How the bookworm has turned: Readers, authors and the digital revolution in publishing

Jonathan Weinberg

"Everyone has a book in them", so the saying goes - and thanks to technology anyone is now able to get that book out of their head and into digital print.

The rise in popularity of e-reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle, Kobo or iBooks on Apple's iPhone or iPad mean it's never been easier to become a published author.

Self-publishing is often as simple as uploading a Word document or PDF - and the potential for instant success is clear. Last week Amazon announced it was selling more via Kindle to customers in the UK than it was shifting traditional hardbacks and paperbacks combined.

Kindle ownership has led to British bookworms buying four times the number of novels and non-fiction than they did through print in the past.

And with the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service, would-be authors have the ability to set their own cover price and get 70% of royalties. It can be a lucrative business, as can be seen in successes such as Nick Spalding. His book 'Love… From Both Sides' was one of the top 10 bestsellers in the last three months, with almost 250,000 copies sold.

Spalding, from Southampton, has another two books in the top Kindle 100. He said: "KDP is a fantastic opportunity for writers to get their work into the hands of the people that actually count - the readers."

One of the benefits of KDP is it's not confined purely to Amazon's own devices. Kindle books can be read worldwide on a PC, Mac or iOS and Android smartphone or tablet.

The author owns the rights to their book and in some cases, it can be created, published and be ready to download within 24 hours.

Such ease of delivery, compared to traditional publishing, is just one reason why the past year has seen a four-fold increase in independent authors and publishers using KDP.

Three of the top 10 most popular authors of 2012 so far on are self-publishers, including 31-year-old first-timer Kerry Wilkinson, of Lancashire, who scored a No1 before Christmas. He has sold more than 300,000 copies of his book 'Locked In'.

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Gordon Willoughby, Director, Kindle EU, said: "KDP enables self-published authors to compete on a level playing field with the giants of the literary world and we're excited to see it succeeding for both readers and authors."

Other technology is available. Apple launched iBooks in 2010 and its self-publishing process is very similar.

However, it has also launched a software download for the Mac called iBooks Author, allowing anyone to create an iPad book that is packed full of images, video and even 3D objects using simple templates. It has been downloaded more than 600,000 times. 

Kobo is another e-book service Kobo. It sells its electronic reader devices in WH Smith and offers its software via phones, tablets and computers too It also has a self-publishing arm called Kobo Writing Life.

Michael Tamblyn, of Kobo, said: "The first thing we did was ask authors what they felt was most important in a self-publishing platform.

"They were incredibly clear: openness, control, great royalties, incredible reporting and global reach. It should be powerful but drop-dead simple. And there should be people running it who care about writers - not like dropping your treasured manuscript into a machine."

Novelist Ben Hatch had his book 'Are We Nearly There Yet?' released in digital form by his print publisher. It went on to sell nearly 30,000 Kindle copies and has prompted him to self-publish his next read.

He said: "The main advantage of digital is in how, as an author, you can help to sell it online. When this is allied to social media, and in particular Twitter, with a fair wind, goodwill and some positive reviews, it's relatively easy to shift a lot of copies very quickly.

"I am about to re-release a novel of mine called The P45 Diaries whose rights reverted to me from a traditional publisher. It's incredibly easy. I paid £130 to get it formatted, though you can this yourself if you're techie, and then all you need to do is load it up and get a cover commissioned.

"Lots of authors with backlists of out of print books or who had no digital clause to their initial book contracts will be re-releasing them in this way. Everyone who has always felt they have a book in them can now get it out there for minimal expense as well."

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Mr Hatch says a print book costing around £9 would make the author between 50p and 80p but you can achieve 70% of any book priced above £1.53 on Kindle.

He added: "There are other factors of course to traditional publishing - having a good editor for example. That is something a lot of self-published books could do with.

"But for the author, digital books sold at a discount and heavily marketed can give you a readership you might otherwise have taken years to build up."

Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller. He said: "It has always been the case that there is more talent out that than there are publishers available to publish books by. A lot of the popular self-published writers can be seen as pioneers in a marketplace that is still very young, and that is good news all around.

"At the moment, the upside from self-publishing is greater than the downside, but that may change quite rapidly. Publishers need the commercial titles to underpin the slow burners that may become the sleeper hits of tomorrow, or simply the literary classics that last a decade or longer.

"If that money drains out of the eco-system then publishers may become even more hit-driven than they currently are, and I don’t think that is great model for anyone who loves the diversity of the current publishing industry."

Ilana Fox is an author who has her books published in traditional and new formats. Her third novel All The Glitters comes out next month but she remains sceptical about self publishing.

She said: "Since I landed my first book deal in 2008 the book industry has changed dramatically because of digital publishing. It has democratised the industry in that anyone can publish a book and find a distributor for it.

"But with self-publishing comes a lack of quality control and a skewing of the pricing model of books. Self-published authors can afford to sell their e-books for pennies or absolutely nothing and it's no surprise that it's these that often dominate the charts.

"And while I love that the internet has opened up different ways for me to interact with my readers quickly and effectively, I dislike the idea that authors now have to be marketers as well as writers.

"I'm lucky in that I have experience in this area, but I know of many authors who are floundering. Lots are experimenting and getting mixed results in terms of sales.

"We live in a world of instant gratification though so it's no surprise digital books are so popular. If you want it, you can buy it there and then - and now if you want to be an author, you can do that instantly too."