planet ebook: from virtual graveyard to literary lift-off

I had an article published yesterday on a new blog called The Social Interface. The purpose of the blog is to examine the social implications of technology for professionals and academics from a range of fields.

The article is called ‘Planet ebook: from virtual graveyard to literary lift-off’. It discusses ebook opportunities for self-published writers. If you’re interested, you can check it out here. Thanks to The Social Interface’s co-editors, Lyria Bennett Moses and Sarah Lux, for asking me to contribute to their blog and for their brilliant editorial advice.

Below is a longer version of the article, in which I broaden my discussion to address the benefits of self-publishing through Smashwords, as well as some of the hurdles an author needs to clear when taking the self-published ebook route.


Planet ebook: from virtual graveyard to literary lift-off

The world of the self-published ebook is quickly shedding its image as a virtual planet where failed authors go to die.

Increasingly, fiction writers are considering the ebook as an avenue through which they can bypass established publishers to get their work out there and to connect with new readers.

Smashing words

Amongst indie authors, one of the most popular ebook publishing and distribution platforms online is Smashwords. The site has published over 3 billion words since its inception in 2008.

The beauty of Smashwords for authors is that it not only makes their work available for download on the Smashwords website but it also gives authors the opportunity to have that work distributed to major ebook retailers, with Smashwords and the relevant retailer taking a cut from each ebook sale.

Smashwords’ retail distribution partners include the Sony ReaderStore and Barnes & Noble.  Apple also distributes Smashwords ebooks through iTunes and the iBook app, which is available on the iPad and any iPhone or iPod Touch with iOS 4 and above. Amazon is due to begin distribution of Smashwords ebooks by the end of 2011.

Platforms like Smashwords don’t just benefit authors. They give the reading public more choice, providing an unprecedented diversity of literary voices all ready for immediate download.


One of the stars of the ebook revolution, and an author who uses Smashwords as one of her ebook distribution platforms, is Amanda Hocking.

The 26-year-old author from Minnesota, U.S.A., has received a great deal of media attention over the last year, having grossed approximately $2 million in ebook sales, mainly through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Her ebooks include the young adult vampire romance series, My Blood Approves. 

What stuns most commentators is how swiftly Hocking’s star has risen. She began self-publishing ebooks in April 2010. By early March 2011, she had sold over 900,000 copies of 9 of her ebooks. Her series of novels about trolls, the Trylle Trilogy, was optioned for a film in early 2011, with Terri Tatchell, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for District 9, attached to adapt the screenplay.

Self-publishing phenomenons like Amanda Hocking demonstrate that the ebook is allowing indie authors to extend their readership significantly on a global scale.

That said, ebook self-publishing seems to be more lucrative for those sections of the indie fiction writing population who publish genre fiction, such as thrillers, romance, paranormal romance, mystery and fantasy.  As Hocking’s sales figures suggest, the most successful of these writers are those whose work taps into the young adult zeitgeist, which at present favours — among other things — female fantasies about pallid men with sharp teeth who fall in love with us but simultaneously must resist draining us of blood.

What about literary fiction?

For emerging non-genre writers like myself, the question remains whether taking the self-published ebook route is advisable for developing a literary reputation.  After all, success in literary fiction is often tied to where, and by whom, an author has had work published.

With this in mind, one option is for emerging literary fiction writers to self-publish short stories in ebook format after the publication of those stories in well-regarded print and online literary journals. This widens the availability of the stories to potential readers without requiring the author to pass up the opportunity to keep building a literary career that follows a traditional trajectory.

At the same time, emerging writers may decide to publish other short stories direct to ebook, simply because those stories are experimental and unlikely to be accepted by major literary publications due to their niche market appeal.

Take, for instance, The Fantastic Breasts, a feminist satire I’ve published through Smashwords.  The plot centres on a pair of particularly elastic breasts that can perform heroic feats.

Without a doubt, this story would have had trouble finding a publisher. Its style is an obscure and experimental mix of magic realism and hyperrealism. To add to this, the content is adult but, perhaps confusingly for some, it isn’t erotica. The story also has the potential to alienate those who take its lack of political correctness literally and feel that the language used denigrates women. Moreover, the story may alienate those who struggle to reconcile its extreme satirical humour with the serious issues it addresses relating to the objectification of women.

Ultimately, not all stories a writer produces are destined to be popular. In circumstances where an author isn’t willing to compromise to make a story more palatable for a mainstream audience, the ebook is a powerful new publishing option. It lowers the barriers to publication for experimental literary work and vastly improves the author’s chance of reaching that work’s niche global readership, which may exist amongst those trawling the websites of major ebook retailers looking for something unusual to read.

Clearing the hurdles

There are a number of hurdles to negotiate before an ebook can connect with its niche audience. Many of these hurdles are significant, given that a self-published author doesn’t have the support that comes with working with a big publishing house, such as professional editing, cover design and marketing.

Some indie writers have found innovative ways to get around having to manage every element of the ebook publishing process themselves. The highly successful ebook thriller writer, Joe Konrath, for instance, has arranged for his literary agents to take on the responsibility of managing the e-publishing of his books.

Looking professional

If you don’t have any literary agents handy, it’s still possible to pull together a professional-looking ebook while sitting alone in front of your laptop and without ever having met your collaborators in person.

In preparing The Fantastic Breasts for publication, I hired as my editor Dr Stephen Carver. Dr Carver was my tutor for an online fiction writing course run by the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. He has since become my literary mentor and editor. Remarkably, every conversation and editorial discussion we have had to date has been conducted online.

I also haven’t met in person the ebook’s cover designer, Gee Hale. We first established contact on Twitter and proceeded to discuss possible directions for the cover design over email and with reference to images in Gee’s online portfolio.

When it comes to formatting an ebook, this is something many authors can do alone.  The only condition that Smashwords imposes before approving an ebook for distribution to its retail partners is that the ebook must conform to the Smashwords Style Guide. The guide provides instructions on how to format an ebook to adhere to Smashwords requirements. This is relatively straightforward, requiring basic to intermediate Microsoft Word skills. Once the ebook is approved for distribution, which took a week for The Fantastic Breasts, it may be another fortnight or more before the ebook appears on retailers’ websites.

Pricing and marketing

Once the ebook is formatted for publication, having an appropriate pricing strategy is important. It’s up to the author to find a balance between a price that is financially viable and a price that is not prohibitively high for readers. An author might decide to make a few ebooks available for free in order to attract new readers who might then proceed to purchase the author’s other ebooks.

Perhaps the most challenging hurdle that remains for self-published writers is the formulation and execution of an appropriate marketing strategy.  This is a crucial factor in determining whether or not an ebook reaches the right audience, or any audience at all. You may have brilliant work on offer but, with so many ebooks coming onto the market, it can be difficult to make yours stand out from the rest. Furthermore, you’ll need to take into account that readers may not trust a self-published ebook to be of the same quality as ebooks and ‘p-books’ (a trendy new word for paper books) put out by reputable publishing houses.


Ebook technology can benefit a wide variety of fiction writers, particularly those who can handle the hurdles involved in self-publishing and who want to connect with an international readership without having to woo an established publisher willing to aid them in this quest.

I once heard of a writer who said that having an unpublished story is like having a grown-up child who won’t leave home. The ebook has become an avenue through which such a story can make a life away from the worried clutches of its author: a life that doesn’t necessarily guarantee Amanda Hocking-level profits or worldwide acclaim but at least begins in an aesthetically pleasing and widely available electronic format on an increasingly prosperous virtual planet.


First image by goXunuReviews, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

2 thoughts on “planet ebook: from virtual graveyard to literary lift-off

  1. Ebook publishing is a revolutionary publishing option. This allows authors to expand their reach in the market they wish to tap especially now that digital technology is widely used in the publishing industry.

  2. Pingback: Paul Gardner's Blog Ebook Opportunities

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