Today, an average of 41.8 million people use the internet on a daily basis creating a new world of publishing. Digital publishing has undeniably, democratised the industry, creating opportunity for new, previously rejected, authors. However, is it truly a utopia for authors? Or has it, in fact, made the industry more challenging than ever?
Digital publishing has opened up the ability for authors to self-publish. Technological advances have ‘levelled the playing field to an unprecedented degree’ for authors. Self-publishing has allowed authors to take total control over their work, something that was simply not possible with traditional publishing.
Editing platforms such as CreateSpace and Ingram Spark have enabled authors complete authority, allowing them to freely edit without restriction. For example, CreateSpace has effectively eliminated the need for publishing houses as ‘CreateSpace authors and publishers will earn industry-leading royalties on each sale while continuing to own the rights and have creative control over their work.’ Authors can now have control over what happens to their work, how it is published, and where.
These self-publishing platforms, coupled with print-on-demand technology, allow authors to upload their work and then publish it straight to online storefronts like Amazon. It has enabled ‘indie authors–as well as the smallest boutique publishers and micropresses–[to] sell their books through the same online retail storefronts that today account for roughly 50% of total US print sales.’ Works from Faber&Faber are sold alongside self-published works giving authors an equal opportunity and access to a larger audience. This technology has opened the door to independent authors who traditionally would not have been able to afford upfront printing costs.
At what cost?
However, although this technology has allowed more authors the opportunity to have their work seen, it is difficult for self-published authors to make a significant amount of money. Amazon offer 70% royalties to their authors, which appears a good rate but getting your eBook to sell in large quantities is very difficult. EBooks are sold for a fraction of the cost of print books and so need a higher turnover to break even. A survey of 1,007 authors found that ‘less than 10% of self-publishing authors earning about 75% of the reported revenue and half of writers earning less than $500.’
The few authors that do make a reasonable outcome tend to have large outgoings, many of the books that have succeeded in the market have been edited and designed by professionals. Book cover designs can cost anywhere between £100-£1000 and copy editors usual charge around £26.50 per hour. Even the platforms designed for self-publishing can be costly with ‘Lulu [charging] about $500, Createspace about $700.’ Self-publishing is usually marketed as free but many authors end up paying out to ensure their work is of good quality, so either way self-publishing can be costly for many authors.
Although it can be costlier, digital publishing has allowed opportunity for content that may have previously been refused. Self-publishing has allowed experimental genres, such as Fan Fiction, to be explored and it is these genres that are proving the most popular ‘56 of Amazon’s overall Top 100 Best Selling ebooks… were self-published indie titles.’ According to AuthorEarning ‘self-published indie Science Fiction books, indie Thrillers, indie Suspense novels, indie Urban Fiction, and even Cozy Mysteries by indies’ are amongst the top selling eBooks, showing the ever growing market and scope for new authors to be successful in.
Amanda Hocking is a great example of seizing this new market, at the beginning of 2010 she was an unknown, paranormal fiction writer with seventeen unpublished novels. Yet, by the end of 2010 she would have four recognisable novels and have sold 1.5m books, making $2.5m. Uploading her novels onto Amazon and Smashwords has made her a household name and even secured her a press deal with St Martin’s for over $2.1 million. This is a clear indication that self-publishing has allowed authors the freedom to publish work that publishers would not accept and authors are making millions from this previously restricted content.
New Kids on the Block
Alongside new content the digital world has also created a new type of author. Commissioning editors are starting to steer away from traditional authors and are now offering book deals to young, social media stars thanks to their extreme popularity and a celebrity-like status.
Surely this is good for authors? Young stars are being given writing opportunities they may never have been offered, creating new content, and a new type of author. Books by Youtubers have flooded the market, 5 out of the 10 books in BookScan’s Autobiography: The Arts category are by YouTubers and GoodReads even has a top 100 Books by Youtubers section.
However, this is creating a new problem for authors hoping to become noticed. Financial pressure from the market is causing publishers to pick content guaranteed to sell and ‘if the publishers’ budgets are being sunk into luring already-prominent names, there will inevitably be a horde of brilliant unknowns, tapping away at their keyboards, forever unheard.’
Youtubers are being picked by commissioning editors thanks to their huge online presence which transcends across social media and the internet giving the most popular, like Zoella, an avid following of about 5.8 million. Controversies such as Zoe Sugg’s ghost writer scandal, demonstrates the pressure publishers are feeling. As Sugg’s ghost-writer points out ‘whether you like it or not, this is the financial reality of today’s publishing industry.’
Publishers are picking content based on popularity, and it is selling well, which leaves authors with a market that’s even more difficult to be noticed in.
The good news for these “horde of brilliant unknowns” is that there is no reason why new authors cannot create their own audience just as Youtubers have. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are all free marketing tools that can generate great interest and hype for authors and their work. Hashtagging and interacting with fans builds a following behind these authors and creates an often small but loyal market for their novels.
Mark Dawson is a prime example of using marketing to its full potential as he admitted ‘in order to be successful at this, you need to take off your artist hat and put on your marketing hat.’ Dawson has used social media to its full advantage, using it to build a rapport with his audience. He has created, much like the Youtubers, a loyal and secure audience and it has worked with Amazon paying him in excess of $450,000 a year. If authors can embrace the digital world and take full advantage of it, as a marketing platform, they can become successful and most importantly noticed.
Lost at Sea
Unfortunately, success stories such as Dawson’s are not in the majority. Amazon’s Kindle claims to have 105,688 new releases in the last 30 days and 1,412,329 books now available Kindle unlimited. This huge volume of work means it can be all too easy for authors work to be lost in the market. In 2016, only ‘40 independent authors have sold more than a million copies of their e-books on Amazon,’ a worryingly low number for a market so large. Even if authors are using social media to create a brand there is still a high chance they will become lost in the market and make little income.
Likewise, authors who choose to self-publish often find themselves isolated from the industry and there is often elitism among publishers against self-publishing. Andrew Franklin, the managing director of Profile Books famously said at the Writing in the Digital Age conference that ‘the overwhelming majority [of self-published books] are terrible – unutterable rubbish.’
Bestselling authors who are talented and hard working – like Thor and Grafton – are inclined to believe that publishing is a meritocracy where the best work by the most diligent writers gets represented, acquired, published and sold. But this is demonstrably untrue. –David Vinjamuri
Many publishers in the industry share this view, making it difficult for authors to have their work recognised. Online success is often ignored in reality as ‘self-published books are not eligible for major prizes like the Baileys, the Costa and the Man Booker,’ which excludes a huge number of authors and their work from getting the recognition they deserve. Author Talli Rolland explains ‘I found it difficult to get my printed novel into bookstores, despite solid e-book sales figures.’ This highlights the difficulty many authors face when trying to get noticed in the industry and it’s a constant struggle to get self-publishing acknowledge as a viable medium.
So which is it? Utopia or dystopia?
It is undeniable that the world of digital publishing has created new opportunities for authors. The internet has allowed authors control over every process of their work from the editing all the way up to marketing and there are success stories. It has created a more democratic system, one which has room for all authors and every type of content.
However, success in digital publishing comes at a price, the industry is more competitive than ever and equal opportunity for all means the market is continuously growing, making it increasingly difficult to become noticed. Is it a utopia? Certainly not. But, if authors are willing to work hard and embrace the new, interactive, fast paced world of digital publishing there is, at least, the chance for them to become the next Fifty Shades of Grey.
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