Authors who won't wait to be printed
Digital self-publishing is an expanding world within the universe of books
The distance between readers and writers is getting ever-shorter
"You - Yes, you - are Time Magazine's Person of the Year. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world," Time magazine told millions of anonymous internet users in 2006.
Back then, Ángel María Herrera ran a small publishing house with a few other business partners. "We were publishing two books a month, but were getting around 300 [manuscripts]. There were lots of works that were not getting published, and we thought: 'Who are we to decide what's good and what's bad?' That's why we decided to create a space where everything would get published, and the greater public could then decide. Our decision had a lot to do with that Time cover," he recalls.
Bubok, a self-publishing platform for physical and digital books, was born in 2008.
"Back then we were considered pretty weird. Publishers blamed us for everything: there was no quality, just anybody was getting published, the new technologies were putting the model at risk... But we have undergone huge change since then: we've gone from being rejected to being accepted, and seeing giants like Pearson buy Author Solutions because they are aware that they need a presence in that market."
Last summer, the Pearson group dished out 116 million dollars for Author Solutions, which calls itself the leading indie publishing company in the world, so that its book unit Penguin could participate "in the area of greatest growth in the publishing economy" and to become more competitive in the "acquisition of clients and data analytics, since both will be vital to our future."
"The companies in the publishing world have realized that self-publishing is a very profitable business because it's the author who assumes the risks. Before this, it was the publisher who took the risk; now it's the creator, but there is a reward: traditionally, authors took home 10 percent of sales on the outside, but with self-publishing they can keep as much as 70 percent or 80 percent of the royalties. In the English-speaking world, publishers are investing in self-publishing because it gives them access to a whole other selection of authors, to a new source of revenues, and above all, it creates a direct relationship with readers," says Javier Celaya, a founding partner in the publishing consulting firm Dosdoce.com.
During one of his night shifts, the police officer Esteban Navarro went online. He had heard about Amazon, but not about Kindle Direct Publishing, its self-publishing service. He clicked on the link. He'd been writing novels and short stories for the previous 15 years, and had tried everything, from entering competitions to sending manuscripts to publishers - so he figured, why not give it a try?
"I saw that it was very simple, so I uploaded the file for El buen padre (or, The good father), set a price tag of 0.99 euros and left it there," he explains. He then forgot about it for the next two weeks, until Amazon sent him a message to inform him that the book had been downloaded 10 times, three in the United States.
"I felt encouraged and in January 2012 I uploaded a novel I'd written 12 years earlier, La casa de enfrente (or, The house across the street). Mysteriously, within 15 days it made the top 10."
A month and a half later, he got a call from Ediciones B. The publisher wanted to print a paper edition of La casa de enfrente . "Not even two years have gone by, and look: now I'm getting published and read by people," he says.
Navarro still has trouble believing it: a traditional publishing house has bought the rights to his novels; he was a finalist in the latest Nadal Book Prize; he is a member of the Kindle Generation - a term he coined himself - and he features on Amazon.es's Book Month.
"We ourselves have been positively surprised at the good reception of our self-publishing service," says Koro Castellano, director of Kindle España.
"It has an unbeatable formula for success because you keep control over the cover design, the price, the proof editing, the countries where it gets sold... There are more advantages than with traditional publishing, which is a longer process. With Kindle Direct Publishing, in a couple of days you can go global in an easy, fast, free manner."
The pocket edition of La casa de enfrente went on sale on November 14, 2012. The next day, Navarro walked into the largest bookstore in Huesca, where he lives, and saw his novel sitting next to Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, the biggest success story in self-publishing - for now.
The British author uploaded a first version of the story, then titled Master of the Universe , on fanfiction.net in August 2009. In December 2010 she took the text to her own website, 50shades.com, and in May 2011 a small Australian publishing company published volume one in the trilogy. Digital enthusiasm for it led Hollywood studios to express an interest in the story, and James hired a literary agent to help her negotiate a multi-million-dollar contract with Vintage Books (Random House). From now on, her next titles will belong to the Vintage catalogue.
Navarro would also rather have the backing of a conventional publisher. "You have to think in the long term. Amazon gives you succulent royalties while the advance I got from Ediciones B was less than what I got from Amazon. But how long will my books remain at the top? A publisher ensures expansion beyond Amazon, a presence in physical bookstores and other platforms like Fnac or Casa del Libro," he says, explaining that he is happy to give away "total control" over his novels.
"They decide on the price, the cover, and so on, because you can't fly solo in this world. If I have to design the cover, deal with sales and handle the stock all by myself, then when do I get to write?"
Like Esteban Navarro, other self-published authors such as Bruno Nievas, Eva García Sáenz or Eloy Moreno eventually got a call from publishers. "The self-publishing platforms are becoming fishing grounds for new talent," says Celaya. Discovering new voices is one of the main goals of writer and reader communities including Penguin's Book Country or HarperCollins' Authonomy.
"Normally, behind every writer, whether good or bad, there is always a good reader, and that's the reason why all those big companies are investing in reader groups," adds Celaya.
"To them, these communities are a great way to capture talent and marketing, because publishers can do more than just fish out whatever they find interesting - they can also sell the rest of the books in their catalogue."
A case in point is J. K. Rowling and Pottermore, an ecosystem created for fans of the Harry Potter series, and the only place where they may buy the e-books from the saga.
"I insist to publishers that this is where the real problem lies: for authors who were using traditional channels to suddenly say 'I don't need these intermediaries.' That's what Ms Rowling did, now that she has a database of millions of users that she can send newsletters, merchandise promotions and other information to. This is where the great potential lies, not so much in the profit margin, because even though she most certainly increased her share of the royalties by eliminating a few intermediaries - she now has other ones like Sony, her technological partner."
In Book Country, just like at Amazon or Apple, authors can self-publish their works free of charge. The difference is that the Penguin community also offers pay services like cover design, ISBN registration, style correction, distribution and marketing campaigns. These services are also on offer from Authonomy, Bubok or Rocautores, a hybrid model launched last December by the publisher Blanca Rosa Roca. Any new writer who wants to get a manuscript published can send it to Rocautores, where professionals will assess it and draw up a report for 275 euros. If the report is positive, the author may then hire its publishing services.
"We go further, because we are still publishers and we have a publishing house like Roca behind us, so we feel that we have to be selective. It's the same process, with the sole difference that instead of us investing, it's the author who invests in him or herself," says Roca. Marca de aire is the first e-book published by Rocautores. Written by Daniel Bilbao, the story takes place in 2046 Spain, and fits well within the types of fiction that Roca Editorial has specialized in - historical, crime, romantic, thriller, young adults - in its nine years of existence.
"For publishers it's very intelligent to create these platforms because it's not the same thing to self-publish on Lulu than to self-publish on the Penguin platform. If I were having a cup of coffee with friends, I would tell them: 'I'm getting published by Penguin' and then in a low voice I would add: 'Well, by their self-publishing platform.' The brand name is very important in the digital world," Celaya believes.
And that is precisely one of the obstacles facing self-published authors. "Traditional publishers have a value, a quality seal; you buy a book from Planeta or Alfaguara, and you know what you're going to get. A self-published author needs to be recommended to you or else you need to know the author personally, because he or she lacks the backing," Herrera explains.
To readers, the most attractive part about self-published books is the price. On Amazon.es, anyone can download all seven novels by Esteban Navarro for 6,50 euros.
When the readers' club is online
In order to attract readers to their titles, publishers are getting increasingly involved in direct sales to the client. In February, three major publishing groups - Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Schuster - launched Bookish (www.bookish.com), with support from 16 other smaller publishing companies and the daily USA Today .
The website is a combination bookstore, discussion forum and literary supplement offering interviews with authors, promotional videos, first-chapter peeks and a sophisticated recommendation system based on personal preferences.
"We try to connect readers with the books and authors they like best. Other actors have played this role, such as booksellers or supplements and magazines, and they're still out there. Our job is a complement to that," says Ardy Khazaei, the project director, in a telephone conversation. "Amazon is a store and we have a link to them, but we want to offer something more than a product. We present user reviews in a different way and they are not the main thing. Technology offers many possible ways of recommending and personalizing information."
Zola Books (www.zolabooks.com) runs along the same lines. This initiative also aims to bring together book-related conversations, information and products, with a focus on e-book sales and on connecting readers to independent bookstores.
"There are websites to buy books, websites to talk about books, websites to read specialized critic reviews and blogger reviews. You can find your favorite author's twitter account or blog, but there is no space where writers, readers, booksellers, critics, bloggers and publishers can gather around the books they like. In the real world this sort of get-together happens at bookstores, book clubs and other places. Why can't they happen in cyberspace?" wonders Joe Regal, director of Zola.
And then there is Goodreads (www.goodreads.com). This literary social network was born in 2007 in California and by 2013 it had a staggering 16 million registered users, who share their favorite reads and recommendations with their friends or with other random site users.
Goodreads had the advantage of independence in its recommendations, a fact that gave it an added edge in the industry following several scandals over review manipulation at Amazon, which forced the giant bookseller to change the rules of its online community. In 2008, the company founded by Jeff Bezos bought another social book network, Shelfari, and it is a partner in Librarything, so it seemed like just a matter of time for Amazon to approach Goodreads with an offer. On March 28, it was confirmed: Amazon had bought the popular platform created by Otis Chandler.
"Price is of the essence on the internet when it comes to buying tickets or booking hotels. And it's also the case with books. Until now, a publisher only thought about the price twice: once when the book went out in hardcover and again when the pocket edition came out. Now they have to take into account that the price is a key element to encourage demand and also to fight online piracy," says Celaya, who feels that consumers are not prejudiced when it comes to buying e-books by unknown, self-published writers.
When the price is higher, as is the case with paper copies, Navarro thinks there is more reticence.
"I caught some work colleagues saying that if they were going to spend 10 euros on a book, they would rather buy something from a renowned author. I didn't take it personally because I understand: for 0.99 euros you can risk it, but for 20 euros you're going to think it over."
To Guy Kawasaki, "the beauty of self-publishing lies in allowing writers to see whether people like their book without going through a traditional publisher." It's part of the adventure. He has self-published his two most recent books, What the Plus! and APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur . How to publish a book, a handbook for anyone wishing to go it alone . But no matter how encouraging this sounds, not everyone starts off with the kind of edge that Kawasaki had: he is a former Apple manager, a marketing specialist and an entrepreneur whose blog is read by hundreds of thousands of readers; he has over a million followers on Twitter.
Indeed, according to Herrera, the hardest part of all is making a name for yourself. Expectations improve if you already have a community of readers who follow your posts, tweets or Facebook comments. Failing all this, authors have several options: keeping their fingers crossed, signing up for an online marketing course for writers, or hiring a professional with online skills.
"Welcome to the new world, but the same thing that used to happen before still happens now. If your publisher did not position you properly, didn't invest in you, then your book got overlooked. Publishing is not synonymous with selling. The book needs to be pushed. And in self-publishing, unless you really take off, your book will be bought by your boyfriend/girlfriend, your friends, your family and not many more people. That's the reality of things for the great majority," says Celaya.
As for distribution, traditional publishers don't help, either. Self-published authors accumulate sales figures, but not interviews or book reviews. Still, there's been some progress: Michiko Kakutani, the influential New York Times book critic, listed Alan Sepinwall's The television was televised among her 10 favorite books of 2012; the English-speaking world is spawning reader cooperatives like Awesome Indies which trawl the immensity of self-published books and select the best-quality ones. In Spain, Paula Corroto, head of the e-book magazine EnCubierta, wants to address this selection job for books that did not follow traditional publishing channels.
In the last five years, self-published books have trebled in the US - there were over 235,000 new titles in 2011. In Spain it is still hard to come up with hard figures: Bubok published 11,728 titles in 2012, ISBN catalogued 6,590 titles under the author-publisher category, and Amazon will not release numbers.
These days, it is possible to publish without limits, but the thing is that people still read as much - or as little, if you prefer - as ever. And while book publishing has become more democratic, it's still the same old story: lots of books get published, but just a few make it big. Lampedusa, author of Il Gattopardo , said it best: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."