From time to time, I receive publishing questions from emerging authors, students, and other interested parties. I do my best to answer and hope I’ve been some help! Sometimes the questions are so insightful I’m inspired to hope my answer is as thought-provoking as the question itself! Recently, Amy Mackin contacted me with some questions as part of a project she’s been working on. Her questions were fantastic. Amy has kindly agreed to both the questions and answers being shared on my blog, and it’s my hope that they may be helpful to others!

Do you believe the dawn of e-books has positively impacted or negatively affected a writer’s ability to make a living? Is this a great time to be an author, or is it a more challenging climate now than in the past?

Because I’m working on my second novel, with nothing new on the market, this is a difficult question to answer. The easy answer is yes, 99-cent books—and the proliferation of free books—lowers royalties and profit margins, decreasing everyone’s earning potential. While 99-cent ebooks have changed the marketplace dramatically, the changes have not been all bad. For indies in particular, I think it’s important to look at the big picture. The royalties on a 99-cent sale may be meager, but selling at a low price point provides an opportunity to reach readers who may not have shelled out ten dollars on a book by an unfamiliar author. Even if the financial return on free e-books is low (or zero), authors still get their books into the hands of readers who may not have given them a shot. A happy reader shares the book with friends, thus building the author’s fan base.

This is similar to the traditional model, in that, historically, first books have rarely earned a lot of money. Publishers took a chance on a new author with the hope of earning more on her subsequent books. Today, we hear of authors earning millions on their first title and, because publishers front-load marketing dollars, sales cycles start and end in a flash, with some books hitting bestseller lists before their official publication date, and others dead on arrival.

Mug and notebook

A great book may be rejected because its author has no platform

For new authors, this is disastrous. First, publishers are less likely than ever to take a shot on a new author. According to agents I’ve interviewed, the old adage that cream rises to the top is not necessarily true. For instance, a great book may be rejected because its author has no platform.

Short sales cycles mean that if a book isn’t performing to (sometimes unrealistic) expectations (this applies primarily to major houses), the publisher may pull it from shelves, low sales putting any subsequent contracts the author may have negotiated—e.g., a two-book contract—in jeopardy. Both situations compromise an author’s ability to earn a living. These issues may have been exacerbated by the rise of e-books, but the situation was in play long before the so-called indie revolution, perhaps equally the result of too much power concentrated in the hands of too few houses.

Competition from 99-cent e-books has no doubt reduced author income. But I’m not convinced that cost is the only contributing factor. Today, assisted by agents, editors, and other publishing professionals, many indies produce books that are indistinguishable from their traditionally published counterparts. The high quality of indie books has reduced and even eliminated the stigma formerly associated with self-publishing. Most readers I’ve spoken with are simply looking for a great read; they don’t care and may not even notice who published the book. When purchasing a book by any unfamiliar author, readers have to do their research. Many readers rely on word-of-mouth for their purchasing decisions. With so much information available on the Internet—book bloggers and online reader groups are terrific resources—it’s easy to weed out quality books.

Books on ereader

The excellent quality of many indie-published books is a major contributor to rising competition for book sales

There are also questions as to the efficacy of selling books for 99 cents. Many people believe that selling too cheaply creates a perception of low quality. A lot of indies currently sell books for $4.99, still much less expensive than most traditionally published e-books, but not 99 cents. Again, I would say, while inexpensive—or free—ebooks lower profits, the excellent quality of many indie-published books is a major contributor to rising competition for book sales.

Assuming the current climate is purely the result of sales of inexpensive e-books, while bearing in mind the detriments, I think we must also consider the benefits. In the past, all the power was in the hands of traditional publishing houses, which could make or break an author’s career. The low cost and ease of self-publishing has opened doors for authors who, for one reason or another, might have been passed over. These means more people now have a place at the publishing table and the potential for earning a great living.

Is it hard to make a living self-publishing? Absolutely. Most self-published authors sell fewer than 1000 books, total. But people write for variety of reasons; for those of us who are driven to write, money is rarely at the top of the list.

I self-published In Leah’s Wake in 2011, with absolutely no knowledge or experience in the publishing industry, yet, despite my many missteps—using two ISBN numbers for instance, diluting my sales numbers—the book sold over 130K copies, only about 5K of which were in print. Close friends who published their first books traditionally within that same timeframe sold fewer than 10K books. They’d written terrific novels, but their publishers failed to dedicate the resources necessary to adequately market their books. I, on the other hand, seized the opportunity to market, sold books at 99 cents to give readers a chance to try my book with little financial risk, gave away thousands of books, and put in many 16- to 18-hour days, learning social media and expanding my reach.

If I counted all the hours I worked, added the cost of marketing and promotion, I probably averaged about a nickel an hour. But I built a platform, which I hope will help with future sales, and, more important, I gained confidence that I’d never before had in myself or in my work. To me, this was priceless. Based on personal experience, as well as on conversations with many authors and agents, I doubt I would have had nearly this success publishing traditionally.

If I were publishing for the first time today, I’d undoubtedly have a harder time. As noted above, traditional publishers have adapted to the changing landscape, stepping into areas once dominated by indie authors. This along with the sheer volume of indie books makes it increasingly harder to rise above the noise. Other authors might say differently: in my view, despite the challenges we face, there has never been more opportunity, or a better time to be a writer.

Here’s Amy’s previous question, posted last week: Do you still see a solid future for traditional publishing, or do you believe we’re headed toward a time where most works of commercial and literary fiction/nonfiction will be purchased and read in digital format?