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E-books may become new outlet for journalists

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

This is a guest post by Stephen Beale, an AHCJ member and editor of Bulldog Reporter’s Inside Health Media and news editor of Bulldog Reporter.

Interest in e-books is soaring as Kindles, Nooks and iPads fly off the shelves and readers increasingly consume content in digital formats. For journalists, the e-book marketplace also provides an intriguing new way to reach their audiences. With this in mind, the San Francisco Bay Area AHCJ chapter sponsored a panel discussion, “E-Books: New Opportunities for Health Journalists?” at the San Francisco offices of Yoga Journal on Nov. 12. About 20 people attended.

I was one of the panelists and served as moderator. Many AHCJ members know me as the editor of Bulldog Reporter’s Inside Health Media, but my background is in technology journalism, specifically the use of technology in publishing and graphic design. I figured this placed me in a good position to provide an overview of the topic, especially as it relates to self-publishing.

Joining me on the panel were Jim Azevedo, Angela Schiavone and Katrina Ramser Parrish. Azevedo and Schiavone work for Smashwords, which describes itself as the world’s largest distributor of “indie e-books.” Parrish provided a real-world perspective as the self-published author of “Fears to Fins: Overcoming Water Fears With Children.”

My own presentation covered a lot of ground, and rather than going into the details here, I’ve adapted my comments into an e-book that’s available for free download (details are below).

Some key points from the meeting:

E-books are just the latest in a long succession of media technologies that have proved to be empowering but also disruptive. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the World Wide Web, which has upended the business models that supported print media. But I think e-book publishing has the potential to be disruptive in a way that’s beneficial to journalists. It enables a new book-publishing model in which you can deal directly with online retailers and earn a 60 percent to 70 percent royalty on your sales. The tools are readily accessible – all you need is a web browser and a program capable of producing Microsoft Word documents.

As you might expect, there’s also a downside. You’ll find a lot of self-published crap out there, and this includes the health category.

Azevedo put it this way: “When people ask, ‘What’s the best thing about Smashwords?’ we say, ‘We make it fast, free and easy for any author anywhere in the world to publish and distribute a book.’ When they ask, ‘What’s the worst thing about Smashwords?’ we give them the same answer.”

Aside from having a good book, the key to success in e-book publishing boils down to marketing. The author becomes the publisher and takes responsibility for drawing attention to the book on Amazon.com and other marketplaces. No doubt, this will be a new experience for many journalists, but you can find plenty of guidance on websites and in e-books such as the free “Smashwords Book Marketing Guide.”

So far, the biggest success stories in independent e-book publishing have come from the world of fiction. The most notable example is Amanda Hocking, who began self-publishing her fantasy novels in 2010 at the age of 25. Her titles proved to be popular, and a year later she signed a $2 million book deal with St. Martin’s Press.

Her story is an exception, however. Smashwords founder Mark Coker cautions that “some Smashwords authors don’t sell a single book. Some authors sell thousands of dollars’ worth of books each week. … Authors should publish their books on Smashwords not because they’ll make a lot of sales today, but as a long-term investment in their writing career.”

Ramser Parrish has worked for many years as a swimming instructor and freelance writer, so publishing an e-book on swimming “was a natural combination for me,” she told attendees. One decision that e-book authors have to make is which tasks to do themselves versus hiring outside services, and Ramser Parrish largely opted for the latter. She gave shout-outs to production consultant Damon Brown, copy editor (and AHCJ member) Heather Boerner and Jux.com, an online service that makes it relatively easy to set up a website (Editor’s note: This service no longer exists.). She published her e-book via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program.

“Marketing I did myself,” she said, though much of this has been to her existing clientele. Her book appeared in April, and sales so far have been modest but steady, she says.

My day job largely involves interviewing health journalists, including freelancers. I know from these conversations that many freelancers are struggling, and e-books seem to hold potential as a new source of business for these writers and for health journalists in general. It’s still a new category, and we’re definitely at the frontier stage. But my hope is that in future years we’ll find that e-book publishing success stories become more common not just among fiction writers, but health journalists as well.

My presentation, “E-Books: New Opportunities for Health Journalists?” is available for free download in MOBI and EPUB formats: