Elisa Lorello of Raleigh had no literary agent, no publisher and nothing to lose when she decided to self-publish her first novel, "Faking It," as an e-book for Amazon's Kindle.
At first, she got only a modest response. But when she dropped her price from $1.99 to 99 cents, sales began to soar. Early last year, "Faking It" hit No. 6 on Kindle's bestseller list, beating out big-name authors and giant publishing houses.
Today, digital sales of "Faking It" and its sequel, "Ordinary World," have topped 52,000, a figure many established authors would envy.
And Lorello, who teaches at N.C. State University, counts herself part of a self-publishing revolution that's upending the book business - giving authors more power and bigger profits while boosting the low-rent reputation of the self-published book. At stake? The future of the $24 billion publishing industry.
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Until about a decade ago, authors usually needed traditional publishers to ensure wide distribution and a shot at significant sales. If publishers rejected a book, the most common way to get into print was to pay a vanity press. That process often ended with hundreds of copies stacked in the author's garage.
Now, digital books and print-on-demand technology let authors self-publish with little or no upfront costs. Self-publishing companies, such as Raleigh-based Lulu Enterprises, Smashwords and Amazon's CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, don't print the books or take a cut until they sell.
E-books are a big part of this trend, with genre titles, such as romance, fantasy and science fiction, selling particularly well. Amazon now sells more e-books than paperbacks. In 2010, electronic books accounted for 9 percent of new books, up from 3 percent the year before. Today, if you can use a computer, you can publish your book.
The result is a booming self-publishing industry that's creating - let's face it - untold numbers of very bad books.
That's not all. Some established authors also are choosing to self-publish. Last year, Stephen King, Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho and "Seven Habits" guru Stephen Covey all self-published some works at Amazon's Kindle store.
So has AlTonya Washington, a Davidson College librarian who writes African-American romances. When her publisher, Harlequin, decided several years ago to stop publishing one of her series, she continued it by self-publishing.
Her fans followed her. Harlequin still publishes some of her novels. Others she publishes herself, as print and e-books. "I think I've made more money self-publishing," she says. She estimates she earned more than $17,000 last year on her self-published works.
Kindle made the difference
Then there's Elisa Lorello.
Lorello was a Massachusetts graduate student when she got an idea for a story about a sexually uptight young woman who becomes friends with an uninhibited guy. Lorello was working on a master's degree in writing with an eye toward teaching composition. She wasn't aspiring to be a novelist.
But the idea wouldn't go away. Finally, she says, "I was like, I have to get this stupid thing on the page."
By 2006, Lorello was teaching in N.C. State's first-year writing program. After receiving multiple rejections from literary agents, she decided to self-publish her novel through Lulu. The Raleigh company, launched nine years ago by billionaire Bob Young, Red Hat Software co-founder, lets authors e-publish or print copies as they need them.
Lorello worked at marketing, placing "Faking It" in two bookstores and publicizing it with a website and blog. Sales were slim until mid-2009, when she put the book in the Kindle bookstore as a $1.99 e-book.
"The first month, I sold 70 copies. Of course, I was ecstatic. That was more than I'd sold of the print."
The next month, sales dropped to 10. Once she cut her price to 99 cents, sales began climbing. By late December 2009, "I was watching it go up and up and up in the ranking," she says. By late January 2010, "Faking It" was sixth among Kindle bestsellers.
What's fascinating about Lorello's success is that it wasn't her promotional efforts that sold the book. She believes her sales were propelled by several factors - readers who received Kindles as holiday gifts, a low-risk price and online reviews.
"It's a beach book with a brain," says one Amazon review. "It is one of my top 5 best book surprises," says another.
"Faking It" needed several months to take off, and that's another advantage of e-publishing, says Mark Coker, founder of California-based Smashwords, which has published more than 34,000 e-books. Since unsold books aren't taking up space in a warehouse or bookstore, they can stay available indefinitely.
In this new publishing world, even authors with extremely specialized topics can make money.
Lulu's biggest-selling book is "e-Start Your Web Store with Zen Cart." Priced at $47.91 in paperback, it's a guide to using open-source software called "Zen Cart" to perform shopping cart functions on online store websites. Lulu doesn't release sales figures, but a spokesman says the author has made more than $200,000.
Look for more established authors to self-publish, many experts say, as they discover they can make more money. Self-published authors may earn 70 or 80 percent per e-book versus 10 percent or less for a printed book.
For every 99-cent e-book that Lorello sold on Amazon, she pocketed about 35 cents. Last year, she upped her prices to $2.99. For books priced at $2.99 and up, Amazon gives authors a 70 percent cut.
Lorello has published three novels - "Faking It," Ordinary World" and "Why I Love Singlehood," co-written with Sarah Girrell. In 2010, sales netted her more than $20,000.
Will it lower quality?
Like most revolutions, self-publishing has its dark side: It produces many awful books.
Traditional publishers are gatekeepers. They provide editing, design, proofreading, cover art, marketing. They may pay advances, too, from $1,000 to more than $1 million.
If self-published authors want those services, they have to pay for them. Many don't. "I see authors misspell their own names," says Smashword's Coker.
Some in the publishing industry worry that the rock-bottom prices on self-published e-book titles will force traditional publishers to lower prices - and, by necessity, quality.
"Readers are going to say why should I read a Lee Childs mystery for $10 when I could read a book for 99 cents," says Sally McMillan, a Charlotte literary agent. "I fear that it's going to totally cheapen the value of the written word."
Others believe traditional and self-publishing can co-exist. Self-publishing will continue to produce junk, and most authors won't sell much. But it gives talented writers a chance.
And at least a few, such as Lorello, will make it. Last summer, her hefty sales caught the attention of AmazonEncore. The imprint, aimed at showcasing overlooked books, has published more than 40 titles.
AmazonEncore has now given Lorello's books new, nicer covers. They've been copyedited and redesigned. "Faking It" is now available for $2.99 as an e-book, $13.95 in paperback. This time, Lorello is not the publisher.