Countless blogs trumpet indie writers and self-publishing as new and unprecedented, a revolution in publishing. It is and it isn’t. What’s new is that writers are selling their books directly to the public through a licensed online bookstore, instead of to a publisher. In many other respects indie ebook publishing is surprisingly similar to past formats for mass market publishing.

Through the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century the “dime novel” genres provided affordable reading for budget conscious readers, with a taste for adventure. The serialized British equivalent, the “penny dreadful,” often specifically targeted male adolescents. 

Although it has gone out of fashion, the term “dime novel” became a pejorative to describe hastily produced potboilers with no literary value. Nowadays indie publishing conveys similar connotations for people espousing traditional literary values.

The paper bound dime novel was the forerunner of modern paperbacks, introduced, successfully, just before the Second World War: Penguin to the English-speaking world in 1935, and Pocket Books to America in 1938/1939. Both companies acquired the paperback rights to hardcover books, ordered large runs to keep costs and prices low, and marketed their paperback editions to mass audiences through non-traditional markets. Penguin’s first success was with the department store Woolworths, and Pocket Books tapped in the distribution network for newspapers and magazines. Penguin and Pocket Books became almost synonymous with paperbacks, but many other companies entered the market. After early experiments, the Canadian publisher Harlequin became one of the largest publishers in the world by specializing in inexpensive romances, for a predominantly female audience.

Penguin’s association with paperbacks may explain the angry tirades on the internet in 2010 when it announced it had reached an agreement with Apple to charge higher prices for ebooks than paperbacks. The general consensus of the market was that ebooks should be cheaper because the cost of printing is eliminated. At the time some online retailers required publishers to set ebook prices lower than print editions as a condition for listing in their catalogues. Some of those retailers also sold print editions and they wanted to use cheaper ebooks to attract new customers rather than compete with print editions. Both arguments are valid. As the price of paperbacks rose higher and higher, many customers, myself included, stopped buying books or curtailed their purchases. Eliminating printing costs, which are maybe 30% of the total, should be reflected in the end price, and lower prices could encourage people to read again, or buy more books. But that is just my opinion.

The essential point is that for the first time writers set their own prices. They can even give their books away free of charge, if they want to. The price of indie ebooks is typically lower than the price of ebooks from traditional publishers. The reasons for that are complex, but it is generally accepted by even the most successful and talented indie writers, and the rapidly evolving trends in the pricing of indie ebooks hasn’t really affected that basic fact. In that sense, the indie writer at the bottom of the pricing spectrum is the modern equivalent of the dime novel publisher or paperback publisher.

For the most part the production of indie writers has largely been genre novels and the books are often potboilers, to use that old term. One indie writer called them “throwaway novels.” (I suspect that term would also apply to erotica, which has become a popular ebook genre.)

Literary writers still tend to prefer the traditional publishing route, although that is gradually changing, and some traditionally published writers are now using both traditional publishing and self-publishing some of their own titles (the hybrid model).

Indie writers often produce more than one novel a year; they have to in order to earn a living, but some genre writers have always been prolific producers. Both have often been accused of producing hastily written novels, with the implication being that they were poorly written. The same criticism is often made about other aspects of the final product such as editing and proofreading, and the indie writer is responsible for those whether they attempt to do it all themselves or hire professional editors, proofreaders, and cover designers. When a reader sees poorly constructed sentences and typos in traditionally published book it reflects on the publisher almost as much as it does the writer, but in an indie novel there is only one person to blame for any defects: the author. Indie publishing has enabled thousands of inexperienced writers (me included) to publish stories, and the quality of that output has been variable, let’s say. Which may explain why cost versus value discussions within indie publishing more often revolve around the quality of editing and proofreading than storylines, and why some book buyers won’t purchase cheap indie novels or say indie publishing has a bad reputation.

Some things haven’t changed much in the last 150 years regardless of changing formats. It has never been easy to make a living by writing fiction, and indie writers must contend with many of the same challenges and literary prejudices as writers of dime novels or paperback novels for specialist genre publishers.

One thing has changed, though: female writers have a better chance of being successful than male writers. And that is one helluva a big change over earlier eras.




 
 
When I read that Google Ebookstore had launched their much anticipated ebook site I immediately tried to upload my indie story, and was denied access to the site. A window kindly informed me that I lived outside the United States. Not having any choice, I abandoned the idea of listing my story.

A month or two passed and another ebook site asked authors to use a Google form to complain about a different issue. I won’t go into that here, but I did use the form. To their credit, Google replied to my complaint. The reply explained that to qualify for listing in Google Ebookstore authors had to own the publishing rights and reside in the United States. The second qualification for listing both irked and mystified me.

I can understand why Google might not ship outside the United States, different publishers and distributors hold various rights in different countries, layer electronic rights on top of print rights and it could easily turn into a legal quagmire. Barnes and Noble and Borders don’t ship ebooks outside the U.S., likely for similar reasons.

Google’s policy might have irked me because Canada has an open book market, and that situation long predates NAFTA or any free trade agreements. In the early 1990’s, I took a stab at being a bookstore operator, and at that time about 50% of the English-language books available in Canada were American, and the remainder Canadian and British. The policy mystified me because Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple and other American ebookstores and free ebook sites list authors from all over the world. Google Ebookstore’s policy is also a radical departure from the policy of Google Books.

I suspect Goggle Ebookstore has a different policy for major publishing houses; but, of course, without access to the site it is impossible to verify or dismiss my suspicion.

After swapping a couple of more emails with Google, I learned it plans to roll out Ebookstore to some other countries in the future. It will be interesting to see if it restricts listings to authors residing in those countries, or if American, and international, authors can export their ebooks through sites outside the U.S.A.

After swapping emails with Google it was a pleasure to discover a new free ebook site with more liberal listing policies. Compared to the Google whale bibliotastic.com is the proverbial guppy in a global aquarium. Based in London, England, bibliotastic.com was founded by James Crawshaw and is operated by a multi-continental team of volunteers. The site was officially launched February 16th, following a soft launch last November. Ebooks can be read online or downloaded in epub and prc (Kindle) formats.

One of its stated objectives is to be “a forum for writers to publish their work for free and for readers to decide what they like for themselves ... rather than just relying upon the commercial filters of mainstream publishing.”

In that respect, it is similar to other indie publishers / distributors such as smashwords.com and feedbooks.com.

Bibliotastic.com not only listed my book, but somehow found my web site and suggested publishing some of my unpublished flash fiction in a collected stories edition, and adapted my cover to suit the new collection free of charge, since it was exclusively for use on its site.

Bibliotastic does not have the distribution and all the features Smashwords or Feedbooks offer, and there might be teething problems to work out still. I downloaded a novel in prc format , and my computer informed me that it was zipped and when extracted all the chapters were individual files. That was too much for me to contend with, I went back to the site and downloaded an epub, and read it in Adobe Digital Editions. The prc download of my own collection of stories was a smaller file, came unzipped, and loaded directly into Mobipocket Reader. After reading this blog Bibliotastic sent an email to say the file was not really zipped and loads directly into Kindle PC reader software, and can be loaded into Mobipocket by changing the file extension from .prc to .mobi. The FAQ was updated the same day. I changed the file extension and the file loaded and generated a nice Mobipocket Book. The majority of people use Kindles, anyway.

Moving on. A feature indie authors want that Bibliotastic doesn’t have is a dashboard or simple download counter. I hope one or the other will be added to the site in the near future.

The booklist is still small and the number of site visits quite modest. Mr. Crawshaw was up front about that, and cautioned me not to expect a lot of downloads. But the book list and site traffic metrics should improve as more indie authors and ebook readers discover the site. Based on my experience, authors and readers alike will enjoy their experience and return to bibliotastic.com again and again.

The title of my collection is Healthy or Else and Other Stories.
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For me the choice between commercial print publishing and self-publishing electronically was not a difficult decision to reach. Trying to break into print is forbidding. Not to mention slow. Say I want to sell a short story to a magazine. I have to research what magazines might be in the market for that story. That is not too onerous, and can be kind of fun, but it takes time. Far more time consuming is the submission processes. The manuscript has to be prepared according to the publisher’s instructions, and those vary from publisher to publisher. The frustrating part is the long wait to receive a rejection slip, usually three or four months and sometimes longer. Most publishers don’t accept multiple submissions, and that means waiting for months to be rejected, and then going through the whole process again to submit a story to a second publisher. Before you know it a year or two has passed trying to get a story accepted. Another problem is that I live in Canada and pay international postage rates to submit to most publishers, and mailing costs can mount up. And if a story is finally accepted by a publisher it typically won’t be printed and in circulation for several more months, and publishers don’t pay until a story is published.

An anecdote is illustrative of the pitfalls. I saw an advertisement soliciting stories for a themed narrative nonfiction anthology. A good “true” story came to mind, and I sat down and wrote it up, revised and proofread it, and submitted it. It was accepted, and the editor sent me a copy with changes, most of which I agreed to, and was told it was submitted as is. The book was postponed three times, possibly because of the recession or other work commitments by the editors or publishers. The third delay simply deferred the launch date by a month or two. So two years and a month after the story was accepted the book was launched. When my copy of the book came in the mail I discovered my story had been edited fairly substantially and had a new ending. I did not really object to most of the changes. The new ending was a bit hokey but fit the theme of the book. I couldn’t figure out why they combined some paragraphs the way they did, but didn’t lose any sleep over it. Then I learned that my tax form was missing in a group email sent to all contributors. Somehow it went astray and had to be resubmitted, causing a delay of another month or two before I received my check for $100. It was a short piece, and per word it paid pretty good.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to slam that publisher, or publishers in general. Publishing is a tough business. Reading the submission guidelines online it soon becomes apparent that publishers are swamped with manuscripts. I keep waiting for a publisher to brag that it has to use a forklift to move its slush pile. Publishers have their own suite of problems that they have to deal with, and writers too often don’t appreciate what is involved.

Publishing ebooks eliminates or reduces some of that suite of problems, and as a self-publisher I have control over the whole process. Although, to be honest, I would like to turn some of the process over to more capable people, like proofreading and designing a cover. A graphic artist I am not, nor am I a good proofreader, especially of my own writing. Too often I read what is supposed to be on the page instead of what is really there in black and white.

Let’s move on to the positive factors influencing my decision, and those of many other ebook self-publishers. Control of pricing is one you will see mentioned ad naseum. Forget it. For me it is not an issue. I am trying to build an audience, and intend to publish free ebooks, at least for a while yet. I could use the revenue, but I would rather have readers than sell ten or twenty copies of something I have written—and how much money would I make selling that kind of volume. Not much!

Bookstores never run out of stock with ebooks, and my books won’t go out of print. I like that. But what really sold me on publishing ebooks is that much criticized objective of modern Man—instant gratification. Yes, I am being honest about it. Publishing ebooks gives me instant gratification. I am not a patient person, and by publishing ebooks I don’t have to wait weeks or months to see my work in circulation, I can see my books online in a couple of hours, or a day or two, at most. The ease and speed with which I can make revisions—like when my inadequate proofreading skills are pointed out to me—is a third and by no means unimportant factor influencing my decision to publish ebooks.

Doing it all myself is kind of fun and challenging, too.

I have not completely given up on print publishing. Publishing in both media helps build an audience, and I like getting paid to write. I have worked as a reporter and journalist.

For anyone interested in the fun and challenge of self-publishing I suggest you take the time to do a little research. You might find a few useful tips and services on my links page. I don’t have a lot of experience yet, but I like doing research, and you might as well benefit from it. The wheel has been invented; you don’t have to reinvent it. You should also take a look at Smashwords’ slideshow, embedded below.

Smashwords is one of several competing ebook publisher/distributors. It doesn’t necessarily produce the most attractive ebooks on the market but it offers an unparalleled distribution network. Some ebook stores will work with self-publishers, but not all will. Their are other companies and services that can get your ebooks listed on Barnes and Noble and Apple and Sony, but Smashwords is the only service I know of that does not charge upfront fees for getting you those listings. They do charge a commission on any sales that are made through those outlets, but it is reasonable and is deducted from earnings. I published my story as free ebook, and Smashwords doesn’t make anything from it. But it was partially the advice of Smashwords founder, Mark Coker,  that encouraged me to publish it gratis. Smashwords is what I call a full service company; it provides tips and guides for marketing, and encourages writers to list their books on other sites. A good many Smashwords authors also publish free ebooks on the (mostly) free ebook site feedbooks.com. With a little research and experimentation you will learn what works best for you. I am still in that process. Good luck. 
 
 
Multiple format ebook stores and web sites provide a valuable service for readers and for writers who, obviously, want as wide a distribution as possible. Many, if not all, multi-format sites rely on automated conversion software to generate ebooks in a format selected by the customer. Based on my limited experience, the automated conversion programs work pretty well for many of the popular formats (ePub, mobi, lrf, and mabye fb2), albeit with some minor changes to the original formatting.

But recently I published a short story as an ebook with smashwords.com, and the pdb edition of the story lost a key piece of formatting, the italics used, by convention, to indicate unspoken thoughts. Without those italics the story can be confusing to read, and I was forced to cancel the pdb version. That is unfortunate, pdb is a popular ebook format, and I like the desktop eReader. My story Healthy or Else can be downloaded from smashwords.com in ePUB, mobi, lrf, PDF, and .rtf formats, so alternatives are available for anyone who wants to read the story.

The problem was not caused by smashwords automated conversion software. They call it the “meatgrinder.” The same problem occurred when I tried converting the story to pdb online using Zamzar, and Calibre also lost the italics when I converted the story to pdb. 2ePub wisely doesn’t output pdb files. Not being a programmer I was forced to conclude the problem lies within the pdb format itself, and that was confirmed by searching the forums on Mobile Read.

I wanted to make a properly formatted version of the story available on my web site, if nowhere else. I found two software programs for formatting pdb files on the eReaderLibrary site, owned by Barnes and Noble. Naturally, I tried the free software first. This program, called Dropbook, requires use of the Palm Markup Language. It seemed a bit intimidating when I first looked at it, but the list of commands was not all that long and I decided to give it a whirl.

Trial and error is a slow process, but after a time I started to figure out how to use the program and the Palm markup language, and my progress picked up speed as I overcome a couple of initial problems I induced myself and the learning curve ramped up. Some time later (I don’t want to admit how much later) I was nearly finished and had searched through the character sets and added a couple of nice finishing touches. Now all I had left to do was attach the cover, and that should be easy, or so I thought. It turned out not to be so easy. In fact, I never did get it attached. Despite the relatively unimportant lack of a cover, the pdb download link on the Healthy or Else page is the only properly formatted pdb version anywhere, and will provide the best reading experience for the eReader and Palm devices. Or you can download it using this link: Healthy or Else.pdb. More recently, the story was listed in pdb format on memoware.com

A pdb version can be downloaded from manybooks.net, but it is generated by an automated file conversion system and the italics are converted to the same font as the rest of the text. I can't cancel the pdb file on manybooks.net, however. Nor can I test the formatting of all the many formats available from manybooks.net. I simply don't have readers or devices to view files in all of those formats. When a site tries its best to provide files in every conceivable format some are bound to work better than others. And manybooks.net is a stellar site for readers. Every ebook is free, it doesn't charge member fees, and is operated by volunteers. What more can you ask for?

I feel much the same way about Smashwords. It provides a good service for indie writers, and helps connect us with readers.

The Smashwords style guide even warns writers to avoid complex formatting - now I see why. A novel I am working on will have the same problem with italics. Both it and the short story were written or too far advanced to change after I looked at the option of electronic publishing. In the future I am going to have to learn new literary techniques to get inside my character's heads.
 

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