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Tri-Valley Writers Conference I: Self-Publishing

I spent all day Saturday at the first ever Tri-Valley Writers Conference. It was small—no agents, just a handful of speakers and ample opportunity to meet and chat with other writers. We got breakfast and lunch out of it, too.

Registration opened at 7:30, and I got there at 7:30, which was earlier than strictly necessary. I had author friends attending as well, but I was the first of us to arrive, something I generally hate. The breakfast was the usual hotel buffet of bagels, muffins, and some fresh fruit. Since I don’t drink coffee and am allergic to orange juice, I was stuck with water. (My caffeine of choice is soda, something I eventually went to buy from the hotel “store,” which was just a cooler and a rack of candy bars.)

Being the first of people I actually knew, it did provide the opportunity to sit and meet people I didn’t know. That’s probably good for me, but really, I find it painful. Still, I did meet a lot of great, interesting people. Most of them were members of the Tri-Valley Writers Club, or some other branch of the California Writers Club. I am not. I’ll consider joining, though it’s not yet clear to me what the benefits would be. I already have a great critique group.

Anyway, after some opening remarks, we broke out into sessions. The offerings were limited; there were, at most, three sessions going at any given time, and sometimes only two. Also, for some reason the first session was 90 minutes long while every other session was only 45 minutes.

For my first session, I opted for a self-publishing “bootcamp.” Smashwords’ Jim Azevedo was the speaker, and he was very personable, but did not really tell me anything I didn’t already know. I’ve self-published a couple things, and it’s looking more and more like Peter might go the same way, but since it’s been a while since I last published something, I wanted to see if anything had changed. The answer is: maybe a little. Nothing major. I mean, we all know that ebooks are gaining market traction, but it was nice for Azevedo to provide the data. In 2014, ebooks accounted for slightly more than one third of books sales (in $). Now, how many of those ebooks were self-published books . . . I don’t know. I’m sure a big chunk of them were the e-versions of Stephen King’s latest whatever and so on. But since self-publishers generally go digital, it’s nice to know readers are embracing ebooks.

Azevedo made the case for using Smashwords as distributor because it streamlines the process: You format and upload your Word document and Smashwords can convert it into various file types for iBooks and kobo and a number of other outlets. Your book can be available in a matter of minutes. Smashwords does not do Amazon books, though, because Amazon requires them to manually upload each book individually, so if you want to have your self-published book on Amazon (and you should; it’s still the biggest retailer), you’re better off doing that one yourself. Azevedo of course warned against going with Amazon’s KDP Select program, which means your book can only be available on Amazon. It’s the biggest, sure, but why put your book in only one store?

Still, Smashwords can’t help you if you want a print version. Azevedo said most of their authors use CreateSpace (Amazon again) for that.

I spent the second session in Azevedo’s continuing self-publishing talk, which was called “New Things to Expect from ebook Publishing.” I was hoping for new information, but what I got was Ten Trends:

1. Bookselling is moving online. We all know this; brick and mortar stores are disappearing as more and more people shop online for their books because online retailers are often cheaper.

2. The rise of ebooks. As mentioned before, more people are reading books on devices. They like the changeable font size, they like the convenience of traveling with many books under one lightweight device, they like the ability to sample before buying.

3. The democratization of publishing (aka the rise of indie authors). More and more authors are self-publishing, which means there’s more out there to choose from.

4. Indie ebook authors are gaining a competitive advantage. They can put books out faster, distribute globally, revise easily, have control of their work, and never go out of print. They have lower expenses for their publishing, so they can sell their books for less, which means more readers are willing to try their books. And they earn more per book sold than traditionally published authors.

5. Meanwhile, traditionally published authors are suffering from higher prices. Consumers have gotten used to paying $2.99 or $3.99 for a book, so they balk when faced with a $24.99 hardcover.

6. Print is dying for most self-published fiction authors. But note the qualifier: fiction. Non-fiction still sells in print, as do souvenir and specialty books.

7. Ebooks are going global. Apple’s iBooks distributes to 51 countries, and almost half of Smashwords’ iBook sales are international sales.

8. Even the big NY publishers are entering the self-publishing market. They’ve realized the trend is not going away. On one hand, it’s nice to have the validation. On the other, these publishers have made some questionable alliances (says Azevedo, though he did not elaborate, so it’s something I’ll have to research), and it really is another way for publishers to take money from the authors.

9. The self-publishing stigma is disappearing. It was once a last resort, but more authors actively choose to self-publish. Authors are now asking, “What can a publisher do for me that I can’t do for myself?” (I’ll admit, it was the question I had to ask when offered a contract from a small publisher for Peter, and the answer was they weren’t offering me anything I couldn’t do on my own.)

10. Indie authors are taking market share from traditional publishers. They are landing on bestseller lists right alongside big publishers’ books.

Azevedo mentioned that Smashwords does an annual survey and has learned that $2.99–$3.99 is the sweet spot for offering full-length fiction to readers. Non-fiction can charge $5.99–$9.99. And readers prefer buying full-length books to short stories or novellas. So Azevedo advises against breaking your novel into a serial.

But keep producing. It takes about five books before authors generally really start to see traction. It takes that many books to find and build a regular readership.

At this point it was lunchtime. I’ll post about the afternoon sessions in another post.

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