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Should a First-Time Literary Novelist Self-Publish on Amazon?

22/07/2014 14:09 BST | Updated 20/09/2014 10:59 BST

The Guardian reported recently on Amazon's latest Author Earnings Survey, which suggests that self-published ebooks now account for 31% of the overall market, with self-published authors earning 'nearly 40% of the ebook dollars'. This comes on the back of a longer piece in the The New York Times , a detailed examination of Amazon's ascent and where it leaves the 'Big Five' traditional publishers. Times are changing. Self-publishing is no longer 'vanity publishing' - a vaguely embarrassing exercise in assuaging one's writerly ambitions by paying large sums of money for a small run of leather-bound copies of a book - but a very real and increasingly credible alternative to mainstream publishing. The question for the aspiring literary author is whether to go down this route or to attempt to place one's work with regular publisher.

Amazon's strength in selling genre fiction is well-known, but literary fiction is a different beast. Hard to categorise, it is therefore difficult for any retailer to sell other than to its small but passionate fanbase. The new figures are particularly illuminating. Indies who publish through Amazon account for 13% of earnings for lit fic - not too shabby, and equal to earnings for romance through the major publishers. But, according to Amazon's report:

The market for literary fiction is anaemic for indie authors simply because it is an anemic segment of publishing overall. In fact, Literary Fiction makes up only 2% of Amazon ebook unit sales and 3% of Amazon ebook dollar sales. More startling is the fact that 20% of that 3% belongs to a single aggressively-promoted title, The Goldfinch. Even including that title, literary fiction barely amounts to 2% of total author earnings. And indie authors earn 13% of that. That's a not-insignificant portion of what turns out to be a pretty insignificant piece of the total publishing pie.

For someone who has read literature since childhood, starting with the canon and moving on to contemporary fiction later, these figures are depressing, although of course they don't take into account physical book sales. But the message is clear: if literary fiction is harder to shift in electronic form, this is simply because fewer people are reading it than are reading genre fiction.

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For most of us who write, though, the figures are secondary to the desire to communicate with readers in a form we love. I will never stop writing the kind of fiction that I want to write regardless of the state of the market, for the simple reason that I can't. The type of story an individual wants to tell, and the manner in which he or she chooses to present it is as personal to them as their DNA.

That said, there is nothing wrong with flexibility. With UK authors earning only £11,000 a year on average, and only 11.5% making a living solely from heir writing, agents nowadays counsel their clients to consider different genres in order to remain commercially viable. Earlier this year, as an experiment, I wrote and self-published a non-fiction title through Amazon's KDP platform. I hired someone to design a cover and format the text, as well as a freelance editor. Once everything was ready, uploading the book to Amazon was incredibly straightforward and only took a few minutes. A few hours later it was up on the site: I made my first sale shortly afterwards. Now, after a slowish start, the book is selling well. This is in no small part due to the marketing that I have done for it through social media and the content I have written linking back to it for various websites. But of course, once a book starts to sell Amazon's algorithms pick up on the fact and it gains prominence on the site anyway. While this wasn't a pet project like my novel, writing the book was still enjoyable - after all, writing is writing - and the process of getting it onto Amazon was incredibly simple and user-friendly.

So would I go down the same route with my - as yet unpublished - literary novel? (It seems odd to label it like that, as my view is that readers should make that kind of designation, but anyway). The truth is that I'm undecided at this point. My experience of self-publishing an ebook has been nothing but positive. But it is very hard to discount the prestige a major publishing house still confers on a book. Like with record labels, I will frequently read books I know nothing about, simply because of who they're published by - Faber, Canongate and Vintage, for example. The best publishers are curators - the reader can usually trust them to bring work to market that has been thoroughly vetted and is of high quality.

But with marketing budgets for first-time writers being pinched in all but the most exceptional cases and microscopic advances, is a somewhat nebulous quality like prestige still worth it? Reports suggest that ebooks will become Briton's preferred reading format by 2018. Most readers flick through thumbnails of book covers and read user reviews to inform their buying choices. Many probably aren't interested in who the publisher is, or even whether the book is self-published or not. Hiring freelance editors and designers will bring your product up to a publishable standard. Almost at a stroke, the playing field has been levelled. If you can find a way to promote your work - and the internet provides unprecedented opportunities for this - then going it alone is a very viable option.

For me personally, right now, the traditional route still feels right for my fiction. I am currently in the process of editing my novel with a literary consultant - I will begin submitting it to agents in a month or so and see what comes of it. The degree to which my age and ingrained respect for the prestige of the big publishers causes me to stick with the old model for the time being is hard to calculate. But I am also very aware of the advantages of Amazon - not least, the ease with which one can use it to get one's writing out to readers quickly - which is after all the endgame of publishing in any form. And even going with an agent doesn't preclude the possibility that my work will end up being published solely through Amazon anyway.

One thing is certain - the landscape is changing very rapidly indeed, affected by technological advances like the development of the tablet and the smartphone. With it our perceptions are shifting. Only a few years ago agents were loath to consider writers who had previously self-published: now, it's often seen as a positive. There are vast changes taking place, and writers in particular are watching very closely indeed.