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Self-publishing industry explodes, brings rewards, challenges

The publishing world is being upended, and reinvented, by people like Hugh Howey, Ily Goyanes and Kristy Montee.

They are part of a movement using the power of e-books and the Internet to lead publishing into a new frontier, and through the biggest upheaval of the industry since Guttenberg’s press.

“It’s the Wild West,” Montee said. “It is literally changing at the speed of light.”

Howey is a writer who authored, designed, formatted and self-published all but the very first of his 14 novelettes and stories as e-books — and saw his Wool series of sci-fi stories make the Top 100 Kindle Best Sellers of 2012, above J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and the four-book bundle of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

Goyanes is one of a new breed of independent publishers filling the void between self-publishing and traditional publishing giants, offering technical, marketing and distribution help for do-it-yourself authors.

Montee is a Fort Lauderdale-based writer better known to her readers — along with her sister and writing partner, Kelly Nichols — as P.J. Parrish, the pseudonymous author of the Louis Kincaid and Joe Frye thriller series. She’s among the new “hybrid authors,” with a foot in both traditional and the self-published worlds.

“For a long, long, long time in our business anything that you published yourself just had a stench of amateurism about it,” she said. “That was just for desperate people who couldn’t make their way through the labyrinth of the New York system, so they resorted to paying pretty much scam artists to publish their books for them at great expense. And then, Amazon came out with the Kindle, which pretty much changed everything.”

With the stigma fading, and Amazon’s help, self-publishing has exploded. On its website, Publishers Weekly last month cited a new analysis of data from Bowker, which shows the number of self-published books produced annually in the U.S. has nearly tripled, growing 287 percent since 2006, with 235,625 print and e-titles released in 2011.

As a “mid-list author” with 13 moderately successful books to her name, Montee felt the pressure when her publisher began trimming its author list to reduce costs.

“So a lot of us, and this includes a lot of my friends,” began looking for ways to survive independently, Montee said. “Amazon made it extremely easy and very attractive to go self-publish through their model.”

She and her sister regained rights to two of their early books to re-publish and have a novella in the works they plan to self-publish.

The advantages, and the profits, can be huge. The downside, of course, would make a Vegas gambler sweat.

“The largest, by far, percentage of authors are making less than $500 a year self-publishing, because there’s a glut,” said M.J. Rose, a best-selling novelist and founder of the writer’s marketing company “There’s over 350,000 books being self-published every year and readers are not finding them. There’s just no way to expose people to all of these books.”

Howey, however, who spends mornings writing at his home in Jupiter, might be the perfect example of what “making it” looks like in this thoroughly modern twist on every writer’s dream. He began writing while working at a bookstore, and he received a modest advance when a small press picked up his first novel.

For the second, he decided to go on his own, blogged about the writing experience as he did it, and built a small but devoted following of a few hundred readers.

Then came Wool, a sci-fi adventure about a future world in which humans live in an underground silo, faced with the prospect of certain death from the toxic winds if they ever go outside — until one of them survives.

The 58-page novelette took on a life of its own. Last October, word of mouth caught on and sales picked up. Howey quickly added four more stories to the Wool series. Sales skyrocketed.

This year, Howey found himself selling 50,000 of his stories a month, and he has been earning a six-figure income or close to it every 30 days, though he notes the business has its ups and downs with many lean times before finding success.

Two months ago, director Ridley Scott optioned it for a movie, and Random House is publishing the hardcover edition in the United Kingdom next year.

“We’re in the position where we’re turning down offers here in the States,” he said. “Self-publishing has become a position of power, not a position of last resort.”

His success proves a theory he had about the self-publishing phenomenon even before the success of Wool. “With self-publishing you don’t waste your time trying to get published, which can take years of query letters and agenting, and all this stuff,” said Howey, who will be teaching a three-day workshop Wednesday-Friday on the science fiction novelette during the Miami Book Fair International. “You go straight to the real gatekeepers, which are the readers. If they respond favorably and you have sales, you can leverage that into a writing career. If they don’t, you write the next thing. Either way you’re not spending your time trying to get published, you’re spending your time writing the next work.”

A large part of the shift in the balance of power comes as a result of e-books and the ease of self-publishing.

“Because of the world wide web, we have a distribution system we didn’t have before. Today you can find an audience immediately online,” said Chris Kenneally, the director of author relations at the Copyright Clearance Center, who will be moderating a panel on self-publishing at the Miami Book Fair International

That, he said, has big publishing houses eyeing the trend warily. “What is dramatic about the self-publishing revolution,” he said, “is it kind of levels the playing field.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saw what was happening long before others took it seriously.

“I predict we will surpass paperback sales sometime in the next nine to 12 months. Sometime after that, we’ll surpass the combination of paperback and hardcover,” he told USA Today.

That was in 2010.

By the time of his quote in July of that year, e-books had already surpassed hardcover sales on the site. For every 100 hard covers sold, Amazon sold 180 digital books.

For all of 2011, BookStats estimated that trade publisher e-book revenues were $1.97 billion, or about 16 percent of the total trade industry . Adult fiction e-book sales more than doubled over the previous year, making up 31 percent of the category’s total.

Sales are still climbing. The January 2012 monthly StatShot reported almost $100 million in adult e-book sales, a 49.4 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. The number of self-published books produced annually in the U.S. has nearly tripled, growing 287 percent since 2006, with 235,625 print and e-titles released in 201, according to a new analysis of data from the research firm Bowker announced in October.

This year was also a breakout year for self-published books. Seventeen of the top 100 kindle books in 2012 this year were self-published, including Howey’s Wool series, which came in at No. 10.

The No. 1 self-published book became a global phenomenon.

E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey erotic romance, and each of its follow-ups, wound up setting a bar every writer and publisher is chasing. The book was first published on a fan website under the title Master of the Universe, then was reworked and re-released in the form that went viral.

It was among the reasons cited by Penguin Group chief executive John Makinson when the company announced it was acquiring Author Solutions, which, according to its website, provided the tools and know-how to help “more than 100,000 authors” self-publish.

Makinson saw 50 Shades’ sales as merely a beginning – “exceptional, [but] it is not unusual now.”

Hardly surprising, then, that Penguin’s parent corporation paid $116 million for Author Solutions.

Independent publishers are also stepping into the gap between the big houses and do-it-all authors.

The Writer’s Coffee Shop was the first to notice the first 50 Shades book “in the fandom,” and to develop it, according to company co-founder Jenny Pedroza. When global sales exploded, she said, the company sold it to Vintage Books.

“There’s the self-publisher. Then there’s the big guys. And we’re kind of in the middle,” said Pedroza. “We kind of lead our authors from editing all the way to distribution.”

The success of 50 Shades inspired Miami-based independent publisher Ily Goyanes to launch her business, Ampersand Editions.

“Honestly, everything that a big publisher can do these days,” she said, “an e-publisher can do.”

The advantage she offers writers, she said, is expertise and a name.

“It’s very DIY these days,” Goyanes said. “You kind of have to do it yourself. You have to learn to write a PR release. You have to learn marketing. You have to know who to call in the media. ... It’s a little harder if you’re a self-published author without a company title behind you.”

It’s not just first-timers jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon. Big-name authors are doing it, as well. Stephen King was an early adopter, testing the waters more than a decade ago. Last year, J.K. Rowling announced she was self-publishing the Harry Potter series on her website, and Jackie Collins said she was trying it, as well.

“If you pay attention to book publishing news and blogs, then you probably already know I’ve decided to try my hand at self-publishing by re-writing and releasing a NEW version of my book The Bitch,” Collins wrote on her blog. She said she will continue to release books through her usual publishers, “but times are changing, and technology is changing, so I wanted to experiment with this growing trend of self-publishing.”

She points out that if an author is successful at self-publishing, royalty rates are higher than what they’d receive from a traditional publisher. Amazon gives its authors 70 percent of each book’s sales price. Traditional publishers tend to give writers around 15 percent, and the author often has to pay an agent 15 or 20 percent.

Collins continued: “I was extremely lucky because my first book, The World is Full of Married Men, was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to, and became an instant bestseller.

“Today, if a publisher isn’t interested, you have options. You can sign up with Amazon KDP or Barnes & Noble Pubit or Lulu or SmashWords or CreateSpace or a host of other helpful sites. Google it.”

Christine Kling, a former professor at Broward College, discovered the same option. A moderately successful Fort Lauderdale-based mid-list author like Montee, Kling’s thrillers all have a nautical element.

After two, two-book contracts with Ballantine, however, her publisher balked on contracting for more work.

Kling turned to self-publishing. Speaking via FaceTime from aboard a friend’s sailboat anchored off Trinidad, Kling said she discovered the Amazon Select program, which allows authors to give away some of their books for free as promotions in exchange for agreeing to go exclusively with the online retailer. She targeted sites that advertise free books, figuring “if they list free books they might buy another.”

The first time she tried, readers downloaded more than 37,000 free copies of Circle of Bones in three days. Then, she was rewarded by word of mouth.

“In the next 30 days,” Kling said, “I sold 8,000 books. Amazon is paying authors a 70 percent royalty rate. That book was $3.99. You can do the math on that and you can see that that 30-day period was a lot better than anything I ever made as a college professor working at Broward College.”

Since then, she bought back the rights to her Ballantine books. “I have self-published those and I’m making my 70 percent on those as well.”

As self-publishing took off, a funny thing happened. The big publishers began watching the sales of self-published work on Amazon, and started offering successful writers traditional contracts.

“Publishers have always had places that they’ve gone to find the next crop of big bestsellers,” Kenneally said. “And frankly I’ve had literary agents tell me that Amazon Lists is the new slush pile. That this is a terrific way to find out if they have an audience, if they work, if people are willing to pick it up and love it.”

The most noteworthy may be fantasy writer Amanda Hocking, who put the first of her 10 novels featuring trolls, vampires and zombies online in 2010, made an estimated $2 million over the next year, and signed a four-book contract with St. Martin’s Press by the summer of 2011 for another $2 million. She was 26 at the time, and felt the need to explain to her massive following of readers.

“I want to be a writer,” she wrote on her blog. “I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.”

Amazon caught on. Rather than lose its success stories to other publishers, it started its own imprints, and began offering its e-book authors more traditionally published contracts. Kling signed a three-book contract with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer line.

Self-publishing, however, is a double-edged sword for most authors. It offers freedom and control over the product from beginning to end, and heftier royalty rates.

But it also strips away any possibility of an “advance” against royalties. Those too, though, are shrinking at most traditional publishers.

“The trend for bestselling authors is higher than ever,” said Salkind Literary Agency agent Greg Aunapu. “But for new authors, mid-list authors, the advances are going lower and lower.”

A book that netted a $50,000 advance just a few years ago would be fortunate to snag a $10,000 one now. “They say that 50 is the new 40,” Aunapu added. “Well, in publishing, $10,000 is the new $50,000.”

Still, that’s more than what a self-published author is guaranteed to receive.

Another issue: the required marketing to stand out from the self-published crowd can be daunting.

“The most difficult part is the promotion. You have to work for it,” said Fort Lauderdale-based writer Natasha Salnikova, who has self-published four psychological thrillers and one supernatural thriller on Amazon.

She worked with Facebook and online book sites, developing an audience, and recognizing the self-publisher’s dilemma.

“If you make mistakes, they’re your mistakes,” she said. “If books don’t sell, it’s on you.”

Her husband, David Raterman, is also a self-published novelist. But he chose to put his first fiction book out in print, instead of as an e-book.

His experience was sobering. He advises others exploring the independent route to “manage your expectations. Don’t expect that you’re going to sell a ton of books,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of authors who are self-publishing for the first time are not going to be able to survive from that.”

That points up one of the biggest differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Rose, who will be holding a workshop on book promotion at the book fair, said it’s true that even traditional publishers expect authors to promote themselves. No matter how they are published, writers nowadays need to incorporate social media into their marketing strategy. But publishing houses can accomplish things individual writers can’t for themselves.

“A self-published author can’t buy the front table of Barnes and Noble,” she said. “Only a publisher can do that. A self-published author can’t buy the front page of Amazon.”

On the other hand, she said, “Publishers can’t have a blog for you. They can’t talk to your readers for you. And they can’t develop a relationship with your readers for you.”

The advantages of a traditional publisher’s marketing power, however, won’t be brought to bear for every author. And several self-published writers said the idea of being in charge from beginning to end was worth much more to them than what a big name publisher might offer.

“I really wanted to hold my fate in my own hands,” said Ellen Brazer, who writes historic Jewish fiction. “I didn’t want anybody else controlling my own fate. I believed I was either going to be a failure or a success, but it was going to be done on my terms.”

The Miami Beach-based writer’s marketing strategy has been more traditional, but focused. She found some of her greatest success with Jewish women’s organizations.

“I really went back to the old-fashioned way. I speak. I’ve spoken to over 6,000 people in the last two years, all over the country,” she said. Sales have been steady, and they’ve given Brazer something far more valuable than mere dollars.

“I’m living my dream.”