Business

E-book revolution: Breaking through in the digital age

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Media captionA new wave of authors is looking to make a living from publishing e-books

"It's impossible to sell animal stories in the US." So said one American publisher after rejecting the manuscript of George Orwell's Animal Farm.

He was spectacularly wrong, but not alone among the literary establishment in rejecting some of the world's best-known and most-loved books.

For centuries, agents and publishers have acted as gatekeeper of the printed word that gives authors access to a potential audience of millions.

But a growing army of writers, emboldened by new technology and the proliferation of e-readers, are rejecting the traditional publishing model.

Some write for enjoyment, some for creative fulfilment, while others simply write to make money.

And for those lucky ones that get it right, the rewards can be substantial - e-book sales in the US grew by almost 50% last year and more than doubled in the UK, while traditional print book sales continued to stagnate or dwindle.

Rejection

Paul Pilkington started writing comedy in the late 1990s while working full-time for the NHS.

Despite some critical success, he soon became disillusioned with agents' lack of interest. He decided instead to indulge his passion for reading mystery suspense novels by writing in the same genre.

Image caption Paul has enjoyed great success despite very little promotion

"Instead of the standard rejection letters, I was now getting personalised rejections, with an explanation," Paul says.

But everything changed when he received a Kindle e-reader as a gift two years ago and the possibilities of self-publishing became tantalisingly clear.

With two novels already sitting on his hard drive, Paul published them both on as many platforms as he could find - Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Nook Press and iBooks. To maximise sales, he gave one away for free to draw readers in, then charged £1 for the second.

Before he knew it and despite competition from hundreds of thousands of other titles, The One You Love topped the Amazon free e-book chart in the US and, within two weeks, it hit the number one spot in the UK.

Even better, his sales strategy worked, with his second novel breaking the top 100 paid-for chart in the US and the top 15 in the UK. So much so, in fact, that he doubled the price.

Paul is now working on a third novel in the series and has sold more than 160,000 books to date, not to mention the 2.2 million free downloaded. At between 35% and 70% commission depending on the platform, that's quite some some boost to Paul's teacher's salary.

But for him, it was never about the money.

"I just want others to read my books and enjoy them. I get emails from all over the world including places I've never even heard of. It's really magical and a publisher hasn't even been involved".

Ironically, Paul's success with e-books has meant agents and traditional publishing houses have now come to him - he has just signed a deal with Hodder & Stoughton to start selling his novels in the UK.

Piper Terrett, a freelance writer and university lecturer, is another author who has discovered the delights of self-publishing.

Having published a couple of non-fiction books, she decided to give crime writing a go but, like so many, hit a brick wall with agents.

"Getting 15 rejections is very disheartening, particularly as you don't even know for sure whether they've read the book, so I basically just boxed it up and moved on," she says.

"At the time, there was a real snobbery about self-publishing - a feeling that it was a last resort when no-one else was interested. But that stigma is fading away."

The realisation that even the greatest authors get multiple rejections, together with the fact that publishing digitally is now free, persuaded Piper to give her novel, Victim Support, another go, this time on her own terms.

She now devotes one day a week to writing fiction and despite having little time to market her novels, the high margins on e-books mean she gets a nice income to supplement her other earnings, all from doing something she loves.

'Miserable'

But it's the ability to market books effectively that is the key to making really good money from writing e-books, according to author and entrepreneur Joanna Penn, who gave up a lucrative career to be a writer.

Image caption Joanna Penn has never been happier in her professional career

"I spent 13 years as a financial consultant and I was miserable. It was killing me. I've always been a massive reader, but I'd never really thought about writing."

That was until the advent of e-books.

With the opportunity to publish her own works, she began writing, getting up at 05:00 to pen some words before going to work. Always with a view to making money and loving the genre herself, Joanna chose to write thrillers based around religion.

Her first novel, Pentecost, was soon followed by two more, and she now sells about 2,200 books a month, having sold more than 60,000 to date. When she's not writing, she spends her time speaking about self-publishing and teaching other wannabe writers, for which she gets paid.

Joanna says she already earns double the average salary for a woman in the UK, with about a third of her income coming from book sales. The key to making big bucks, she says, is having a lot of books on sale.

"I know authors with 20 books on the market making £50,000 a month," she says.

And it's not just e-books that can generate cash, but audio books and translations for different markets, all of which can help raise an author's profile and attract new readers, helping to boost book sales.

Some authors are even selling the rights to some of their books to traditional publishers while keeping control of others, or selling print rights and keeping those to e-books.

"This is what's really exciting about this from a business point of view - there are so many opportunities," says Joanna.

"For the first time in my working life, I really enjoy what I do."

For so long the power to publish books has been closely guarded by a small number of established publishing houses. Thanks to the internet and e-books, the power is finally switching to those who actually create the books in the first place - the authors themselves.

Frustrated writers the world over are finally getting the chance to live out their dream, and a lucky few are even getting paid for it.

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