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The $2m last resort for 'failed' writers

Allow me to introduce somebody: Christian Beretta is cool, mean and fun. He kicks ass. And he's the star of comic crime novel Cold! Steel! Justice!!!, which is now available as an e-book at Amazon.com for Kindle (http://tiny.cc/bkysq), and Smashwords.com for other formats (http://tiny.cc/z46a6).

Now let me introduce somebody else. Alexander O'Hara, author of Cold! Steel! Justice!!!, is also cool, fun and ass-kicking. And, oh yeah: he's me.

Alright, so I'm none of those things. But I am Alexander O'Hara, I have just published this e-book and it is, to quote the blurb, "a rollicking, rocking riot of reading, about a renegade detective, his resurrected sweetheart, his partner with an over-eating problem and the evil Mayor who's planning a gameshow around the execution of criminals . . . and wants Beretta deader than dead . . ."

So why the pseudonym? Mainly because I also write serious fiction, plays and newspaper articles, and I didn't want to confuse the two.

Alex is my other, funnier self; he's the silly version of me. (Or sillier, I hear you say.)

And why e-publishing? Here, there were a number of reasons. First off, my last book (GAA Confidential) was released traditionally -- in paperback, through a major publishing house -- and while that was fine, I was curious to know what the electronic experience would be like.

Secondly, I didn't think Cold! Steel! Justice!!! was the type of thing mainstream publishers would go for (though one London house did come tantalisingly close to buying). A bit too daft and off-the-wall and . . . well, you've read the synopsis.

Thirdly -- and most importantly -- it's a wacky comedy, going out under another name.

So it felt well suited to the new, fast-and-loose world of e-books, an uncertain but exciting place where you're not quite sure what will happen but it should be fun finding out. (A bit like the book itself, really.)

So what exactly is e-publishing? In short, e-books are electronic files of different kinds, sent directly to e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader or Barnes & Noble Nook. You can also download books to your computer, phone and tablet as PDF or plain text.

Many people self-publish e-books because it's free, except for time spent formatting and marketing the work. And while this used to be seen as the last bastion of the failed writer, the democratising effect of the internet has made it respectable, acceptable, and, especially, profitable.

In the most famous case so far, US writer Amanda Hocking, made a staggering $2million selling novels through her website and Amazon, and recently signed a $2m deal with St Martin's Press, a traditional publisher.

Eoin Purcell is editor of Irish Publishing News and runs Green Lamp Media, a consultancy specialising in digital advice to publishers and authors. He says, "In Ireland, the biggest success I'm aware of is Catherine Ryan Howard whose book Mousetrapped, the story of a stint in Florida, has been very successful for her."

And it's not just debutants or unpublished authors. British thriller writer Stephen Leather has sold millions through Hodder & Stoughton, but also earns tens of thousands a month via e-books: rejected ideas, shorter works and so on.

So e-publishing is pretty big already, and rapidly getting bigger. While the Association of American Publishers put 2010 e-book sales at only 8%, that's a rise of 164%. Mainstream giants Bloomsbury recently announced a massive 600% increase in this sector: a quarter of all income for 2011.

According to James Crawshaw of e-book service bibliotastic.com, Amazon's Kindle is the most popular device, and it certainly has become something of a phenomenon. It's also the most-gifted product on Amazon.

Company spokesman Ben Howes told us, "We've sold millions of Kindle devices and amazon.com is now, for the first time, selling more Kindle books than paperbacks: 115 for every 100. We've also sold three times as many Kindle as hardcover."

E-publishing is definitely a new frontier for writers: a way to get books out there, any book you want, where they can be conveniently and cheaply accessed by the public. Previously, self-publishing required a lot of money and time: printing and binding costs, schlepping books around to shops and so on.

With Amazon and Smashwords it's just time, and not much: format, upload, set price, payment details, bio and picture. I spent a day getting Cold! Steel! Justice!!! on to both, from the comfort of my couch.

"The advantages of e-publishing are numerous," says Eoin Purcell. "It's free or cheap, offers access to a huge audience and can be a great way to start. It can work for any kind of author, but for now I think it is better for fiction and especially for genre writers."

So where does all this leave the future of publishing? Eoin adds, "I don't think paper and ink will disappear, but they will become a smaller part of the market as a whole. It will be interesting to see whether that means 40% or 20%. And I think a new ecosystem will emerge: agents who are savvy will adapt and take on new roles, publishers may be able to do that as well, but I think they need to change their mindset in a radical way if it is to happen."

For now, at least, e-books are a useful new tool for writers who have something a little bit different from their usual stuff, and want the public to be able to read it.

People like me. And not forgetting Alexander, of course.

Indo Review