Exclusive world is now an open book

Self-publishing can sound like an easy step to bestsellerdom.

The American author Hugh Howey is the latest to fly from obscurity to fame with his post-apocalyptic hit Wool, which began as a digital ''novelette'' in 2011 and grew into a novel after thousands of online rave reviews from readers.

With 50,000 sales a month, Wool reached No.1 on the Amazon science-fiction bestseller list as an e-book.

20th Century Fox bought film rights, and Howey finally agreed last month to sell print rights to a traditional publisher while retaining electronic rights and profits - a first in the industry.

He joins Britain's E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy went from a free fan-fiction website to become the fastest-selling books in history, and American Amanda Hocking, who has sold more than a million copies of five fantasy novels since self-publishing the first as an e-book in 2010 and being picked up by print publishers.

In Australia, Matthew Reilly's international career as a thriller writer took off after a Sydney publisher spotted his self-published book in 1997.

Queenslanders Rachael Bermingham and Kim McCosker sold 2.5 million print copies of their self-published 4 Ingredients recipe book after publishers rejected them.

The rapid rise of e-books and e-reading devices, as well as print on demand, has made self-publishing easier and more affordable for anything from commercial fiction to business and self-help guides, private memoirs and family photo books.

In the US, 253,626 print and e-books were self-published in 2011, a growth of 287 per cent since 2006, according to data-collector Bowker.

Thorpe-Bowker's Australian figures show 2788 publishers released just one title in 2011, representing 67.5 per cent of all ''publishing entities'' and 14 per cent of titles produced. Many were self-publishers, it concluded.

''We've had more than 50 per cent increase in the past 12 months in people who want to know about the opportunities and companies we would recommend for self-publishing,'' said Maree McCaskill, the chief executive of the Australian Publishers Association.

''A lot of people think they are the next J.K. Rowling. They say, 'How do I get published? My book is much better than hers but publishers won't look at a new author.'''

Howey says he knows ''hundreds, if not thousands'' of self-published writers who are making $50,000 or $60,000 a year.

Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, a US distributor of self-published e-books, says, ''The stigma of self-publishing is disappearing. Each week, indie [self-published] authors are hitting the e-book bestseller lists at all the major e-book retailers, as well as lists maintained by The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, GalleyCat, and Digital Book World. A year ago, this was rare. A year from now, it'll be commonplace. The future bestsellers of tomorrow are the indie authors of today. Indie authors are poised to take more market share in 2013 as the next generation of writers turns its back on traditional publishing.''

However, Coker also warns, ''In the self-publishing gold rush, more money will be made in author services than in book sales.''

Self-publishing companies are proliferating, including offshoots of mainstream publishers and booksellers such as Amazon's CreateSpace and Dymocks's D Publishing.

It's easy to see benefits in publishing your own book: avoid the disheartening slog of proposal and rejection; publish your brilliant words without an editor's interference; keep the profits rather than receive a measly 10 per cent royalty.

More writers are self-publishing because technology and economic downturn have hit the book industry and made publishing companies more cautious. Advances are smaller and contracts harder to get.

Terence Tam, the founder of BookPal, a 10-year-old self-publishing company in Queensland, said, ''Ninety-nine per cent of manuscripts are rejected by publishers so we help weed out books and give them an opportunity to get published.''

Tam sees new opportunities and has partnered with a small publisher interested in picking up self-published books that do well.

However, self-publishing can be expensive, technically challenging and take a long time. Commercial success is rare in a market crowded with amateur efforts.

A former Australian rock'n'roller, Dr Robert James, unsuccessfully approached publishing houses 30 times before self-publishing his eight metaphysical thrillers with CreateSpace.

He says he has sold about 3000 books in the US and 200 in Australia on Amazon, where he makes $10 a copy after costs. But he says, ''I'm broke and I need to sell more books''.

Like most self-publishers, he has learnt distribution and publicity are tough without a big company behind him.

Sydney's Pnina Jacobson and Judy Kempler self-published their book of Jewish recipes and life stories One Egg Is a Fortune in 2011 to raise money for aged care.

They employed a professional food stylist, photographer and designer, and their handsome book has won six awards. But after ''a huge investment'', they have yet to break even and are surprised at how hard it is to get attention from media, distributors and bookshops.

''We don't have the connections,'' Kempler said.

Ben Hourigan, IT manager at a Melbourne magazine company, self-published Kiss Me, Genius Boy, the first part of his 150,000-word romantic comedy, to impress a woman to whom he'd claimed to be a novelist.

He has sold about 200 copies but has also built a freelance editing business that includes helping other writers to self-publish for a fee plus 25 per cent of their net revenues.

''Even though Amazon and Apple present it as an easy process, it's far from easy,'' he said.

He likes the control of self-publishing and accepts the ''slow process'' of selling books.

''It's to do with building a profile,'' he said. ''If anyone writes to me about my book or posts on Facebook I ask them to put their comments on Amazon.''

Newcastle digital communications worker Rob Towner's self-published picture book Romy's Garden Adventures: Christmas City was Amazon's No.1 downloaded children's e-book, among the top 10 children's books and top 100 titles last month.

The catch? Towner was giving it away as a pre-Christmas promotion. Now buyers have to pay $2.99 for the e-book or $11.95 for the paperback.

He has had ''a tonne of success using alternative channels of communication'', and his site comes first when you Google ''kids author''.

''It's not about making money or sales,'' he said. ''It's about the love of telling a story.''

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop