Authors who self-published their books have traditionally done it out of desperation– it was the result of being ignored or rejected by publishing houses. And without the marketing muscle of a publishing house, most of those self-published books were doomed commercially.
But the world of self-publishing is changing fast in the digital era. A growing number of authors are making a nice living selling their own e-books, often at $0.99 a pop. Below is a list of four that are at the top of that heap. One of them earned between $1.5 million and $2 million last year from sales of her ebooks; another walked away from a $500,000 advance after calculating he could do better on his own; a third bypassed traditional publishers to sign an exclusive deal with Amazon; (NSDQ: AMZN) and the fourth sold over 360,000 ebooks in March alone.
In 2009 (the latest figures available), nearly 765,000 titles were self-published in the U.S., an increase of 181 percent over the previous year. The self-publishing business is heating up in other ways too. Just last week, Smashwords, which publishes and distributes about 45,000 ebooks, signed a deal with ScrollMotion to create mobile apps for all its 18,000 author clients. To be sure, the vast majority of self-published books never come close to a bestseller list and their authors aren’t exactly raking it in. But as the self-publishing business matures, more authors are carving out audiences — in some cases, in sizable numbers. Some of them now even have agents handling their foreign and movie rights, and big publishers knocking on their doors.
Backstory: The 26-year-old from Austin, Minn., writes in a genre known as paranormal romance (romance with elements of fantasy and horror)– think Twilight. She has self-published a total of nine books in three series, with the tenth, Virtue, to be released on Memorial Day. Her Trylle Trilogy made the USA Today bestseller list and was optioned by Media Rights Capital, with District 9 screenwriter Terri Tachell adapting.
Agent: Stephen Axelrod, The Axelrod Agency
Revenues: Hocking says she sold over 1 million copies of her books on Amazon between March 2010 and March 2011, making somewhere between $1.5 and $2 million.
Trying Out Traditional Publishing: On the strength of her success at self-publishing, Hocking sold her four-book series Watersong to St. Martin’s Press in March for an estimated $2 million-plus at auction. St. Martin’s beat HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster–and Amazon, in what is believed to be the first time the company went up against major book publishers in an new-book auction. Amazon had partnered with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to handle the print side and to ensure that Barnes & Noble would carry the books, but insisted on the exclusive rights to publish the e-book; though Amazon’s bid was actually the highest offered, Hocking and Axelrod rejected it because they believed its terms would lead to lost e-book sales.
Since the auction, Hocking has gotten even deeper into the traditional publishing world: Last week, she announced that St. Martin’s will republish her Trylle Trilogy in both digital and print formats next year. On her blog, she suggested that fans buy the Trylle e-books at their current $0.99-$2.99 prices, noting that St. Martin’s will likely raise the price when its version of the book comes out and replaces the self-published editions.
Backstory: Eisler’s bestselling John Rain thriller series was originally published by Penguin Putnam and Ballantine. But in March, the 48-year-old author and former CIA agent and technology lawyer, shocked the publishing world by announcing he’d turned down a $500,000, two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press to self-publish the next Rain novels. Eisler splits his time between San Francisco and Japan.
Why the self-publishing math works better: Eisler did the math and concluded that he could do better self publishing than going with St. Martin’s. With traditional publishing contracts, a 25-percent royalty on e-book net revenue is standard. In the case of a book sold on the Kindle Store, Amazon would take 30 percent of that royalty and the agent would take another 15 percent. That leaves the author with just 14.9 percent of ebook revenues. And authors have to earn out their advances — in Eisler’s case, that would have been $500,000 — before they even see a royalty payment.
By contrast, when Eisler self publishes, he earns 70 percent of each Amazon sale–forever. And though he doesn’t get an advance, he starts earning sooner. If Eisler had gone with St. Martin’s, his book wouldn’t have been available until next spring. By self-publishing, he says, he can make it available earlier and gain an extra year of sales.
Revenues: Eisler has started his self-publishing career by publishing short stories on the Kindle Store. He says that between Amazon, the Nook Store and Smashwords, which both publishes and distributes ebooks, his short stories generally make $1,500 apiece in the first month and $1,000 per month thereafter. “I’ll keep dropping the price of previous shorts as new ones go up,” he says. Each story contains an excerpt of Eisler’s next John Rain novel, The Detachment, which he plans to release this summer.
Backstory: The mystery/thriller writer from Schaumburg, Ill., published the first six books in his Lt. Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels series with Hyperion. It’s still in print (“a cruel irony, since right now I’d pay big money for my books to go out of print so I could get the rights back”). In May 2010, he signed a deal with Amazon.com publishing imprint AmazonEncore to publish his seventh Jack Daniels title, Shaken; the Kindle edition was published in October 2010, at a price of $2.99, with paperback and audiobook editions following in February 2011. Konrath, 41, has 40 e-books available for sale, 32 self-published and eight traditionally published.
Agent: Jane Dystel, President of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. She handles his foreign rights and helped him negotiate the deal with AmazonEncore.
Price testing: Konrath says it’s key for self-published authors to try out different prices for their e-books, and not be afraid to lower an existing price. Traditional publishers are reluctant to sell e-books too cheaply because they worry about cutting into print sales. But after Konrath lowered the price of his book The List, sales increased to 1,500 copies a day.
Revenues: As of April 24, Konrath had sold 276,111 self-published books, the bulk of them in the past six months. He netted $68,000 in March alone. On his blog, he tells other self-published authors that one of the beauties of self publishing is the absence of artificial sales deadlines. “E-books are forever, and forever is a long time for a book to find its audience.”
Backstory: The thriller author and real-estate developer Locke lives in Louisville, Ky., and is the author of seven books, all of which have hit the Kindle bestseller list. He says he’s had five books on Kindle’s top 10 list simultaneously, and claims that “every seven seconds, 24 hours a day, a John Locke novel is downloaded somewhere in the world.” He is 60.
Agent: Jane Dystel, President, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
Revenues: Locke prices all his e-books at $0.99, pulling in $0.35 for each one sold (Amazon pays a 30% royalty on Kindle books priced under $2.99). He sold 369,000 ebooks on Amazon in March, and told the Wall Street Journal (NSDQ: NWS) he made $126,000 that month. He does not plan to raise his prices above $0.99.