Epublishing: A Different Way isn’t the Wrong Way


One of the hardest things about doing this series of articles was knowing where to start. Really, there’s so much I could say about epublishing, but usually people say to start at the beginning. Difficult because I’m not really sure anyone knows exactly where epublishing started or who the first epublisher was. I know Awe-Struck has been in business for many, many years and Ellora’s Cave is arguably the most recognizable of epublishers, though not the first or one of the oldest. I also know many of the very first epublishers have since closed their doors. But other than that, I really couldn’t say how epublishing started, who came up with the idea of first selling a book electronically or starting a company dedicated to that. If I did, I suppose I’d want to ring them up and thank them.

You see, I love epublishing. I would say I’m fairly new to the world of epublishing, having only been in it for about five years, but I’d also say that epublishing itself is still in its toddler stages, trying to establish its separate identity from New York publishing. Trying to prove it can do things the “big kids” do and do them just as well, even if done differently. And struggling hard to get people to listen and take it seriously. Sounds a bit like toddlerhood, doesn’t it?

So if I can’t start at the beginning, I’ll start with what epublishing is, what it can be, and what it shouldn’t be. I’ll start with the good, the bad, and the stuff that makes me want to bury myself under the covers for the next five years.

First, what epublishing is. No, I’m not going to bore you with details about how epublishing stands for electronic publishing and is a means of publishing books, magazines, articles electronically for download to your computer or another reading device. I’m going to assume that people reading this are plugged into the publishing industry enough to know what epublishing is, if nothing else (though if you don’t, that’s okay, I’m used to still getting blank stares from people when I say I work in epublishing).

Instead, let’s talk about the business model of epublishing. Because to me, that’s the heart of epublishing, the beauty of it, and what makes it not only different from traditional publishing, but different in a good way and in a way that’s needed.

To start, let’s dispel some rumors. Epublishing is not easy, it’s not a hobby, and yes, there is overhead. However, it is true that anyone can start an epublishing company, some people in the epub industry don’t take their involvement as seriously as they might another business, and overhead is generally lower.

I think, for all intents and purposes, the lower overhead is at the center of the epublishing business model, because it’s what gives epubs the ability to be “cutting edge” so to speak. For the most part, epublishers don’t offer advances and if they do, certainly not on nearly the same scale as traditional publishers. Because the business doesn’t have this outlay at the beginning, it means less worry (not nonexistent, just less) about selling a certain number of copies to recoup that money. This is a huge factor in what allows epublishers to take chances on a wide variety of new authors, unique (and sometimes bizarre) story concepts, and less popular genres. But still good stories. Different doesn’t mean bad—maybe that should be the epublishing motto. Different stories and business model, but that doesn’t mean bad.

In conjunction with no advances is lack of a print run. Some epublishers also put books in print—a topic I’ll cover in a later article—but initial release of the book is electronic. So as with advances, again, epublishers don’t have to meet a sales minimum of thousands of units.

At this point, you’re probably wondering about my earlier statement denouncing “no overhead” as a myth. First, there is the staff behind the book. At Samhain (please note, during this article series, I’ll occasionally use Samhain as an example, since it’s what I’m most intimately familiar with) the staff includes editors, copy editors, artists, marketing manager, review coordinator, submissions coordinator, formatters and various office staff, all of whom have a hand in publishing the book. Even in epublishing, it takes a village to release each book. In addition to staff, there are costs of advertising, marketing, web hosting, office space, lawyers, accountants…all of the things any other business might incur. An epublisher developing their business is reinvesting in their business, and there is no “pure profit”.

But still, to reuse my earlier words, the heart and beauty of epublishing is its differences from traditional publishing—the lack of advances and print runs. Sometimes the very thing decried by authors and writers’ organizations. Of course, the lack of these things means some people aren’t interested in traveling down the road of epublishing, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t interested and aren’t eager, to take the journey. Just as my husband’s disinterest in—okay, avid dislike of—sushi doesn’t mean I can’t eat and enjoy it.

I’m going to put myself out on the proverbial limb and say it’s because of epublishing’s unique business model that we have seen erotic romance become mainstream. Similarly, before the paranormal craze in mainstream publishing, authors like Keri Arthur, Linnea Sinclair, Rosemary Laurey, Mary Janice Davidson and Angela Knight found their paranormal beginnings in epublishing. Epublishing has allowed traditional publishers to watch readers’ reception to a genre or a concept before they venture into it, since there is considerably more risk for them. Who knows what the next hot genre around the corner is, but maybe it will come about because epublishing tested the waters first.

Now, I’m no Pollyanna, so despite all my rah-rahing for epublishing, I can still see, and discuss, the drawbacks of the industry. Earlier I said “anyone can start an epublisher” and it’s true. All you need is a website/storefront, some technical knowledge, and a manuscript. That’s it. Slap a name up there, get a friend to make you some sparkly graphics, write a FAQ and you’re in business. Indeed, what I think is wonderful about epublishing’s business model—not having a large initial overhead—is also the very thing that works against it. After all, no one says a publisher has to do edits, copy edits, marketing, or all of the hundreds of other small and large things that add up to overhead. It goes without saying that this is the very, very bad of epublishing—the lack of these things, of interest in these things or a belief in the need for them.

And that leads me to what makes me want to bury my head under the blankets while my next five years in epublishing pass—publishers who open their doors, lure in authors with big promises and lofty goals, but no business experience or plan to back them up, and then close their doors in often public, ugly and damaging (to epublishing) ways. Probably most of us, if we’ve been around the internet at all, have seen some of these closings and the authors who were dragged along with them. Bankruptcy, failure to return rights, company officials posting diatribes online (often badly spelled, with poor grammar and liberal use of cuss words), and one of the worst—failure to pay royalties or money owed. These are things that shouldn’t happen in epublishing—shouldn’t happen in any business. But they do, and in epublishing perhaps more frequently because it is so easy to start an epublishing business and prey on authors’ dreams of getting their written word in front of an audience.

It’s easy to see why some people want nothing to do with epublishing or have a negative reaction when the subject is brought up. It’s difficult to know which company to trust, because not all companies are professionally run and some companies have been started by authors who want to publish their own books (making epublishing sometimes seem synonymous with vanity press). There are no advances or only token advances—something that’s still important to many authors. I mentioned earlier about the blank stares I get when I mention I work in epublishing—some people don’t think of ebooks as “real” books or as someone epublished as really being published. Some authors want to see their book in print, and on the shelves in bookstores. In addition, sales numbers in epublishing are generally not as high as in traditional publishing—though a percentage of book sales/royalties at some epublishers can match those of traditional publishers—and the audience reached in epublishing is not as big as that of traditional publishers.

There’s a lot that’s good about epublishing, though, things that any number of authors have discovered. Epublishing can allow you freedoms in your story that traditional publishers can’t always offer, in terms of story lines, genres and concepts. This is understandably so, as traditional publishers have those monetary outlays out front that I discussed earlier. Because epublishing is electronic, there can be any variety of lengths of books published—no minimum page or word count to hit. Authors are also able to cross genres in epublishing, something that can’t always occur in mainstream publishing. This is the main reason NY author Lucy Monroe approached Samhain Publishing to publish her inspirational novels as L.C. Monroe. The mainstream Christian publishers were wary of publishing her books and putting off their customers, given her more sensual works as Lucy Monroe.

Other great things about epublishing include a faster time from submission to response and acceptance to publication for most epublishers, more personal contact with people within the company (though I would argue that this can also be a drawback of epublishing), and no need for an agent to get your foot in the door (I’ll discuss epublishing and contracts in a later article). A selection of epublishers also produce books in print as well as ebook. Last, in place of an advance, epublished authors get regular royalty payments (monthly, quarterly or biannually) with a larger percentage of royalties (35-50%). Depending on the epublishing company, authors will begin to see royalty statements very quickly—at Samhain it is the month after the book’s release. In addition, since an author’s backlist can potentially remain available indefinitely, this also means regular royalty payments on backlist titles years after the book’s original publication date.

In the end, it’s up to each author to weigh the pros and cons of epublishing and decide if it’s for them. I think, with careful consideration of the risks, the publishers and the business model, epublishing can be a fantastic venue for authors looking to build a writing career. It’s not a path every author will choose, but even my husband and I don’t take the same route home from our daughter’s daycare. We have what she refers to as “Mommy’s way” and “Daddy’s way”. The same can be said for any two authors pursuing publication.

I dream that with enough positive representation of epublishing, and with time, others will recognize that the epublishing business model is a viable one, one that’s made money and careers for many in the industry, that it provides opportunities not otherwise available for pushing the limits of genres and story ideas, gives a place not previously available for niche genres, and provides readers alternative avenues to seek out new stories. Epublishing does all this in addition to paving the way for traditional publishers to join the electronic revolution, and will continue to do so, even as we overcome our growing pains and find greater stability.

Angela James
July 2008

“Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Epublishing” © 2008 Angela James. All rights reserved.

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