The past year has been exhilarating for writers, readers, and independent publishers. On a tidal wave of new e-reader technology and the increasing popularity of Kindles and iPads, the publishing industry—once a staid, tradition-bound sector—is now experiencing the kind of upheaval we’re used to hearing about in music, film, and quantum physics.
Here are some of the year’s biggest stories in independent publishing.
INDIE AUTHORS HIT IT BIG: AMANDA HOCKING MAKES MILLIONS BY SELF-PUBLISHING ON KINDLE
In the sort of quiet, word-of-mouth way that most writers dream about, Amanda Hocking defied the odds and became a millionaire by circumventing New York publishing. After trying for years to land a traditional deal, Hocking took her stories online by publishing directly through the Amazon and Barnes & Noble e-bookstores (Kindle and Nook). In an interview, Hocking says she felt she had “nothing to lose … and I thought it would be better than them sitting on my computer.”
She hit the zeitgeist of surging e-book sales and a downturned economy that makes the 99-cent book tempting to readers … but Hocking is something else that helped her success. She’s prolific. She didn’t rely on a single book to launch her career; she just kept writing, and while that first book sold a few dozen copies, and the next book brought her sales up to the hundreds, by cranking out over 10 books in a year Hocking was able to pull down those serious sales numbers. By the end of 2011 she’d sold over one million e-books.
Her advice to other indie authors: spend time and money on the book cover, the editing, and the writing rather than over-marketing on Twitter, Facebook, or self-promotion blogs.
What is she up to now? Citing a wish to spend more of her time writing as opposed to publishing, Hocking signed a multi-million dollar book deal with St. Martin’s Press for a paranormal romance series.
TRADITIONALLY-PUBLISHED AUTHORS DECLARE THEIR INDEPENDENCE: J.A. KONRATH AND BARRY EISLER
Ask a veteran author how they like their publisher, and you might get a wince, a grimace, or a tight-lipped shrug. Few published authors are lucky enough to have had a totally positive experience with the New York publishing industry. From misguided agents to cruel or absent editors to the callous slashing of midlist authors and backlist titles, the longer a writer is in the publishing world, the more chance of encountering at least one of these major (and sometimes career-freezing) hurdles.
Some already-published writers—especially midlisters—have become so fed up that they’ve cast off the middlemen and become their own publisher. Some of the best-known are thriller authors J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler, both of whom were traditionally published first.
J.A. Konrath in particular has become the voice of the indie author through a dedicated campaign of publishing his many backlist titles, promoting his books through social media, and blogging on all things self-publishing. Like Amanda Hocking, Konrath is a member of the exclusive one-million-sales club in the Kindle store. Also like Hocking, Konrath is prolific, with dozens of books in print.
Barry Eisler, best-selling author of the “Rain” series of thriller novels, made huge headlines in 2011 when he walked away from a $500,000 multi-book deal from St. Martin’s Press and announced he was going to self-publish instead. In a conversation with J.A. Konrath, Eisler writes, “I know it’ll seem crazy to a lot of people, but based on what’s happening in the industry … I think I can do better in the long term on my own.”
You can’t help but admire the confidence to turn down a deal like that.
AMAZON INTRODUCES KINDLE SELECT.
Free giveaways are the author’s best friend. Many people won’t take a risk on an author they’ve never heard of, even if the risk is only $3.99 for an e-book. This led many self-published authors to put their work for free on the Amazon store … so many, in fact, that the free Kindle store began to resemble a “free stuff” yard sale, and Amazon removed the $0 price option for Kindle Direct Publishing authors. Instead, free promotions were limited to publishing houses.
To make up for this, and also handily edge out the competition, along came Kindle Select. The program requires the e-book to be available exclusively on Amazon (print books are separate). In return, self-pub authors regain the free promotion opportunity for 5 days out of every 90-day enrollment period. In addition, Kindle Select books become available for free borrowing for Amazon Prime members, while the author is paid a small royalty per-borrow. A little like Netflix instant streaming for books.
KIRKUS BEGINS OFFERING AN INDIE BOOK REVIEW SERVICE.
One of the drawbacks of self-publishing has always been a lack of validation and assurance of quality. But now one of publishing’s most respected review services, Kirkus, has stepped up to offer indie authors the kind of critical attention that used to be unattainable.
For a fee (at present $425) the independent author can get a coveted review from Kirkus Discoveries, although the service gives no guarantees about a positive review.
There are other paid and free review services out there, but Kirkus Discoveries has the industry clout and objectivity that make it a very tempting avenue for authors wanting to bring more attention to their well-written, self-published book. One example of the successful use of Kirkus Discoveries is Darcie Chan, author of best-selling e-book The Mill River Recluse.
LIGHTNING SOURCE AND CREATESPACE WAGE A TURF WAR.
Nearly one million titles were independently published as print-on-demand (POD) books last year. This represents a huge and growing part of the market, and Amazon (love ’em or loathe ’em) is muscling in on the self-publishing game not only with Kindle for e-books, but with CreateSpace for print-on-demand. With low setup costs (about $60 per title) and total distribution through the Amazon store, CreateSpace offers an easy do-it-yourself approach to publishing.
At the same time, authors have an alternative in Lightning Source, the POD division of major-player book distributor Ingram. While CreateSpace guarantees plenty of Amazon exposure, Lightning Source makes that print book available in both the Amazon store and in every Ingram channel—bookstores, libraries, and the like. With similar low title setup costs and the same high quality output as CreateSpace, Lightning Source remains a viable competitor to Amazon.
In other words, “there ain’t enough room in this town for the both of us.”
Of course, there is enough room, since Lightning caters more to trade and micro publishers and CreateSpace to the quick do-it-yourselfer, but that hasn’t stopped Amazon from reporting “stocking issues” with Lightning Source-produced print-on-demand titles, especially those that are selling in higher volume. Meanwhile, most bookstores (both independents and box stores like Barnes & Noble) flat out refuse to carry Amazon-exclusive titles.
As the self-publishing market continues to heat up and as these two giants continue to battle it out, self-publishers might be caught in the cross-fire and be forced to sacrifice quality or availability … or the competition could force both companies into better practices to serve the needs of their sought-after clientele.
HARRY POTTER GOES ONLINE.
In what can only be described as prescience (was she using Professor Trelawney’s crystal ball?) J.K. Rowling retained the e-book rights to the entire Harry Potter series, starting with the first book published back in 1997. Now, Rowling has started Pottermore, which will offer the entire series for exclusive download for all major e-book readers. And the publishers, Scholastic in the US and Bloomsbury in the UK? Well, J.K. is offering them a cut of the royalties. But the key thing is that she didn’t have to. It’s a total power reversal in favor of the author.
What does this mean for indie authors? For one thing, it’ll make big publishers wary of diverging e-book rights from print distribution. (Think of the incredible royalties they’re missing out on!) Many indie authors might be interested in a traditional print deal, but also wish to retain their e-rights. For them, Pottermore could make it more difficult. To the big publishers, it’s a cautionary tale on what can happen when an author is allowed to keep too much. If anything, the Potter e-books will cause traditional publishers to double down on their all-or-nothing model, and in response many authors will say, “No thanks!”
Hats off to Ms. Rowling, though. There was certainly a part of this indie author that thought, “Good for you!”