First-time Novelists Look to the Net for Success
by Sarah AnchorsThe novel Jerry Lee Davis slaved over for seven years finally saw the light of day on April 2 when it went live on the virtual bookshelves of the Internet.
He watched the sun rise over his computer countless mornings as he hammered away at Twin City only to receive warm, fuzzy rejections from publishers calling his work "different" and "promising" and "well-written", but not worth the risk of producing a book that might not become a bestseller.
Web searches led Davis to Authorlink!, a Dallas, Texas, online publisher where readers can buy books to download on their computer or request a single paperback copy.
"Seeing it up there, with the cover, ooh, that's going to feel good!" said the Atlanta accountant.
Davis' coming-of-age novel set in rural Georgia will join thousands of other novelists' first works finding acceptance on the Web after being spurned by traditional publishers who are more interested in buying books that appeal to mass readership and written by established authors.
Online book sales rose 300 percent to an estimated $650 million in 1998, up from $150 million in 1997, according to research by the Book Industry Study Group, a nonprofit group that watches the industry. New novelists hope to grab a piece of those sales and enjoy the satisfaction that someone is reading their books.
Anyone can start a publishing website from his home computer, so industry researchers can't count how many companies are out there. The largest company is 1st Books Library in Bloomington, Ind., with more than 4,000 titles. But the San Jose, Cal., company iUniverse vows to overcome the competition with 20,000 new titles added to its existing 1,000 by June, said company spokesman Mike Altman.
The first hurdle for most authors is finding a literary agent to promote their work. Washington, D.C., literary agents Graybill & English reject about 99 percent of writers' query letters, said Nina Graybill. But online publishers, such as 1st Books Library, can afford to accept nearly every manuscript sent, charging the author a minimum of $459 for offering the book on the website. The whipped cream and a cherry-on-top deal, including cover design, paperback and hardcover copies, and advertising costs $2,559. Only after 1,000 copies are sold does the author receive a percentage of the profit when readers download or order a printed copy of his work.
Other Web publishers are more discriminating, but don't charge authors. Hartford, Conn. company Electron Press accepts one out of every eight submissions, still more generous than traditional publishers.
About 95 percent of works on 1st Books Library are by new authors, said spokesman David Hilliard. On Electron Press, 16 out of the 24 novels on the Web are by first-timers, said editor Philip Harris.
Low production costs allow for this magnanimity. The companies do not have to print thousands of copies of each book, distribute them to stores or buy prominent shelf space. And the accept-all companies leave the editing up to the author.
Authors of specialized work or novels that fall outside the mainstream are also embracing the openness of online publishing.
"Some books are only for a niche market, maybe only 2,000 people want to read that book, but it would be a great resource for those people," said Carole Harrison, publisher at Xlibris, a Philadelphia online publisher.
Robert Schaeffer of Severna Park, Maryland, said his more than 1,000-page historical novel set in Russia in 1903 may fall into that category. The retired naval officer said he has toyed with the idea of publishing online, but would prefer a traditional publisher because of the cost and his hope that more readers will find the book if it reaches store shelves.
"Right now I'm focusing on publishing two thrillers, a murder mystery in Annapolis and one about Communist China stealing submarine technology, because maybe after those are out I can get my first one published," he said. "It's more fun to write them than market them."
Instant, no-hassle gratification is one of the bonuses online publishers promote. Books go public at high speed, between three weeks and four months between acceptance of the manuscript and online debut. Most traditional publishers take a year to bring a book to the stores, said Graybill.
And readers pay less. Most books cost about $5 online, and few more than $10, depending on the publisher.
But with the explosion of online books, are readers being subjected to wading through drivel because, just like print vanity presses, anything goes at online vanity presses?
"Vanity presses are making a killing off the writers themselves," said Authorlink! editor Doris Booth. "We believe in paying our authors."
But to see the Authorlink! paycheck, you have to be the author of one of the lucky manuscripts the company chooses to publish, about 12 to 18 out of 800 submissions. And like traditional publishers, the company sticks to certain genres deemed popular with the public, such as crime, suspense, mystery series and fiction oriented towards women.
Hilliard said he is proud to represent one of the more indiscriminate publishers. (1st Books Library excludes only hateful and explicitly sexual material.)
"If you can write it, we can probably print it," he said. "I don't think we should be judging and choosing for readers what they can read."
That opportunity is why Mahoney, Ohio, housewife Irene Eckman bypassed query letters to traditional publishers and went straight to 1st Books Library with her first novel, Jackson Freeman.
"I didn't expect anyone to buy it, because who am I?" she said. "I'm elated, though, because it's something I never thought I'd do."
Her novel, which appeared online on March 22, is the story of a black farmer's quest for independence after losing everything he owns in the 1904 Baltimore, Maryland, fire.
Even though companies accept nearly all writers, readers are unlikely to be plagued with highly amateurish writing, even if authors are left to do their own editing, said Pam Anderson, publishing service associate for iUniverse.com.
"Some hire professional editors, but most of the work that comes in is well-written and proofread," she said.
One of the biggest roadblocks for the popularization of online published works is that most people don't want to read a novel on screen. But this too, will pass, say Internet publishers. Readership will surge when book-shaped computers with screens kinder to the eyes become cheaper and as indispensable as cell phones, said Hilliard. Rocketbook, SoftBook and Palm Pilot are the three major players currently offering electronic versions of books. The hand-held computers are about the size and weight of a paperback, can store about 10 books at a time and allow readers to search, highlight and add margin notes.
Most publishing companies also offer print-on-demand, allowing a reader to request a paperback copy from the company or a bookstore partner. The book is available in about four days and costs several dollars more than the online version.
Despite the increases in the online market, traditional publishers are hardly hurting for sales or suffering from a lack of submissions. According to the Association of American Publishers, U.S. book sales increased 6.4 percent between 1997 and 1998.
"No dips in the number of manuscripts we get from literary agents," said Lisa Herling, spokeswoman at Harper Collins Publishers.
And it isn't all rosy on the Internet. Online publishers rely more on authors to do their own marketing. iUniverse offers an Author Toolkit on its webpage with tips on how to market your own books, such as developing a website to promote the book, posting it on literature sites and other techniques.
Davis worries that until online publishing becomes mainstream, his novel won't be taken as seriously as if it was sitting on a bookstore shelf. And most online books won't be snatched up by a literary agent or publisher with a dearth of good manuscripts.
"We're inundated with letters," Graybill said. "There are hundreds of them in my desk so online publishing isn't starving us for material."
**Sarah Anchors is a journalism major at University of Maryland, College Park. She was awarded the Baneker/Key scholarship, and is a member of the Golden Key National Honor Society, Kappa Tau Alpha, the journalism honor society, and is on the Dean's List. She is currently serving an internship at The Hartford Courant's Washington bureau.