Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Planet ebook: from virtual graveyard to literary lift-off

Julie Koh

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.


One of the stars of the ebook revolution 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. 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. Furthermore, readers may not trust a self-published ebook to be of the same quality as ‘p-books’ (a trendy new word for paper books) put out by reputable publishing houses.

Until mainstream readers and critics genuinely come around to this new electronic format, 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, an emerging writer 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. 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 story has the potential to alienate those who take its lack of political correctness literally and feel that the language used denigrates women. The story may also 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.


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 a global 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 begins in an aesthetically pleasing and widely available electronic format on an increasingly prosperous virtual planet.

Image by goXunuReviews, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

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