Ebook club: digital publishing

A self-publishing phenomenon is gathering pace around the world, fuelled in part by new devices that allow the storage of thousands of books. Vision explores their potential impact on literary markets everywhere

British author Elizabeth Ducie recently threw a party to launch her latest collection of short stories, Parcels in the Rain and Other Writing. But what was unusual about the soireé was that she did not switch on music or pour drinks. Instead, she prepared virtual cake and champagne, posted up YouTube music clips and sat in front of her computer. Seventy people attended her Facebook virtual event to promote her latest self-published ebook, which is on sale as a Kindle book and via other ebook retailers.

Ebooks are books in an electronic format designed to be read on tablets, PCs, smartphones, or ebook readers (hardware devices with electronic paper displays to simulate paper reading). Kindle books are ebooks sold by online retailer Amazon that are compatible with the Kindle e-reader and Kindle applications. Amazon began selling Kindle books in the UK in 2010. Within two years, it was selling more Kindle books than all its printed books.

This comes as no surprise to Ducie, who, with friend Sharon Cook, self-published Life Is Not a Trifling Affair in 2011 as a paperback. Two years later, she still has boxes of the books stacked in her office and is yet to break even. “I sold in a day with my latest ebook the number of books it took me a year to sell with the printed book,” the 60-year-old says. “It’s way easier to make money from an ebook than a physical book,” she adds. Overheads on ebooks are minuscule. But a downside of Kindle books is that they are so competitively priced in the West that people might download them and not read them, Ducie admits.

Self publishing

Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) enables authors to self-publish and gain up to 70 per cent of the royalties per copy sold. Thousands of authors are now self-publishing in Amazon’s Kindle Store, and publishers are already signing self-published authors. For example, the best-selling KDP author in the UK last year was Nick Spalding, who has since landed a deal with Hodder & Stoughton.

In 2011, Penguin’s ebook sales doubled and accounted for 12 per cent of the publisher’s global revenues. In 2012, its ebook revenue grew and accounted for 17.5 per cent of Penguin’s global revenues and almost 30 per cent in the US.

“I always said I would not buy any e-reader until forced to,” says Richard Lofthouse, a British magazine editor. “In February, the moment finally came. There was a book that was only available as an ebook. It was a straight decision. No e-reader meant no book – and I needed to read this book. So I bought a Kindle Paperwhite for US$166 and spent US$25 on the book. Titles are emerging that no mainstream publisher would look at and they work well as ebooks,” he explains.

According to the latest research by Nielsen BookScan and Kantar Worldpanel, 8.3 million people in the UK had purchased an ebook by the end of January 2013, up 104.1 per cent against January 2012.

In the UAE, the ebook market is still young but it’s expected to grow. Dubai publishers are now turning many of their books into an electronic book format. Motivate, a publisher based in Dubai Media City, has spent the past few months transforming many of its 320 titles into ebook format and all its new contracts with authors now include digital rights. “We are cherry-picking which books to digitise and focusing on the text-heavy ones, and the self-help ones at the moment,” says John Deykin, General Manager of Books at Motivate. People are reading on phone tablets, smartphones and tablets rather than e-readers, Deykin says.

Alternative channels

While few people are self-publishing in the UAE yet, Sharjah-based Briton Alexander McNabb, who self-published his first novel, Olives – A Violent Romance, in print and as an ebook in 2011, after it was rejected 100 times by literary agents in the UK, is one example.

Most agents do not state why the book is rejected, he says, but he suspects it was because it is a mix of spy and romance thriller set in the Middle East – “one step too far” for UK agents who want a “book that sells itself”.

Fed up with rejection, McNabb self-published it using CreateSpace, a print-on-demand section of Amazon, as a paperback and also as an ebook. Anyone can upload and publish an ebook provided they have internet access and an email account and it is in a supported format. The book does not have to have been commissioned and the author is responsible for the editing.

A month later the author printed a paperback version in the UAE after getting approval from the National Media Council which oversees which physical books can be published and distributed in the UAE. This is a hurdle that ebooks bypass, McNabb says, as they are not printed in the UAE. “I printed it locally because Amazon is not present in the UAE; it’s difficult to order books off Amazon and only a few people have e-readers.” It means his book is on sale at local shops. “Self-publishing is still very new in Dubai. Most authors in the UAE are still taking the traditional route and looking for publishers,” Motivate’s Deykin explains. But with the rate of rejection so high, he expects self-publishing will take off in the UAE soon. “I would not be surprised if we see a huge explosion in it.”

However, despite the explosion of ebooks in the West, some remain sceptical of the self-publishing scene. “There are many people who just love the feel of a book,” says Elizabeth Ducie. “There will be an increasing number of books that will only be electronic, but I don’t think physical books will ever die out. Ebooks will hit the cheap paperback market the most. Physical books will become more of a luxury item,” she predicts.