Should you self-publish your book?

Self-publishing doesn’t seem like such a bad idea lately. Everyone is babbling about what it means and debating whether it’s a good thing, but one thing is for sure: more authors are having better success with self-publishing now than perhaps ever before, and the stigma is going away. Four Smashwords authors made this Sunday’s NYT Bestseller list, hundreds of indie authors are selling 50,000 plus ebook copies, and B&N is making an effort to put print copies of self-published books in their stores.

There are three keys to this success, the first of which is price points. Your average reader, when given a choice between an appealing romance novel that’s $12.99 and an equally appealing romance novel that’s $0.99, is going to buy the cheaper book (or maybe 10 similar cheap books and still spend less than they would if they had bought that one for $12.99). As long you make sure that your book is a contestant, you can win the sale with a low price-point.

That brings me to the next key in self-publishing, which is marketing. If you create a book, get it up on Amazon, and sit back to wait for the sales to roll in, you’ll probably be disappointed. You have to make sure that your target readers know that your book is out there. Get people to write reviews, see what tags are on similar books and tag your book the same way. Go to events and offer to send your book for free to people, so they’ll start talking about it. I’m not a marketing expert, but you see what I’m saying. Once you build a buzz around your book, it will show up on recommended lists.

Self-published authors could do all of this before though, so why now? The big retailers, namely Amazon, are starting to promote self-published authors who follow these rules. Amazon is constantly recommending books in my preferred genres that are self-published, right along with the traditional books. They also have a list of Top 100 Free books on the bottom right of the Books homepage. This list used to be a mix between indie-authors running promotions and public domain books, until last week when Amazon assigned new ASIN numbers to all the public domain books last week, pushing them to the bottom of the list. (Hint, Hint, if you were thinking about running a free promotion, now’s the magic window before the public domain books start gaining momentum again.)

So, should you self-publish your book? Consider that you need to find a vendor for each step in the process: editing, typesetting, file conversion, distribution, and sales tracking. You also to market the hell out of it. AND start thinking about the next book. But if it’s the only avenue available to publish, it could be worth it, even if you’re thinking of traditional publishing down to road. Successful self-publishers occasionally draw the attention of traditional publishers, much like E.L. James drew in Random House with the web-success of Fifty Shades of Grey.

On the other hand, traditional publishers handle the business aspects of the book and leave you to the writing. They also do things that are still very difficult for indie-authors to do, like create beautiful covers and paper stock for print products, sell translated copies overseas, and cover the author’s expenses with an advance until the book starts earning royalties. For more insight, check out indie-author Joann Penn’s post on why she decided to  go the traditional route for her next book: Why I Signed With A New York Literary Agent.

I’m not going to suggest that one way of publishing is better or worse. Self-publishing seems to work well for people who want to publish something for a local community, people who are very entrepreneurial, and people who have been repeatedly dismissed by traditional publishing. Traditional publishing is changing and adapting to the digital age; it may gain some insight from the self-publishing phenomenon, but it’s still an ideal option for writers who want to focus on their writing.

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Unlocking e-books: Tor is leading the way to DRM-free reading

I remember walking to work one morning with my husband a couple years ago, when he commented that the biggest problem with digital publishing was the file format. At the time, academic publishers were launching fantastic online platforms for research journals and articles, e-readers were starting to appear on Christmas wish lists, and it was clear that the e-book faze wasn’t going to blow over. But some e-books were PDFs, and then a separate file type was custom-created for the Kindle, and another one for the iPad and the Nook.

As if things weren’t complicated enough at that point, each e-reader uses its own DRM (Digital Rights Management) scheme to protect the author’s copyright by preventing someone from uploading the file to a website for free distribution to anyone. Of course, it also prevents book lending, and file-type conversion to transfer books between devices. So if that .mobi file format loses favor over time, those books on readers’ virtual shelves just disappear.

Photo from: http://readersbillofrights.info, shared through Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license

Macmillan’s Tor/Forge imprint took a step toward solving this stubborn puzzle on July 20, when as promised, they made all of the e-books DRM-free, no matter where readers buy them.

“It’s clear to us that this is what our customers want,” said senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden in a press release. “We see it in the success of SF publishers like Baen and Angry Robot that have preceded us in going DRM-free. To the best of our knowledge we’re the first division of a Big Six publishing conglomerate to go down this road, but we doubt very much that we’ll be the last.”

As Hayden alluded, many small-press and independent publishers, and even some larger houses, have sold e-books without DRM, but Tor is the first imprint of the Big Six publishers (Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) to do so. Although many publishers use DRM beacause they fear a loss of sales and an increase in piracy, this will not necessarily be the result. Tor gave away 1.2 million DRM-free books in 2008 as a preliminary test. Since then, sales on those titles have continued to sell just as well.

As for piracy, if someone really wanted to put a PDF of a book on the internet, they could do it whether it was protected or not. Just google “How to remove ebook DRM” and you’ll see what I mean. Publishers are responsible for chasing down these pirates with or without DRM.  DRM is most frustrating for the consumer who just wants to sit down a read a book, without consulting an instruction manual.

Publishers and e-reader developers have done all sorts of things to mimic the physical book reading experience — offering non-backlit screens, showing page numbers, adding page-flipping images — but this is perhaps the most important. We have always shared our books. We read aloud to one another, we swap copies with friends who have similar interests, we buy and sell used books. We also keep books for years, only to reread them after they’ve been sitting on a shelf for decades. It may be that e-books will never attain the scent of a dusty, decades-old book, a cracked spine, or dog-eared corners, but especially since e-books don’t wear with age, it would be nice to be able to know that I can pick up one of my e-books ten years down the road.

But isn’t DRM-free just the first part of the solution? Even if publishers and e-readers follow Tor’s example, we’ve still got to wade through different file formats to move our books around to our preferred devices. It’s true that it will be a lot easier to do that without DRM, but only for those of us who are tech-savvy enough to figure out how. Creating a standard file format, however, will not be the publishers’ decision. I doubt they love spending the time and money to create three or more e-book files and ISBN numbers. This challenge goes to Apple, Amazon, B&N and the rest of the e-reader creators. Reflecting back on my husband’s comment from a couple years ago, it seems that although we’re on the right track, we’ve still got a long way to go.

How to buy small-town e-books

The last bookstore in my town closed in March 2010. No more browsing bookshelves for hidden gems or stopping in for a quick pick off the front table of New Fiction. More than half of the books I read now are e-books, because it’s fast and it’s easy. But like most readers, I love bookstores. We grew up around bookstores, so they are nostalgic landmarks. But they are also venues for local authors to read and sell their self-published works. They give high school students a perfect date destination full of conversation topics and overlapping interests. They also provide fulfilling jobs for all those English majors out there who don’t want to teach. A bookstore is an integral part of any community.

Even though I can’t wander around a bookstore down the street, I can buy e-books from the local bookstore in my hometown of Louisville, Ky., Carmichael’s Bookstore. Amazon may have cornered the Kindle e-book market, but anyone with a computer, a smart phone or an iPad can read e-books from independent bookstores across the nation through Google and IndieBound.org.

IndieBound connects readers like us to indie bookstores. You don’t actually buy the book on IndieBound, but the site will help you find a bookstore near you or connect you to indie bookstores that sell something you’re looking for. Then you buy the e-book directly from the little corner book shop. For example, I go to Carmichael’s website and search for True Believers* within their “Google eBook” tab. When I check out, it asks me to log into Google (if you have a Gmail account, that’s your username and password) and then I buy the ePub. The book shows up on my IndieBound app on my iPhone or iPad. It’s also available when I log into Google and go to Google Books, where I can download it and read it on my computer screen.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to hang out in Carmichael’s and chat with the bookseller about their new books or upcoming events. But I do give them some business so that someone in town can keep hanging out there and authors have a place to read their memoirs.

 

*Check out my process in picking this book: https://lamplightandink.wordpress.com/2012/07/14/finding-and-finishing-thought-provoking-books/