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September 26, 2016
By Alex Daniel
A look at how new services and a growing market are making it an even better time for self-published authors to go digital.

Indie authors are finding that now is a good time to dive into e-books. As readers continue to embrace the format, e-book platforms expand their offerings, and indie authors get savvier with the technology, authors and publishers are seeing more opportunities—but also a fair number of challenges—in the self-published e-book market.

At the beginning of September, Pew Research Center reported that 28% of U.S. adults had read an e-book in the past year—a five-point increase from four years ago. Additionally, earlier this year Technavio predicted that the e-book market in the U.S. would grow by almost 14% between now and 2020—surpassing $13 billion.

BookWorks founder and CEO Betty Kelly Sargent says members of her self-publishing association are embracing the format in ever-greater numbers. “E-book technology is the magic bullet for indie authors,” she says. She adds that members use the format to “make their books accessible to a worldwide audience [and] give their out-of-print books a new life by making them available again as e-books when the original rights have reverted to the author.”

And new e-book innovations are inspiring more authors to adopt the format. According to Joel Friedlander, who runs the Book Designer blog, new developments are happening primarily in two areas. “On one side, there are more and more entries for sites and apps specifically for readers of e-books, from storefronts to genre-specific collections, to algorithms that are supposed to find the best books for any specific reader,” he says.

For examples, the book discovery app eBook Search has just been made available on Android, and Kobo recently launched its new water-resistant Aura One reader. “On the other side, there are just as many startups offering services to e-book authors, from grammar checkers to sales trackers,” Friedlander says. Though he emphasizes that “obviously, many of these ventures will not survive,” the major players in the space, notably 800-pound gorilla Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, have continued to try to stay ahead of the competition.

“Nothing has even remotely approached the importance or impact of Amazon KDP when it comes to e-book sales and distribution,” says indie publishing expert Jane Friedman. But, beyond that, she sees growing potential in the distributor Draft2Digital, which serves indie authors and competes with the well-established Smashwords. “I’m also really interested in the direction and growth of Tapas Media, which is now working with traditional publishers to turn full-length books into mobile-friendly serialized forms,” Friedman says.

Another startup that Friedman is keeping an eye on is Reedsy, a service that connects authors with publishing professionals, and that has been expanding its efforts in the e-book and digital book sectors. “It’s still early days, but I like their intuitive interface that doesn’t require you to take a course just to learn how to use it,” says Friedman.

Growing Distribution

Indie e-book authors are finding that they have more choices than KDP. Friedman points out that Kobo has stopped penalizing authors on royalty rates when they price their e-books high—which means that authors selling large bundles of e-books can go with a higher price. Apple has followed a similar approach, with a flat royalty rate no matter how high the price an author charges.

New tools have also given indie authors more access to a place that has often been difficult for them to reach: libraries. Sargent points to BiblioBoard, made by BiblioLabs, and similar services. OverDrive, which allows libraries to lend e-books to people, is also a service that indie authors might want to consider.

"I sense there’s a general desire to see e-books improve typographically, to become more like the print books we know and love."
“This is new for most indie authors, and they don’t know enough about it,” Ellen Reid, an indie author who runs the website Indie Book Expert, says of libraries as an e-book distribution platform for indie authors.

Indie authors are also seeking ways to break into international markets with their e-books. But, Friedman warns, “it still requires significant resources and investment in translation, not to mention marketing know-how in other countries or languages.”

The improvements in technology and e-book services have made the process of converting and formatting e-books easier than ever. The growing services are also allowing e-books to evolve in style and appearance.

“I sense there’s a general desire to see e-books improve typographically, to become more like the print books we know and love,” says Friedlander. He adds that, though genre fiction “looks pretty steady on the e-book platform,” he advises authors to match the formats of their books with the preferences of readers of that genre or segment. He recommends that they don’t dilute the market for their own products.

“E-books have largely leveled off in sales, although they still represent a significant number,” says Keith Ogorek, senior vice president of marketing for the indie author service Author Solutions. “Certain genres, such as romance and erotica, sell more in e-books than print, but every once in a while we may see sales from a title in a different genre spike.”

Marketing and discoverability remain the biggest difficulties for indie authors who are jumping into digital publishing. “There are so many competing titles out there,” Ogorek says. “The key is to get key people reading the book and talking about it to others in person or through social media. Lots has been written about this, as well, but metadata and keyword selection is more important than ever.”

Peggy DeKay, host of the Business of Writing Today podcast and author of Self-Publishing for Virgins, offers this advice to her clients: “Your biggest competitor is not overcoming another author and/or another book in your genre—it is overcoming obscurity.” She adds that “for indie authors especially, this is a key impediment, although traditional e-book authors with smaller platforms have the same problem.” DeKay says KDP Select is still a viable and cheap medium for building awareness, but Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Ingram Spark, and Kobo have also made it much easier for indie authors to get distribution.

Friedman says many of the difficulties in marketing are rooted in authors’ still-rudimentary understanding of how to optimize metadata and retail descriptions, which can make the difference between a book garnering recommendations and disappearing like a needle into a haystack. She predicts that in the near future “we’ll see more powerful tools and resources that help authors better figure out how to reach just the right reader, whether that’s through specific retailers or throughout the online reading community.” Related to this, Friedman expects to see e-book formatting and production tools become far simpler and more intuitive, at least for text-based work.

What is working well for e-book authors when it comes to marketing is focusing on preorders. Friedman says this is particularly true for authors with established series or readerships, pointing to Smashwords’s annual report, which consistently shows that books with preorders perform better over time. “Although, that may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it’s the established and professional authors who are more likely to run a preorder in the first place,” she adds.

Best Practices

One promotional strategy that has proved effective is offering email discount deals through services such as BookBub, which Friedman calls “a key way for authors to push up their visibility and bump up sales.” But there’s no consensus on just how far to take discounting and giveaways.

“I’m seeing disagreement among professional indies right now about how and when to make e-books available for free,” says Friedman. Though the traditional approach had been to make the first book in a series free in order to hook readers and get them buying subsequent volumes, “some authors are not automatically doing that any more—they’re making something else available for free rather than the first book in a series.”

Pricing is also an important consideration. Sargent recommends keeping e-book prices between $2.99 and $4.99 in order to attract buyers without charging as much as they might expect to pay for a print book. “[Authors can] make a nice profit when their e-book is priced right,” says Sargent.

Whatever the advancements in technology, the best way for authors to raise the likelihood that their e-books will catch on is to write good ones to begin with. “Technology and platforms cannot make up for a poorly written book, so we have not seen any new developments impact sales,” Ogorek says. “A good story or helpful book gains readers no matter what technology is in the market.”