Moira Allen has been writing professionally for nearly 20 years, during which time she has worked as a magazine editor, technical editor, computer writer, corporate newsletter editor, editorial consultant, and writing instructor. Allen's most recent book is " Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career," from Allworth Press. She is also the editor of Inkspot's new e-mail newsletter on international writing and marketing, Global Writers' Ink.

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eBook Bytes - A monthly column on electronic publishing.

This month: To "e" or not to "e." A conversation with Moira Allen.
Last month we spoke with various industry members about the pleasures and pitfalls of publishing's new wave of electronic and Web-based delivery and marketing. Ms. Allen, who dwells in this world as managing editor at content site which recently merged with p.o.d. publisher Xlibris) had so many insights on the topic that we decided to print the entire interview.

IP: First of all, how do you think the current developments in e-publishing affect the small publisher and unpublished author?

MA: If by small publisher you are referring to small "print" publishers, I don't think that e-publishing will have a huge impact. It certainly won't have a negative impact. Many (if not most) authors are still looking for "traditional" publication, and so are still more likely to turn to a small print publisher than a small electronic publisher. Nor should e-publishing have any impact on small publishers' markets.

However, I think e-publishing will offer small publishers a new area of opportunity, if they are interested in offering different formats for their publications. I wouldn't recommend that a small publisher go totally "e" if they are currently dealing in print products -- however, a publisher might do very well if they offered both print AND electronic versions of their products. This would increase their ability to market books online, and eventually lead to the development of a strong e-audience (so that, later, such a publisher might choose to switch entirely to e-publishing with an established, built-in market and stable of quality authors).

For the unpublished author, e-publishing represents a huge temptation and a huge risk. Much depends on whether the author wishes to publish fiction, or a niche-focused nonfiction book.

Fiction has never done well in the self-publishing arena, whether that arena is print or electronic. While e-publishers talk about the "formula novels" produced by "mainstream publishers," the truth is that the print shelves are packed with options. The majority of readers are not having any trouble locating "something to read" when they walk into a bookstore; in other words, most of us don't feel starved for "content." Books that are billed as "different, edgy, trendy, too 'dangerous' for commercial publishers," etc., have always had a much smaller following -- it's not as if the general reading public is just itching for dangerous, trendy books. They're not. So even if e-publishers ARE producing this type of literature, such literature still has a relatively small market, and that market is further constrained by the percentage of readers who are (as yet) interested in purchasing electronic books.

E-publishers are often reluctant to talk about sales figures, but as yet, those figures still do not match traditional print sales figures even for low-selling print books. The question an unpublished novelist must answer for him/herself is "what constitutes 'being published'"? At what point will you be satisfied that you are a published author? Does it relate to the type of book -- e.g., production value -- that you have? Does it relate to the number of readers that you reach? Will you be happy if you reach 300 readers? Will you be happy if you reach 5000? What will make you feel like a genuinely published author?

Nonfiction authors have a better opportunity, because many, many people are accustomed to doing research and looking for information online. Nonfiction reading is not (generally) the same as "recreational" reading -- it's research, and often it's related to "work." So for readers, making the jump to buying a nonfiction e-book is no big stretch from doing that sort of research online to begin with. It's also much easier to locate your target market "communities" online (and much cheaper to advertise to those communities) than it is for a niche-focused nonfiction author who produces a print book. Since many nonfiction authors with small, tightly focused markets can't obtain commercial publication, e-publishing offers an excellent alternative to the expense (and hassle) of print self-publication.

In either case, authors must be prepared to handle much of the marketing that they might normally expect a commercial publisher to handle. While it's true that commercial publishers don't tend to put a lot of marketing muscle behind anything but their top stars or sellers, they will still ensure that a certain number of copies get to the major (and minor) reviewers, that announcements are made in certain media, that ads are placed in relevant publications, and that books are pitched/marketed/delivered to bookstores. Authors can't count on any of this in e-publishing, and need to be prepared to handle most (or all) of these types of marketing and PR efforts on their own, if they want their book to become a success.

IP: A recent feature in this magazine covered the debate about the growth of subsidy publishing ala Xlibris vs. the danger of readers being turned off by the plethora of mediocre books and difficulty of sorting out the good ones. Any comments?

MA: I think readers are already turned off to the plethora of mediocre books. Perhaps one good sign is that you don't hear nearly as much about some of the early e-publishing subsidy houses that burst onto the scene when e-publishing began. How many versions of "Revenge of the Snake Goddess of Cor" have to be e-published before readers say "enough already?"

This was a problem for self-publishers when desktop publishing made it possible to become a self-publisher for a reasonable price. The market was quickly flooded with mediocre books (mostly personal stories or "my cosmically inspired guide to fame, fortune, and happiness"). It took several years for the truly worthwhile authors and small publishers to rise to the top, to overcome the instant antipathy toward "self-publication" that they faced from readers, and establish viable businesses and markets. Those self-publishers of yesterday are the successful small presses of today.

The same thing has to occur in the e-publishing arena. Both commercial and subsidy e-publishers are going to have to determine ways to assure quality control -- to allow readers to find the good books while still providing would-be authors at least the opportunity to publish "bad" books. Hopefully, we'll see some independent and reliable resources -- clearinghouses, perhaps -- that can help guide readers toward the quality material on the market. (We're looking into this very issue at Xlibris, by the way -- after all, our readers are our customers too, not just the writers.)

IP: Must the independent author have his or her own website to market their ebook?

MA: I don't see how you could market a book without one. You can do so much with a website: Post a sample chapter, post a FAQ (if your book is nonfiction), post nonfiction information relating to your book (e.g., historical background to a historical romance), and exchange links with other authors and relevant websites to attract traffic. A website makes an author appear accessible to the reader; nowadays, I think readers are beginning to expect ALL authors to have websites. If readers expect print-authors to have websites (and a sense of accessibility), how much more, then, will they expect it of authors who are in the electronic milieu to start with? The key is to have a GOOD website, not just a "here's my book and 100 reasons why you ought to buy it" puff piece. That's too lengthy an issue to go into here; suffice it to say that I cover this topic quite thoroughly in my book, ""

IP: What are some common misconceptions about epublishing?

MA: I think the commonest misconception is that e-books are already popular with the general reading public. They aren't. The vast majority of readers go into bookstores or order print books online -- but they aren't buying e-books. They haven't determined a "need" for what e-books provide. Rocketbook E-readers are still slow to sell; many of us make a quick calculation as to how many actual BOOKS we could buy for that same $200, and it's sort of a no-brainer.

The attendant misconception, the loudly trumpeted cry, is that "e-books will replace print books by (fill in your favorite year)" or "e-books will soon be as popular or more popular than print books", etc. It may happen. It won't happen soon. Authors who are hoping to build their reputation on the idea that it has already happened or will happen next week are going to be profoundly disappointed.

We have a few (very few) "bestselling" authors in the e-publishing field. The fact that the numbers for these authors (not counting Stephen King, of course) are so loudly proclaimed is an indicator that NO OTHER authors are making those numbers. If everyone was making sales in the thousands, then the fact that one or two bestsellers were doing so would no longer be newsworthy. It is -- and that's bad news for everyone else. Certain publishers like to trumpet certain high-success figures as an indication that e-publishing is a successful endeavor for every author who tries it -- but again, the very fact that you have to proclaim "So-and-so just broke the records again by selling XXXX copies" demonstrates that no one else is doing nearly so well.

E-publishing, I believe, IS going to be a powerful force in the future. But it's still going through the same "sorting out and getting established" phase that self-publishing went through ten years ago. I don't think it will take ten years for e-publishing to sort itself out -- but it isn't going to happen overnight, either. Authors need to know all the facts before they enter this arena.

IP: Are there any untapped opportunities out there?

MA: I think e-publishing IS the next answer to self-publishing in the nonfiction arena. Experts in various subjects, who have a built-in market, are going to be able to reach that market much more quickly and inexpensively through this medium. If you're a nonfiction author who can't find a commercial publisher, and you're willing to put in the same amount of EFFORT you would for normal self-publishing, without having to invest nearly the same amount of cost, this could be the venue for you.