Muted Whispers of a Faraway Revolution

Heads up for my regular readers: This isn’t a political post. This is about writing and publishing. Specifically, the Digital Revolution.

The Digital Revolution has taken the writing world by storm. With a few mouse clicks, anybody can upload your manuscript on the Internet and sell it as a genuine ebook. Now an entire industry exists to support digital publishing: freelance editors, cover artists, the marketing muscle of Amazon.com. Writers like JA Konrath, John Locke and Amanda Hocking are just three of the many writers who are reaping the benefits of the digital revolution. EBooks outsell print books on Amazon. The Digital Revolution is handing power back to the writer and giving him a chance to operate independently of commercial publishers. But for all the talk of the Revolution, there’s just one tiny problem.

It applies only to areas where ereaders are available.

Singapore is not one of these places.

It’s an incredibly frustrating experience. I published Eventual Revolutions on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing. Someone actually bought a copy of it. But I can’t find it when I engage Amazon’s search engine. Eventual Revolutions is distributed through Barnes & Noble via Smashwords. But because I don’t have an American billing address, I can’t publish on B&N directly, and I can’t even purchase it on the Nook store. I haven’t tried it yet, but I suspect the same goes for Sony, Diesel, Kobo, etc.

Simply put, the big ebook retailers and distributors won’t make ebooks available in areas where they don’t sell ereaders.

On the surface, it simply makes good business sense. But it doesn’t. Not any more. Apps like Kindle for iPad, Nook for PC, and other emulators allow readers to read ebooks without having to buy an ereader. And these apps are, again, available only in areas where companies are selling ereaders. Not in Singapore. These apps can be downloaded for free – but only in areas where ereaders are sold and/or areas where iTunes Store is available. The big e-publishing companies – Amazon, B&N, etc. – aren’t even making any money out of these apps. Further, ereaders are no longer needed. Free programs like Caliber can convert ebooks from one format to another, so a buyer in Singapore can purchase a .mobi ebook and convert it to .pdf.

It doesn’t make sense when a writer can write a story, publish that story, but is unable to read it in its final form because he doesn’t live in the regions where that ebook is available.

As a corollary, that writer won’t be able to tap into any significant proportion of his local audience using the big ebook distributors. Let’s take Singapore. eReaders aren’t available in Singapore – the closest is the iPad variants, and you’ll need to do some questionable technological trickery if you want ebooks that aren’t part of the iBooks default collection (read: everything that isn’t a classic). While writers’ organisations occasionally host talks about the Digital Revolution over here, the simple fact is ebooks are not readily accessible to a local audience. Writers who want to plunge into epublishing have to reconcile themselves with the fact that the vast majority of their readers will not be locals. Which means much Singaporean-specific writing – slang, locales, Singlish, culture, history – may be lost on many readers (at least, if you don’t include explanations). And that’s just for starters. If you’re an ebook writer living in a place where ereaders aren’t available, you’ll have to go out of way to make your works available to a local and international audience.

For all the advice people like Barry Eisler and JA Konrath give regarding ebooks, that advice works only in places where ebooks are readily available. Konrath, for example, says he relies on Amazon’s marketing power – but Amazon won’t spend a lot of marketing dollars to push books in regions where they aren’t available. Eisler is big on promoting and marketing books, but how do you do that for ebooks in a country that doesn’t sell ereaders? This is not to knock them, but their advice can’t be applied wholesale. It has to be adapted specifically to context.

Except that I don’t have the theoretical knowledge or practical experience to chart a course. Which means I’m pretty much blazing a trail here with what I do. Not that I mind – but every writer who wants to jump on the Digital Revolution and lives outside places where ereaders are sold needs to understand this. He or she needs to be able to adapt to make anything resembling profits.

This situation is going to continue for a while. At least until Amazon, Apple, and other companies finally expand their operations to cover the rest of the globe. And I don’t doubt that that would happen eventually. Amazon didn’t get to where it is today by hiring very many idiots to handle business operations. The same for Apple and others. It only makes business sense to expand into untapped markets. But I won’t hold my breath for the day it happens.

I’m changing the game.

See my ebook store? It’s available to every person, everywhere, who understands English and has an e-mail account and a PayPal membership. You don’t need an ereader if you don’t have one; you just need something that can read .pdf files. Which are widely available, for free. So far, I’m handling everything manually, but I am looking at options to automate the entire process.

And, as a bonus, with my current practices, I keep 100% of the revenue. The other distributors like Smashwords would only give me 70%. Again, it makes good business sense. Don’t get me wrong – I am willing to part with some of my profits to use other methods if it means I can make more money. But right now, that 100% is a bonus.

In the coming days, weeks and months, I’ll be looking at other ways and means to make my ebooks available to wider audiences. I’ll be thinking about promotion and website design. While the heart of my efforts will always be on the writing, I wouldn’t mind spending time and energy to increase sales. And, I suspect, somewhere along the line, I’ll be starting my own mini-Digital Revolution.