x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Online route now viable for best-sellers, but one pitfall remains

Book publishing has been transformed by the internet, which offers budding authors a way to circumvent the traditional industry labyrinth. But as overheads fall, marketing still remains a daunting hurdle.

Many electronic publishers sell books that can be read on popular pocket-sized electronic readers. Michele Tantussi / Bloomberg News
Many electronic publishers sell books that can be read on popular pocket-sized electronic readers. Michele Tantussi / Bloomberg News

Book publishing has been transformed by the internet, which offers budding authors a way to circumvent the traditional industry labyrinth. But as overheads fall, marketing still remains a daunting hurdle.

Once upon a time, an international best seller required authors to negotiate with agents and publishers, trees to be felled, volumes printed and bound, and lorries and ships dispatched around the world.

But the Web has transformed the book-publishing industry from something that had not essentially changed since the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century into an instantaneous global electronic marketplace.

Electronic publishers such as Amazon now sell books that can be read on popular pocket-sized electronic readers (e-readers). These devices enable people to carry hundreds or even thousands of digital copies of books as conveniently as a single traditional paperback.

The new electronic marketplace enables individuals to sell their own work online in the form of electronic files (e-books) without having first to enlist the help of an agent or a book publisher. This applies to professional works as much as to first novels and other fiction.

Having published a book in a chosen specialisation, even electronically, is a useful step for any career path. For new novelists, there is also the chance of becoming the author of an international best-seller or even a literary classic. The trend began slowly a couple of years ago but is rapidly gaining momentum.

John Locke is a 61-year old thriller writer who became the first self-publishing author to sell more than a million digital books via the Amazon website. His Donovan Creed thrillers, priced at 99 US cents, about a former CIA assassin, make him the eighth author to have sold more than a million e-books via the Amazon website.

This seismic shift in the publishing industry has come at the right time for new writers. The traditional route towards publishing a book had become almost impossible for unknown authors. The logistics of the industry and the power of a limited number of international booksellers has meant that fewer publishing deals are made and board approval is frequently needed before publication.

Electronic publishing offers a way to circumvent the traditional industry labyrinth.

The overheads on electronic publishing are also far less than what used to be called "vanity publishing" in the pre-internet era. In most cases, the commission deal offered by electronic publishers is more beneficial than that generally offered to first-time authors.

Amazon, although the best-known electronic bookseller, is not the only major player.

Global competition for popular new authors is set to intensify as competition between electronic booksellers grows. Apple even offers to incorporate not only illustrations into an e-book but also film, as part of a new multimedia application called iBooks Author.

In theory, the first-time author has never had it so good. But one major hurdle still remains - marketing.

In this respect, the publishing industry is merely following a trend set by the music and film industries, which now concentrate all their marketing on an extremely limited range of content.

"Electronic self-publishing has been around for some time in the music industry. The tendency with booksellers is likely to follow the same as the music industry where the publishers' role in distribution becomes more limited but their role as marketeers continues," says Patrick O'Brien, the lead retail analyst at Verdict Research.

Having self-published a book on the internet, a new author may run short of readers once the possibilities of family and friends have been tapped, as marketing any new media effectively is a huge challenge.

Most of the big e-publishing websites follow roughly the same pattern, allowing the new author to upload his or her work unaided in Microsoft Word, the world's most commonly used writing software. Photoshop software is used to create a book with an electronic cover in a PDF format.

A first-time guide through the process is offered by the online bookseller Lulu.com.

Carolyn Brown, a spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble, says the process is fast and easy. "An author's work can go from manuscript to Nook Book [the company's e-book], on sale to millions of book-loving customers, within 72 hours. Authors control all aspects of their work from description and cover, to formatting and price."

There are also a growing number of companies offering design and marketing services to new authors - for a price. BookPros, for example, is reported to charge about US$20,000 (Dh73,460), which is a sound investment if the book sells but is little more than 21st century vanity publishing if it does not.

Depending on the nature of the book, self-marketing can represent an effective route. But there are pitfalls for those who are prepared to go it alone in this way.

Just like a newspaper headline, the title of any new e-book must grab attention in the midst of a plethora of competing titles. It must also refer to whatever the book is about.

Unless the writer wishes to employ expensive professional assistance to promote his or her book online, the best option is to use electronic book fairs such as the London Book Fair, which are increasingly keen to promote digital publishing, and bodies such as the Alliance of Independent Authors.

pf@thenational.ae