Digital technology has broken down many barriers for new authors trying to break into the book publishing business. Ebooks and online publishing tools offer relatively easy and inexpensive ways to self-publish, and the internet provides a virtual platform from which to potentially grab the attention of a worldwide audience, including those seemingly elusive book editors and literary agents.
But digital technology hasn't only benefited authors. In turn, the internet has significantly increased publishers' exposure to a much wider pool of writing talent, and ebooks have allowed publishers to take more risks with new authors by lowering the cost of producing books.
"As ebook publishers, we're able to publish at a much lower cost and, therefore, risk," says Martyn Forrester, managing director, London-based Apostrophe Books Ltd. "Publishing ebooks allows us to publish what we love without having the commercial restraints of a print publisher. For the last couple of years now, the big mainstream publishers have been caught in a perfect storm of high overheads and dwindling sales. They are having to concentrate their resources on their surefire franchises, so it's mainly independent publishers and ebook publishers who are able to champion new writing."
Apostrophe Books, which launched in February with the goal of delivering the first ebook winner of a major literary prize, focuses on publishing new writers and giving new life to previously published books. With that in mind, Apostrophe launched the Fiction Fast-Track talent search, a bimonthly writing competition that crowned its first winner, Robert Ford and his debut novel The King of Spain, in July. To enter the competition, writers submit novels or short-story collections to Apostrophe. If the publisher deems the book to have literary and commercial potential, it posts the first chapter to the Apostrophe website, where visitors can read and rate it. At the end of each round of the competition, the author of the book with the highest star rating is awarded a contract with Apostrophe, which sells the book through more than 130 digital retailers worldwide, including Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.
"The contest came about-in fact, Apostrophe Books itself came about-because of the number of good manuscripts we saw that were getting nowhere," says Forrester. "In the past, they wouldn't have found a home. We wanted to provide a new opportunity for these manuscripts, to help great writing reach readers."
Once Apostrophe discovers a new work of fiction through Fiction Fast-Track submissions, the public voting portion of the competition offers a way to test-market the potential success of the book. "Any contest open to public vote can be skewed by a contestant's friends and supporters, but by and large, you can tell how well a book is going to do," notes Forrester. "Robert Ford's The King of Spain attracted a lot of votes and positive comments, and sure enough, it went straight in at Number 1 on the iTunes New & Noteworthy feature."
The competition also offers winners and Apostrophe one of the greatest keys to book publishing success: publicity. "The winning ebook and author get a lot of publicity they wouldn't have otherwise," says Forrester, who notes that the competition has received coverage in outlets ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle and The Times of India to Yahoo! News. "There's nothing like a competition winner to make a good news story."
Although the contest is proving to be an effective way to discover new talent, it's not the only way that Apostrophe acquires authors. "Finding exciting, new work is becoming easier by the day," says Forrester. "We have a book coming out later this year whose author has been on The New York Times best-seller list many times; their Madison Avenue agent specifically wanted a boutique ebook publisher for this new novel, and we're thrilled he chose us. ... Of course, we always keep our eyes peeled for interesting writing online, and we're building relationships with writing communities and courses."
By delving into online writing communities, Apostrophe Books has hit on another digital technology-enabled trend in book acquisition. Several publishers are devoting time and resources to participating in online writing communities-and even launching such communities themselves.
In April 2011, Penguin Group (USA), Inc. launched Book Country, an online community that supports writers of genre fiction, including romance, fantasy, and science fiction.
"I think smart publishers are always looking for fresh ways to bubble up new writers," says Colleen Lindsay, community manager, Book Country. "We actively read the Community Favorites-those books rated most highly by the community-and the Buzz Books, those books generating a lot of conversation on the site. These are great ways for us to see which titles on our site our members are really excited about."
Book Country celebrated its first signed author in February when site member Kerry Schafer garnered a two-book deal with Berkley Books, a publishing group within Penguin. Schafer's urban fantasy novel Between had caught the attention of a Penguin editor on the Book Country site.
Editors from publishing companies other than Penguin are using Book Country as well. "We definitely have a number of editors from other publishing houses reading Book Country projects, as well as literary agents who are looking to scout new talent," says Lindsay. "A second Book Country member, Michael Underwood, was discovered by an editor at Pocket Books, who acquired his novel Geekomancy for their new digital-first imprint, Pocket Star." Underwood's book went on sale under the Pocket Star imprint in July.
Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, re-launched its Pocket Star mass-market line in May as an ebook-only imprint. "Similar to how mass market has served as a platform to develop future hardcover authors, it is our mission to use Pocket Star's new digital-only format to establish new voices in the marketplace," said Louise Burke, executive vice president and publisher, at the time of the imprint's launch. "An ebook imprint is flexible, cost-effective, cutting-edge and makes sense in today's marketplace."
While digital technology has created new opportunities for both publishers and new authors, perhaps the biggest beneficiary is the reader, who now has more books-and more formats-from which to choose.