In 2012 WiJ’s annual ‘How to Write a Best-seller’ seminar was on ‘how e-books have changed the game.’ In the light of Fifty Shades of Grey, which started off as a small indie e-book, and finished up dominating the charts as one of the decade’s biggest best-sellers, we asked what this meant for journalists wanting to write books.
Our panel were Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller and its digital blog ‘Futurebook,’ Anthony Topping, literary agent at Greene & Heaton agency, self-publishing expert Catharine Ryan Howard and Caroline Hogg, commissioning editor at HarperCollins (Avon books), chaired by Alexandra Campbell, author of nine novels, four under the name of Nina Bell, and eight books on interiors.
- Don’t get confused between self published e-books, and traditionally published e-books. Self-published ebooks are written and published by the author, usually via Amazon or Smashwords. Self-publishing used to be considered ‘vanity publishing’, but now an increasing number of writers are turning to self-publishing online for various reasons. Every stage of a self-published e-book will be handled by the author, and if they opt for professional editing or cover design (both strongly recommended by our panel) then they will have to source it and pay for it themselves.
- Traditional or legacy publishing is where publishing houses commission books from authors and pay them. E-books are just one element in their general publishing strategy. This will be handled entirely by the publishers and the author will have relatively little input in the process, although authors are increasingly encouraged to get involved in publicizing their work via social media or blogging.
- What sells most as e-books?: ‘Women’s fiction has had a difficult time over the last few years because of pressure from retailers, especially supermarkets, to package books largely in pink, sparkly covers which has put many women off. E-books are less affected by the covers, so women have gone back to buying books for their e-readers. Romance, science fiction & fantasy, crime and books that are part of a series have also well. Non-fiction e-publishing has struggled, mainly because information is now seen as being free on the internet. Non-fiction publishers have had to add value with beautiful packaging, as with the latest cookery books. Niche non-fiction topics (self-published in e-book), however, can find a market: Catherine Ryan Howard’s Mousetrapped, on her year working at Disney, appeals to Disney fans worldwide, but there are not enough of them in any one country to make print versions commercially viable.
- E-book websites usually offer readers a sample chapter free – usually the first chapter – to encourage them to buy. So it’s crucial that your first chapter is very strong, and has a ‘cliff-hanger’ that will make the reader want to buy the book. E-books are affecting covers as they now have to work as small thumbprints and in black-and-white.
- Should you self-publish your manuscript in e-book as a way of finding an agent or publisher? Only if you’re sure of getting good comments, said the panel! A book that has flagging sales and negative reader comments will be ‘tarnished’, whereas had it arrived in manuscript form, an experienced agent or publisher might have seen through the mistakes to the magic. However, a number of writers, such as Amanda Hocking, have recently picked up traditional publishing deals after becoming successful as self-published writers.
- What about ‘long journalism’? In the US long articles are published in e-book form. There is no market- place for this in Britain as yet, so it would be hard for readers to find you. There are hopes that ‘long journalism’ outlets will appear in the British market soon.
- If you’re self-publishing what do you need to know? Pay for a professional editor, and get a good cover designed. Amazon and Smashword’s author programme is straightforward, but requires concentration. You need to publicise yourself, probably online through blogging, Twitter, Facebook and other social media. It’s a lot of work, and the marketplace is now quite crowded. Catherine Ryan Howard’s Self-Printed – The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-publishing can guide you through the steps.