Last month, I talked about some pros and cons of the e-book revolution from the perspective of a reader. This issue, I thought I'd chat about some of the opportunities -- and pitfalls -- it represents to the writer.
Let me make one thing clear: It really is a revolution. The advent of relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use e-readers has finally changed the world of e-books. Now, if you've been reading writing newsletters for the past decade, you're probably thinking you've heard that before -- and you have. More than a decade ago, we were informed (or warned, depending on your point of view) that e-books were the wave of the future. When I first launched Writing-World.com, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of hopeful "e-publishers." Some produced quality books; others churned out vast quantities of dreck. Most of the latter are no longer in business.
But while writers were told that e-publishing was the way of the future, readers weren't jumping on board. Most readers still felt that one couldn't exactly snuggle up on the sofa with a cup of tea and one's computer (or even one's laptop). With so many of us earning a living, one way or another, via computers, the thought of pursuing one's recreational reading on the same screen held little appeal.
Another problem was the vast quantity of dreck that poured out of ill-conceived publishing houses. It quickly became so difficult to sort through the offerings that many readers simply gave up on trying to find "good" e-books. (I remember one that I really wished I could print out just so I could throw it across the room -- it had been billed as a novel of some 300 pages, and it turned out that each "page" consisted of one paragraph!)
Now, however, we have the Kindle and its counterparts -- and suddenly, average, everyday readers are interested in e-books. E-books are finally "taking off." For example, there are months when my book, Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet sells more electronic copies than print copies. Electronic sales of "Writing to Win" have grown steadily over the past three months. E-books are, at last, a market no writer can afford to ignore.
This doesn't mean that e-books are necessarily "replacing" print books (as so many people keep predicting). Rather, what I'm seeing is that the market for e-books is growing alongside that for print titles. In short, it's different strokes for different folks. Some readers will always prefer print. Others have reasons to prefer e-books. It's nice, for instance, to be able to carry a library of several dozen books (or even several hundred) in your purse or briefcase. It's nice to be able to get so many public-domain books absolutely free. You can also get e-books instantly, no waiting (which I suspect contributes to the popularity of the e-version of my pet loss book). The electronic version is often less expensive than the print version (though unfortunately the gap seems to be shrinking). Many people also like the ability to adjust font sizes, making a book more accessible if one has vision problems.
As writers, we shouldn't be looking at the e-book market as a replacement for the print market, but rather, as augmenting the print market. It's not that we're going to lose our print customers, but rather, that we may gain customers that we wouldn't have otherwise acquired. Adding e-book formats to our titles -- new or old -- can be an amazing way to increase sales and readership.
If you self-publish or use a print-on-demand publisher, my recommendation is that you take steps to get your book into the electronic marketplace. Most POD firms are branching out into the electronic market; however, most will charge for the service of converting your book into the appropriate format. If you have control of your own book, look into converting it yourself (it's not that difficult, and I hope to have a how-to guide on that topic available in a couple of months). Or, find a service that will do a quality job for you at a reasonable price.
Keep in mind that there are scores of places that will simply run your file through an automated program. Consequently, there are hundreds of badly formatted e-books on the market. (E-book formatting is based on HTML, bringing back all the old problems of smart quotes, m-dashes, foreign-language diacritical marks, etc.; a phrase in French comes out looking quite strange indeed.) If you're going to pay to have the job done, make sure that the agency handling your book actually proofs their work!
If your book is commercially published, find out whether your publisher has plans to launch an electronic edition. In many cases, this could be a way to revitalize a book that is no longer selling strongly in print. There's no reason to limit conversions to new books; consider bringing out your backlist! If your publisher isn't interested in handling the conversion, see if you can get the rights to do it yourself, or at least set up the process. (And be sure to check your contract to see what sort of electronic rights clause it contains, as many such contracts were written long before Kindle hit the market!)
But -- and here's the downside -- don't expect e-books to be the answer to the unpublished author's dreams. I've read too many articles proclaiming that writers can "finally" achieve success by publishing for free, maintaining control of their own books, and reaching a huge audience. It isn't true, it has never been true, and it never will be true.
In this regard, nothing has changed. Success depends upon (a) having a good book in the first place and (b) having the willingness and ability to market that book effectively. If you have both those elements, there is, indeed, a good chance that you'll gain more readers and make a profit in the e-book market. If you don't, you won't. The sad fact is, readers are not combing through Amazon's Kindle store, searching for unsung books by unknown authors. There is far too much for them to choose from. And with e-books going for $9.99 apiece (or more), readers are still going to opt for the latest volume from their favorite bestselling author, rather than taking a chance on someone they've never heard of.
In short, the e-book revolution may be changing how people read, but it isn't changing what they read. As writers, we may need to make some changes in how we get our books to the marketplace -- but the requirements for what we bring to that marketplace remain the same: Good books. Period.
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