Just How Dodgy Is Digital Publishing?

Media, Reading & Writing

You can always tell when someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes – they don’t give you a straight answer. It seems that habit has spread to ebooks.

‘I became a superstar from digital publishing!’ some dubious ‘writer’ regularly screams in the press, until you do a bit of fact-checking (remember that, journalists?) and discover they stuck a book online for one cent and hubristically spammed all their friends, earning almost nothing. Every time I try to get a handle on what’s actually happening in the world of digital publishing the stories change, the figures slip and nothing quite makes sense. The answers may well be out there, but for all the surveys and interim reports, it’s unclear if anyone’s making money other than Amazon.

Meanwhile, many publishers continue to have a head-in-the-sand approach to social media, and would rather send authors to half-empty libraries than talk to them about their online presence. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing libraries, but they’re hopeless as far as economies of scale go because you mainly reach pre-converted readers.

There are almost as many self-help articles on the subject of online fame as there are ebooks. The Guardian’s latest is ‘How To Become A Digital Superstar’, here, which contains some good advice (‘Only target relevant bloggers’), some blindingly obvious advice ((‘Don’t just rely on Twitter’) and some dubious advice (‘Use Tweet Adder’) as well as some very contradictory evidence – is fantasy bestselling or not? And if people are making names for themselves so easily, how come they’re only making about three grand a head on average?

Now, I’ve written books for less than that amount in the past, but it’s becoming clear that there’s no super-easy fast track to making big cash with ebooks – for most genuine authors that’s not what it’s about anyway. But it’s no coincidence that the writers who are doing best from it are those who have day jobs in web design and internet-based marketing. The problem is that internet careers and writing careers aren’t really very compatible, and most of those rare big successes come from internet writers who live at this crossover point.

It’s a punishing, thankless slog going around all the social media sites to publicise your work without becoming a thorn in everyone’s side; any job that involves selling is always more demeaning than one in which you’re the buyer. There are some sites achieving success, like Unbound, but in many ways they simply offer traditionally created books on a different platform. The hard work – the writing – is carried out just as it always has been, with a committed author working hard at a keyboard.

Two friends have had very different experiences. My mate Peter Jukes has written ‘The Fall Of The House Of Murdoch’, and is selling it with great success on Unbound. Meanwhile, my friend Polly Hope has grasped the nettle and republished her wonderful novel ‘HERE’ online through Amazon Kindle, designing the cover herself, and the ebook is selling for just £3 while the hardback is £15. We’ll watch what happens – meanwhile, I do urge you to read it, as it remains a prescient, eerie and devastatingly strong story.

In September the public has the opportunity to pitch their ideas for ebooks directly to the Guardian publishing team with the opportunity to have their ebook published by that newspaper. They’re running a two-day seminar on 15-16 September 2012, that’s a Saturday & Sunday; 10am-5pm, at Guardian HQ, 90 York Way, N1 9GU, price: £199 (inclusive of VAT and booking fee).

5 comments on “Just How Dodgy Is Digital Publishing?”

  1. Adam says:

    I can confirm all of the above – I published a collection of short stories on amazon; before the release date I pestered all my Facebook friends, twitter and the company magazine (I work for a very large company) to spread the word. Selling price was £2, which I figured would be cheap enough for the curious to take a punt. I also pledged any royalties to a favourite charity of mine. I was really surprised that my collection (albeit briefly) made the amazon top 10 best sellers short story list, just behind Maeve Binchley. I sold a couple of hundred copies, but would hardly claim to be a ‘best selling author’! I’m constantly amazed that anyone can make a living out of such a labour intensive activity..

  2. Mike Cane says:

    >>>designing the cover herself, and the ebook is selling for just £3

    I though the cover illustrating this post was a joke. Until I hit that. Tell me that’s a joke too.

  3. M.E. Hydra says:

    I made about a grand in my first year and sold 600-700 copies of horror/erotica short story collections. I suspect this is the more common story amongst self-published writers – a nice bit of extra income on the side, but nowhere near what could be described as a living (although I know of at least one writer in our collective making extremely good money). I’m not convinced the aggressive marketing strategies are viable in the long term. Most of the time it’s annoying spam that gives everyone involved in digital publishing a bad name.

    I think most of my sales come from people reading the stories I’ve put out online, liking them and then buying the collections for more. Selling on the actual writing feels a little more honest than relying on marketing black arts. It’s easier for erotica, though, as there are plenty of online websites where a writer can build up an audience. Other genres might not have the same opportunities (and it’s probably impossible for more literary writers on the evidence of the bile that Guardian article generated beneath the line).

    I’ll check out Polly’s book. I remember trying to find it when Admin posted about it last time. Good to see it out on kindle.

    I’d also love to see some of Admin’s short story collections available for kindle as well. Thoroughly enjoyed “Personal Demons” and “Uncut” back in the day. ;)

  4. John Howard says:

    Hi Admin. As I really enjoy reading all your books it is of interest to me to find out what platform gives you the better return. Have Kindle and am quite happy to read via digital but, like you, I like libraries and am well on the way to making one of my own so am equally happy buying the print version.

    As you are the hard worker providing my enjoyment and entertainment I would like to give you the best return for your hard work. ( I will understand though if this is something you would rather keep to yourself)

  5. admin says:

    A couple of answers. Mike, Polly is also a highly respected artist in her own right, and designed the mosaics and tapestries for the Globe Theatre. The faux-naif image makes sense when you read the book.

    John, in theory I get a better return from the hardback, as good hardback sales guarantee a better print run for the paperback.

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