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The Choices in Ebook Publication

By 
Lazette Gifford
©2003, Lazette Gifford  

ew opportunities in book publication have been arriving every few decades in the form of new mediums.  Paperback books are not that old of an innovation (although the first appeared in Germany in 1841), and audio books are even newer.  Both faced considerable opposition from people who didn't see any use for them in filling their needs.  But both mediums have survived and grown beyond their first stumbling steps to draw markets.

So will ebook publishing survive and grow.  All the components to the ebook revolution are already in place.  First, of course, is the computer, and the later small offspring, like the Palm™ and Visor™.  These smaller PDAs (Personal Data Assistants) provide hand-held portable reading devices that can be taken anywhere, and store a dozen or more books at a time.  They are already very popular in the world of business travelers, where many have found that they no longer need to pack half a dozen heavy books to make it through the nightly boredom of a weeklong seminar.

Second in the list of components is the Internet, which provides readily accessible books at all hours and across international borders.   Marketing is an extremely difficult part of ebook publishing because there are only a few  'stores' in which to place the books, but people are already getting used to the idea of looking for what they want (often via search engines like Google), and the readership is growing.

And a last component is a market of readers who has grown up on computers and is not put off by the novelty of reading a book in electronic, rather than paper, format. To some of them, ebooks are already becoming as natural as paperbacks.  They will not be the medium that takes over -- they will just be another type of book, just as paperbacks are a different format from hard bounds, and audio books another choice.

But why would an author turn to ebooks rather than the traditional -- and better paying -- modes of publication? 

An unpublished manuscript not only faces the difficulty of overcoming the slush pile, winning the first and second readers, wowing the editor -- but it also has to win over the marketing department, which often has the final say.  Marketing departments are not known for taking chances.  And these days, with corporate takeovers of smaller houses, those marketing departments are more used to 'best seller' numbers rather than genre sales results.  New, untested authors -- especially if they have written something outside the norm -- are short shifted in this environment.  If a book does not fall into the parameters of what a marketing department knows will sell, it's unlikely the publisher will pick it up.

There are, of course, exceptions, but those are very rare these days.  Small press companies have stepped in and are starting to gain audiences that the larger companies don't feel significant enough in size to bother with.   However, small press companies are faced with the same expenditures as a large New York publisher, and therefore are limited in what they can offer.

Into this growing void stepped the Internet with a unique ability to offer unusual material without the expense of print publishing. Ebook publishers can take chances because their outlay is miniscule compared to the cost of print companies. That doesn't mean that it costs them nothing, however.  The better ebook publishers have expenses that range not only from the obvious website hosting and maintenance, but also to paying for marketing in various areas both on the Internet and in print. They also pay copyeditors to work on making certain the books are as error-free as possible, and cover artists to present an eye-catching graphic that draws the reader to the book.  That last has turned out to be a surprise for many publishers, who hadn't considered the people they are trying to reach.  Regular book buyers often 'judge a book by its cover' and those who are used to the Internet consider it a graphical medium, and are drawn to nice looking art.  Cover art has turned out to be a very important part of ebook publication.

This is the pulp age of epublishing.  Some great names are going to come out of it, but a lot of the others will be forgotten.   Some people have started publishing businesses on the Internet without having a clue what they really need -- from good writers (not just their friends saying they wrote a book) to copyeditors and cover artists.  And there is also that marketing problem, which is shared equally between publisher and author.

There are good sides to epublishing.  Authors get a far larger percentage of the sale of an ebook than they do from a print publication.  I have ebooks at several different publishers, and my percentage varies from 35% to 60%.  Print authors general only get about 10% or less.  However, they do get advances of several thousand dollars, which ebook publishers usually can't afford to offer.  Print authors only get that 10% royalty after their book has sold enough copies to cover the advance.

It may look like ebooks would be the wiser way to go for authors -- but ebooks are not (yet) selling well enough to make them a viable alternative for someone who wants to live by writing.  Every year the sales pick up a little more, however.  It's a growing market.  And here is one of the really good points for ebooks -- your book is not going to go out of print and be pulled from the shelf after a few weeks, never to be seen again.  An epublished author has time to build up a readership.

Submitting to ebook publishers is no different than submitting to print publishers.  Making certain that your work is ready for publication in any form is always the first step.  Remember that no matter what, you are going to have real people reading your books.

When looking at ebook publishers, apply the same standards and steps you would in the study of print publishers. Look over their titles, read chapters, and make certain this is a group you want to be associated with.  Check out their guidelines and their contract (many of them have a basic contract available for viewing) as well.

There are a couple things to look out for when choosing an ebook publisher.  The first is to watch out for a publisher that turns out books which are full of errors or badly formatted, or one with a site where it is difficult to order the books.  In fact, having a nice looking and quick loading website is a definite plus. The website is their bookstore.  If customers have trouble navigating the 'aisles' and can't find the cash register, you're going to lose sales.

Also be wary of a publisher who says he takes all kinds of genres, but seems to focus heavily on only one or two.  If your book isn't one of those genres, not only will it get lost beneath the others, but also the people who regularly buy books there are not likely to be interested in your work.

Many ebook publishers are now offering POD (Print on Demand -- trade paperback) versions of books as well, though usually some time after the ebook version comes out.  POD is more expensive, but if an ebook is selling well, it may be a good investment.  Sometimes the author helps pay for the POD set up and sometimes not. This flies in the face of traditional publishing, where all money flows to the author -- but it is still a consideration and a choice that the author can make.

Ebooks come out in a number of different formats to meet the needs of many different types of readers, from PCs to Macs, PDAs to devices that are strictly for reading electronic books.  Some formats allow the buyer to print out a copy, and others do not.

It's a changing, growing medium that will still have a few stumbles before it finds the right path.  But in another decade I suspect that people aren't going to be as likely to be ask why an author tried an epublisher as why not.