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Digital dynamite

Once a curious novelty, e-books have exploded in popularity

Digital dynamite

(Krieg Barrie)

WORLD’s 2000 books issue explored the then-unprecedented idea of electronic books, heralding it as an opportunity for Christian authors to get their books out without the cost and hassle of going through the publishing process: “E-books are where the internet was in 1994: Everybody knows something really cool is coming, but they don’t know exactly what.”

Thirteen years later, many writing newcomers are publishing e-books, often losing money in the process but sometimes finding a market. Karen Baney, a software engineer by day and Christian romance writer by night, made $75,000 last year from selling her self-published e-books. No publishing company, no marketing team, just a laptop and business savvy. 

Baney penned her first novel about a romance set in 1800s Arizona in 2010, and has since written three more books in the Prescott Pioneers series, as well as a contemporary Christian romance novel and a book on how to market self-published e-books. If she had pursued the traditional publishing route, “I might be lucky if I had one book out, and I’d probably make a royalty of about 12 percent.” Instead she keeps 60-70 percent of e-book sales.

As e-books make up a larger portion of book sales—an Association of American Publishers’ StatShot study shows that 22.6 percent of book sales in 2012 were e-books—more authors, both professional and amateur, are turning to self-publishing e-books for creative freedom, high royalty rates, and convenience. The question now is how to make a book stand out in the ever-growing crowd.

One experienced writer, Brian Godawa, the screenwriter of To End All Wars, is self-publishing a biblical fiction series that originated from an unused screenplay. Godawa wrote the screenplay for a movie about Noah, but realized the movie would cost too much and would have to compete with another upcoming Noah movie. So Godawa turned the screenplay into a novel and published it himself. He decided to skip the traditional publishing process because “I’ve been published, I’ve had movies produced, but still I come up with a novel and I have to start from square one when I’m trying to get a publisher.” 

Realizing that readers enjoy series, he wove together a larger storyline, looking at Genesis’ mention about the Nephilim, giants that were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.” From that he created a fictitious narrative based on major Bible characters such as Enoch, Noah, and Joshua. 

It took about a year to finish the first book, Noah Primeval, as he had to adapt the screenplay, hire editors and cover designers, and figure out how to market the book. But after that “each of the three books [in the series], took about three months of full-time writing, and the great thing about it was I didn’t have to wait a year for each book to come out. I could release them as soon as I finished writing, so I got my series going within a year.”

The books have stayed at the top of biblical fiction rankings on Amazon since their release in 2011. He said he’s made about $20,000 from book sales, which has supplemented his income as he works on other movie and writing projects. His hope is that as more people get excited about the stories, Hollywood will get interested, and he’ll already have the scripts ready for production. 

Struggling writer Ann Miller tried breaking into the publishing world for 10 years with her coming-of-age Christian romances, but found that as more authors and readers bypass traditional publishing companies, publishing houses are cutting back and only looking for bestsellers written by well-known authors. “I started despairing,” Miller said about her difficulty landing a book deal even with the help of an agent. “Before I was too proud to self-publish because I thought, ‘I got a degree, I can do this.’”

In early 2012, Miller swallowed her pride and hired a freelance editor and a proofreader to look through her writing, make changes, and clean up the manuscript. A friend painted her book cover. Miller uploaded her book onto Amazon’s Kindle Direct Press (KDP) and Smashwords, a self-publishing platform. She gave away for free her first book, Kicking Eternity, to get readers interested in her series. She priced the next three books in the series at $4.99 and released them in succession, hoping that once readers bonded with the characters they would want to continue reading. So far the free e-book has had 83,000 downloads and Miller has earned about $2,000 in e-book sales.

The relative ease and convenience of self-publishing with low start-up costs has flooded the market with e-books, including many low-quality works. The number of e-books sold per month jumped from 3.9 million in January 2011 to 22.6 million one year later, according to the Association of American Publishers. The competition makes marketing e-books all the more important—and most authors have to do it themselves.

That is where Baney said she was able to get ahead. With her business background, she was able to pin down her target audience and pricing strategy before even writing a word of her book. She researched the best self-publishing platforms and marketing tactics. Then she published on several platforms: Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, Kobo Writing Life, and Smashwords. 

Once the book was live, she advertised on Twitter and Facebook, paid for advertisements on e-book discovery sites such as Digital Books Today and World Literary Cafe, and offered free copies of the book for bloggers or readers to review. Baney found the most important marketing tool was word of mouth through her writer’s network and new readers. She made sure each of her books included links to the rest of the series. 

Both Baney and Godawa used Amazon’s KDP select program, where the authors agree to release their e-books exclusively to Amazon for 90 days. In exchange, Amazon places their book on Kindle’s Lending Library and allows authors to give away their book for free for up to five days. Free promotions garner larger readership—Smashwords has found that free e-books get about 100 times as many downloads as priced e-books—and the book’s ranking gets a boost, allowing for greater visibility. 

Then the authors try to keep up the momentum for their books through ads or guest posts on blogs as the e-book returns to the regular price. Godawa mentioned that after giving his book away for free for two days, he increased his sales by 200 percent for six to eight months afterward. Recently Amazon changed its algorithm so free e-book sales only count as 1/100 of a normal book, and high rankings are more difficult to come by.

Godawa says another helpful feature on Amazon is the “Customers who bought this item also bought” section on each book’s page. He realized that his niche religious fiction would show up on the pages of other similar books, and that also helped him sell more books. Godawa views Amazon as a one-stop shop, as it lets him create an audiobook of his series and print copies of the book through CreateSpace.

It’s not just writers benefitting from self-published e-books, but readers are also more eager to buy them. The biggest advantage is the lower prices. Traditionally published e-books cost around $9.99 while self-published are usually priced around $2.99. Authors know low prices attract readership, but on Amazon, if e-books are priced lower than $2.99, their 70 percent royalty drops down to 35 percent. 

The downside for readers is searching through the hundreds of poorly written e-books to find the gems. Baney tries to help readers find new writers through her website Christian eBooks Today, which runs lists of free e-books, allows writers to guest blog about their upcoming book, and gives readers a chance to recommend their favorite e-books to each other. But some things never change: As Godawa says, what “sells the most is good storytelling.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.