Ebook publishing blues

November 27, 2011 at 5:48 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

With Scar out in paperback, I quickly set about getting an ebook version available. Now, personally, I’ve never read an ebook – at least, I hadn’t until I started making one. I don’t have an eReader, and I don’t really want one. You see, it’s not just stories that I love. I really love books; the physical object itself. I like bookstores. I like having books around me at home. While I can see the appeal of being able to carry a library around with you at all times, I can’t quite make the leap, yet.

But I’m not one to make war on the ocean. Ebook sales for January 2010 were up 261% against the previous January, and that statistic is now two years old. Ebooks outsell hardcovers on Amazon, and that’s for established authors. When it comes to self-published authors, the difference is more dramatic. It’s anecdotal, but from talking to authors on forums such as the Createspace forums, ebooks are where it’s at. Check out J.A. Konrath’s blog (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/) and see what he’s doing with ebooks and self-publishing. This is a man who’s turned his back on traditional publishing to self-publish ebooks, because he can make more money that way.

Think of it this way: no one’s ever heard of me, or my novel. They don’t know what to expect from me. For all they know, Scar could be the greatest work of fiction ever created, or (and this is far more likely) it could be a poorly written, unedited exercise in dilettante ego-stroking. But if they read the synopsis and it sounds interesting, they might consider taking a chance on my book. If they want a print copy, they’re risking $14.95 plus shipping. The ebook costs $2.99, and they can download and start reading it instantly.

This is basic marketing psychology, and if you want to sell books – if you want to sell anything – you need to get to grips with this. Ebooks can be priced so low that they become an impulse buy. But when you sell ebooks through Amazon, you get a 70% royalty. 70%, when traditionally-published authors who sell in the MILLIONS get 15-20%. If I sell two ebooks, I make almost as much as I do from one print book; that is to say, a $5.98 ebook sale gets me $4.18, and a $14.95 (plus shipping) print sale gets me $4.45.

I knew I had to make Scar an ebook. But I’m a dunce when it comes to computers. I basically have the same attitude to my PC as I do to my car; I can make it go, but I have no real idea how it works. If something goes wrong, I am powerless to fix it.

Enter smashwords.com. Smahwords is a DIY ebook distributor, and what they do is really quite impressive. When you sign up, you get a free ebook by Mark Coker, the founder of smashwords. (The first and so far only ebook I’ve read, incidentally.) This 88 page behemoth may seem daunting, but it’s an incredible tool that will teach you, step by step, how to take you book (assuming it’s in Microsoft Word) and make it into an ebook. Smashwords will then convert it into every conceivable ebook format, and sell it on their website.

Createspace will offer to make your book available on the Kindle for $79 dollars. But if you follow the Smashwords style guide, your Word document will be Kindle-ready for free. You can then go to Kindle Direct Publishing (kdp.amazon.com) and upload your book for free.

Honestly, if you write a conventional novel, you’d be stupid not to do this. It’s all free, it takes a few minutes, and it’s a whole other way to sell your books. Moreover, the ebook market is the big story in publishing right now. Rely only on print sales, and you will be left behind.

BUT….Scar is not like other books, and so transforming it into an electronic version was a quick day trip to an upper circle of hell. Scar has almost 150 footnotes, each of which had to be individually linked in Word to the point to which they’re supposed to refer. Technically, you can’t do footnotes in an ebook, only endnotes; so they all had to be moved to the end of the book. The blacked-out pages had to be reformatted into images, and once that was done, it turned out they were the wrong kind of images. The palimpsests and overwritten text – the very feature that makes Scar, Scar – simply couldn’t be replicated. Believe me, I tried. I spoke to every professional who would answer an email, and they all said the same thing – no way. Can’t be done. It took a week to turn Scar into a functional ebook, and it still wasn’t perfect.

Ultimately, I had to choose between a neutered version of Scar for the ebook, or nothing at all. But I really believe that this is the future of publishing. I love books; but I said the same thing about CDs. I liked the physical object; I liked the record store. I finally bought my first iPod in 2006, and I haven’t bought a CD in at least three years. Ebooks are new – so new that my spell-check won’t recognize the word – and they have very definite limitations. But that’s how technology goes; we laugh at what seemed impossible a year ago. If you’re not part of the future, you’ve consigned yourself to the past.

So Scar is available as an ebook, without the palimpsests (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/97573). The blacked-out pages are in there, but they seem to appear and disappear depending on what reader you use. The fact of the matter is, I think Scar can stand on the story and the quality of the writing. There’s no doubt that it loses something without the palimpsests; but they’re not essential to the story. I’d rather have it available in this form than not at all.
The way I see it is this: there’ll always be a market for printed books. It’s 2011, and albums are still put out on vinyl; what does that tell you? Sometimes, a cultural artefact and distribution technology meld so perfectly that the object itself becomes a thing of beauty. That’s how I see books. The print version of Scar is a beautiful object, at least to me. It’s the ultimate way to tell the story I set out to tell.

But if people want to buy an ebook, for one-tenth of the price of a print copy plus shipping, I’m not going to stand in their way. I’ve been poor too long myself to start getting elitist. They might miss out on some of the effects I fought so hard to create, but the story will still shine through; they’ll still get it. That’s really all I want.

As a compromise, there’s a note at the back of the ebook. It gives readers a link and a password, so they can go to my website and download a pdf of Scar, the way it was meant to look. This way, those who really get the book, who really understand what I was trying to do, can see it the way it was should be. For those who just want to pass a few hours reading a story, that’s fine too.

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