Make Money with E-Books: Writing & Publishing in the Digital Age

Cynthia Good is a leader in Canada’s publishing industry, having worked her way from editorial director to president to publisher at Penguin Books Canada–then moving on to Humber College where she was named director emeritus and was awarded the Humber Award for Excellence in Teaching.

This fall she gave a guest lecture at the University of Regina, which I was able to attend. Since one of her comments was that “75% of book sales are made during the Christmas season,” it seems like a good time to take a look at writing and publishing in the digital age with her.

The Marketplace

Without fail, anyone involved in the book industry, from publisher to editor to author, will tell you that publishing has changed dramatically since Amazon hit the scene with its online bookstore, deep discounts and e-book reader, the Kindle. What few will tell you–but Good did–is that previously most publishers didn’t do any market research before building their lists. Rather, they just published what they liked.

Yes, there were a few exceptions. We all know the success of Harlequin romances, but many might not know that Harlequin was a Canadian company that launched in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1949. By 2006, Harlequin was selling over 130 million books annually in 26 languages in 109 international markets. They really knew their market and provided writers with explicit formulas for plotting–readers devoured them.

But then along came e-books and self-publishing and romances written without a formula, particularly a formula that gave specific page numbers for where to insert that first romantic kiss or night together. In 2012, the erotic Fifty Shades trilogy, which had started as an online serial by E. L. James, had more total sales than Harlequin’s North American retail division.

Readers wanted something different and publishers were nervously scrambling to figure out what that might be.

E-Book Data Informs Publishers

Traditionally, publishers relied on book reviews and sales to establish a book’s popularity, although even the reviewing world was pretty much the domain of publishers. If a book didn’t get noticed in a literary journal or newspapers, it disappeared without notice until Amazon introduced a format where readers could rank books with stars and provide short reviews.

The change had begun.

Now, the book industry is almost overwhelmed with the real data that’s available. Online bookstores and bookclubs can collect data down to the minutest detail, from how many book pages a reader consumes to how fast they read. This article from Book Business details just how publishers are jumping into the market research business with both feet: article/the-book-industry-s-quest-data-intelligence/

That’s not to say that traditional publishing isn’t still unhappy with e-books and the main online retailer, Pricing has always been the big issue between Amazon and traditional publishers: Amazon has tried to keep e-book prices under $9.99 and traditional publishers prefer to keep them roughly the same as paperbacks, indicating there’s a lot more expense involved in publishing a book than just the paper.

Indeed, Good said that Amazon’s pricing policies “devalue artistic creation,” adding that a “free economy is damaging to art and culture.” Not everyone would agree of course. Nowadays more authors are making a living writing than ever before, but the majority of them are doing it on their own, not with traditional publishers. How many? Well, that’s a good question.

The October 2015 Author Earnings Report indicates that 165,000 top selling e-books on Amazon rake in 70% of the total e-book $$$ sales–and Amazon itself has about 73% of the U.S. e-book market. Of all those books, about 43% are from indie authors and another 2% are from uncategorized single author publishers. Read the full report at:

Selling E-Books and Print Books

Selling books isn’t easy, whether they’re e-books or print books. Some insist that without a strong social media presence authors won’t have good sales, but Good said of social media, “Discoverability isn’t conversion.”

What she’s saying is that social networks provide authors with the ideal way to establish themselves with a readership, however, as she noted, that doesn’t necessarily mean that books sell via a Twitter link. Instead, she suggested authors need to use social media to build trust in themselves and their books. In fact, she said “Nowadays we’re looking for writers to have a platform.” A platform it seems, or a brand, is indeed the #1 requirement these days for writers whether they’re going the indie route or hoping to get picked up by traditional publishing.

The traditional publishing model of roughly 6 steps (submission through to marketing) from writer to reader is changing. In fact, Good noted that today’s writers can get directly to readers by self-publishing. And that doesn’t mean just e-books. With programs like kick-starter, authors can leap the hurdle of raising money for self-publishing projects by taking their ideas directly to readers. One writer, Ryan North, raised nearly $600,000 with the program!

E-Book Publishing Tips

One of the most interesting pieces of research Good shared was that “When people are reading a book, they really only want to be reading a book.” While e-book apps are fine for children’s interactive books (according to Good the children’s e-book market is around 10% of the total e-book market in Canada and that’s in decline), the basic reflowable e-book is what readers reach for when they pick up their reading device, whether it’s a smartphone (my favorite!), a dedicated e-reader device, or a tablet.

While e-book apps may not be taking off, Good commented on the many different ways that self-publishing now brings new expressions for storytelling. Books no longer remain in print, digital or paper, but have lives as movies, audio books, websites, serials, and other forms. The digital world, it seems, has added many dimensions that we need to think about as authors when we’re selling to publishers or self-publishing ourselves.

Another interesting tidbit Good shared was that traditional publishers are “looking for a manuscript to be more polished than it used to be.” In fact, agents and publishing houses are suggesting authors hire professional editors before beginning the process of finding places for their books if they want to break into traditional publishing. How much does that cost? Well, I know authors who’ve paid as high as $5000 for this type of service. The good thing is if the book doesn’t get picked up in the traditional publishing world, it’s ready for indie publishing.

The Future Library Project

While the formats for sharing stories may be changing, the love affair with them is still going strong. I’d never heard of the Future Library Project until I listened to Good’s talk. It’s a 100-year artwork project for the city of Oslo, Norway, that’s going to grow a forest of books, adding a new author each year. And the first author was Canadian icon, Margaret Atwood. How cool is that?

I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of it and the digital publishing age!



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