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E-Publishing...why bother?

Tracy Cooper-Posey

(first published in 2000)

By now you must have heard at least one argument about the pros and cons of e-publishing.

Here's the good and the bad from a writer's perspective.  It'll help you decide to make the scary leap to e-publishing, or confirm your decision (not) to get involved in the infant industry. 

I'm published in print and electronically, and I'm the owner of an e-published authors' email discussion list.  I've heard it all, and have a unique point of view as a result. 

This discussion deals solely with selling your work to established e-publishers such as Hard Shell Word Factory, not self-publishing. 


Let's get the bad news out of the way first.

No Money

You don't get an advance -- although this will change to a nominal advance soon in response to demands from the Romance Writers of America.  With or without the advance, you aren't going to make a lot of money right now.  My first royalty statement was enough to buy my husband lunch...at a sandwich bar.

No Promotion

Most e-publishers just don't have the budget to promote individual books.  They will do some low-cost promotion for the company as a whole, but anything else is up to you.

Prejudice: The ghetto I -- Other Writers

This is probably the hardest type of prejudice to take (and I get a double whammy because I write romance -- which resides in a ghetto of its own, already).  E-publishing threatens the livelihood of established print authors, and touches on the security of those just breaking in.  Many unpublished writers willingly believe anything bad about the industry as it justifies their decision not to try e-publishing because they'd rather have the pay cheque and the glamour of print publication, but don't want to admit it aloud.

As a result, as an e-author you are shunned, ignored, and treated as po' white trash by other authors.  The Romance Writers of America, for instance, have rescinded their recognition of e-published authors as "published", and raise the criteria for recognition every time an e-publisher meets the previous standards.

Prejudice: The ghetto II -- Reviewers

Most print-based reviewers flat-out refuse to review electronic books.  Even many of the on-line sites, such as All About Romance, refuse.  Genre specific print publications such as Romantic Times will not review your electronic book unless you buy advertising -- at least a half page worth.

Prejudice: The ghetto III -- Readers

There's two reasons readers shun electronic books.  One: they can't curl up with a good computer in bed.  Electronic readers are eating away this objection, but until they reach a price accessible to everyone, the objection still stands.  Two:  They don't think electronic stories are as good as print ones.  Unfortunately, sometimes they're right.

No prestige

Tell people you're an author and they can buy your glossy paperback at Barnes & Noble, and they'll be impressed.  Tell them you're an electronic author and they can buy your e-book at Barnes & Noble online, the most common response is "What's an electronic book?".  Many people, including writers who should know better, assume all electronic publishing is vanity publishing, or worse: that you've dumped your novel onto your own web page.

Shoddy product

There are some e-publishers who don't edit the books they offer, and will take on just about any manuscript that comes along.  And their product frankly sucks.  Of course, Murphy's law dictates that detractors will find only these shonky operators and use their terrible books as an example of what the e-publishing industry puts out -- including your reputable, professional e-publisher.

Bookstores won't touch you

Unless you're married to the owner, or spend months campaigning the manager, no bookstore is going to stock the disk versions of your e-book.  And marriage and courtship will only cover the bookstores in your area.  You're out of luck for the rest of the world.

Print/television/radio won't promote you

Unless they're doing an "isn't it quaint?" type piece, you will not receive any coverage from newspapers, radio or television.  Don't expect serious treatment of your book equal to the treatment a print book will receive.  You may be invited to discuss the e-book industry in general, but that's it. 

Too many e-publishers

Setting up an e-publishing company requires very little capital, if you're starting small.  As you don't have to pay authors advances, and you don't have to commit to promotion dollars, your outlays are so low that anyone can do it.  And everyone is.  There's dozens and dozens out there, flooding an still uneasy market with hundreds of titles.  This is Romantic Times' stated reason for insisting on paid advertising in exchange for reviews -- there's just too many e-books out there, and they can't keep up.

No standardized format and no security

Both these issues will be corrected within the next six months.  The speed at which these issues were addressed and solved underlines how critical they are.  Right now, there's nothing stopping any reader from sending electronic copies of your book to every person they know.  You get nothing from those copies. 

E-editors take as long as print editors to respond.

Surprised?  Don't be.  Just because you can send your manuscript in with the touch of a button doesn't mean editors can read the manuscript any faster.  Editors and readers are the human element of the equation.  They get just as many manuscripts sent to them as print publishers, and sometimes more, because it costs nothing and is so easy to submit by email that everyone is dumping all their books into e-publishers' laps.

And finally....

The good news

Legitimate publication credit.

No matter what professional bodies such as the Romance Writers of America say, an e-book sale is a legitimate novel sale.  You are not paying for publication, you are being paid for your electronic rights to the book, in the form of royalties.  You sign a contract as you do for print publication.  You are not publishing it yourself.  Ergo, a genuine novel credit.

High royalties

E-publisher royalties run anywhere from 15% to 70% of the cover price.  The cover price isn't as much as a print book, which helps sell a few more, and you make up the difference quickly.

Global Distribution

That's something no print publisher can boast about.  It gives you unique niche markets that print publisher just can't reach, too. 

Quarterly royalty statements and cheques

My print publisher pays me once a year.  I get cheques every three months from my e-publisher.  It's no contest.

Greater freedom in story-telling

This is a primary reason most competent authors turn to e-publishing.  If you don't write baby, bride and cowboy romance, or cyber-punk science fiction, or hard-boiled mysteries, trying to break into the big print publishers is a waste of postage.  But you will find an open, intelligent, receptive audience with e-publishers.

Submit by email

No postage, no lines at the post office, no printing out, no paper, no hassle, instant delivery.  What else can I say?

You'll be in very good company

There's dross out there, yes, but there is also pure brilliance.  E-publishers are giving readers access to stories that are well told, winning awards, and covering their authors with virtual glory.  MJ Rose's e-book, Lip Service, has been picked up by print publishers, and got her on Oprah.  Pauline Jones' book I Love Luci, when I donít want to kill her is right now being turned into a feature film.  My first e-book won a national award. 

Longer Shelf Life.

Especially for category fiction, you aren't on the shelf only until the next batch emerges.  Your book is available for a year with most e-publishers, and many have option clauses in their contracts which allow you to extend the contract for as long as you both are happy with the arrangement. 

Shorter production lead time

Current print production times average two years, dropping to around 18 months for categories.  E-publishers hover around six to eight months. 

No mid-list slump

There's no mid-list to slump.

Fully available back list

Actually, there's no back list, either.  Your book is either available, or not.

Costs are rising

As Cindy Penn reported recently (http://www.wordweaving.com/editorialjan_00.html), ISBN costs have rocketed into the stratosphere, and they're not the only e-publishing related costs to do so.  Merchant credit card accounts (which allow you to take credit card payments) can cost over a thousand dollars to set up -- there's extra surcharges and holding fees for internet companies, too.  All this means the overnight set-up-and-fold e-publishers will be discouraged, leaving the more successful companies less competition, and reducing the number of e-books out there.  This is a good thing for a saturated market.

You're your own publicist

You have full control of your own promotion and publicity.  Given that you have a personal interest in seeing your book succeed, it's guaranteed you're going to put in more time, care and attention to your publicity campaign. 

Online publicity is free...and global

You can pay for banners if you want, but the most effective methods are totally free.

You can influence the sales of your book

Any promotional activity you undertake will effect your sales.  You have a major role in making your book a success.  And you have a year to do it, not a month.

It's easier to get on the best seller list.

Because e-book sales are small (for now), you can work your way onto the best seller list.  It looks marvelous on your resume!

You own subsidiary rights

Most e-publishers ask for electronic rights only (unlike print publishers, who will grab what they can).  You can go ahead and sell your book over and over again for the print, foreign print, audio, large print, book club, film rights, and all the other obscure rights ever discovered.  You get 100% of the royalties from those sales.

Full and proper editing & production

Your book is prepared just like any other book, with full editing and copy editing.  You often get to have a say in the design of the book cover, the back cover blurb, and any promotional materials.

Online support

Mine is not the only e-authors' email discussion list around.  There is lots of on-line support by fellow authors, sites devoted to promotion and e-publishing, and even the e-publishers themselves will point you towards promotion resources.  There are industry bodies forming, including EPIC, the Electronically Published Internet Connection (http://www.eclectics.com/epic/index.html), which is styling itself as the e-authors guild.

And coming up....

Many people consider Microsoft a lumbering, monopolizing monster gone mad, but there's no disputing that when Microsoft gets in on the act, they're taking things seriously.  And Microsoft are getting in on e-publishing.  They have orchestrated the development of an industry-wide e-book standard (so any book can be read on any device).  Their Clear Font will give you a liquid crystal display as sharp and clear as print on paper.  And they've just announced they're teaming up with Barnes & Noble and publishers to bring electronic books in popular usage. 

In conclusion

 The state of the e-publishing industry at this point in time is not encouraging, if you don't look to the future.  Selling your book to an e-publisher is still an act of faith with a mediocre return.  You can't make a living with it just yet, but it isn't going to stay that way for long.  My money is very literally on the future. 

(c) Tracy Cooper-Posey, 2000
First appeared on Word Weaving.


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