WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- If author Tina Folsom let big publishing stand in her way, she never would have become a millionaire.
In 2010, after more than 30 literary agents and publishers rejected Samson's Lovely Mortal, the first in her series about lusty vampires, the San Francisco romance writer decided to self-publish her book on Amazon.com.
Today, Folsom, 46, has made it e-big. She has generated at least $33,000 a month since December, 2010, selling her full-length books, novellas, and short stories online. In November, 2011, when Folsom released Zane's Redemption, the fifth installment in her vampire series, the book cracked the Top 10 for romance novels on iTunes and Barnesandnoble.com and was ranked No. 135 overall on Amazon.
Folsom, a former accountant and finance manager for University of California San Francisco, says she has made $1.1 million selling 450,000 copies of her books for as little as 99 cents each. Is it still her dream to land a major publisher?
"No, not really," she says. "I don't think they can offer me anything I can't do myself, and I hate to give up the control. I don't want them to change my books."
Gone is the stigma associated with self-publishing. Bestseller lists are jammed with self-published titles, and traditional publishers hunt online for the next E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey) or Amanda Hocking (Trylle Trilogy). Therefore, many independent authors are no longer interested in signing with traditional publishers, particularly if they have a fan base and pocket most of their cash. It is an appealing prospect, even if, like the majority of self-published authors, you aren't a breakout success and only sell a few hundred or thousand copies.
Now, writers can digitally format their own books, buy stock photos as covers, and sell them to readers through a variety of online retailers as fast as they can crank them out. The money is pretty good, particularly as a side business. Amazon, for instance, pays 70 percent on books priced $2.99 to $9.99 and 35 percent on anything lower. Smashwords.com will publish your book for free and take 10 percent of the book's price. Bigger online retailers, such as Kobo or Sony, take 30 percent. But if you sell only through Smashwords' store, you retain the majority at 85 percent.
Sky Luke Corbelli likes the immediacy of e-publishing. "If I finish the third book in my trilogy tonight, I can have it up on Amazon by tomorrow," says the 27-year-old Hayward, Calif., author of the sci-fi trilogy The Will of the Elements. "There's no publishing delay while I wait for someone to get back to me."
Amazon reviewers liken Corbelli's first two books, Wind-Scarred and Water-Seer, to the works of British fantasy heavy-hitters Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony -- not bad for a full-time programmer who considers writing a hobby. His wife, a graphic designer, provides the cover art and serves as one of Corbelli's many editors and beta readers. He says he's so content now that a traditional publisher would have to offer him "a really, really good deal," complete with digital rights, to consider giving up control of his work.
"There's a global market out there that I can reach very easily on my own," says Corbelli, who, like many self-published authors, increases the price of his books as he publishes them. The first was free, and readers were hooked. The second cost $3.99. He plans to charge the same for the third, Child of Lightning. However, he says he doesn't care that much about money. "More than anything, I just want people to read the stories."
Indiereader.com founder Amy Edelman says traditional publishing is still very attractive to many independent authors. "It's sort of a validation of their writing," says Edelman, who started the site in 2008 as a consumer guide to self-published books and the people who write them. "If they've never had the experience of what a vanity publisher can offer them and Simon & Schuster comes knocking on their door, many are still willing to go."
Berkeley playwright Cecilia Gaerlan says it would be like winning the lottery. She is the author of In Her Mother's Image, a novel she wrote in 2003 about a mother-daughter relationship in the Philippines.
Set during World War II, the book has become a springboard for Gaerlan's crusade to raise awareness about the Bataan Death March, the Imperial Japanese Army's forcible transfer of 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the three-month Battle of Bataan. The march resulted in the deaths of thousands; Gaerlan's father was one of the survivors.
However, she's only sold 500 copies to date. The biggest problem, she's finding, is that no one knows about her book. Gaerlan says she needs help with promotion: "A big publisher has the resources for greater distribution and, hopefully, publicity, so that it can get to the reading public."
Still, once the "glow" of traditional publishing wears off and they stop promoting your work, many authors return to independent publishing, says Edelman, who launched a new column last week called "Crossing Over" about that phenomenon.
"They want to take back the control and the money," she says.
It's where Scott Sigler now finds himself. The San Francisco best-selling author of hardcover thrillers (Nocturnal, Ancestor) just sent out a draft of the final book in a major five-book deal with Crown Publishing.
Before he was traditionally published, Sigler built a large online following starting in 2005 by giving away his self-recorded Earthcore audiobooks as free serialized podcasts. To date, his fans have downloaded more than 15 million episodes of his stories. They also buy his self-published Galactic Football Series e-books for $4.99 each. He and his business partner pocket $4.
Will Sigler sign another contract with a big publisher? "It depends if they can turn on the money hose and make me a household name," he says. "If they can't or don't want to, then I probably won't need a publisher anymore. Does Stephen King really need a publisher anymore? In five or 10 years, I think publishing is going to be completely different. You're going to see many more A-list authors entering this market."
Ten self-published best-sellers
The following books are either self-published or began as self-published and have been featured recently among the top 30 New York Times best-sellers in fiction.
● On the Island, by Tracey Garvis Graves
● Bared to You, by Silvia Day
● Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
● Fifty Shades Freed, by E.L. James
● Point of Retreat, by Colleen Hoover
● Slammed, by Colleen Hoover
● Beautiful Disaster, by James Maguire
● Playing for Keeps, by R.L. Mathewson
● Training Tessa, by Lyla Sinclair
● If You Were Mine, by Bella Andre