RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.
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.
Kindle made the difference
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."
"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.
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.