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.


Imp said...

Fantastic post. Thank you from an e-author whose first choice is, and probably always will be, E. :)

Aimlesswriter said...

I've looked into this before (for a novella of mine) but never did anything about it. One of my favorite things about a book is the pages. A book in hand, cracking open spine and feeling those pages fan out. I think I'd miss that with epub.
However there is that novella about the woman reincarnated as a chihuahua...hmmmm..........

Dara Edmondson said...

Good post - thanks. As we've seen in recent months, e-publishers may be a little riskier than print, though. You might have written a fantastic book, but due to poor management, the company can fold, leaving many authors out in the cold with their rights hanging in the balance. I'm sure this can happen to a print publisher as well, but anyone who buys the right software can become an e-publisher and make promises they have no idea they can't fulfill. Joining EPIC is an excellent idea. My advice - if you plan to submit a book to an e-publisher, speak to several of their authors first, see how they are treated. It's a good window into the company's philosophy. The writing was on the wall long before one of the largest e-publishers fell. Luckily, I paid attention when several other authors took their rights back and I did the same - months before the company folded.

Anonymous said...

All of this is assuming, of course:

1) the mythic low advance, long wait model presented of "NY publishing" is in fact, true. (Hint: not always. I make a living wage with my NY-pubbed books and always have.) 3-5k? Rock bottom, my friend. Not to mention the advance schedule is contract-negotiable.

2) An author can actually write a book every two months, especially given those "toughest edits ever," which made me giggle. Be honest, now. I get pretty tough edits at my publishing house, and they take me a month and oftentimes more. And that's just one round! There's also line edits, copyedits, proofs, galleys... It takes me a LOT longer to actually write the book. I know a former epubbed author who is now with my house. She admits she had no idea what edits were until she sold to NY.

However, I do appreciate the honesty about how the good epubs aren't going to take NY castoffs, only what NY isn't doing. And how if you are going to make the kind of money mentioned here, you're going to have to write something wildly different.

Margaret Riley said...

assuming, of course…
… 3-5k? Rock bottom, my friend.
For your second or third book with a larger house, yes, I’d expect far more. But we’re talking about first sales here, and industry averages. Actually, many lines pay far less -- from $500 to $2000 for smaller “recognized” houses.
… an author can actually write a book every two months, especially given those "toughest edits ever," which made me giggle.
You’re still defining a “book” as 100K. We don’t publish 100K. Few E-Pubs do. Remember that Niche Market thing? Our readers read their books on Laptops, PDA’s, even Cell Phones. First time submissions are limited to 8 to 25K. So yes, we have quite a few monthly release authors. And if the edits are that bad three books in, the odds of an editor accepting another from this author are lower than the cost of the postage on a rejection letter. (Zero. We do that by e-mail as well.)
… if you are going to make the kind of money mentioned here, you're going to have to write something wildly different.
Thanks! That is, in fact, what brings most authors to E-Pub. There are two mindsets to writing -- writing to a market, and writing what you want and hoping there’s a market. This is not to say that E-Pub authors are less mentally disciplined -- that book a month is a lot of work! Still, some authors will never be able to color inside the lines.

Kate Douglas said...

The chance to write "outside the box" is the only reason I now have such a successful career with NY. My first "Wolf Tales" released through Changeling Press as an epublished serial, with a new story every four to six weeks. I will always be grateful to Margaret Riley for providing a platform with her publishing house that allowed me to write stories so outlandish that no New York publisher would even dream of publishing them. Until, that is, Jessica got me the first of my contracts at Kensington...I recommend epublishing to any writer who can't write inside the box that NY editors say they want. One thing Margaret didn't mention is the supportive community many epubs--especially Changeling Press--offer their authors. In a business that can be competitive and cutthroat, the powerful community of epubbed authors willing to help one another is pretty amazing.

Cynnara Tregarth said...

I'm one of those people who chose epublishing as the way to start my writing career. Just like Margaret Riley said, it's that regular paycheck and the chance to write outside what sells to NY that allows me the chance to write what I love while also waiting for the time when my other stuff might just intrigue NY. I'm outside the box, and personally, I really like it.

Marilyn Lee said...

I write for a number of epubs, including Changeling Press and Ellora's Cave. I absolutely love the freedom I'm allowed when writing for Changeling Press in particular. You'd have to go a long way to find an editor or publisher more supportive and encouraging than M (as I called Margaret).

She allows me to create and explore new worlds and populate them with people with unique attributes like those in my Daughters of Takira series.

I occasionally decide that I should try to land an agent or a New York contract. And I do. If that happens, fine. If it doesn't, I'm content as long as I can continue to write the stories I want to write, which M has always allowed me to do.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Hmm. I have to say that my print experience doesn't follow the example given. I sold without submitting (sold through a contest final) and had the book in print about 10 months after the sale. Yes, my advance was in the couple thousand range, but the book sold through and was getting royalties by the first royalty statement. That book has sold foreign rights to two countries so far. But I write Regency-set historicals. I think mine are different than many, but they aren't THAT different. They fit NY publishing well.

But I don't think e v NY print should be a competition--that one is better than the other. They are different, with different strengths and different pitfalls. Where the best fit is for an author--or one of the author's books--might depend on what his/her needs and goals are. (BTW, I don't think money can really be a goal--I would have stayed in law school if money was my motivating force! Jessica says I shouldn't say I don't care about the money--I do, of course, but anyone who REALLY cares about money should find a different profession, LOL.) I like having print books--but I also like that my most recent release was also available in e-book, because that way I found a reader in Iceland. And as I said, I don't have a NEED to go outside of NY--my books fit what's being published at the moment.

I do think that authors need to be careful where they submit their work. Since agents handle much of the NY submissions, you need to be careful in selecting an agent. But I've heard sad stories in NY publishing about books left to languish either because the editor left of the company changed direction, of small print runs or poor distribution. Still, with NY publishers you have a bit more of a track record. You're pretty sure they aren't going to fold up tents and vanish overnight.

I would think it also behooves writers to be careful when looking for an e-publisher. Some are very new. Some, IMHO, don't produce a very good product--at least that's my opinion after having looked at a few of those products. And some might be the perfect home for you work.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the odds are of a new writer popping their novel into an envelope and getting that golden phone call, but I'm sure they are slim. Good for those who achieve that kind of success.

Among many things epublishing gave me was a chance to learn on the job. (Not that NY writers don't do that as well.) I subbed to a small epublisher, the now defunct Triskelion. Moved on to several other e-houses. Were my books NY-worthy? Hardly. But I learned so much about my writing, bad habits, etc. It was an alternative classroom for me. Wonderful, patient editors.

Since then, epublishing has changed dramatically. I believe it's at the brink of gaining some mainstream legitimacy. The brink, not there yet. A few companies have broken out of the pack and are attracting a lot of very talented writers. I love the flexibility, the diversity, the sense of community, and absolutely--the quick turnaround. I was in nonfiction publishing for years, and quite often, by the time my writers saw their books on the shelves, the market had changed and their books bombed.

Anonymous said...

aimless writer, a lot of epublishers offer print copies of their books, as well. I know my publisher does. Some epublishers have a lag time of 6-9 months between the e- and paperback release, and others, like my epublisher, have a lag time of only a month until their books are available as paperbacks (the downside is you can only buy them online from places like Amazon. Those epublishers that publish novellas as ebooks will sometimes wait until an author has enough novellas to fill a paperback volume and then make it available, too.

Thanks for a great post on epublishing!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to thank all of you for your comments. As a new author considering E-Publishing this has been very helpful...and has given me a good reason to start on that novella that my imagination has been playing with.


Michele Writes said...

M -- your post rocked!

I signed my first e-book contract in 1998. Like Kate Douglas, e-publishing eventually led to New York for me. THE ACCOUNTANT AND THE VIRGIN, an e-novella originally published by Liquid Silver Books, got my first deal with New American Library. CUPID, INC. came out in February 2006. I've been writing for NAL ever since. :-)

If you're going to submit to e-publishers, research the markets as carefully as you do NY houses. You need to be savvy about the industry, no matter where you're looking to submit. If you've never read an e-book, then get thee to an e-bookstore! is a good place to start. *wink*

I am very grateful to be a working writer making a living wage. There is so much I enjoy about New York publishing and about electronic publishing. I still write for e-publishers. Not only is it fun, but nothing beats those monthly checks!

It's like my friend Pauline Baird Jones once said: Rising water floats all boats. There's room enough for everyone. Decide what you want and go for it.

Kate Douglas said...

Hey Michele! Good to see you! Yep, Michele and I go back way to far, and what's scary is she's still really young and I'm a grandmother. Go figure! Michele is another example, though, of an author who started out in epublishing and landed a NY contract. The thing is, NY used to laugh at epubs until they realized there were some very talented authors coming from them. Now it almost appears we're in demand. It worked for me, for Michele, for other authors like Cheyenne McRay and Jaci Burton...we're all doing well in NY after honing our skills and learnign the business in NY.

john said...

Great post, digital revaluation in print media is worked well. Online readership is increased dramatically from the past three years. All the publishers are presenting their publications through online and some publishers are using the companies like in distribution of publication over the new technology mediums. Digitization becomes the revenue generation tool for all print publishers.

Maryannwrites said...

Lots of great information here. Thanks so much Margaret, and everyone who left comments. The world of e-publishing has come a long way since it's meager beginnings.

Dana Fredsti said...

This was an excellent post and as an author now working with a new e-publishing company, very helpful. I'm an avid reader as well and will always love paperback and hardbound books (can't read and walk with a Kindle the way I can with a book), but I've already made more money with the e-publisher than any of the traditional presses I've published with.