Thursday 26 September 2013

To e-, or not to e-?

Not so long ago I felt like I was waging my own ebook revolution. Having published my first novel as a Kindle book on Amazon last year, I faced a dual challenge: I had to sell my novel, but I also had to make the case for reading books in a digital format. Amongst my own group of friends, I was often required to help would-be readers download a Kindle app before they could go on and purchase my book. It was a hybrid sales/computer-support role that I never envisaged for myself when I set out to write a family saga set in the second-world war.

Next week I am participating in a session at the Henley Literary Festival on ebooks and self-publishing - the prospect of which has sparked some navel-gazing. Coincidentally, I also happened upon a feature by Jonathan Franzen in The Guardian which takes a swipe at Amazon and self-publishing, in the midst of a complex argument about the perils of modernity. Here is an extract:

Book cover for Kindle novel, 'A Sister for Margot' by Emma Clark Lam
Only available as an ebook on Amazon
"Amazon wants a world in which books are either  self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of course people with the money to pay someone to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world."

For starters, I don't believe there are many indie writers out there paying people to write stellar reviews - if anything the review system is robustly democratic and a discerning reader can usually tell if a write-up is suspect or biased. Mr Franzen goes on to argue that the world of ebooks is not for people who want to communicate "in the quiet and permanence of the printed word". Here, he seems to be confusing ebooks with tweets, since reading a digital book is certainly no less permanent or quiet than reading one with a physical binding. It also took me 10 years to write and edit my 140,000-word novel, an experience that felt pretty indelible at the time.

There are many different ways of self-publishing an ebook, but Amazon, the market leader, has inevitably become the industry's hate figure. Your view of Amazon depends of course on which camp you are standing in. I can appreciate that Mr Franzen - an established author who talks of the physical book going on the "endangered-species list" - might feel threatened by Amazon's overreaching ambitions. I, on the other hand, see the online bookseller as a champion of the little people. The company's Kindle direct publishing system, open to all users, has enabled me to get my book downloaded by more than 2,600 people. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago: my manuscript would have languished on my hard drive unread

All this talk of ebooks heralding the demise of physical books is a touch hysterical. Naturally figures from The Publishing Association show that the ebook segment of the market is growing much more quickly than physical books: sales of digital fiction increased by 149% last year, compared with a rise of 3% in physical fiction. However, digital publications (ebooks, audiobooks, online subscriptions) only accounted for 12% of overall book sales in 2012. The ebook market is still just a minnow.

Literary agent Luigi Bonomi was asked at the Britmums Live conference last summer whether he was threatened by the rise of self-publishing. His response was: "No, all the best [self-published] writers end up with an agent and publisher to increase their revenue streams." By his thinking, self-publishing becomes a kind of auditioning process where the best talent floats to the top of the pool. Ebooks have plugged a gap in the market because it has become too financially risky for the traditional gatekeepers (publishers and agents) to take a punt on an unknown writer. 

The question indie authors face is whether they sell out to the big guys once they are 'discovered'. Self-publishing does require assorted skillsets - publicity, sales, marketing and accounting - all of which can detract from the writing process itself. At some point, it could be tempting to offload a part of that. Right now, however, I have evaded the gatekeepers and am enjoying my little foray in publishing: vive la revolution!

The Henley Literary Festival will be holding a session on ebooks and self-publishing on Sunday, 6th October, at 10.30am in The Quince Tree. Journalist Lucy Cavendish will be interviewing Angela Levin, Clive Limpkin and me about our work.

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