They could hold onto the books, hoping for second printings when fame and fortune created high demand for all their previous works, or they could buy out the warehouses and line their shelves with copies they could sell on EBay or give away to new-found friends (Any family members who were too cheap to buy it in the first place, don't deserve a free copy.).
But times have changed and so have the choices.
Nowadays, anyone can publish books electronically, reaching unprecedented numbers of potential readers with no financial investment.That includes previously published authors whose books have outgrown their publishers and become homeless.
I recently talked to Pat, an old high school friend, about his decision to e-publish:
Tell me a bit about your novel, Tornado Siren.
Pat: Tornado Siren is about a meteorologist who studies tornadoes, who meets up with a man who claims to have an odd, mystical connection to tornadoes. According to Ben, he’s been wandering the earth for centuries, from twister to twister. As a scientist, Victoria finds his claims completely unbelievable, but she sees something that shakes her certainty. She ends up walking across Kansas with him to find out if his story is true. In the process, they fall for each other. In terms of genre, I’d label it as a paranormal love story, though it’s also partly a road trip story and disaster novel.
Under the terms of your contract, how long did Behler Publications have the rights to your book?
Pat: Five years.
When you signed the contract, had you thought about what you might do with the novel after the rights reverted back to you?
Pat: I just hoped the book would be a huge success and that the relationship would continue for years, as the book continually found more readers and sold more copies. It sold some copies over two years, but after that, like most books, it disappeared from view. I had talked to them about the possibility of Behler putting out an e-book of Tornado Siren when they first started coming out, but they weren’t interested at the time.
What made you decided to publish electronically?
Pat: I’d been reading a lot of blogs where writers were giving it a try and having some success, especially Joe Konrath. I didn’t think I’d achieve his kind of numbers, but he made some good arguments for giving it a try. Especially for a book that had been published already — so it had reviews and had been professionally edited — but had fallen out of the print. The risk seemed very low. It would take some time to format it and come up with a new cover but, otherwise, the cost was minimal.
How did you settle on an e-publishing company? What were you looking for? Was the reach of the electronic distribution a consideration?
Pat: In this case, I just went directly to the online distributors. So I uploaded a version to Amazon for the Kindle to Barnes & Noble for the Nook, and to Smashwords for everything else. They make it easy. For them, the more books out there, the better. Each one needed some slight tweaks to the manuscript formatting, but it was really pretty simple.
What are the terms? Do you get all the profit or a percentage? Did you find a lot of variety in the terms in your research?
Pat: The terms vary a bit, but not by a huge amount. For Amazon, the amount I get depends on the price of the book. On books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, the author gets 70 percent of the sales price. Above or below that, the author gets 35 percent. So basically, on $2.99 books, I get about $2. (More than 90 percent of the e-books I’ve sold have been for the Kindle, through Amazon.)
Contrast that to when the book was selling in paper for $14.99. My publisher was paying me 10 percent of the net sales price (Small publishers often pay on the net rather than cover price. Larger publishers pay on the cover price.), and I earned about an average of about $0.68 per book.
The other big plus is that authors get paid more frequently for e-books. With my print publisher, I was supposed to get a royalty statement a couple times a year. Many only pay annually. Amazon puts money directly into my bank account, every month. Smashwords and Barnes & Noble work the same way.
Can you pull Tornado Siren at any time?
Pat: Yes. Any of the sites will allow you to pull the book, or to update it. It’s a remarkably flexible system for authors. I can also experiment with price, but I haven’t tried going the $0.99 route yet.
How has the e-version of the novel fared?
Pat: I’m not about to retire on it. I will say that since it first came out in March, I’ve already earned more money from the e-book that I ever received from my print publisher. I think genre fiction has better potential to really take off as an e-book, because there are highly focused communities of readers out there. Amanda Hocking is an example of a genre writer who’s had some astounding e-book success, but she also worked really hard for it and wrote a bunch of books. I just have the one e-book right now.
I love that I’m reaching new readers every month and I can easily track how many copies I’m selling, which is good for a numbers guy like me.
What have you done for publicity?
Pat: I’ve done the basic online work. I’ve posted about it on my blog, on Facebook, on Twitter. Some of my friends blogged about me and my e-book early on. I have an e-mail list of about 600 people, so I sent out e-mails to all of them. I got more active on Good Reads. There’s a link on my e-mail signature. Lots of little things, here and there. There’s more I could do, but time is always an issue.
Has publicity cost you anything?
Pat: Not yet. It’s unclear how much paid online ads or other marketing outreach is likely to do for an e-book that’s self-published and not within a specific genre. I have pretty big doubts whether the return would be there. It’s a tricky having a book that was already published in print, too, in terms of getting reviews.
Are you happy with this decision? Please explain.
Pat: Definitely. It’s earned me a little money and found me a whole bunch of new readers, all for minimal effort and expense on my part.
If you were submitting Tornado Siren to publishers for the first time now, what would you do?
Pat: I’d still pursue traditional publishers first. They have the ability to bring a book to a much broader audience than a self-published e-book. They can land you reviews and interviews that most people can’t get on their own. I think it’d possibly be a little easier to get published now, because there’s a more established niche for paranormal romance/love stories than there was when I was taking this out initially.
I understand you have a few other novels in the works. Will this experience affect the way you seek publication for those novels?
Pat: I’m still trying to find a traditional publisher, using an agent, for both of my two new books. One is a middle-grade book, and the other is adult literary fiction. If my agent can’t sell them, I’ll probably look at smaller publishers, but I’ll also consider publishing them myself as e-books. I want my material to be read, and it’s clear that e-books are one way to help that happen.
Do you have any advice for unpublished authors trying to navigating this ever-changing publishing world?
Pat: Don’t underestimate how hard it is to find a large audience for a self-published book, whether it’s in print or an e-book. There are more books out there than ever before, and fewer people reading them. It’s fun to read stories about people like Joe Konrath or Amanda Hocking, but most people only find a few readers for their books. If you want to find a broad audience, the traditional route of agent-to-publisher still has some big advantages. Whichever way you go, you need to write a great book. If you publish it yourself, you’re going to need a good cover and also make sure it’s well-edited, by someone who knows what they’re doing (i.e., you might have to pay them).
No matter which way your book gets published, there’s a lot of work involved for the author when it comes to marketing. And even then, there’s no guarantee it’ll find a large audience.
That said, it’s amazingly cool to have a book published and have people read it and love it. I hope lots more people find their way to Tornado Siren. Without having it available as an e-book, that wouldn’t be possible.