Is Digital the Future of Publishing?

Did you know that the average amount of money earned by authors who self-publish ebooks is $10,000 and that half of all ebook self-publishers earn a mere $500?

The E.L. Jameses are few and far between, according to the panel I attended on digital publishing at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 30.

This was the 11th year for the WeHo Book Fair, which offers an eclectic bag of panels on fiction, memoir, food, mystery, sci-fi, LGBT, poetry, and screenwriting, as well as talks by authors writing for toddler, tween and teen audiences. This year’s event, for example, featured Susanna Moore, Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy, Marianne Williamson, Saturday Night Live’s Rachel Dratch, and Deepak Chopra.

The panel on digital publishing was moderated by the Los Angeles Times’ Carolyn Kellogg and featured authors Samantha Dunn and Anna David, and Dan Smetanka, editor-at-large for Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press.

Both authors have ventured into ebook territory – and the publisher, as well – still, the reviews were fairly muted on the advantages for writers and the publishing industry. While the benefits of digital in terms of price, portability and instant access seem clear for readers, ebooks are causing upheavals to longstanding practices in the publishing industry.

The Digital Publishing panel at the 2012 West Hollywood Book Fair (l – r) Carolyn Kellogg, Samantha Dunn, Anna David, and Dan Smetanka.

Dunn was approached by an ebook publisher about digitizing her back catalogue. While this makes older work available for new readers to discover in ways they couldn’t in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, the panel members noted that unless an author is prepared to publicize back catalogue, no one else will.

Kellogg, who writes about books and publishing for the Times, was clear that critics won’t review older titles. (Even newly released ebooks have a hard time finding their way into traditional, print-based book reviews. Kellogg observes that in 2011 there were some 211,000 self-published ebook titles and an equal number of print books. It would be impossible for reviewers to cover all of these.)

Smetanka said the same was true for marketing.

“All marketing is tied to [new release] print books,” said Smetanka. “The only marketing for ebooks is a price discount, which gets the consumer used to discount prices. You’re training the consumer to put a low price on fine art.”

At the same time, the ebook, with its steep price discounts, is negatively influencing sales of trade paperbacks. In the old publishing model, new titles were released and promoted in hardcover, then, when demand dropped off, they were released as paperbacks. The lower-priced paperback format typically encouraged another surge in sales.

In the new model, inexpensively priced ebooks compete with the hardcover release, making the paperback, which is still typically priced higher than the ebook, uncompetitive. “The market just isn’t sustaining all three formats,” said Smetanka.

It’s clear that with the advent of both digital publishing and digital tools for self-promotion, the burden is frequently the author’s to do everything from finding the right publisher to marketing and maintaining interest in a book.

David has ventured into Amazon’s Kindle Singles, a new publishing format for shorter-form works of about 5,000 – 40,000 words, ideal for essays, extended magazine articles, short stories and novellas. You’ll see on David’s website that her Kindle Single release Animal Attraction is free. So, while many of these digital publishing platforms promise a greater percentage of sales or royalties to the author than traditional publishing contracts, it’s a little hard to imagine how $00.00 gets divvied up between publisher and writer.

Both David and Dunn have websites. Dunn has used things like book parties to generate word of mouth to sell books. In addition to trying Kindle Singles, David has a blog, contributes to a podcast and has built a Twitter following.

Still, every one of these marketing tools has its drawbacks (especially in terms of time for upkeep) as well as its plusses.

“Ashton Kutcher has almost 12.7 million Twitter followers,” said David. “They may watch his TV show, but his last movie bombed. I have 50,000 Twitter followers, but they’re not all willing to buy my book.”

In other words, digital followers and fans may be quite happy consuming your work for free, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a willingness to pay for it.

The upshot is that there are no tried-and-true answers. From choice of publishing format to types of marketing, what worked for E.L. James may not work for a memoir, a literary novel or an investigative journalism piece.

Everyone on the panel agreed on one thing, though: Quality matters. Before you focus on publishing and marketing, writers in the audience were encouraged, make your writing the best it can be.

Samantha Dunn’s books include: Failing Paris, Not by Accident (Reconstructing a Careless Life), and Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation.

Anna David’s books include: Party Girl, Bought, Reality Matters, and Falling for Me.