Digital self-publishing

Cover art, Slim to None, Jenny Gardiner, 2010, Diversion Books
Jenny Gardiner, Slim to None (cover), Diversion Books, 2010.

Fact 1: BookStats, the annual survey of book publishing by the Book Industry Study Group and the Association of American Publishers, reports that in 2011 revenue from e-books surpassed that of physical books in the category of adult fiction.

Fact 2: In the Amazon Kindle Store, romances are the largest category of genre fiction listed, outranking mysteries and thrillers by almost 20,000 titles and science fiction and fantasy combined by over 25,000. (These figures undoubtedly overlap with one another since a romance could be listed under any of these categories.)

Fact 3: The 2011 Romance Book Consumer Survey, conducted by Romance Writers of America, reports that 31% of romance readers use e-readers or other digital reading devices.

Fact 4: In a relatively stagnant market for book purchases, also noted in BookStats, revenue from e-book sales more than doubled in 2011 over 2010 while revenue for print book sales declined.

Such dramatic shifts in buying inevitably will have profound effects on the distribution and marketing of popular romance fiction, which has been the industry leader in genre fiction sales for some time. The RWA consumer study notes that in the sub-categories of erotic and paranormal romances, e-book readers outnumber those who read their books in printed form. The ability to remain anonymous as a reader in such public places as buses or trains may well have a positive impact on sales of some categories.

But the burgeoning e-book market and the ease and affordability of obtaining digital books are also having an effect on how writers publish and market their books. Amazon, for example, makes it possible for writers to self-publish on their website and to set their own prices. Through a program called Kindle Direct, Amazon offers authors detailed information about how to format and upload books, merchandise titles, and manage sales. The royalty rate posted on the website is up to 70% of sales, far higher than royalties offered by traditional print publishers. In addition, books in six fiction genres, including romances, plus biography and memoir are featured on the Amazon Kindle Indie Bookstore web page, which offers some visibility to selected self-published titles. The bestseller list on the indie website, updated hourly, recently listed 18 of the top 20 books as some variety of romance.

Why would an author choose self-publishing over working with agents and publishers? I asked that question of Jenny Gardiner, who has published paperback fiction and hardcover non-fiction with publishing houses as well as women’s fiction and romances through Amazon Kindle Direct. Her first novel, Sleeping with Ward Cleaver, won the American Title III contest, sponsored by Dorchester and Romantic Times. Her book Slim to None was a #1 Kindle Besteller. But like many other authors, Gardiner argues that traditional publishers do not do enough to market books. She says that “the burden is virtually on me to do the marketing and publicity, so why bother doing it with a publisher and giving them the lion’s share of my sales?”

Marketing a self-published book is an intensive endeavor. Gardiner reports that she has worked for years to develop her audience by educating herself on the business, taking advantage of social media, guesting on blogs, “retweeting,” networking with authors and readers, using keywords to make her books “discoverable” on websites, eliciting “likes” and reviews, and paying close attention to the kinds of titles and cover art that sell books. She also notes that self-publishing can promote more direct dialogue with readers; for example, some writers have responded to reader requests for romances featuring favored minor characters from earlier novels. Moreover, since many consumers trust recommendations from friends and friends of friends over those of marketers, Amazon’s robust customer review process augments the significant word-of-mouth factor. Gardiner has not ruled out working with agents and traditional publishers in the future, but for now she is content to do it herself.

Traditionalists may wonder if these trends will result in diminished quality because self-published books do not go through the normal acceptance and editing cycle, but it’s too late to ask that question. The digital revolution has had similar effects on journalism, the postal service, music distribution and marketing, and even encyclopedias. In a segmented society where consumers of culture may choose what and where and how to find their information and entertainment, why should books be different?

Kay Mussell

Kay Mussell is a professor emerita of literature and American studies at American University. Find out more about Kay Mussell.

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