Can E-Books Pay Off for Writers?

Edward Jay Epstein reports on his experiment in electronic self-publishing

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Bookstores are closing, more books are selling as digital copies than in print, new models for selling long-form writing are emerging, and no one is sure what it will all mean to writers who make their living from writing. Edward Jay Epstein is a writer whose works over the last five decades span the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the diamond trade (including a 1982 article for The Atlantic) and more recently the business of Hollywood. He has recently begun self-publishing works from his catalog as e-books. We checked in to see if the new technology is paying off for authors.

After publishing fifteen conventional books, I decided this spring to embark on a venture to publish e-books, that is, books that would be read on Kindles, iPads, smartphones, and Nooks. The advantage I see is that one can publish short new non-fiction books on current topics without going through the traditional book publishing process. This week, for example, I e-published Killing Castro, based on a secret CIA report (which I include) that shows that an assassination plot sponsored by Kennedy to kill Castro might have resulted in the assassination of Kennedy. Within twelve hours, it climbed to No. 16 on the American history best seller list, which is not that difficult given the velocity algorithm Amazon uses.

The easy part is the process of e-publishing. It is practically free and can be done in a half-hour. Since books can be as long or short as one likes, one has great flexibility. You must have your book on your computer in a Microsoft Word or PDF file. If you do not, it will cost you about $1 a page in Chennai, India, to have it typed and proof-read into one. (The service I recommend is Laserwords.)  Before you proceed, make sure you own the electronic rights to your book by reading your contract or calling your agent. You will also need to purchase an ISBN number for the title, which costs about $25 from Finally, you will need a cover image. You can use either Photoshop or, as I do, a talented intern. That is it.

Now just go to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, register, and, following the very clear steps, publish your book at no charge. You then choose a price between $2.99 and $10 for your book, and you get 70 percent of each and every sale via a monthly check from Amazon. Of course, not everyone has Kindle or Kindle app for iPad. So you also need to go to Smashword, which is also free. You upload the same file, and it converts your e-book to a form that can be downloaded by any electronic reader, including iPad, Sony Reader, Nook, etc. 

The difficult part is selling your e-books, and this is also part of my experiment. I find Amazon does a great job of linking my books to authors, subjects, and key words. For example, anyone who buys one of my books is likely to be steered to my other books. To take advantage of this recommendation engine, I have put up 15 books on my Amazon page.

I get an hourly report so I know what is selling. The numbers are not great--last weekend I sold only 165 e-books--but they grow, like compound interest, with each new title. The jury is still out on whether this venture will be profitable. I initially set prices at the lowest Kindle will allow, 99 cents, from which, even worse, Kindle takes 65 percent to discourage authors from under-pricing books. The pennies I earned the first month would not pay for a Metrocard to ride the subways, but I did sell more copies of Agency of Fear than I had sold in the past three decades. Now, as a next step in the experiment, I have raised the prices and put up additional titles. (Kindle makes it easy to change prices). The result is I am now earning just under $400 a week. I intend to plow these gains (and more) back into the venture and hire interns to work at digital marketing in such mis-named social networks as Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. So I am still losing money. But coming original e-books, such as The DSK Affair, will provide the true test. Stayed tuned for my next report.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.