Last night I received an email from Rob Heinze, who has self-published 14 novels. His latest The Swarm is now riding high on the Nook and Kindle charts. "Reviewers are calling me the next Stephen King," he tells the email list. This is one of many such emails I receive from authors telling me of their indie success - almost daily.
This morning I read too that self-published crime writer Kerry Wilkinson was the biggest selling Kindle book on Amazon.co.uk in the final quarter of 2011. According to his Amazon page, the Daily Express has described him as "The Hottest New Author In Britain". Not bad for an author who has yet to find a publisher.
These are just the latest examples: before Heinze and Wilkinson, there was Hocking and Konrath, Locke and Leather, Eisler and Edwards.
This list represents a growing worry for traditional publishers, but it is also one often overstated. According to an analysis by Publishers Marketplace of the NYT bestseller lists last year, just 11 self-published authors made the charts, and since they were selling at a fraction of the price of other books they were earning a fraction of the income. However, as Joe Konrath points out here, or Lexi Revellion here, they do not need to earn grand sums of cash in order to maintain a living at this (and damage the reputation of those publishers who should be publishing them).
For years the publishing industry has ignored self-publishing and dismissed those companies helping authors reach the market as vanity operations. The authors themselves have been pilloried and left to languish on the slush-pile. It's little wonder so many of them seem pissed off with publishers.
But the world has moved on, Amazon has created a huge freemarket for "published" content where there is little or no differentiator based on quality, or other suitable algorithm. I'm not always sure the big publishers have moved with it. The reaction of some publishers is still to be airily dismissive of self-published writers, as was evident in the recent Guardian piece "Ebooks are being driven by downmarket genre fiction", or Profile founder Andrew Franklin's view, expressed at the London Book Fair last year, that at dinner parties you turn away from self-published writers.
A second reaction is also now evident, the attempt to brush off these sales as insignificant. They are not. A reader who buys the latest Konrath for a buck is a reader who won't have the reading time to buy the latest Grisham for two bucks. At its recent IfBookThen presentation analyst A T Kearney attempted to quantify these lost sales, estimating that with a market value of $20m to $30m in the US, self-publishing was reducing publisher turnover there by $70m to $120m.
What strikes me most about indie writers, however, is not what they write, but how they publish it. Konrath may be a 'downmarket' writer for some, but he is a first-rate publisher for many, as was Hocking: they wrote regularly, priced to the market, and promoted like hell. Heinze and Wilkinson may be looking for publishing deals: they just can't be bothered waiting for traditional publishers to "discover them".
Tradtional publishers need to learn from these successes, if they are to throw off the irritating "legacy" tag some self-published writers hang around their necks.
Some already have. The price-led initiatives from publishers such as Constable & Robinson, Corvus, and The Friday Project shows that they need not be crowded out in the race for Kindle sales by indie authors on a mission.
A model based on the Macmillan New Writing imprint (now sadly closed for submissions just at a time when it should be devouring new 'indie' talent) but digital only, also now makes sense, particularly if publishers are prepared to split royalties in return for no advances. Sure the costs involved in dealing with the submissions might be onerous, but an EasyJet approach to the publishing deal has to be a better approach than Amazon's "see no evil, hear no evil" attitude.
Building author communities around your publishing business as Penguin and HarperCollins are trying to do with BookCountry and Authonomy respectively also looks increasingly important.
Some self-published authors come across like revellers locked-out of a club on News Year's Eve: why not let them in and have them play their part in making the club bigger and better. As Molly Barton, global digital director at Penguin USA who co-founded Book Country, said at IfBookthen, "if you choose to operate outside of that [traditional publishing] world, then we can give you the tools and skills to help you, and do more for you than technology companies, because we understand this".
Of course talent will still slip through the net and some self-published writers will never be wooed back into the fold, but at least by opening the gates a little publishers will come across as a more welcoming option for all writers in search of readers. Similarly, in engaging with many writers, not just the few lucky enough to get published in the traditional way, the books that ultimately reach readers will generally be improved. The clear and present danger with the Kindle's penny-dreadfuls is that overtime they put off readers, not because the books are 'downmarket', but because they are badly edited and poorly presented.
As one reader comment on Heinze's blog makes clear: "the book was great and the typos weren't very bad". That's something no-one wants to read.
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