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Author as salesman

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

How quickly the world changes. At the end of August I wrote about a “mid-list” author — that is, one with steady but unspectacular sales — in the UK who was saying, to only a little controversy, that published writers today are unlikely to earn enough money from their books to live on. The reason Ewan Morrison gave was the shift to ebooks. It is very difficult to get customers to pay “reasonable” sums for digital content, as the music industry long ago discovered.

And now comes a thoughtful summary of the past year in “self-publishing”, written by another novelist, 34-year-old Irishman David Gaughran, on his blog, “Let’s Get Digital”. Gaughran isn’t even in the mid-list; heck, he hasn’t even been formally published. But his short stories and brand-new historical novel are being bought by readers in rising numbers, at $0.99 and $6.99 respectively. And he is earning enough to cover his publishing costs, mere months into his self-publishing experiment. Who knows how much money the future holds?

Self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like. It is what happens when a writer leaves the literary agent and the publisher out of the picture and sells his writings directly to his readers. It’s hardly new (if you are willing to pay, somebody somewhere will surely publish your work) but now it can happen in electronic form, on a platform like

One of the temptations is money. Traditional publishers cannot give authors more than 15 per cent, usually of the net. But self-publishers, especially of ebooks — which don’t need ink, paper and transport, though they do need editing and formatting — can make 70 per cent of the cover price every single time. On the same number of sales, then, a self-published ebook can earn its author four times more than a paper book.

On the other hand, marketing and publicity, still among the most important that services traditional publishers provide, this adventurous author must accomplish all on his own. This is one reason why most writers are hesitant to self-publish — how to make readers notice what you write, much less buy it in sufficiently large numbers? But again, the Internet can help you with that. Find a niche, develop a following.

There is by now a thriving subculture, if it can be called that, of writers following exactly this route. Not that this statistic is linked, but recent data suggest that in the US books market, which is the biggest in the world, ebooks make up nearly a third of total sales. Ebooks are now the largest single format in the US, beating even paperbacks. Revolutionary!

Partly this is because ereaders are cheaper than ever. Prices dropped before Christmas, and now all those giftees need to fill their empty new ereaders with new books. (I presume the parallel rise in sales for self-publishers is not because these writers are all buying each other’s books.)

Personally, I don’t think Gaughran is a great writer. (I read the free sample chapters.) Perhaps the traditional publishers were right to pay him no attention. But he has earned $5,000 from his self-published writings this year: “My professional career has really turned around in 2011,” he writes happily. “I’m not making enough to live off, but for the first time in my writing career

I can see a path to that point — and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Another thing that’s beautiful is freedom. Gaughran adds: “[It] turns out there is a market for anything. Welcome to the age of the micro-niche! If you want to read a book about space-faring dragons written in iambic pentameter, it’s probably out there. [...] Writers can write whatever they want. And, more importantly, readers can read whatever they want.”

Let the publishers tremble. In India, $5,000 is a living wage, more than most authors earn in traditional royalties. And everywhere one looks, there is a tab, smartphone or ereader. Soon they will be filled with quickly consumable books.  

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First Published: Sat, January 07 2012. 00:09 IST