TORONTO — Boyd Morrison was just another frustrated unpublished author — three novels, three piles of rejection letters — when he figured it was time to try something outside the box in the hopes of getting his latest book into the hands of readers.
So he decided to upload his books to Amazon’s Kindle ebook store at a bargain-basement price to see if it might improve his fortunes and win him a fan or two.
“I talked with my agent and she, like me, thought there was nothing to lose — we already pretty much tried all the publishers — so why not just put it out there and see if I can gain a readership that way?” Morrison said.
“I had no real marketing plan. I just did it to kinda see what would happen … and much to my shock, people saw them and started recommending them to each other on these discussion forums and they started climbing the bestsellers list.”
In three months, he sold 7,500 copies and, soon after, signed the book deal he longed for with Touchstone Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.
It used to be that authors without a book deal were relegated to the stigmatized process of vanity publishing and the prospect that no one would ever read their self-printed work.
But ebooks and online distribution may change that, at least for industrious writers who can somehow get their work noticed in the increasingly vast libraries of ebook stores.
While Morrison is happy to be a champion for unpublished writers and the future potential of ebooks, he said his goal was always to get a traditional book deal.
“I was very clear I was doing this to gain a readership so I could eventually be published and I’m still glad I did that,” he said.
“I know there’s a lot of talk that maybe people will just circumvent publishers now and just do ebooks only, but while the ebook market is growing exponentially, it’s still a very small part of the market.
“I think it will continue to grow explosively, but for now it’s still small and so the only way to get my book as a paperback into stores was to have a major publisher.”
Like the Kindle store, which allows authors to self-publish their works into the inventory, Canadian e-tailer Kobo has also opened its online shop to independent writers, and there are success stories, said Michael Tamblyn, vice-president of content.
“We’ve also had a very clear sense that there’s a wealth of writing out there that doesn’t fit into mainstream publishing (and) there are authors looking to bypass mainstream publishing and have a direct relationship with the reader,” Tamblyn said.
“We can certainly see authors that gain traction with an audience either because they’ve hit the sweet spot with a particular category or they found the right combination of audience and price to basically take off.”
He points specifically to American romance writer Ruth Ann Nordin as another example of a successful independent author, and while he did not disclose sales figures, he said she’s a consistent bestseller.
The fact her books are priced at less than a dollar have propelled some to the Top 50 list, including “An Inconvenient Marriage,” which this week was sandwiched in the No. 4 spot between two hot Stieg Larsson titles.
“It’s been sitting in our Top 10 for weeks now … and it sells like crazy,” Tamblyn said.
“It sits at this very affordable price point that allows people to feel like they can give her a chance, without necessarily knowing who she is.”
Morrison said his similar low-priced strategy was key to building hype and he was still making decent money because of favourable online royalty rates.
“I priced my first book at .99 as an introductory offer and my other two books at $1.99, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize the royalty rate from Amazon was 35 per cent. So I was earning 70 cents on a $2 book,” he explained.
“A lot of mainstream contracts are for 10 per cent on a paperback, which is 70 cents. So basically I was making the same as I would on a paperback.”
But he said that tactic will likely become increasingly less effective as more authors slash their prices.
“I would say I was one of the first unpublished authors putting their works up on Amazon and it’s much harder now to get that attention,” he said, noting the amount of low-priced competition has grown rapidly.
Canadian author Peter Nowak, who released the non-fiction book “Sex, Bombs and Burgers” through Penguin Canada earlier this year, has been thinking about experimenting with self-publishing a digital version of the title.
He said it’s a daunting task to promote a book independently and get noticed and yet publishers do much less to publicize books than they used to. So it might be worth a shot.
“The old belief was, ’Oh, I’m going to go on tour across the country and do signings at book stores etc.,’ but my understanding is that’s pretty rare these days, Unless you’re a big name you don’t really get to do that. I certainly didn’t do that,” Nowak said.
“Publishers are supposed to provide the promotion and marketing, but they seem to be doing less and less of that, which begs the question, what are they doing for authors?”