod publishing appeared.

There are lots of reasons why self-published ebooks aren't a great get rich quick scheme. One reason is that too many people who don't have the skills to write for pay think it's a way to get rich quick and are going to flood the marketplace with dreck to the point readers might well be afraid to waste their money on any ebooks. A bunch of high school baseball players might decide to form their own league because the Yankees suggested that they had to spend years in the minors, developing their skills, and prove they could evelop sufficient skills before being promoted to the big leagues. And someone might show up to watch the amateurs play for a buck. But after seeing a bunch of stumblebums butchering the game how many baseball fans would return?

Also, authors still have the problem of getting themselves noticed. At least a publisher gives you some help in getting noticed whereas with self-publishing you are entirely on your own.

I hope the ebook self-publishing boom continues. I have spent most of my life writing non-fiction (essays and such) and distributing them for free, for fun, so I like the concept of self-publishing. I would love to be able to write a book exactly like I wanted to write it and put it out there and be able to find enough readers to make the effort seem worthwhile. But I don't know if that's going to happen.

Having said that, I don't mean I am dissatisfied with Poisoned Pen Press in any way, but they only publish mysteries. Any mysteries I write would go straight to PPP. What I am talking about publishing myself would be non-mysteries.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

The hype feels exactly the same to me.

A year ago all the talk was about how the deluge of crap was going to be so immense that it would be impossible for good books to be found.

Then people argued that the market will take care of itself, how did books get found before e-books? (Well, reviews, end caps, front tables, booksellers choice racks, top of the search engine results on Amazon or B&N or Borders.com, publishers putting the books at the front of their catalogs and pushing the crap out of them to bookstores...)

And yeah, that's true, but we do realize that if you go to Smashwords right this second it says:

2,032,745,261 words published.

Now, being generous and saying a "book" is 100,000 words, that amounts to 20,327 books published on Smashwords alone - and Smashwords was founded in 2008. So give that a thought - approximately 7000 e-books published EACH YEAR on Smashwords alone. Or as it's described on the site: "Over 19,000 authors from around the world have published more than 45,000 books at Smashwords."

The fact is, if that's the marketplace, it's impossible for the marketplace to sort itself out, there's simply too much product.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I was noodling away, sort of free-associating and found I was attempting to cram almost a thousand words into your comment section. So, let me compress that down to say that when it comes to e-books we might have to modify Sturgeon's Law (instead of 90% is crud perhaps it needs to be 99%?) but it should still be possible to find the non-crud winners. I think the Internet will be involved in introducing authors to readers.

For example, I currently have four books on pre-order from Amazon. One is George R.R. Martins next novel in his Song of Fire & Ice series. I've known his name for years and had read a couple of his works but was not a steady reader. I came across Game of Thrones (1st in Fire & Ice) in the library, checked it out and began to read it and got totally hooked. After reading it, I ordered it from Amazon so I could read it again and so my daughter could read it. I've bought each one since then as soon as came out.

Two are Diana Rowland's next two novels (one is the next in her Demon series and the other is what appears to be the start of a zombie series). I had found her via Holidailies a few Christmases ago (a website posting links to bloggers who promise to attempt to write daily postings for one month running from early December to early January. I saw the opening lines of one of her entries where she mentioned being an ex-cop and have just sold a novel (about a woman cop who can raise deamons). Naturally I had to pre-order that and have done the same for each book she has published since then.

I came across Eric Mayer's blog a few years ago -- I think I followed a link from a comment he had left on another blog that we both followed. He had a link to your website. Since then I've bought all of his and Mary's Byzantine novels as well as five of yours (counting the kindle one I am currently reading and the Derek Stillwater that ships in June). I've found other authors because of some online posting or review or commentary

I'd predict that there will be a bunch of blogs that will discuss and review and talk about books, some books in general and some devoted to particular genres and sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres) and they will point a lot of readers towards a lot of e-books. (Who knows... perhaps people will subscribe to them the way they used to subscribe to magazines?) And I am sure that Facebook and other social media will be involved.

I am sure that right now there are people writing apps to bring book reviews and book discussions and such to mobile devices. (In fact, I'd be tempted to try something myself except the bulk of my professional programming was mostly done in COBOL and I've not really done any serious coding in this millennium.)

12:13 PM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I think we have to take Mark Coker's words with a big heaping of salt. He's talking specifically through Smashwords, and although there are some authors who just publish through Smashwords--and have Smashwords take a cut and distribute to B&N and Amazon--most authors do B&N and Amazon themselves.

When you do all three yourself... Smashwords MIGHT be 5% of overall sales? (Just going on Pseudie's publisher-published royalties.) Since only not-so savvy authors would allow Smashwords to take a cut when they don't have to, 50 sounds like a reasonable number.

The other successful self-published authors are doing the big stores themselves, and thus they're naturally making less than $50,000 through Smashwords.

I'm not saying that self-publishers are all going to make tons of money... just that Mark Coker's 50 isn't really indicative of anything.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Natasha,
No, although I think that most e-book publishers would, if they were likely to provide data, would verify that their sales figures also look like a power curve, i.e., a small percentage sell a lot and most don't, which is very different from a bell-shaped curve.

My thinking on the whole e-book thing really is that nobody knows what's going to happen, that a lot of crap is getting published (yes, I know many people argue that NY publishers et al. have been publishing crap themselves for years, but at least it was crap with a certain baseline of quality). I just get a little tired of everybody being so certain how this is going to shake out and if you do A, B and C will happen, and if you do D, E and F will happen. I think the results are far more ambiguous.

Which isn't to say that we may very well see a return to what things were like 200 years ago when successful books were basically self-published ones (or persuaded by the authors to be printed by "publishes" or "printers") that found an audience.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

The whole thing is kind of frightening to me. It makes me worry that I waited too long to try. I've wanted to be a writer my entire life, and now I'm afraid that I'll never even be noticed in the flood of other words available. I tend to agree with Konrath that traditional publishers are going to be even harder to break into now (since they will be forced to be even stingier with advances and will want to focus on established best sellers), and there is so much junk in ebooks that how does good stuff get noticed? I mean, how does a new person (never published before) get anyone to take them seriously and even try their work out if it is buried amid the crap. And it seems to me that as soon as I log on to any ebook provider that I will see the normal NYC bestsellers or a ton of horror, paranormal, and porn (pretending to be romances). So what do you do if you don't write horror, paranormal, or romance that is really porn...or paranormal horror overflowing with erotica?? I feel like a gram of salt in the ocean.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well Lisa, I can honestly say that traditional publishing sort of felt the same way, so although I often wish the whole e-book publishing thing hadn't come along, it's here to stay in some form. If you have a manuscript you think is ready, I suggest you try to find an agent or go with a small press. If that doesn't fly, go ahead and e-publish. What can it hurt? And keep writing.

1:13 PM  
Blogger author Scott Nicholson said...

Yes, it's a bubble. It's not a "get rich quick" scheme for most but it can be "make a living slow" scheme if you work hard. It's not easy no matter which way you go.

Scott

2:11 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Scott,
I hope you're right. I already make a living as a freelance writer, but it would be nice if the ebooks pulled more weight

3:13 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Kiel said...

I'm in the "I couldn't really say what it'll look like in 10 years" camp. I'm keeping my ears open, my head down and writing the best I can. What else is there to do? It will distract me from my work to get too worked up. We just have to do what feels right in our guts and ride it out.

8:07 PM  
Blogger jack said...

I do not think there will be any issue finding the content. Yes there is a ton of books being released. Yes the market is being flooded with books as we speak. But we have everything we need right in front of us right now, to locate what we want to read.

There will be those who load a bunch of cheap shit together, and put nothing into it but hope that they will succeed. There will also be those who put time, love, and effort into a novel and it turns out great. We will always be able to find those.

How will we find good books?

First: keyword searches.

Second: Read reviews.

That leads into: review what you buy so that if you were the first unlucky dolt to buy it, you can save someone else the trouble of spending 3 bucks for a book.

If there is any doubt about that working, consider this. I found this blog for the first time today. How did I do that? Google key word search.

I like your blog, you seem to be a intelligent person and I like your writing style. So now I am going to look for your books! I found this blog in spite of the millions of websites and blogs added each day. The cream will always rise to the top. Now I will follow this blog as well, :-)

Jack

11:53 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Rebecca,
I'm really only confident in saying that in 10 years I expect publishing to look very different than it does right now.

I THINK Borders won't survive and that B&N will, but probably with a much smaller footprint and a much larger online/e-book presence.

My guess is that traditional publishing will survive, but probably one of the larger publishing houses will fold, although that's more of a wildass rumor at this stage of the game.

My further guess is that as e-book penetrates the market closer to 50% and beyond, you'll see format changes in paper and prices will creep up as a result.

But the only thing I really know is it will look different than it does now.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Jack,
Welcome. Glad you stopped by. You're probably right. I never have problems finding things to read, whether it's through blogs, social media or word of mouth. Certainly social media will play a larger and larger role.

5:41 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Lisa, I gently disagree with the derogatory "porn" statement. But then, I would, being that I write it, among other things. Graphic sex scenes does not "porn" make.


But I doubt I'll change your opinion of it. That's okay. But know that "porn masquerading as romance" genre (again, known as erotica in the industry) has long led the charge in ePublishing. They know a thing or two about marketing and selling eBooks. The "powers that be" would probably do well to question established erotica writers and publishers.

9:07 PM  

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