The Perils–and Pleasures–of ePublishing

As an author who is both epublished and New York print-published, I’m sometimes asked for my opinions on the relative merits of each model from an author’s perspective, and given a soapbox, I’m always delighted to get up and pontificate.

Before I go into details, let me state my bias upfront. I firmly believe that digital ebooks will become the dominant form within the next ten to twenty years. (I know there are some people who believe that time horizon will be even shorter.) This isn’t to say that I think print books are going away altogether, but rather that print runs will become smaller (maybe even strictly POD for some books) and the resulting books more expensive as more and more consumers possess convenient devices for reading digital content and are comfortable using them. I watch my children, the oldest of whom was born in 1997, and see how comfortable they are with digital media, and I see the writing on the…well…screen.

With that out in the open, you may think I’d come down firmly in favor of pursuit of epublishing for most, if not all, authors. The truth, however, is that I’m more of a cautious optimist. I think digital publishing is the future, but I am not convinced that the current model of epublishing is either sustainable or desirable.

Because I think it’s always best to end an article on an up-not (I do write happily ever after endings, after all), I’m going to start by talking about the reasons I think authors should be wary of epublishing. None of what I’m about to say should be taken as a criticism of any particular epublisher or as a warning to stay away from epublishing altogether. Rather, what I hope you’ll take away from this is the importance of doing your homework before submitting your work anywhere (this includes traditional print publishers) and of having realistic expectations, especially when it comes to money.

The Perils

I see three main “perils” in epublishing. I’ll talk a little (okay, a lot!) about each of them and explain how I think a wise author can avoid falling victim to them.

1. Publishers come and publishers go

Pretty much anybody with a server and enough money to invest in shopping cart software can open an epublishing house. They don’t need to know anything about providing quality content or the digital book market. And because the overhead is relatively low, I think it’s fair to say that some people out there see opening an epublishing house as a get-rich-quick scheme.

The truth, however, is that like all other publishing enterprises, ebooks are more of a get-rich-slow endeavor. My epublisher, Cobblestone Press, is still a fairly small and new venture, but it’s also reputable, and the owners work long, hard hours to keep it going. Whatever they’re making in income from the house, I am reasonably sure it’s well below minimum wage relative the hours they put in. And this is an epublisher that’s been open for three years.

The reason it’s a problem for authors, though, is that you need to ferret out the difference between the epublisher that’s in it for the long-haul and the one that’s just hoping to turn a quick buck. Because chances are, the epublisher that’s in it for the quick buck isn’t going to care about quality (i.e., editing will be shoddy or non-existent, covers won’t be good, etc.) and, more likely than not, the publisher is going to fold within the first few years of existence, taking your royalties and your rights with it. You may eventually get your rights back, but the reality is, it can be a long slow flight, and the chances that you’ll ever see the money due you are even slimmer.

So, how do you avoid this pitfall? For starters, consider not submitting to any epublisher that’s been open less than two years. Two years is still relatively short, but it gives you enough evidence to base your opinions about the quality of the company’s products on. You can tell a lot about an epublishers’ commitment to the business by the quality of the cover art, the quality of the books they sell, and the quality of the editing of those books.

Yes, this requires that you take the time to review what’s for sale on the publisher’s site, and to buy a few of those books and read them. But this is your manuscript we’re talking about, and you need to be assured you’re putting it in good hands. If this publisher is buying and putting out shoddy work, you don’t want to be associated with them. Remember, the company you keep says a lot about you. Not to mention, if you won’t buy their books, you have to ask why anyone would buy your book there?

Finally, contact a few of the authors who are published by the house and ask their opinions. Try not to choose only those authors you know or those you’ve heard say good things. Pick a smattering of authors from throughout the publishers’ list. A lot of times, if a publishing house is on the rocks, a “rah rah” mentality will spread from the top down to the authors. They will be discouraged from saying anything publicly about late royalties, poor editing, bad treatment, est. and some authors, fearing the lost off their publishing contracts and/or royalties will go along. But for the most part, authors like to talk (or at least write!) and if you hit enough different authors, you’re likely to get a pretty clear picture of what’s going on before you submit your manuscript to a publisher that’s on its way down the tubes.

2. The “stepping stone” mentality

Far too many authors, in my opinion, get their first contract offer from a small epublisher (or even a large one) and think, “This is it! I’m on my way to New York! Next stop, print contract.”

Now, it may seem contradictory for me—an author who did get a New York contract directly as a result of my first epublishing contract (check out Dear Author for the story)—to describe this as a peril of epublishing, because I’m clearly evidence that it happens. And it does happen—quite often in fact. Many authors have crossed from epublishing to print contracts. But here’s what’s interesting. A fair percentage of those authors continue writing for their epublishers right alongside their print contracts.

But if a New York contract is the “goal,” why would they do that? The answer is, presumably, that they like writing for epubs and they’re making relatively good money doing it. (I’ll talk more about the money angle in the next “peril.”)

More importantly, though, I think it points up the fact the being epublished can (and should) be an end in itself. If you’re only selling your manuscript to an epublisher because you think it’s going to make a great publishing credit on your query letter or otherwise get you the attention of major publishing houses, my advice is…don’t. Although an epublishing credit probably isn’t going to hurt you when it comes to landing an agent or selling to an editor in a big house, it’s not likely to help you much, either. Most epublishers aren’t even on the radar of New York editors and agents, and some of those that are only register because an agent/editor has read something they thought was truly horrible from that house. So, even with an epublishing credit, it’s going to come down to your writing and the marketability of the manuscript you’re pitching. Nothing else matters to a New York agent/editor when it comes to contracting your work. Nothing.

At this point, you may be thinking, “But Jackie, an epublisher contracted my manuscript. That must mean my writing is good and my story is marketable. Why wouldn’t an agent/editor see that as valid evidence of my marketability?”
Well, here’s why. Marketability is a very different thing for an epublisher and a traditional print publisher. An epublisher incurs relatively little cost to put out a book, and because they rarely pay advances (and those that do pay small ones), they don’t have much to lose if they contract a book that never sells a single copy. A print publisher, by contrast, has to pay a lot in advance of actually releasing the book and its profit margin on each copy sold is far less than an epublisher’s. Because print publishers work on economies of scale, the more copies of a book they print, the less each copy costs them and the higher the profit margin on each copy sold. But if the copies they print don’t sell because the book fails to have sufficient market appeal, the publisher takes a huge financial hit, having to credit booksellers for returned copies and so on. A book that sells 2,000 copies is a bestseller for an epublisher. It’s a disaster for a print publisher.

One of the things that makes epublishing great is that there is room to take chances. Niche books, which traditional print publishers just can’t afford to take on, can find a home in epublishing and sell very well there.

But that thing also means an epublishing contract is no guarantee that your writing is broadly marketable or can attract an offer from a large publishing house. What flies in epublishing may fall flat in New York and what does well in epublishing is often much more of a niche product in New York, if it gets published there at all. For example, erotic romance and erotica found a home in New York in part because epublishers like Ellora’s Cave were so very successful in finding a market for those books online, But the kinds of books that hit the bestseller list at Ellora’s Cave—very hot, erotic romances—are usually published by New York publishers in trade paper with smaller print runs, and rarely hit a bestseller list if they are marketed as erotic romance/erotica. (Yes, there are authors who are bestseller in mass market paperback whose books have clearly erotic content, but notice that the publisher rare markets those books as erotic. But that is a whole different conversation.)

So, where was I going with all of this? Only here: if you sell your manuscript to an epublisher, make sure that’s the best place for your work and think of it as an end in itself. Enjoy being epublished and consider that an accomplishment in its own right. And don’t fall into the trap of believing that an epublishing credit (or even multiple epublishing credits) is going to make New York sit up and notice the next project you query. It may not hurt, but in most cases, it’s not going to help, either. It’s still going to be about the manuscript.

3. Grandiose expectations (especially when it comes to money)

The only certainty in epublishing when it comes to income is that there’s no way to predict how much money you’ll earn. Although Emily Veinglory’s EREC site is a great resource for getting some “averages” for the various epublishers, averages say nothing about how well your book will sell. Very low averages can (and probably should) warn you off certain epublishers, not because they mean the publisher is bad, but because if their overall numbers are low, the chances that you will do better than those low numbers, especially as a debut, are very slim.

One of the major differences between the epublishing model and the traditional print model is the “advance,” or lack of one. Now, some epublishers do pay advances, especially to authors who’ve been bestsellers for them in the past, but those advances are typically small, even when compared to the smallest advances offered by New York publishers.

Of course, the advance model is fraught with risk for authors, too. There’s always the possibility that the book will sell poorly enough that you’ll never see a dime beyond that initial amount you were paid. And if that happens, there’s also a very good chance that your publisher won’t offer you another contract and you’ll have a very hard time selling to any other publisher, either. And even if you “earn out” your advance (i.e., sell enough copies to cover your advance at the standard royalty rate you’re receiving for the book), it can take a long time to see that earn-out translate into dollars in your pocket. Print publishers generally only pay royalties twice a year (compared to monthly or quarterly for most epublishers), and they hold back as much as 40% of your earnings against returns, which means that even after you’ve technically “earned out,” you may not be entitled to a check.

But while advances don’t necessarily translate into more money for the author over the long haul, they are at least “a sure thing.” When you receive an advance for a book from your publisher, it’s a guarantee that you will earn at least that much money. Now, you might earn more. But you can never, ever earn less.In epublishing, there are no such guarantees. In talking to editors and authors from various epublishers, sales vary widely, even at the houses with the best “average” sales figures. By wildly, I mean that sales can range from 20 to 5,000 at the same house. There are some ways to predict where along that range your book is likely to fall (i.e., if it’s in a sub-genre that sells well at that particular publisher, you might expect to sell better than if it’s not). But generally speaking, a debut author doesn’t wind up at the high end of that sales volume range, and it can take quite a while to reach that number of sales. And even if your first book winds up on the publishers’ bestseller list in the first month or two it’s out, it isn’t likely to stay there very long and if you’re anticipating sales in the low thousands and wind up with sales in the low hundreds…you’re probably going to be pretty disappointed.

Now, I’m about to make myself perhaps a little unpopular amongst authors who are published in both New York and epub by saying that, whatever you may hear, epublishing never compensates authors better, on average, than traditional print publishing. I have no difficulty in believing that some authors who head the bestseller lists at their respective epublishing houses earn more in the first month or two on those books than they earn on their books from New York publishers. But here’s the thing—the chances are very good that those authors aren’t getting the kinds of advances that print authors who are hitting the New York Times or USA Today bestseller lists are. The highest earning epublished author’s royalties for a single book don’t come close to the advances paid to traditionally published authors who are bestsellers. So when a bestselling epublished author says she makes more on her ebooks than her print books, I’m not that impressed. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t love to be in such an author’s shoes, but that it means is that the advances she’s being offered on her print books are midlist advances and her epublished books are bestsellers. It will be apples to apples when a bestselling epublished author can claim six-figure royalties on a single title. Until then, it’s apples to cantaloupes.

So, what’s my advice here? Basically, don’t get into epublishing because you think you’re going to make a lot of money. Just as the epublishing house shouldn’t be in it as a get-rich-quick scheme, neither should you. In the “Pleasures” section, I’ll be talking more about how epublishing can work to earn a tidy sum of money for the author, but it takes time and work and lots and lots of writing. And even then, there’s no certainty. (Of course, there’s very little certainty in publishing of any kind. One New York contract is no guarantee of a second, a second is no guarantee of a third, and so on. So if you’re looking for stability, I recommend another line of work!)

I still publish with a small epress, Cobblestone Press. Their numbers aren’t that impressive compared to many of the larger houses, but they really gave me my start by contracting that first manuscript, they put out a quality product, and they are fabulous to work with. But I’m not there for the money. I’m there for the sheer joy of having my stories published by people who love them and believe in them. Any money I make is just icing on the cake.

If you think about your epublishing career this way, you’ll be much happier with the experience. And really, really excited if your book does happen to sell 5,000 copies.

The Pleasures

Okay, so after that, you’re probably thinking I’m really down on epublishing and would discourage you from going there. But that isn’t at all the case. There are many things I love about being epublished and I’m actually hoping to expand the number of epublishers I work with rather than eliminate them.

So, what are the good things about epublishing? Here are the four that top my list, although I’m sure there are others.

1. Faster turnaround from contract to publication

It’s pretty much a guarantee that, once you’re offered a contract for publication, the timeline to publication will be much shorter than it would be for a print book. From contract to publication for my first short novella, the timeline was a mere six weeks. Most of my timelines have been longer since then, but a few months is pretty typical, and I think six months was the longest I ever had to wait.

By contrast, from contract to publication of Behind the Red Door, was fourteen months. It might have been a bit shorter if the manuscript had been complete when I signed, but probably not by much. And it’s not uncommon for the timeline from contract to publication to be as much as eighteen months in the print world   

2. Regular royalty payments and no holdbacks against returns

Most epublishers pay royalties either monthly or quarterly. And because there’s no such thing as a “return” in the digital book universe, you get paid every dime you’re entitled to for each copy that’s sold. (But see Peril #1 for the caveat to this rule.) Whether your book is selling well or poorly, you know it pretty quickly, unlike in the print universe, where you’re unlikely to have a true bead on your book’s sell-through for at least six months.    

3. Epublishers are open to shorter works and edgier works

This is almost a corollary to Pleasure #1, because I love the near-instant gratification of writing a short story or novella as opposed to a heftier single title. Writing shorts is actually a little seductive—a few weeks of effort and you have a shoppable manuscript if you’re writing for an epublisher. And although standalone novellas can and do sell in New York, they’re a harder sell than single titles and there are far fewer opportunities for an author to break in. Moreover, epublishers have increasingly become open to much shorter word counts—as low as 5,000 words. Not everyone can write a satisfying story in that short a word count, but if you can and like doing them, they can be a great palate cleanser between larger books or something to write when you’ve reached a roadblock in a bigger manuscript.

The edgier is a big plus, too. Some writers just want to sell stories that don’t have the kind of broad market appeal that’s necessary to break into New York. Or, if they do, they also have stories they want to tell that don’t fit within the boundaries traditional publishers are currently comfortable with. Having epublishing as a place to take those stories and get them out to readers who will appreciate them is fantastic for authors and readers alike. The advent of epublishing has brought us a great many wonderful stories we’d never have seen otherwise.   

4. An author can build a backlist quickly to gain readership

Because shorter works are quite acceptable to epublishers and because the turnaround is relatively fast, authors can put out a much larger number of ebooks in a year than traditional print books. It’s a bit like writing category, where authors do best if they can turn out 4-6 books a year.

In epublishing, though, it’s possible to turn out even more than that, and if you are wise and able to contract with multiple epublishers and larger epublishers, your sales at one house cross-pollinate the others. It’s because of this factor that epublished authors can actually make a decent living at it. As new readers find an author with a large backlist, her sales of all those books expands and the next book that comes out sells better as well.

Epublishing is also a great way for authors with print contracts to “fill in the gaps” between their print releases. It’s not unusual for the second book in a two book contract to be released 6 months or more after the first. Being able to fill that gap with other books released by epublishers allows the author to gain name/brand recognition for her print books through the ebooks and vice versa. 

The Future

Epublishing, in my opinion, already has many strengths and it will have more in the future. We’re already hearing that ebooks are the only segment of the publishing market that’s growing, and that trend is bound to continue.

What I don’t think will continue is the current schism between what we call epublishing and what we think of as traditional print publishing. Market forces are going to demand that the traditional publishers move more and more to digital distribution, and my suspicion is that there will be a lot of consolidation of resources between the existing, larger epublishers and the current traditional print publishers. Some on both sides will go out of business. The smaller epublishers will become much like the small print presses—niche market publishers who cater to particular subsets of the reading population, the majority of which will be seeking their reading material in all genres in a digital form.

Until that happens, though, it’s important to be wary of the potential pitfalls if you choose to pursue a career in what is, for now, still a subset of the larger publishing universe. Hopefully, you’ve found the information and advice I’ve provided both relevant and useful, and I wish you all the best in your publishing career, wherever you choose to focus your efforts.

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