Following the success of Fifty Shades Of Grey, publishers eye authors who self-publish

Mainstream publishing houses are colonising fresh territory in the next stage of an ebook revolution that is changing not only how we read, but what we read, for ever.

Following the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as an ebook series posted on a fan site by author EL James and has become the world's fastest-selling book, publishers are starting to move in on the profits generated by the thriving online platforms that serve unpublished writers.

Last week Pearson, the owner of Penguin Books, bought one of the largest grassroots publishers, Author Solutions, based in Indiana, in the US, for £74m. The idea is that Pearson will no longer have to rely on spotting ebook hits early; instead, they will own a new author's work from the first moment it appears on screen. This acquisition comes in the wake of Pearson's launch last year of Book Country, a website on which fiction authors could publish their work.

Last Thursday Glaswegian author Denise Mina said she believed the power of the ebook would soon alter the way authors set about writing fiction. Speaking as she received the Crime Novel of the Year award for The End of the Wasp Season at a ceremony in Harrogate, Yorkshire, she said: "Nobody knows what sells. More so now because the market's changing so fundamentally because of Kindle and electronic publishing. With literary production, it's going to change the sorts of stories that we hear, which is amazing."

She added that she expected publishing norms – such as the average book length of 350 pages – to be further broken down. While Charles Dickens shaped his stories to appear as serialised instalments, so ebook authors will be increasingly free to play with form and length at will.

"Why is that a story? Why isn't a story 18 pages or 150 pages, which isn't a novella and it isn't a novel? But it can be now, on electronic media," she said.

The writer also predicted that many of the "bottlenecks" that prevent some writers being published will disappear. "The class divide is going to change. A lot more working-class people are going to get published," she said.

Keith Weiss, chief executive of the newly-acquired Author Solutions, is adamant that the online platforms for new writers are not the same as the stigmatised self-publishing referred to as "vanity publishing". His company, which started in 2007, has marketed and distributed 190,000 titles for 150,000 authors and has grown at a rate of 12% in the past three years.

Further proof of the onward march of ebooks comes from BookStats, which has collected data from 2,000 publishers across America, including fiction titles, as well as higher education, professional and academic publishing products. It found ebook revenues for US publishers doubled to more than $2bn in 2011.

There were 211,000 self-published books out last year, 50% up on the previous year, and one of those ebook authors was Tricia Bracher, who put out her novel Tres Hombres. This weekend she welcomed the news that online self-publishing is likely becoming another arm of the established book industry. "There were always too many people trying to get work published and there was nowhere left to turn to prior to this," she said. "I am intrigued to know how publishers are going to maintain quality control, but I am cautiously optimistic."

Agent and former editor Peter Strauss argues that it is too soon to say the whole industry is in flux. "The acquisition by Penguin of Author Solutions is another way for a trade publisher to source and find product which it will hopefully edit and enhance and thereby find new readers," he said, going on to argue that although it is now simple to publish a book, publishing houses are still needed to edit and promote raw work, as happened with Fifty Shades of Grey. "The trilogy took off globally when the publishing industry got involved. It was carefully placed and sold by the agent, carefully positioned, edited, publicised, marketed and distributed."

There is still no easy ride into print as, John Makinson, Penguin's chief executive, has pointed out. Titles that sell well as ebooks are not always appropriate for putting between hard covers. The company is once more in the vanguard however, just as it was in the 1930s when managing editor Allen Lane stood on the platform at Exeter station and wondered about testing out on the marketplace a selection of cheap paperbacks, sold from a vending machine.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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