Judging a Book by Its Cover

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article on how ebooks and other book-publishing technology are shaking up the business model traditional book publishers.

Amazon has taken an early lead, providing service tools for authors to self publish and creating an imprint last year to publish promising authors in print and online.

This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon's Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.

The new formula makes digital self-publishing more lucrative for authors. "Some people will be tempted by the 70% royalty at Amazon," [Richard] Nash says. "If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70% of $100,000 or 15% of $200,000 for a hardcover?"

Digital self-publishing, or "vanity" publishing, is creating a powerful new niche in books. WSJ's Geoffrey Fowler joins the Digits show to discuss how this is threatening the traditional book industry.

Traditional book-industry players and tech companies are jumping on the digital self-publishing bandwagon. Apple last week announced a digital self-publishing program for its iPad giving 70% of revenue to authors, similar to Amazon's formula. Last month, Barnes & Noble also announced a service called PubIt!, allowing authors to post and sell e-books online.

While traditional publishers aren’t going the way of newspapers any time soon (though they’re slowly heading that direction), the shift to digital publishing is going to be a boon for talented writers. Published authors with an established fan base can sell their books for less than traditional publishers while making more money per book. New authors in the process build a fan base have another way to market manuscripts that aren’t under contract.

Talented unpublished authors can get around the often lengthy and cumbersome process of finding an agent and working with a publisher. If they have a compelling story to tell, they can immediately start selling books and building a fan base.

Of course not every self-published book will do well. As the WSJ article notes, self published books are generally poorly written and lack an editor’s touch. But in the new publishing paradigm, talented writers can hire editors to go over the book to improve the story and writing.

It’s also makes it easy for authors to overcome the second problem self-published books face: crappy covers. We’ve all be told never to judge a book by its cover, yet we do it all the time. If someone’s going to take a self-published book seriously, it needs a cover that’s going to make people want to pick it up or, with ebooks, at least read the first chapter or two. (And for those who say they never judge books by their covers, would you even consider reading a book with covers like these? Be honest!) Thankfully, there are plenty of talented graphic designers out there who can create a compelling cover for a couple hundred bucks. You have a professional look and copy and you’ve overcome two big obstacles that self published writer and books encounter.

Going the self-published route isn’t the best option for everyone right now. But it’s become a more viable business model for talented writers. That being said, I’ll be testing these new self publishing waters later this summer with a short, niche book of my own.

Stay tuned for details.