Complete this sentence: EBook success is…

Last weekend, the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) kindly laid on a day of discussion and presentations about e-publishing, at the SA Writers’ Centre in Adelaide. A whole day talking about eBooks, blogs, and web marketing? Great! And it really got me thinking. Here’s my take on it.

The presenters included Emily Craven, a writer and eBook expert; Michael Bollen, MD of Wakefield Press; and Paul Higgs of leading Adelaide-based book/eBook production and distribution company, Palmer Higgs. The crowd was full of published and aspiring authors, and I think I may have been the only editor in the room. Surrounded… *Gulp*.

Each session gave me a new perspective on what authors want from e-publishing, the challenges of publishing digitally, and the sheer awesome marketing potential of the web.  Now, I have to confess that I really hate it when I hear eBook hype along the lines of ‘Hey! You can be the next Amanda Hocking overnight!’ The E Exchange was blessedly free of that kind of thing, and focused on concrete strategies and approaches for what Emily Craven called the ‘slow build’ of an eBook-based writing career. Everybody said it: the key to eBook success is to write a great book.

The E Exchange also demonstrated a modern fact of life: self-publishing an eBook is now a realistic option for even the most cash-strapped author. You can do it pretty cheaply if you plan your publishing carefully – we’re talking hundreds, not thousands, of dollars to get together enough material for a Smashwords publication. If you like the idea of quick-and-easy publishing, without worrying about the fiddle-faddle of other people [read: publishers and editors] reading, advising on, and altering or even rejecting your work, you can do it if you really want to. If you sense a ‘but’ on the way, you’re right.

I noticed that nobody at the E Exchange recommended publishing without investing something in editing, and I see that as a very good thing. I reckon that editorial input on material before publication is an absolute must – for content-development as well as style/presentation reasons. The key to eBook success is to be realistic about what’s involved in preparing your material for publication. If you want to compete in a market where 2.5 million people Google ‘free eBook’ every month, it’s healthy to realise that a whole lot of authors and publishers are thinking the same thing as you: let’s grab some of that 2.5 million! For me, getting a competitive advantage is not just about pricing your book lower than the rest. It’s vital to present a more professional package than the writers you’re up against.

For this reason, eBooks need the same detailed pre-press and technical prep work as any other kind of publishing – in other words, the editing, design and layout work, typesetting, and proofreading that ensure a top-quality, professionally presented product. Unless you’re going to do it yourself (which is demanding and costs your time and effort if not actual dollars), you’re going to need an editor and probably other specialists too.

If you’re self-publishing, you may be able to get some of these services for free by roping in suitably qualified family, friends, or community/crowdsourcing sites. But if you want to ensure that competitive advantage I just talked about, you’re better off hiring a professional. There’s a strong correlation between the level of a specialist’s expertise and the fee he or she charges; as one app developer at the E Exchange pointed out, what you’re paying when you hire a professional – for example, an editor, designer, or developer – is a combination of that person’s study, training, and proven industry experience, carefully applied and tailored to the specific needs of your project.

The upshot is that the cost of hiring professionals to get your material ready for eBook publication isn’t usually over the top, but a self-published author should always factor it into his or her financial plan.

There’s so much hype about how easy it is to self-publish an eBook, and in some ways it really is that easy. And given the royalty splits available through online self-publishing platforms, I can see that it’s really tempting to focus on the return rather the costs. So, I was so glad that the E Exchange Day gave a more realistic perspective on eBook publishing – it addressed what’s practical, not just what’s aspirational, about eBooks.

Finally, let me cheerfully stick my neck out and big-up the editor’s role in e-publishing one last time. A professional edit is just as indispensable for an eBook as it is for printed material, because readers deserve the highest quality content no matter how they like their books served up and how much they pay. I’d love to hear what you think about that statement.

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