The E-Book Gold Rush

The Washington Post reported today on how the rise of the ebook has been an overnight game-changer for authors…and has sparked a gold rush among them to get their back-list books and unpublished manuscripts on the Kindle as quickly as possible.

And for good reason.

The article leads off with the story of author  Nyree Belleville, who was dropped by her publisher early last year. Demoralized and desperate, she put one of her old books on the Kindle just to see what would happen. She earned $281 her first month…and couldn't wait to share the news with her other author-friends.

 “That moment is burned in everybody’s mind now,” she says. “It was not a tipping point. It was a turning point.”

She put her other old book online and figured out how to place both on other e-readers — the Nook, the Sony Reader, the iPad, Kobo. The next month, her royalties bumped to $474. Giddy, she self-published a new e-book in July. She made a jaw-dropping $3,539. It was like the best thingever!

“Every day, as the numbers ticked by, my husband and I were floored,” she says.

She got the rights to two more old novels. She feverishly wrote another e-novel, “Game for Love,” about a bad-boy pro football player and his unexpected marriage. She popped it online Dec. 15.

Earnings for that month? $19,315.

In January and February, she e-published a trilogy of young-adult novels she’d written years earlier. She called the first one “Seattle Girl” and chose a new author name, Lucy Kevin, to distinguish it from the sexually explicit Andre books.

Here’s what her first quarter looked like: 56,008 books sold; income, $116,264.

[…]There is no good comparison for what’s happening in the frontier world of self-published e-books, because there has never been anything like it in publishing history.

They're right…because her story is not unique. Just today I helped two friends of mine get their out-of-print backlists up on the Kindle.  But the Post article also acknowledges not everyone is making a fortune self-publishing ebooks…in fact, most aren't making anything.

The overwhelming number of self-publishing e-authors are consigned to the same fate as their print counterparts: oblivion.

“We have less than 50 people who are making more than $50,000 per year. We have a lot who don’t sell a single book,” says Mark Coker, founder of, a Web site that helped launch indie publishing.

“When I load all our numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s the typical power curve,” he says. “On the left, there’s a skinny area of the chart where people are knocking it out of the park. And then we have a very, very long tail off to the right, where some titles sell very few at all.”

I'm impressed that Mark Coker is telling it like it is.  It's remarkable, and commendable, that he's not just making it easy for authors to get their books on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc, he's also being honest about their chances for success. He's not trying to trick them into thinking that publishing with Smashwords is all it takes to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, too many aspiring authors, giddy with greed and a desire to be the next Amanda Hocking, are more than willing to trick themselves.  They delude themselves into believing that all they have to do is put the raw manuscripts on the Kindle and the cash will start pouring in, which is why there is tsunami of swill is sweeping over Smashwords and, by extension, Amazon.

But those of us who were previously-published have an edge. We have a platform and, more importantly, a backlist.  You can't imagine how thrilling it is for mid-list authors to discover that our out-of-print books, something that we believe had no monetary value, are suddenly worth tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

Any published author who isn't putting their out-of-print books on the Kindle, Nook, etc. is making a huge, and costly, mistake. But not just financially…they are missing an opportunity to establish a beachhead in the ebook world while having been previously published still means something and can give you a platform to rise above the tsunami. 



8 thoughts on “The E-Book Gold Rush”

  1. I love Coker and Smashwords and it’s great for authors (I have all my books up there and in premium distribution as well), but how can he even give them accurate numbers if it takes them six months to update MY sales numbers. LOL
    Also, I don’t personally know anyone selling that well on SW. I’ve sold a few on it through iTunes, etc but I (and literally everyone else I know) have sold 99.9% of their books directly on Amazon or BN.
    SO… I think Smashwords is great, but I hardly think it’s the barometer for how much people are selling.

  2. The part of the revolution that disturbs me is the population of midlist authors who are putting their books on Kindle (etc.) — at $10 or so. At print edition prices, like they were a small-press re-release. Westlake’s estate, Lawrence Block, etc.
    That’s now how the ebook revolution works. At $3 a pop, I’d buy Westlake’s entire catalog. At $10 a pop, I won’t buy anything. Which nets more money?

  3. I was lucky enough to get my backlist titles e-rights. All four published books. Remarkable. And so I’m getting them up there one per month, working on the format carefully, working with artists on covers, trying different publicity campaigns. It’s a lot of fun, and the sales are rising every month.
    It all began out of frustration. A hard to sell novel that would still hook an audience if only someone would take a chance. After a fruitless submission round, we were facing a second round of small presses, and I’d just had enough. Didn’t want to wait eight months for responses, then another year to publish. My agent had edited it, we’d gone through multiple drafts. My first readers liked it and gave feedback, so why not experiment? CHOKE ON YOUR LIES went up in late January, and I’ve sold over 400 copies so far and have had lots of those readers go back and buy my earlier novels as ebooks. Each month is better than the last.
    I’m amazed. And I’m a convert. And I’m happy to support a lot of great writers I’m finding on Kindle because they gave it a shot.

  4. Good post, Lee. You put a little perspective on the self-publishing explosion. Way too many people think all you have to do is throw something up on Kindle and the money starts rolling in (although I can point to dozens of authors on Kindle Boards who have done exactly that, and with no promotional effort, either).
    I would disagree about one thing, though. Your “tsunami of swill” comment I felt was a little off base. Yes, the majority of self-published stuff is crap, but you know what. I think we could walk into our neighborhood Barnes & Noble and find a lot of crap in there, too. I mean a LOT of crap.
    The so-called gatekeepers aren’t there to preserve our great literary traditions. They’re there to filter in what they think will be money makers for their respective publishing companies. I get so tired of all this unctuous shit from agents and publishers about how they are so necessary to make sure our delicate eyes only see quality writing, when the first chance they get to put out a Snooki novel or a Hollywood tell-all book, they trample all over each other to be the first to do it.

  5. I’ve often been frustrated by discovering an author after his/her older works were unavailable. That’s why I was so excited when I discovered ebooks (around 2001, when there was one place to get them, and I had to read them on my PDA). Suddenly all those old books by writers like K.K. Beck and Charles de Lint that I hadn’t been able to track down in used book stores, eBay, or even the library were out there for $3 or $4! It turned me into an instant ebook fan.
    It’s kind of like getting a gift when I can buy old books by new favorites (like, say, The Walk. ;-)) I think putting backlist titles out there for new readers is not just one of the smartest, but also one of the nicest, things an author can do.

  6. That statement by Mark Coker doesn’t say anything. Smashwords only accounts for a fraction of my ebook sales. If I were making even $1,000 a year on Smashwords, goodness gracious, I’d be making a fortune on Kindle and B&N. I’m guessing those 50 authors were too stupid to publish on B&N and Amazon themselves, and instead distributed through Smashwords and gave up a good portion of their profit.
    Now if Amazon were to make such a statement, it would carry weight enough to draw some true conclusions.

  7. I’m just wondering if the publishing industry has been progressively kicking itself in the butt. Like Mark Dennis, I’m not all that thrilled with what I’ve seen on the shelves recently. How can publishers say that there are no good books being presented to them? Isn’t their industry all about taking that chance on the newest, upcoming, brilliant writers? Don’t get me wrong, I love my Kindle, but I love the smell and feel of a new book too!


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