DIY writers: the rise of the e-book

by Felicity Price / 27 October, 2012
As e-books revolutionise the literary world, with advantages for both readers and writers, there are new rules for e-riginal works.
DIY writers - the rise of the e-book

Wellington writer Anne Else, well-known as an author of feminist social commentary, had long wanted to write creative non-fiction. In 2009, while focused on caring for her ill husband, poet and anthologist Harvey McQueen, she decided it was time to start. She enrolled at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters’ creative non-fiction course, and produced a chapter of the book she wanted to write – a food memoir. She won the course prize, and continued working on the book until McQueen died on Christmas Day 2010. “It was six months before I could write any more,” she says. Eventually she was able to finish the book, which traverses the major themes of her life from growing up in the 1950s through to widowhood in 2011 and 2012.

Food is the thread with which she weaves her story together: there is a chapter, for instance, about bad food and the feminist rebellion against the expectation that women should do all the cooking; a chapter about living in Albania; another about the death of her 18-year-old son and the grief that left her unable to eat; another about losing McQueen and learning to live, cook and dine alone for the first time. “[Food] is an incredibly fertile way of reflecting on your life,” she says. She sent the manuscript to Mary Varnham at Awa Press, who had published McQueen’s 2004 garden memoir, This Piece of Earth, knowing there was a chance – despite her standing as an established writer – that her work in a new genre would not appeal to the publisher. She received a response she hadn’t expected.

Varnham liked the book very much, but didn’t know whether it would sell enough to justify print publication. What about going down the e-book route – an “e-riginal”? “I thought about it for about a week, talked to people and decided an e-book in the hand published by Mary was much better than a possibly neverhappening print book in the bush. And there is always the option of going into print later if they decide that’s a good idea.”

Else, 67, says she doesn’t see an e-publication as a poor second-best to print. She herself reads both print books and e-books – she has opted for an iPad rather than a dedicated e-reader such as a Kindle, because it doubles as a computer. She also appreciates the portability of digital books, as well as the ability to enlarge the font. She already has two blogs – one about life after McQueen’s death, the other about food – and has plans to take to Twitter and Facebook to help promote the e-riginal when it is released next March. Although the book won’t feature recipes, there are plans to put them online as an “extra dimension”.


For Awa Press, which has converted all its existing titles to e-book format and from next month will start simultaneously publishing most of its new books in both print and e-book editions, Else’s e-riginal is a first. “The e-book revolution has been led by fiction, especially novels, but this is changing rapidly,” says Varnham. “We get an increasing number of requests from readers for our books to be available in electronic formats.” No wonder. Latest figures indicate there are now 170,000 iPads and e-readers in the country – including Kindles, which can access 1.5 million books in the Amazon e-bookstore, Kobo (supplied by Whitcoulls), and Sony e-readers. On top of that are all the other lightweight tablets on the market, and anyone with a smartphone can add an e-reader app to access digital books on the phone.

Last year, 20 million e-books sold worldwide, although many of them were free. Of those that cost money, a quarter sold for $1-2 and half for under $5. Even bestselling e-books retail for a half to a third of the price of their printed counterpart. E-books have taken off more in the US than elsewhere, with sales increasing 138% last year, according to Publishers Weekly. At the same time, mass market paperback sales fell 54%. Also last year, e-books made up 31% of US book sales, in the UK it was 15%, and in New Zealand between nine and 13%. This represents a massive upheaval as well as a huge opportunity for publishers, authors and readers.


For Wellington publishing house Bridget Williams Books (BWB), which specialises in New Zealand history, Maori experience and contemporary issues, the digital revolution has provided a way of breathing life into a backlist dating back to 1981. BWB owner Bridget Williams says the process of digitising the backlist is neither cheap nor straightforward, and the market for New Zealand non-fiction books is not large. But she believes there is a niche in the digital world for highquality, specialist peer-reviewed books. She says all future BWB books will published electronically (provided they can get permission to use images for e-book publication) and in print.

In many cases only one or two copies of the print edition are still available – these are sent in sealed containers to Indian company Infogrid Pacific (run by New Zealander Richard Pipe), where they are scanned page by page, converted to digital text and formatted for the various types of e-readers. They are then brought back to New Zealand for rigorous proofing and checking (the conversion process can produce some howlers – for instance, the late Maori activist Eva Rickard came back as Eva Packard in one book). BWB has re-contracted all the authors, and permission to reuse thousands of photographs and images is being sought. The e-books will be available for library lending through a digital lending platform developed by Auckland company Wheelers.

Anne Else

Amid the great disruption that the e-book phenomenon is visiting on the literary world, “everything is very uncertain”, says Williams. “Nobody knows quite how this is all going to work out.” On top of that, there has been the upheaval to the book trade caused by Whitcoulls’ being placed in administration last year, the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes on the city’s bookstores, the sluggish economy and the impact from readers buying e-books from international vendors. But, says Williams, “I have absolute faith that New Zealand readers want to know about New Zealand, and they will want to know about it in this new order. So next year we will be strongly positioned to be working in the digital world.” Writing on e-books in the recent third edition of An Introduction to New Zealand Publishing, BWB associate publisher Tom Rennie – who is managing the company’s digitisation work – says by reducing the barriers to publish, digital technologies are “blurring the boundaries” of the industry. “Retailers are emerging as publishers, libraries are exploring retailing, authors are self-publishing, publishers are selling globally – the traditional supply chain is collapsing around us.”

Ocean Books is a case in point. The Tauranga group was formed a year ago as a writers’ co-operative after local authors began finding it harder to get their work published by mainstream publishers. “There were two big things happening: the field was narrowing even for established writers, and the e-book trend,” says Bryan Winters, a Mt Maunganui author and one of the group of volunteers who co-ordinate the co-op. “We said, ‘Why don’t we take matters into our own hands and become our own publishers?’ But we felt there was more to be gained if it was done co-operatively. I could have my little website with four or five books, but if I have a community website we have a critical mass of books.”

The group began with e-book publishing, sold directly from the Ocean Books website as well as through Amazon. More recently, members have been focusing on print books, which “will always be around”. Winters says members must have their work accepted for publication, and editing is done by a team led by Jenny Argante. In Dunedin, Penelope Todd of Rosa Mira digital publishing, is also seeing the rejection by mainsteam publishers of an increasing number of mid-list authors. She is using her publishing experience gained at Longacre to assist authors to publish online. “I’ve seen so many fellow authors, whose book sales by traditional publishers seem to have been on track, turned down for their next book because they’re not seen as viable. Yet they were perfectly viable a year or two earlier. Publishers seem to be far more risk-averse now.”


Writing earlier this year in the publishing blog The Monday Note, Frédéric Filloux of French digital consortium ePresse observed that “we’ve seen nothing yet” of the coming e-book disruption. Consider what’s happening in self-publishing, he says: whereas “vanity publishing was once seen as the lousiest way to land on a bookstore shelf”, this is no longer the case. “Trade blogs and publications are filled with tales of out-ofnowhere publishing hits, or of prominent authors switching to DIY mode, at once cutting out both agent and publisher. And guess who this trend’s grand accelerator is. Amazon.” It has also been reported that Amazon has been wooing and signing up some big-name authors – cutting traditional publishers out of the action – and talent-scouting for upand- coming writers by detecting who is gaining traction in e-sales and on social networks. Filloux predicts that, at some point, the e-book will become the publishing market’s “primary engine”, with authors going digital first, and the most successful landing a traditional book deal with legacy publishers.

“Traditional publishing’s most salient feature is the maintenance of high barriers to entry. The journey from manuscript to bookstore is an excruciating one. Digital publishing removes those barriers – brutally so. The floodgates are now indiscriminately open to every aspiring writer.” In time, search engines that can sort by meaning, pitch and style will help readers navigate through the overwhelming choice; and human curation will remain vital, as the book sections of magazines and newspapers adapt and find ways of suggesting e-readings for their audience. Filloux says if he was publishing a book today, he’d be going digital – because of the shorter time to market, lower pricing, the ability to update and permanence (“an e-book never dies”).

EL James’ soft-porn publishing phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey, started out as a self-published e-book before Random House bought the rights and it went on to become a global best-seller. And then there’s Amanda Hocking, a Minnesota writer of paranormal fiction who was repeatedly rejected by publishing houses before turning to self-publishing on Amazon and selling more than a million copies of her e-books. At any one time on Amazon, authors are offering 2000 of their newly self-published books for free. And the global behemoth said recently that 27 of its top 100 Kindle books have been published using the selfpublishing tool Kindle Direct Publishing. However, the returns are slender for most DIY writers – a survey of over 1000 selfpublished authors found that although a few made over US$100,000 in 2011, average earnings were only US$10,000 and half made only about $500.


As BWB’s Rennie notes, libraries are becoming an important driver of the e-book phenomenon with the nationwide rollout of e-book lending systems. By early this year, more than 70% of public libraries were lending e-books, either using the US lending platform Overdrive or Wheelers’ ePlatform. That means library members can access e-books from anywhere, any time. “If you’re a member, say, of the South Taranaki District Library, it doesn’t matter where on the planet you are, you can access … their content through their website,” says Paula Murdoch, chairwoman of the Association of Public Library Managers. Nevertheless, frustrating restrictions remain for libraries and their members – the main one being that the largest publishers either won’t allow library lending of their e-books or impose tough restrictions. Murdoch says Hachette, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan won’t sell e-books to libraries for lending.

Random House recently hiked its e-book library pricing, Penguin is no longer selling e-books to New Zealand libraries for lending, and HarperCollins allows an e-book to be issued only 26 times before the library must repurchase the title. Allen & Unwin recently insisted that libraries servicing a population of more than 300,000 must buy at least four copies of an e-book. Jill Best, of Tauranga Public Library, also notes that libraries are being charged a higher price for e-books than print books (for retail buyers, e-books are usually considerably cheaper than print books). Her library paid an average price for print books last year of $29, and $40 for e-books. Another hitch is that library e-books can’t be read on an Amazon Kindle without being converted to a different format. Trish du Temple, co-owner with her husband Paul of Auckland-based Wheelers, which specialises in supplying books to libraries and schools, says they have invested heavily in developing their electronic lending platform, which competes with the US giant Overdrive. “We knew it was critical to remaining relevant.”

Wheelers has just signed on Hachette Children’s for library lending, and du Temple says an agreement with Random House UK is expected in the next couple of weeks. Two other major publishers, which she can’t yet name, have agreed in principle to provide their content on the Wheelers platform. Du Temple is a passionate proponent of e-book library lending and its ability to widen the world of reading to people who are isolated or live remotely. “For instance, we work with Victim Support in Australia – some of these people are in hiding, so for them to be able to access books on demand is fantastic.”

In Oamaru, Waitaki District Library manager Philip van Zijl has bought several Sony and Kobo e-readers for local members to borrow and test, and is running clinics to help familiarise people with the technology. He’s also planning to start taking the library’s e-readers into local rest homes, having got the idea after watching an elderly library patron struggling to manage a book. He thinks e-books will eventually displace much of libraries’ large-print stock. Van Zijl, whose background is in academic libraries, envisages authors of specialist non-fiction books such as local histories increasingly turning to self-publishing, and enabling libraries to lend their work.


Meanwhile, mainstream publishers and booksellers are unfailingly chipper about the future of their industry, despite the revolution unleashed by e-books and self-publishing. The death of the printed book, of publishing and of bookselling, is greatly exaggerated, they say. Karen Ferns, managing director of Random House New Zealand, says the rise of the e-book has not harmed the industry. “I take the view that e-books are another channel for us, another format. Publishing is always changing. It’s our role to match up with readers’ tastes and needs.” Instead of something to be feared, the e-book is exciting. “It exposes our writers to international readers more easily, which means our wonderful writers will have new markets in a much easier and quicker way than trying to persuade a foreign publisher to buy the rights and translate,” she says. “It may be challenging at times … but the e-book delivers a much wider audience and that’s got to be good for publishers and the authors we represent.”

Kevin Chapman, president of the New Zealand Publishers Association and managing director of Hachette New Zealand, says the impact of e-books has been both good and bad for publishing. “Obviously the potential downside is that e-book sales are cannibalising p-book [print book] sales and no one knows how much that is. But for the last couple of years, print book sales have gone down,” he says. “And that means the economies of scale of printing large numbers at a time and the unit price of printing smaller numbers is higher.” But Chapman says the impact of e-books is equally positive for his industry. “We don’t know that every e-book sold stops a p-book sale. It could instead be an additional sale, and we think that is the case in many instances – that e-books are actually expanding the market. I have no doubt that there is an element of people who would not have read a book before are now doing so because of the technology,” he says.


Kindle with books Chapman says e-books can also open up new markets worldwide. “Once we get access to the major e-tailers round the world through digital warehouses, we have unlimited access to book-buyers in all English-speaking countries.” Amazon, Apple and Kobo won’t buy from a small New Zealand publisher, he says; they will only do so through a digital warehouse. Lincoln Gould, chief executive of Booksellers
New Zealand, says local booksellers will soon be able to access e-books through the same Australian Publishers Association Title Page software that has traditionally provided price and availability information for print books. And in the last year or so, Digital Publishing New Zealand has digitised 400 printed books by local authors. “When this happens, it will solve a lot of problems around e-content in New Zealand, but it’s been disappointingly slow in coming. It was due late last year, but we have been promised it will be available for the Christmas market.”

Jenni Kiestra, category manager, books at Paper Plus, says the market is indicating that people are more likely to want illustrated books in a physical format and others in an e-format. The owner of a Kindle as well as several thousand printed books, Kiestra is the archetypal contemporary book lover. “A cookbook you can pluck off a shelf at dinner time will always be different from a novel you can take away on holiday,” she says. “E-readers and e-books are here to stay but I don’t think the market will turn its back on the printed book. Readers love their books too much.” Chapman agrees. “I think they’ll co-exist happily. But it will be a while before the market stabilises and we know exactly how the balance will go.” Commercial fiction, the typical “airport books” such as crime, thrillers, paranormal, erotica, chick lit and romance are likely to see the biggest growth in e-books. But Kiestra doesn’t think they will go out of print. “A lot of people like to have something to hold. They can’t interact with their e-reader in the same way, and it’s difficult to give an e-book to someone as a present, or share it, or swap it for another book.”

She also points out that the ownership of an e-book is by no means certain. A rights issue, for example, resulted in a particular book being removed from e-readers overnight, without warning. Mary Sangster, chairwoman of Booksellers New Zealand and owner of the Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch, hasn’t noticed any change in the sale of printed books. Quite apart from the look and feel of an illustrated book for children, “people enjoy the experience of reading with the child on your knee, having a cuddle, turning the pages while you’re reading. You can’t do anything like that with a piece of metal.” There will be some, she acknowledges, who prefer e-books for children, both picture books and young adult fiction. “I thought the teenage market would be where the most pick-up would be, but it doesn’t seem to be happening as fast as we thought.

Maybe there’s a status in having a copy of Twilight sticking out of your bag. And while teenagers love technology, they’re still dependent on their parents to buy it for them. I guess parents are hanging back from paying the price of an e-reader as well as the book.” Gould says booksellers are fighting back against the e-book onslaught. “The big shops like Borders may have gone, but the smaller local bookstore, whether part of a national chain or independent, is learning how to hold onto its customer base. “One of the major attributes of a bookstore over an e-book is the curation of books, the relationship with the customer that builds up from giving advice, finding just the right book on health or finances, knowing just the right novel for someone. There are huge amounts of knowledge within bookshops that you can’t buy online.”

Sangster agrees the service bookshops provide will be the key to survival. “People will still go to the bookseller to ask advice. It’s our skill to keep the customer in our shop and make the sale there.”
For Anne Else, the e-book revolution is something to be embraced. She’s thrilled that her memoir will be Awa Press’s first e-riginal, and is already thinking about the challenge of hosting a launch at which there will be no books for guests to pick up and leaf through. “We were thinking we’ll have to have an e-launch – somewhere where there’s Wi-Fi so that people can bring their [e-readers] and download it.”

Publishing market comes full circle

Poorly written paranormal and erotic fiction has been ruling the e-book roost, but what’s next?

Felicity Price

Most authors steel themselves against having their first book rejected by a publisher. But with six books published already, an author might comfortably expect to have put the dreaded rejection slip behind her. Not any more, as I discovered recently when my latest novel was rejected by my publisher of six years for not being commercial enough. It turns out I’m part of a worldwide trend: the rejection of “mid-list authors”, as we’re known (writers whose books have sold well but not spectacularly; writers whom publishers have kept on in the hope they will one day hit the jackpot). All because the publishing world has changed so radically with the advent of e-books. Despite the rapid rise in e-book popularity and the rush to self-publish online, all authors I’ve come across still prefer to see their book in printed form, to have and to hold, to bury their nose inside the fold and inhale that wonderful combination of new paper and printer’s ink.

In July, I published In Her Mothers’ Shoes - a novel about the adoption triangle and mother-daughter relationships – on Amazon’s Kindle Store as an e-book. But I couldn’t quite come to terms with not having a real book. After a number of people said they couldn’t access it because they didn’t have an e-reader, I had it printed as well. As an e-book, it joins the one million others apparently published for the first time in the past year alone, along with the 20 million e-books available online worldwide, many of them classics scanned and available for free and many more on sale for under $5. That’s the expectation we have of the internet – most stuff is free or extremely cheap. So how can readers expect to receive a quality product when it’s written by amateurs with little or no editing and none of the quality control a professional publishing house would impose? The answer is simple: the market decides.

Currently, the market is deciding it wants paranormal and erotic fiction and doesn’t care if it’s not terribly well written. And the market is coming full circle. Authors of this hugely popular stuff, who couldn’t get their books published a few years ago and self-published online instead, are now being offered eye-watering publishing contracts by traditional publishers so they can sell the printed version in the high-street bookstores. Increasingly, established authors like me are learning not only how to get their creative masterpiece into a professional-looking e-readable book form with an attractive cover, but also how to price it and then promote it, so it sells more than the usual 100. Self-publishing has become a huge industry, as hundreds of companies offer services to design and publish your book. My initial foray has so far been limited to the Kindle Store – it offers special deals for short-term exclusivity, covers the majority of the e-book market, already has my last three books listed and makes the experience – which is full of pitfalls and complexities – comparatively easy.


Writer, publish thyself

The 10-step plan for creating an e-book for Amazon's Kindle Store

The internet has democratised publishing: anyone can have their book published and sell it online. It’s immediate – you don’t have to wait for someone to print it – it doesn’t cost very much and it’s fun. And there are no rejection letters.

1. Get your book professionally edited. Amazon’s “Look Inside the Book” offer allows potential buyers to read the first chapter for free, so if your book is full of typos or clichés, people won’t buy it.

2. Get your cover professionally designed by a graphic designer who’s done this before. There are online templates, but an experienced designer is best.

3. Write a short promotional “blurb” for your book. This is a vital sales tool, as are the eight “key words” you have to choose to help your book show up in readers’ searches (akin to search engine optimisation for Google).

4. Get ISBN numbers (like a car registration for books) from the National Library ( The National Library operates a free, efficient and speedy service, and its ISBN numbers are applicable internationally.

5. Log into Kindle Direct Publishing (, create a password and click to create a new book, and you will find yourself on your first book-making journey.

6. Make formatting your friend. KDP tells you at every stage what to do, and the most crucial is formatting. It will take a long time, so be patient, but it’s worth the effort. Save the file as HTML on your hard drive.

7. Upload your book by following the prompts. Then follow the next lot of prompts to review the book on Amazon Kindle. If you have made any errors in formatting, they will show here and you can fix them, resave your book and upload it again until you get it right.

8. Upload your cover.

9. Decide on your royalty option, distribution (worldwide), digital rights management and availability for lending libraries. The only payment option you can choose outside the US is a cheque.

10. Click “Save and Publish” and in a day or two you can find your book cover
and its blurb up in the Kindle Store.

If you want to have printed copies, you need to go to Amazon’s CreateSpace site (, which runs you through the DIY options, or you can pay for the site to do it. According to Publishers Weekly, 81% of us believe we have a book in us and about half of us think we will write it one day. Just don’t expect to earn a living from it. The odds of hitting the jackpot, like EL James has done, must be something like 50 million (the number of US dollars she’s earned so far) to one.


Blurring the boundaries

A New Zealand newspaper journalist is using a new way to sell a longer story.

If the e-book revolution is upending the traditional supply chain from author to bookstore, there are also signs it may start to dissolve the boundaries between news and bookish non-fiction. The UK’s Financial Times newspaper, which already reaches more than half its global readership through the internet or via mobile devices, recently began publishing e-books that take advantage of the content its specialist news reporters have already produced. So far the list includes a history of the modern Olympics and a collection of writings on the Greek crisis. The third and most recent addition to the FT’s e-book offering was written by New Zealand journalist Jamil Anderlini, the newspaper’s Beijing bureau chief, about the scandalous downfall of the charismatic and ambitious Bo Xilai, the Communist Party’s former boss in the vast city of Chongqing and a man tipped for a place in the party’s top echelons. Bo‘s wife, Gu Kailai, was recently found guilty with a co-accused of the murder of British businessman Neil Heyward. Bo has been expelled from the party and is to be tried for various crimes, including corruption and “improper sexual relationships” with women.

Anderlini, who had been reporting on the unfolding scandal since it broke, was working on a feature length article for the FT’s weekend magazine when he realised he had far too much material for just a 5000-word piece. So he proposed an e-book, which gave him the freedom to write without the cursed constraints of space and word limits, enabling him to weave anecdotes and detail into the tale. He then savagely carved out a short version for the magazine, and the e-book went on sale through Amazon, Apple and Kobo in September as The Bo Xilai Scandal: Power, Death and Politics in China. Cost: US$1.32. One could debate whether, at around 18,000 words, it’s a long article or a short book; whether it’s journalism or non-fiction. But who cares? It’s a timely, detailed and instantly available account of an enthralling current story. So current, in fact, that when important new information about the case emerged just as Anderlini was about to board a plane, and just as the e-book was due to be made available, he had to quickly write the revisions while in flight and then dash to a Starbucks to email them through. Even so, he says, “it’s already out of date … But on the flip side I could do a revised one next week. It’s not like you have to pulp every issue that’s already gone out.”

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