Do-It-Yourselfers Venture Into the Publishing Wilderness


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The Time Hunters cover.The rise of ebooks is bringing with it a new class of author. Fitting firmly into the internet's do-it-yourself ethos, ebook self-publishers are agile, entrepreneurial, and independent. Although still a small segment of the market, this growing body of writers is making its presence known.

Ebook self-publishers are a varied group. Some are established authors, taking the reins of the publishing process for the first time. Others are self-made writers fighting their way to the top without ever having been signed by a publisher. Still others hope to use self-publishing as a springboard to mainstream distribution.

Blake Crouch is an author of thrillers and a recent entrant to the world of ebook self-publishing. His first novel was released in 2004 by St. Martin's Press, and his relationship with the publisher continued on through the publication of his next three books, culminating with Snowbound in June 2010. Around that same time, Crouch decided to test the ebook publishing waters by digitally releasing several of his earlier works, which he had regained the rights to.

Crouch was so pleased with the response to his ebooks that he decided to pull his latest novel, Run, out of submission with publishers and distribute it himself. He describes the move as an unequivocal success -- so much of one, in fact, that Crouch was able to quit his full-time job and support himself entirely through writing, something he was never able to do when working through a publisher.

According to Crouch, his self-published work is vastly outselling his previous output. "I sold more ebooks last month, in a single month, than I sold probably all of my hard covers to date," he says.

Although his former publisher did release his novels electronically, ebooks were never a major factor in overall sales-something he attributes to the high prices the publisher was charging. "Only recently - right before I got my last two books back from St. Martin's, Desert Places and Locked Doors - had my ebook sales started to take a real uptick in sales," says Crouch. "And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they lowered them down to $6.99."

When Crouch released the books himself, he priced the ebooks at $2.99, had new covers made, and had them formatted and released across every ebook platform he could find, including Amazon.com, Kobo, the Apple book store, and, most recently, OverDrive. "Now each of those books is selling upward of a thousand copies a month," he says.

The transition to self-employment was also an easier one now that Crouch is self-publishing. "The way that publishers treat writers is sort of funny, because it's not really a system that supports self-employment," says Crouch. "You get paid twice a year, for the most part you have no idea how your books are selling until you get a royalty statement - which is like trying to decode some lost, ancient scroll. With Amazon and all of these other platforms, I get paid every month. I have a constant, real-time update of what my sales are."

Crouch is far from the only writer to turn to self-publishing. Children's writer Carl Ashmore decided to self-publish his first book, The Time Hunters, after he was unable to find an agent or publisher for it. "I submitted my Time Hunters sample to over forty agents and although lucky enough to get five requests for [full manuscripts], was still rejected at every turn," says Ashmore. "Subsequently, I had a choice: give up and whimper into my pillow or embrace the philosophy that you make your own luck and self publish."

Ashmore released The Time Hunters on Amazon and Smashwords, making it available on a range of platforms. In the 8 months since the book's release, it has sold more than 4,000 copies.

Although Ashmore enjoys the flexibility and control he has over his work as a result of self-publishing, he says that the traditional publishing model still appeals to him in some respects. "As a self-published writer, I will never have the contacts, the expertise, the money or, quite frankly, the time to thoroughly promote my own work," says Ashmore. "Neither will I ever have the sheer clout a major publishing house has for distributing my work on a mass scale."

"At this stage of my writing career, I am delighted with both the sales and more importantly the reception that The Time Hunters has received. On that level, I am perfectly happy with my current route. However, I do believe The Time Hunters has huge international appeal for children of all ages, and would like to see it realize its full potential, whether as a self-published author or as one attached to a major publishing house," says Ashmore.

While some authors are shifting from a model of traditional publishing to independent self-publishing, some authors have also transitioned in the opposite direction. In March, self-published author Amanda Hocking - who had already sold more than a million copies of her nine supernatural romance novels, becoming something of a self-publishing celebrity - signed a $2 million deal with St. Martin's Press to distribute her novels.

Kirk Biglione, new-media consultant and co-founder of the blog Medialoper, says that the example of Hocking shouldn't necessarily be taken as evidence of a broader phenomenon. "To point to Amanda Hocking and say, ‘Any author can do this' is just not accurate," says Biglione. "She had timing, she had the right niche - where she's doing vampire stories and Stephenie Meyer doesn't have new books out - and there's some question of how she will do in a traditional publishing environment."

Biglione notes that Hocking has typically sold her books for between 99 cents and $2.99, adjusting the price as needed to generate buzz for the title or to maximize royalties. "These are the kinds of savvy pricing experiments the publishers aren't doing. It's funny that it's emerging from authors," he says.

The real danger for publishers, according to Biglione, is that established authors might strike out on their own. "You combine a well-known author and package with an emphasis on selling digital - there's huge potential there," he says. "And publishers will say, ‘Well, if you're self-publishing digital, you don't have all the stuff publishers bring to the table.' But certainly a well-known author who has experience publishing with a major house knows what kind of editorial assistance they need." The same is true when it comes to promotion and marketing, he adds.

In an interview with The New York Times, Hocking said that part of the reason she signed with St. Martin's Press was because she only wanted to write, not manage the other aspects of the publishing process. Biglione thinks the same is likely true for many writers, and he thinks that the future of publishing may lie with smaller, agile publishing houses that can handle the publishing process for authors focused mostly on writing while avoiding the baggage of a larger, traditional publishing house and keeping digital a major focus.

Biglione specifically points to New York-based Open Road Media as an example of what the future of publishers might look like. "They're very aggressive about getting back-list - which is going to be huge in digital - signing new authors, doing interesting things," he says. "I can see players like Open Road becoming the major publishers of the future, while the ones we see today maybe either morph or just fade away."