Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Look at E-Publishing

I received a comment last week with a list of questions about e-publishing, and while I do represent a number of authors with an e-pub background I’m afraid I don’t know a great deal about e-publishers. Usually my clients handle their own e-books while I worry about NYC.

But in an effort to answer all the questions you have I turned to an acquaintance of mine, Margaret Riley, Publisher of Changeling Press. I asked Margaret to help me out and explain a little about how e-publishing works—from editorial to money to what authors can do to protect themselves when looking for reputable e-publishers.

Take a look at what Margaret had to say, and feel free to pop in to ask questions. I’m sure Margaret or many of my e-published readers will be glad to answer if they can.


Let’s talk about the business of publishing. We'll do a compare and contrast, like English 101. We'll call it “Follow the Money.”

Let’s assume, for our model, that our aspiring author has written a completed novel, joined all the appropriate organizations, been to all the appropriate classes and lectures, and has a pretty good book in hand. Now. What to do with said book.

If our author has been brought up in the traditions of publishing, as I was, she will have submitted said book not to publishers, but to agents. Several. First in succession, then, as years go by and her frustration grows, simultaneously. Let us also establish that our author has now found an agent who not only believes in her book, but has sold said book to a traditional publishing company. For comparative purposes, we will waive the three years this process took, during which time our author made no money. Because that doesn’t count. Right? It’s part of the process of proving oneself. Like the smaller races that lead up to the Preakness. Oh, wait. Those races all have substantial purses. Okay. Bad analogy. Never mind.

Traditional publishing is a tiered class structure, aspiring authors at the bottom, NY Times Best Sellers at the top. For every thousand aspiring writers, one might become established, and for every thousand established authors, one might become a best seller.

Advances are paid after the book is contracted, half before edits, half about the time the book is ready to release–a process that takes a minimum of nine months these days. Newly published authors get a small advance. Established writers get a slightly larger advance. Best sellers get a considerably larger advance. Eventually, if the book sells enough copies to repay the advance, the author may receive a residual. This check arrives approximately two years after the book was contracted. All of these checks are less a 15% commission to the aforementioned agent, without whom said manuscript would sit in a slush pile for years.

Now. What if our author failed in New York? Let’s just trot that book over to an E-Pub, right?

No. On the whole, E-Publishers don’t want books written for New York. They want things New York would never consider. Why? Because people who want to buy New York books will buy them from the same places you’d submit them to. E-Publishing isn’t about publishing more of the same. It’s about alternative books for an alternative market.

Okay. So we start over. Our author spends some time asking questions, learning who publishes what, who pays on time and who doesn’t, etc. (Incidentally, on the paying-on-time thing, that’s a viable question to ask of print publishers as well.) Having chalked up her previous experience to education, she writes another book. A novella this time. She’s targeted a house, read their new releases, and knows what she wants. Takes her two months. After reading the submission guidelines one last time, she closes her eyes as she clicks the mouse. SEND. It’s done. Her newest creation is out of her hands. Two glasses of wine and she’s off to bed.

Imagine her surprise when in the next day’s email she receives a note telling her the submission has been received, and she can expect to hear back in approximately four weeks. Weeks? Sure enough, four weeks later, there’s a contract offer in her inbox. (Because after all, even though only 5% or so of E-Books submissions ever get published, we’re interested in following the story of one that does.)

Sixty to one hundred twenty days later, after several rounds of the toughest edits she’s ever imagined, her book releases. Thirty days later she receives her first check. By now she’s got contracts for three more books in the series, and the next one releases two months later. And two months after that.

None of these books sells thousands of copies. Her first book sells only four hundred copies over the first six months, and she’s made about $500 on it. But with books coming out every other month, the checks are adding up. Three books, at $500 each . . . and the first book is still selling. And she has three more contracted, and her publisher tells her the numbers are good. They’re happy with her, and looking for more books.

Are these figures hypothetical? Yes. Your mileage may vary. Numbers and percentages and production times differ from house to house. A good bit depends on what you write and who you write it for. Neither market’s going to repay you for those three lost years. It makes no sense to write something you don’t enjoy just because you think it will sell. But if your heart’s set on genres and themes whose potentials lend themselves better to niche markets than mass market, where there’s a niche, there’s a house to fill it.

Long term, a single NY contract with a $3,000 to $5,000 advance may well pay more per book than a single E-book contract. No one in E-Publishing will argue with that. But few NY houses offer authors the opportunity to publish quarterly, bi-monthly, or even monthly, with monthly paychecks, no reserves, no returns, and royalties that keep paying months and even years after the book first releases.

What’s the downside? E-Publishers are small businesses, and as such, owners usually have everything “at risk,” as financial analysts say. Personal and professional tragedies and market turns can catch any small business in their wake.

So how do you protect yourself? Most E-Published authors write for more than one house. And I highly recommend authors join EPIC, the Electronically Published Internet Connection Authors from the electronic community are usually ready and willing to share information, ideas, warnings, and potential new market news.