Friday, January 14, 2011

The Great Digital Land Rush!

Disclaimer: I'm no expert here - but I have to share what I've learned both as encouragement and as a warning. The encouragement is to help you find the motivation to start publishing your stories and illustrations digitally. The warning is that if you don't do it soon you might have regrets in a year or two or sooner.

I've been doing a lot of reading of various blogs and web pages about self publishing digitally and most agree that we are seeing a change in publishing the likes of which we haven't seen in our life times. Until now the gate keepers have been large traditional publishers. They held the keys because they could afford to put up the tens of thousands of dollars to print large runs of picturebooks. Also, they had established complicated distribution channels that an individual author/illustrator would be hard pressed to compete with. Most of this hasn't changed. The day of the large publisher is definitely NOT over and I'm glad - I like the publishers I work with and most of them have been very good to me.

What has changed is how inexpensive it is to publish your work which means that one of the two cards publishers held has evaporated. Now the only real advantage a large publisher has is a distribution channel. I'm not underestimating how important this channel is either. Large traditional publishers have relationships with stores that you and I do not. They have publicists working for them to promote our books and editors to polish the final products. They have customers that they've established long before you or I ever worked with them. They know the business better than us. They submit our books to all the major book awards and from what I've been told that list is well over 200. Imagine trying to research, compile, address, and pay for 200 give away books and shipping just to put them in the hands of jurors who probably won't pick your book anyway. And I'm sure there are a lot more things that they do that I'm overlooking.

Having Said all that - I still see a huge opportunity that isn't going to last forever. Like the Oklahoma pan handle rush of 1889 there was opportunity for a limited time and then it was OVER. For the first time in our lives a new platform is emerging that is giving the early birds a distinct advantage. I'm sure that you've all thought about ebooks - I have been for the past year or more. However, I never realized how important it is to be first to market until I started reading and researching. It only takes an hour or so poking around on Amazon or Barnes and Noble to see self published books doing extremely well. One in particular featuring a dragon has been flirting with number one in ebooks on B&N for the last month.

If you've been reading my blog you know that I just published my first ebook - Monkey & Croc and that it's doing pretty well on B&N. The only reason it's doing as well as it is - is because of the lack of competition. Right now there are a little over 500 ebooks for children ages 3-5 on B&N. Crazy right? Think of how many thousands of books there are in hard copy in that group. Look, I don't even own an ereader but you can't ignore this new format - it's coming on strong. Amazon says that for any particular book that they sell in physical format - they sell 48 digital copies of the same book. That number is growing every month.

Aside for being early to market you can afford to sell an ebook for only a few dollars because the only cost you have is your time. Right now the big publishers are selling their ebooks in most cases for about the same price as their hardbacks. This is another reason to get your book to market quickly. While they sell their books high - we can sell ours low and create an advantage for the buyer. Think about it...if you bought a new ereader or ipad and you wanted to load it with content wouldn't you gamble on a few unproven $2 and $3 books since the alternatives are $12.99 books that you might already own?

My belief is that if you can create a following due to timing - your book could gain the kind of momentum that could build a franchise. If this happens there's also a good chance that a traditional publisher would want to buy your book and print hard copies. Another option is that you incorporate a print on demand publisher and offer hard copies on your own. Either way the future is bright for self published books. I think that there will always be a place for large publishers but now there is a much larger place for self publishers.

Some drawbacks: You won't have the benefit of an editor and this places a great responsibility back on your shoulders. My suggestion is to acquire the help of a professional writer and/or join a critique group that can help you polish your story. Another obstacle is finding software that will easily let you turn your jpeg images into an ebook. This was a very frustrating process for me and without the help of my brother in law I don't think I would have been able to release Monkey & Croc. There has been talk about Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Itunes holding back publishing software and only releasing it to large publishers. Monkey & Croc suffered a bit with a few minor hiccups because we couldn't get that software. I think that this will soon change as open source programs become available. Where there is a need someone will fill it.

I published Monkey & Croc on Barnes and Noble's site. They take 35% of every sale but they give you an account for free and you can check your sales in your back office any time you like. It's neat to go in and check every day or so. My friend Julie Olsen and her husband Rhet are developing an app for Monkey & Croc for the itunes store.

Finally for those who don't think that parents won't turn their kids loose with an expensive ereader to beat up you're right. However think of the advantages - Carrying an unlimited amount of picturebooks on a plane, train, or automobile will keep kids passified much longer than the few books parents can carry in hard copy form. And how nice will it be for the parents who have long commutes with children in tow to and from day cares. How long do you think it will be before they develop the kid proof ereader? I suspect it's around the corner.

At the beginning of my illustration career I was asked to complete an illustration about email - I asked the art director, "What is email". It's happening now.


  1. I have to agree with you Will, I've been thinking a lot about this myself. I've been trying to come up with a way to use this format for my grandson who is visually impaired. He can't see the images in a traditional book, but can see some high contrast images on a computer screen or an ipad. It's important that he uses what little vision he has to keep his eyes healthy and he adores books and being read to.

    I also just read a post on Dani Jones' site. She is planning on starting and ebook online store. There's a link to her site in the side panel of my blog. It's going to be called The Illustrated Section. It certainly seems that this is the time to jump into it if you are able.

  2. What reading would you suggest to learn about doing this? It seems daunting. I think that you are right and make a really good case . Can you loan out your brother in law? Glad to hear your book is doing well.I have a book agent but get a lot of dooms day information regarding the children's market from her. I have a couple of book dummies that I could finish that I think are ready to go.

  3. Thanks for the info! Yes, I was just thinking the same thing (is your brother-in-law out for loan?)

  4. It looks like pubit is starting to take a larger %. 40% for books below $2.98 or greater than $10. It take 65% for books above $2.98 and $9.99.

  5. Great info Will! As usual, your the trail blazer. I might have to give you a call to pick your brain.

  6. Karen - I think it would be great for you to explore that market since you have a more intimate knowledge of what's needed.

    Patti - good luck in bringing your projects forward...the unknown is scary but with a little research you might find yourself with renewed energy.

    Jennifer - my brother in law is for rent - you can contact him at: to work out details if you're interested.

    Patti - You're right - I should have included that in my post. It's the reason I priced Monkey & Croc at $2.99 and the reason they penalize you if you go below that or above $9.99. In some ways I think this is good because it sets a standard for the lower and upper end so we don't undercut each other to the point of offering a free book.

    Rob Rob Rob - You taught me everything I know. :)

  7. Thanks for the thoughts on that Will. I'm working on one as we speak (or type, or whatever.)

  8. You've lit a fire under me with this article, thank you. I've got a book that I haven't been pursuing earnestly enough. Prior to reading your article I felt no real urgency and the benefits of being first to market did not occur to me. Very solid info here. Many thanks!

  9. Thank you for this. I'm going to publish my midgrade and adult novels, but wasn't sure about my picture books. I absolutely, positively agree with you. And you are a pioneer. Thank you.

    Agy Wilson

  10. Hey Will, Nathanael, and Agy - So glad you found this useful. As I went further down the rabbit hole the discoveries were coming at me faster and faster and I couldn't wait to share what I found with the illustration community. I hope people realize that they have more power and control over the content they provide. Instead of fearing the future we can embrace it and take advantage of these new technologies!

  11. Will, Did you do sound on your book?

  12. Hi Patti,

    I didn't record sound for the Barnes & Noble Version but there will be sounds and a "read to me" option for the itunes version. ipad and iphone users will get a better experience. The reason for this was that I wanted to get it out quickly to see how it would do before spending a lot of time on the bells and whistles.

    I just got my sales report for the first month. I'm blown away by the numbers - enough that if it keeps up at this rate I will have earned a typical advance for a "reader" in about 6-8 months. HOLY COW!

  13. I am thrilled for you that it is doing so well! Did you narrate or hire someone to do the narration?

  14. Have you any idea if publishing on Pubit precludes self-publishing elsewhere, like with Amazon?

  15. Patti - The narration was done by the woman I partnered with to make the app. - Julie Olson - also a children's book illustrator.

    Judy - When you start a relationship with B&N's Pubit site you retain all rights. I've now got the same books on B&N, Amazon, and itunes.

    It's almost like there was an audible crack in the world of publishing and the stigma of "self publishing" is being lifted very quickly. The train is leaving the station and everyone is invited - this is just as scary but way more exciting.

  16. Hi Will. I would really be interested in a post on how you made the ebook. I am planning to make an ebook out of a book proposal I pitched to Northlight books, but was turned down. Rembrandt Portraits in Colored Pencil.

  17. Hi Will,

    Thanks for the encouragement. Your article sure motivates a person! :)

    What software did your brother-in-law use to reformat the jpeg images. Would you happen to know any open-source s/w available today?


  18. Hi Amrita, I don't have that information but my brother in law does. You may contact him from his website: good luck!


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