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Why eBook Retailers Are Embracing Self-Published Authors

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2013-02-11-BreakoutBooks.pngIf anyone doubts the speed at which the epicenter of book publishing is shifting from publishers to self-published authors, look no further than the Apple iBookstore.

Last week, Apple's iBookstore launched Breakout Books in the U.S., a new book merchandising feature that showcases books from popular self-published authors, including several that have already achieved New York Times bestseller status. The New York Times covered the story last week, as did The Wall Street Journal.

Apple's merchandising team hand-picked the titles, all of which have earned high ratings from Apple customers.

Disclosure: Many of the eBooks featured were distributed to Apple by my company, Smashwords.

Although the iBookstore has always carried and supported self-published eBooks, last week's launch signified an escalated commitment on the part of Apple, whose iBookstore currently sells books in 50 countries. The iBookstore first piloted the Breakout Books feature in their Australian store in late November and has since implemented similar ongoing features in Canada and the U.K.

A retailer's merchandising decisions are among the most important levers driving book discovery and sales. Whether you're a traditionally published author or a self-published author, such placement can make your book stand out in a haystack of millions of other books competing for your reader's attention.

Why are retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Amazon giving self-published ebooks such merchandising love?

eBook Retailers and Readers Are Embracing Self-Published Authors

Over the last few years, I've written multiple posts here on The Huffington Post articulating the advantages of eBook self-publishing from the author perspective, such as the opportunity to bypass publishing gatekeepers; faster time to market; access to global distribution; higher royalties; and greater creative control. Many other industry watchers have covered the same.

Few in the publishing industry, however, have examined why retailers are stepping up their support for self-published books, and why readers are purchasing them. When we examine the myriad reasons, we see the playing field is likely to continue tilting to the advantage of self-published ebook authors.

Here, I'll outline why retailers and readers are supporting self-published books, and what it means for authors:

  • Quality. The job of the retailer is to connect readers with books they'll enjoy reading. The quality of self-published ebooks -- measured by reader reviews -- has increased significantly over the last few years as indie authors publish with greater professionalism, from editing to cover design to pricing and promotion. The most successful self-published ebooks often match or exceed the quality and desirability of traditionally published ebooks.
  • Low prices. The average Smashwords ebook is priced around $2.99. Readers love low cost books, especially if the quality is as good as or better than what's released by traditional publishers. High quality books sold at low prices make customers happy, and what makes the customer happy makes the retailer happy. Low prices make self-published authors happy too, because a self-published author earns about $2.00 selling a $2.99 book. In order for a traditionally published author to earn $2.00 per ebook sold, the book would have to be priced over $11.00. Why the disparity? Most publishers pay authors 25 percent net for retail sales, which works out to 12.5-17.5 percent of the list price, whereas self-published authors earn 60-70 percent of the list price.
  • Diversity. Publishers are in the business of publishing books that they think will sell. In the end, the publisher can only guess what readers want to read. By rejecting most authors, publishers deny readers an incredible diversity of high-quality books that can satisfy both large mainstream markets as well as thousands of smaller micro-markets. Retailers know their customers appreciate the broadest possible diversity and selection of quality books. Indie authors deliver it.
  • Readers are the new curators. Readers -- not publishers -- have always been the ultimate arbiters of what's worth reading, and reader word-of-mouth drives book sales. In the old world of publishing, publishers and retailers could only guess what readers wanted to read. Today, each time a reader downloads, purchases or reviews an ebook, this data becomes an expression of reader sentiment that ebook merchandisers can mine to identify books worthy of extra promotion. I predict the long-admired gatekeeping function played by publishers will eventually be viewed as detrimental to the future of the written word. Yes, publishers can add incredible value to books, but by making their publishing decisions through a myopic prism of perceived commercial potential, and by pricing their books too high, they're denying readers great books, and thereby denying authors the readers they seek. These authors are learning they no longer need a publisher's blessing to publish. Authors are bypassing publishers and publishing directly to readers with self-publishing platforms.
  • Unlimited shelf space. In the old print world of brick and mortar book retailing, retailers had a limited amount of shelf space, so they could only stock a small fraction of available books. In the new world of democratized ebook publishing and distribution, self-published writers have the freedom to publish what they want, and readers have the freedom to read what they want. Unlimited shelf space enables more books to be published, and some of these books will go on to find large audiences.
  • eBooks never go out of print. In the old world of publishing, if a book sold poorly at first, the retailers would pack up the books and return them to the publisher. These returns would essentially force a book out of print. With ebooks, the books are immortal. They never go out of print. They're always available to be discovered and enjoyed by new audiences. This means retailers can sell them for as long as the author wishes them to be sold. It means every ebook represents a permanent annuity stream for the retailer, the author and the author's heirs.
  • Sales!. Self-published books are selling. Self-published ebooks are hitting all the bestseller lists. Smashwords retailers are selling millions of dollars of our authors' books each year, and that makes me happy because it gives our retail partners strong financial incentive to support our authors with new merchandising opportunities in the future.
  • FREE series starters. Many of the bestselling indie authors are writing full-length book series, and they're pricing the first book in the series at FREE. FREE series starters give indie authors a significant discovery advantage over traditionally published authors who invariably see their book's full potential squandered by high prices.
  • High unit volume. Follow the eyeballs. Since Christmas, iBookstore customers have downloaded an average of over one million FREE and priced Smashwords books each week. For indie authors, the high unit volume enabled by low cost, high-quality books means that the indie author can develop fans and author platforms faster than traditionally published authors. Apple -- like Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Amazon that also produce their own e-reading devices -- gains two benefits from every download or sale: 1. They sell a lot of books and satisfy a lot of customers; 2. The millions of hours customers spend each month to browse, download, purchase and enjoy self-published books on iPhones, iPads, Kindles and Nooks make these devices that much more essential to the customer's life.
  • Rapid publishing helps authors be more responsive to a retailer's customers' desires. Indie authors enjoy faster production schedules, which allow them to satisfy reader desires more quickly, or to cater to hot trends before the trends fade. Indie ebook authors can transform their fully edited manuscript into a professionally published ebook in a matter of minutes, and in a matter of hours or days achieve worldwide distribution at major retailers. Most traditionally-published writers must wait a year or more before their book reaches the market (imagine all the missed sales!).
  • Indies are always iterating and evolving. Unlike traditionally published print books which remain relatively static and unchanged after publication, indie authors are iterating their books. As I documented at the Smashwords blog, after R.L. Mathewson uploaded an improved cover image, the book broke out at Apple. A couple of weeks later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list. Since indie ebooks are immortal and never go out of print, the author can always experiment with different covers, pricing or book descriptions. I document these and other discoverability levers in my free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. The book identifies the 28 best practices of the most commercially successful indie authors.

The Breakout Books section can be found on the iBookstore at http://iTunes.com/BreakoutBooks.

A longer version of this post, including a list of about 50 of the participating books and authors, originally appeared on the Smashwords blog.