Ebooks versus print

Continuing the debate about ebooks and their place in the market, Hodder Children’s announced last week that it will be launching a new e-only sci fi classics list. The list is launching with five out-of-print books, and aims to release up to 21 titles by September – see their Hodder Silver Twitter account for more info.

But is this a trend that’s set to continue? One of the major criticisms levelled at ebooks and the ebook market is that they limit the possibilities of new discoveries, making it hard to find new recommendations in the way that you would in a traditional bookshop.

It’s telling that the first e-only list is aimed at children and young adults, a generation that is likely to be far more engaged online with blogs and social media sites than ever before. The number of sites aimed at the sci fi and fantasy genre is huge, and each one is teeming with recommendations and opinions on the latest releases. It’s only natural that this audience would gravitate towards ebooks, where a quick click of the mouse is all it takes to deliver a book to the screen in front of you in a matter of minutes.

It’s a tentative start – as these are all novels that have previously appeared in print – and I think that we can see this growing more and more over time as people, but I can’t see paper books disappearing forever.

It’s also interesting to see that Sand, the latest novel from Hugh Howey, has actually been released as an ebook by publisher Cornerstone months before it will appear in print. Readers will still be able to pick up a hard copy, but it’s getting people used to having an ebook format be something that they look forward to.

High street vs. online book selling

Last week, I wrote about the perceived threat to the publishing industry from self-publishing (here). This week, I wanted to look at another issue facing the sector – the decline of the high street bookstore in favour of online super-sellers such as Amazon.

One of the main issues facing high street bookshops is that the simply can’t afford to compete with Amazon on prices. There are a number of measures and initiatives being put in place to combat this (see here for more info on something Waterstones is trialling), but the fact is that books are generally cheaper online thanks to low overheads and running costs of e-sellers.

There are notable exceptions to the rule, and impulse buyers, author signings and loyal booklovers with a preference for seeing and feeling a book before buying have and will continue to ensure that bookshops remain a feature on our high streets. However, these shops are increasingly facing even more competition. Major supermarket chains in particular are starting to encroach on their territory and are also able to offer popular books at cut prices.

One fear associated with the decline of bookstores is that readers won’t have the same capacity to discover new books, resulting in falling sales and a shrinking market. While I’m a proud supporter of high street book stores, I’m feel that this is an area where social media can really come into its own. For a while now, Twitter has been a great source of information and a major platform for conversation. Bloggers and professional reviewers are constantly pouring out a stream of opinion about new books and trends, which should help to drum up enthusiasm for a book prior to its publication and beyond.

Author John Green, for example, showed just how effective social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube can be in driving sales in the run up to the launch of The Fault in Our Stars. Extensive vlogging, tweeting and audience engagement activity led to massive pre-orders, and the novel topped the Amazon best sellers list before Green had even finished writing it.

Hopefully, moving forward the industry will find a happy medium that works for everyone and every business model – and that continues to do so for the foreseeable future.

Going digital

The explosion of self-publishing platforms has, understandably, been a topic of great debate in the publishing world. Quite simply, these platforms have the potential to completely transform the structure of publishing as we know it – from who can publish a book in the public realm to the price that a book will be sold at. But what does this really mean for the industry?

In my opinion, ebooks and self-publishing present a range of new and exciting possibilities to traditional publishers to evolve. Take Penguin, for example. The publisher has recently invested into author services and self-publishing platform, Author Services, while in 2011, ebook sales made up 12% of its total revenue. It’s an impressive percentage that effectively demonstrates the direction that the market is moving in, and from a practical point of view, I can see the appeal. Embracing digital publishing has the potential to reduce overheads and unnecessary outgoings while still offering almost limitless opportunities for expansion.

The perceived threat comes from the vast array of authors who are now able to bypass traditional publishing houses and publish and market their work themselves. Examples of hugely successful self-published authors are not hard to find, and there are a few in particular that any discussion of the topic can’t fail to mention. E. L. James and her Fifty Shades trilogy is one. Hugh Howey and his widely acclaimed apocalyptic novel ‘Wool’ is another.

But I think it’s worth noting that although these authors began their journey in self-publishing, they also made agreements with traditional publishers to produce hard copies of their books. This undoubtedly is a major factor in their success. In fact, Fifty Shades accounted for almost one in ten of the 750 million books sold globally by publisher Random House across the year, resulting in record annual revenues and profits. And although I’d been reading rave reviews of Howey’s ‘Wool’ for a while, it wasn’t until it came out in paperback that I invested in a copy for myself.

This goes to show that the input and expertise of a traditional publishing house is still very much in demand. By positioning themselves as an expert in possession of all of the tools that self-published authors need to hit the big time, publishers can ensure that their knowledge and business model can go hand in hand with the digital revolution.

The real danger posed by self-publishing, as far as I can see, is in the already established, big name authors of the publishing world. There’s a real possibility that as self-publishing becomes more established, these authors could jump ship and take on the role of publisher and marketer for themselves, safe in the knowledge that a large percentage of their loyal readership will duly follow.

Whatever happens, the publishing industry almost certainly has more to gain from embracing digital publishing than it has to lose.

The rise of self-publishing

The advent of epublishing platforms and the ability for authors to self-publish their work without going through traditional publishing avenues has opened up a whole realm of new possibilities. The success of authors such as Amanda Hocking make it clear that this route is one that has the potential to deliver substantial returns – even the hugely successful Fifty Shades of Grey started life as online fan fiction.

There are now hundreds of thousands of free ebooks available on Amazon’s Kindle store, and according to a recent survey by Bowker Market Research’s Book and Consumers UK survey, self-published books accounted for around 11% of all ebooks purchased by UK consumers in the first half of 2012. But with so many authors choosing to go down this route, what does it take for a book to stand out from the crowd? And how much difference does the lack of input from professional editors, readers and designers really make?

Paul PilkingtonTo see for myself, I recently read a book by Paul Pilkington, an independently published suspense mystery writer. Paul’s first novel, The One You Love, was made available on the Kindle store in July 2011 (see here). As of 30th January 2013, the book is number one on Amazon’s free download chart and has generated over 800 reviews on the site, many of them positive.

The One You Love revolves around Emma Holden, who comes with a troubled past and emotional baggage to boot. Two weeks before her wedding, her finance, Dan, has disappeared leaving a trail of suspicion and lies in his wake. Fast paced and action packed, this book raced along to a dramatic conclusion with plenty of twists and cliff-hangers along the way. It was interesting, well thought out and I didn’t have a clue who was behind the chain of increasingly mysterious events until the very end!

I do, however, have a few criticisms. There were a lot of central characters and I think one or two could have been cut back to minor parts without taking too much away from the story. While these characters were useful in illustrating potential avenues for the plot, the central thread of the story could have been more cohesive.

This book was all about the action, which I liked, but I would have preferred to have a bit more of a back story on the characters and their relationships with each other. In particular, Emma’s relationships with the men in the book were not examined in great detail and the reader is left to take things entirely at face value. There were also a couple of loose ends that I felt could have done with being tied up.

There’s no doubt that I enjoyed The One You Love – I read it in its entirety in just one sitting. However, the input of a publishing house would probably have helped to iron out the issues highlighted above and to turn a reasonably good book into a great one. Since it’s release, this book has been hovering steadily at the top of the download charts, but put it – in its current form – into the paid category at the same price point as books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I don’t think it would perform anywhere near as well.

Having said that, the success of ebooks like this just goes to show that if people have a story to tell, they should put themselves out there and tell it. Self-publishing has real potential to give authors an opportunity to break into the industry and I’ll definitely be looking to read more independently published ebooks in the future.