When you get the chance, take a look at J. A. Konrath’s blog about self-publishing via eBooks (there’s a *lot* there, so you may have to cruise around a bit).
I’m not 100% sold on the idea — as I’ve previously noted, I don’t have an eReader and could never see myself forsaking actual, physical books, at least entirely — but Konrath (along with his guest bloggers, including Barry Eisler, who just turned down a two-book $500k advance because he knows he can do better self-publishing via eBooks) has single-handedly convinced me that eBooks probably are the wave of the future when i comes to most mass market books. This type of publishing certainly appears to offer a viable way out of the trap of going the traditional route: find a good agent willing to work to sell the first book of an unknown author; find a publisher; sell the book through traditional channels at moribund brick-and-mortar bookstores.
As a follow-up to Konrath’s blog, allow me to present Exhibit B: Amanda Hocking.
Amanda Hocking is the #1 best-selling author on Kindle, making 100k+ sales every month — and keep in mind: each of her books sells for $2.99 and she makes 70% of that. That works out to a minimum of $200k/month, plus she sells a lot of books via B&N’s site, Smashwords, and she sells stuff via print-on-demand hardcopies. $400k/month is probably a conservative estimate. And you won’t see any of her stuff in bookstores, and you and I have probably never heard of her. Take a look at that list of best-selling Kindle authors. How many of those had you ever heard of? I had heard of exactly two of them, and I haven’t actually read anything by either of those two.
Here are my take-aways (and I’d be very curious to hear others’ views):
No one (I think) is arguing that traditional publishers don’t provide value-added for both readers and authors. They serve as The Gatekeeper for the industry, and so select only the “best” books to publish (which turns out to be the “best-selling,” not the “best content”). But theoretically, they weed out all of the poorly-written books. As we know, that doesn’t happen in practice always, but they do weed out some of the worst crap so we don’t have to. They also provide valuable editorial directions. We all know those authors (ahem, Stephen King and Tom Clancy leap to mind) who are “too big” to edit.
The downside to all this is that traditional publishers serve as The Gatekeeper for the industry. They select which authors can publish and what they can publish. Readers have no idea what they are missing out on because many authors are not allowed to publish. Many authors simply are not allowed to publish via traditional means and therefore have had no way to reach readers (and no way to earn enough money to be a full-time writer), at least until the rise of eBooks. eBooks provide an entirely new paradigm that has the potential to overturn the existing system.
Amanda Hocking may be a great writer. She may be a remarkably poor one, who is merely prolific and has a good sense about eMarketing. I have no idea — she doesn’t appear to write things I’d care for, so I’m unlikely to ever read any of her stuff. Who knows, maybe all of her 100k readers buy one of her books then hate her work (though something tells me that’s not the case, since this system is somewhat self-regulating in that readers are free to write reviews on Amazon and elsewhere and if all her readers were dissatisfied, she’d stop making so many sales). The moral of the story may simply be that if you write popular, throwaway novels that tap into the zeitgeist (the public’s love affair with paranormal romance novels in Hocking’s case), price them cheaply, and do a little eMarketing, you can reach a metric buttload of readers and, oh by the way, make a ton of money. In Hocking’s and J.A. Konrath’s cases, they have literally priced themselves out of the traditional publishing industry: no traditional publisher can offer them more money than they can make selling their stuff online by themselves.