In the last two years, a lot of publishers have been buying into self-published ebook successes in a big way. There’s the Amanda Hocking trilogy, John Locke (the first man to really “crack” the KDP system and sell one million kindle ebooks), 50 Shades of Grey, and, quite recently, Wool by Hugh Cowey to name a few of the main deals. Some of these have earned seven-figure advances, something debut authors would only dream of. But are they worth it?
The potential issue I have isn’t with the books themselves (I haven’t read any of the above), but rather the emphasis put on the past sales of the ebook titles as an indicator of an untapped print audience, and how that affects the investment into those books. The Hocking quartet were acquired for $2 million in the US. I can’t say whether the books have earned back the advance, though in the UK I suspect they haven’t. Which makes it feel to me as though the books may have already reached their limit, and found their market, and sold to the people who had wanted to buy them before a publisher had even thought about forking out money to an already wealthy author.
In my mind (simplifying the whole equation) you buy a book for £1 million pounds on the basis it has already sold one million ebooks. How many more million ebooks can you really expect it to sell (generally at a higher price point)? How many paperbacks? It seems ebook success does not translate directly into print success – perhaps part of the expectation that it will is over-confidence in an utterly flawed book review and discoverability system.
Yes, these books have a proven market, but that existing readership is not necessarily going to be easily mobilised to promote the book to a print audience. It reminds me a bit of bodysurfing: sometimes you swim up behind a massive wave as fast as you can, and only after you’ve put in all that energy and it slips away you realise the wave was always ahead of you, and you were never going to catch it.
Then, of course, there is 50 Shades of Grey. This week, The Bookseller released the statistics for the highest-selling ebooks of 2013 across all publishers – something we pretty much never see. Included in this bunch was the sales figure for the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, which has sold 3.8 million ebooks in the UK. Seems a staggering number, but this pales in comparison to the 10,000,000+ paperbacks currently sitting on shelves around Britain. For me, the incredible print domination proves two things:
1) Under the right circumstances, a self-published mega-success can be worth a massive investment
2) Print isn’t dead, and by not having a print version of your book in bookshops (just as with not having an ebook version of your books online) you are potentially excluding a large portion of your audience
Though, as ever, 50 shades shows what’s possible, not what’s probable.
I don’t think publishers shouldn’t re-publish indie authors (if the authors want that – my little experience with them last year told me that many of them actively do not want a publishing contract), as I’m sure many of them are great and haven’t reached their target readership as fully as they perhaps could with the help of a publisher. But until we know exactly why a self-published ebook has sold in vast numbers, which I would argue in the most part we don’t, is it fair to assume the same sales numbers for print?