iPad Could Help Self-Publishers Kick Open Doors

Apple's iPad i i

hide captionThe iBook store for Apple's iPad will sell books from most of America's major publishers. Authors without book deals hope it'll sell their work too.

Courtesy of Apple
Apple's iPad

The iBook store for Apple's iPad will sell books from most of America's major publishers. Authors without book deals hope it'll sell their work too.

Courtesy of Apple

The iPad, Apple's highly anticipated tablet computer, hit stores Saturday. The sleek, lightweight aluminum and glass device is equipped with a 9.7-inch touch screen and has no keyboard. The iPad has access to all the usual entertainment available on iTunes — music, movies and TV.

But along with the iPad, Apple is also launching its own digital book business. E-books on the iPad may help give the world of self-publishing a boost, authors and consultants say.

The Internet and new digital technologies have already opened up the self-publishing industry. Take a writer like Mark Morford. Ten years ago, if Morford had written a book, he would probably have sold it to a major publisher. He's got 50,000 regular readers for his provocative column on the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle. He took on the recent controversy around school textbooks in Texas with a column entitled "Dear Texas: Please Shut Up. Sincerely, History."

He also has a forthcoming book, The Daring Spectacle, a collection of his columns. Initially, Morford did meet with agents, and he had a lot of interest from traditional publishers.

"I encountered a lot of excitement for the book," he says. "Agents and publishers alike said, 'Yes, this is a great idea. We like it.' "

But the book deals they offered were not what they once were. There were no more big advances, and no national book reading tours with stays in swanky hotels. Morford says he was told, "That whole idea has sort of vanished, has sort of gone away. There is no more marketing money."

Morford began to wonder if he even needed a big publishing house. He looked around and discovered a burgeoning industry of companies that help authors publish their own books in any format they like, from the traditional printed book to e-books and Amazon's Kindle, and now for the iPad. Morford decided to publish with a company called BookMasters.

As Morford sees it, he's got a column and a core of fans, so he can do his own marketing. And if he needs an example, he can look to other successful self-published authors like Tim Chou.

Chou is pretty different from Morford. He's a geek. His recent book is called Cloud, and he's not talking about the fluffy white kind. Chou's book is about the future of online computing. Not exactly a pager-turner for most people.

Chou might have tried and succeeded in getting the interest of a traditional publisher, but after he did the math, he decided against it. He points out that on the Internet, the average book retails for $25. But, he says, "the author gets maybe $1 or $2 a book."

Chou found a company called Lulu.com that charges nothing upfront and will only print a book when someone buys one. But if they do, Chou says, "in the Lulu context, that same book, I'm going to get $10-12 per book."

Chou has sold nearly 10,000 copies of Cloud through Lulu. If you do the math, that means he's made more than six figures.

Lulu.com CEO Bob Young had authors like Chou in mind when he founded his company. Young saw that big publishing houses needed to sell tens of thousands of copies of a book to make a profit, whereas Lulu and its authors make money even when the company sells one book.

According to Young, the question that animated Lulu.com was, "If the Internet, as a medium, allows us to connect each of us with everyone else, why, as an author, can't I get my book to my audience without having to ask the permission of the publishing industry?"

Chou says Lulu made the whole process incredibly easy. "In essence," says Chou, "if you can create a Word document, you can create a book."

Lulu will also help authors find an editor if they need one, and it offers design templates and marketing advice.

Lulu books are available on e-readers like the Kindle, and they will be available on the iPad. iPad books will be in color and have interactive features like videos and links to related Web sites. Michael Shatzkin, who consults with publishers about digital books, says the iPad might make self-published books even more competitive with books from the big publishing houses.

"The biggest thing that a publisher provides is the ability to put physical books on bookstore shelves," Shatzkin says. "And as that becomes a less important component of the overall commercial proposition, the leverage that the publisher has or the reason that an author would to go a publisher is seriously diminished."

Self-publishing is even starting to draw established authors like John Edgar Wideman. Wideman, whose work deals with serious themes like race, class and alienation, has won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award twice, and he was a recipient of a coveted MacArthur "genius" grant.

When Wideman put together Briefs, a collection of what he calls "microstories," he decided to experiment with a release on Lulu.com. In part, Wideman says, he was just sick of the way traditional publishers treated serious fiction.

"Cookbooks and novels get the same treatment," he laments. "Fighting for space in chain stores, that works for some kinds of books. But I don't think it works for fiction."

Wideman says if his first experience on Lulu goes well, he may use it to publish a full novel.

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