Rise of the Machines: E-Readers turn the publishing world upside-down

By Eric Balaz

The publication of a book is every writer’s dream, but the traditional path of getting a book published requires time, effort, and capital. It starts with finding an agent – no small feat as most agents get hundreds of solicitations a month. If an agent is found, they then begin to shop the manuscript around for a publisher who is willing to take a risk on publishing your novel. Once the publisher agrees to the deal they gain control of the book, which may mean major changes to your original manuscript. Of course, this agent isn’t working for free, and will typically take a 15% cut of whatever cut of the sales you make (typically around 15%.)

This method of publishing hasn’t changed in a long time, but the only other method was self-publishing. Going this route used to be quite risky, but the digital age has changed all this. With the rise of the E-readers, most specifically Amazon’s Kindle, self-publishing is easier, safer, cheaper, and more popular than ever. According to a study done by Bowker.com, “non-traditional” publications have seen an “explosive growth,” jumping an astonishing 161% or from 1,033,065 in 2009 to 2,776,260 in 2010. This meteoric rise in self-publishing figures shows a clear trend that many authors are heading towards “non-traditional” publishing methods.

This jump in self-publishing on the e-reader is in no small part due to the shocking success of Amanda Hocking, who made over a million dollars selling her novels on Amazon’s Kindle marketplace. While this author’s huge success isn’t the norm of self-published novels on e-readers, it shows what is possible in this emerging method.

Hocking’s success can be attributed to the subject matter in which she writes. Her novels are teen melodramas staring a girl and her love of a vampire. Likenesses to Twilight aside, Hocking shows great business savvy by cashing in on the cultural trend of vampires and other important tactics, such as competitive pricing and high turnover rate. Hocking prices most of her novels between .99 cents and 2.99, which she says is because “I can make a living doing it, so I see no reason to charge more.” But there is more to it than just that. While most novels on Amazon.com’s marketplace are priced higher than eight dollars, Hocking’s novels seem less risky than a $10 novel you aren’t sure you are going to like. Hocking also understands that people always want more, and so she releases a new novel, or novel in the series, every four months or so. This ensures that there is always a steady market for her novels.

Another reason for this rise in self-publishing on Amazon’s Kindle is the ease of putting something up, as well as the financial incentive to do so. It truly is easy to publish something on the Kindle; all someone needs is Microsoft word and internet access. All that it takes to upload a novel, or other piece of work, is to have it saved as a .doc file, or as the preferred .prc file, which can be done through the free conversion tool Mobipocket Creator.

After that, the process is shockingly simple. Some formatting, a title page, and a cover image are all that’s needed to get on the market. The other reason people have started to move towards self-publishing is the higher royalties that are awarded. Though the author does not get an advance, they will take a higher cut on each sale since they don’t have to pay a percentage to an agent. The going rate for royalties is 35% of the price, per e-book sold. Amazon is also offering a 70% portion of sales revenue, if certain criteria are met.

What implications does this have for the industry at large? For starters, this could make traditional publishing houses more accepting of manuscripts, allowing for a larger selection of novels and viewpoints. On the other hand, traditional publishers acted as gatekeepers. Traditional publishing assures a certain, minimum level of quality and polish. Self-publication could flood the market with sub-par literature, eventually causing disenchanted readers to go back to traditional publishers.

Flooding a market with sub-par work could even collapse the E-reader market. Authors should take heed of the lessons offered by the early 80s calamity in the video game market. Atari exerted virtually no control over what developers published for its systems, and the low barriers for entry created truckloads of terrible games. The stench of these horrible titles nearly took down the gaming world. The modern gaming industry owes much to Nintendo and its quality assurance controls that revived trust in the market.

Of course, that cautionary tale seems to hardly apply to e-books, which this year outsold their paper-and-glue cousins for the first time. Only time will tell, but there’s no doubt the ability for authors who have tried countless times to get published, Amazon’s Kindle may be that light at the end of the tunnel.

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