Mark Coker of Smashwords wrote a provocative blog about the future of indie publishing, in which he predicts that indies will have 50% market share within six more years.
I disagree. I posted a long comment as to why I disagree on his blog, but I wanted to summarize my thoughts and explain them a bit more than I could in 4073 characters.
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First of all, the folks who buy my books are a different market than the ebook segment the trad publishers market to. They focus on the guy who buys a book every month, at most, when he’s getting on a plane, going on vacation, or looking for something to read a few pages of every night. Why? Because that guy doesn’t have a lot of time, doesn’t really read a lot, and most importantly, isn’t price sensitive, so he’ll buy a book for $15 and not care too much. And he’ll likely buy a book by an author whose name he recognizes: a brand author, so to speak, like a Cussler or King or Grisham. They love that guy, because he’ll pay whatever it costs, and they’ll sell many millions of whatever that brand’s latest offering is. All good. Especially in airports, but once he gets a kindle for his birthday, he’ll go online and look for the same names. Big win for the publishers and the big names. Everyone makes bank.
The people who buy my books, and those of other indies, are largely big volume readers, meaning they burn through five to ten times more books than the trad publisher’s target market. Trad publishers don’t target that reader, except in romance and NA (hot genres), because their fixed costs and overhead make targeting what is a price-sensitive market a lousy return on investment.
They also don’t target him because they don’t want to become what they perceive as pulp mills, like the publishers of old, like Pocket Books, who did service that market, just as indies service it now: with inexpensive product that’s economically priced. Rather, they want to continue selling $15 ebooks if at all possible. I don’t blame ‘em.
Their model is one that looks for blockbusters, and attempts to figure out what the next fad book will be – that book every year everybody has to read because everyone else is reading it. Which brings us to the other type of reader: the very occasional, who might read one book a year – that fad book. Trad pub loves that reader, too, because he also isn’t price sensitive. Everyone’s reading the book, so if it costs $15, whatever.
Back to Mark’s blog. Why do I think he’s wrong?
Because the occasional reader’s not likely to become a high volume one given his time constraints and habits, and the one-a-year guy isn’t either. Which means the overall market for indies has a natural ceiling, of sorts, unless the high volume readership grows significantly. I guess I just don’t see that happening. Where will all those readers come from? Non-readers? Mmm, no. Which leaves us with either the occasional guy, or the one-a-year, becoming a high volume reader – neither of which I see as likely.
There’s an exception here, which is romance – if I were a trad pub in the romance game, I’d be crapping my drawers, because that crowd’s a volume crowd, and it will naturally gravitate to lower priced offerings – why do you think so many of the huge sellers on the Top 100 are romances priced between .99 and $2.99? So we might see even more growth in the indie slice of the pie in that segment, but probably not in the others, beyond the next couple of years, when my gut says things will plateau.
So what does that leave us with, as indies? A great business. An interstitial opportunity to be the equivalent of Pocket Books to our volume audience. That audience will reward quality at an economical price, which is where we can shine.
If you notice, my business model is one featuring a large number of titles, all high quality, none of which sell huge. Last year JET was my big mover, this year, who knows? My hunch is that it will continue to be a big seller (as I release three more JET tomes this year – I’m working on the prequel, JET – Ops Files, as we speak, for release in April), but BLACK is also turning respectable numbers, and with BLACK 4, it could be a surprise for the season. I’m planning to put the series into KDP Select in a week or two to see whether that kicks it in the pants. Because you always have to keep mixing it up and experimenting. Another surprise for Q1 are Fatal Exchange and Upon A Pale Horse, both of which are selling nicely now that they’ve got their new covers.
But back to my point. What’s exciting to me is that, whoever’s right, the opportunity for indies is huge, and growing. We may quibble over how large it will get, but to me that’s immaterial. It’s big enough.
There will be a lot more competition in that volume market moving forward, but hey, no market stays static, and you have to roll with the punches.
I disagree with blogs predicting the death of the trad pubs. I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I think they’ll continue to do fine, because the occasional reader isn’t going anywhere, so their bread and butter isn’t, either. I also believe they’ll scout the promising indies who are selling tonnage, and scoop those they can up, as they look for the next generation of names they can build into tomorrow’s big brands. Whether that works is questionable, because most of the big money’s being made in the one market that’s the most price sensitive: romance, and its cousin, NA. And romance authors tend to be a savvy bunch, so few that are making real money are likely to want to trade their million dollar a year income for a $500K advance, spread out over three years, with 15% going to their agent. Not even a million dollar advance would do it – that’s what they’re already making, per year. So that’s a tough sell for the publishers, who traditionally rely on non-economic arguments (prestige, etc.), to entice talent. Most romance authors are pragmatic, and so use their calculator, not their ego, when evaluating a deal.
But that’s neither here nor there. The opportunity is in understanding what we are, and who we service, and what motivates their buying decision. For our segment, it’s price/quality that creates the value, whereas for the trad pub ideal customer, it’s brand/quality, with little emphasis on price. Two. Different. Markets.
To me, this is exciting stuff, because it spells opportunity. Nimbler competitors can create nice cottage industries in the gaps the big boys miss. Sure, occasionally a Hugh will break out, but he, much as I love him, is a singularity. An exception in an industry of exceptions, a big winner. Most of us won’t be Hugh. We can’t be. It’s nice to dream, but reality suggests it ain’t going to happen. But what we can be is an emerging middle class that his numbers hint at. A middle class that makes a nice living servicing a market that’s been left behind.
My prediction of the future looks different than Mark’s, but it’s not a glum one. It’s one where smart, hard-working indies make comfortable livings selling their books to the volume readers, and enjoy the process. Sure, there’s always the chance one of us breaks big, but the point is that we don’t have to in order to have nice, satisfied, creatively-fulfilled lives doing what we love. Trust me, I’ve made good money doing things I didn’t love, and this is way better.
That should excite everyone, because, while we’d all like to be among the elite, being part of a prosperous middle class is a hell of an alternative to sitting in a slush pile for eons while working at Starbucks, which was the alternative until just a few short years ago.
I’ll take it as a win.
On to shameless self-promotion. As noted earlier, BLACK To Reality (BLACK 4) is available for pre-order on Amazon, and will release on March 24. And 9 More Killer Thrillers, the follow-up to last year’s blockbuster hit (closing in on 200K sold) bundle 9 Killer Thrillers, is available for pre-order and will go live on March 17. Anyone who has reviewed one of the books in the new bundle can feel free to repost it at the bundle, if you like – it would be really cool if you did, is what I’m saying, because it would help folks get a feel for what they’re getting when they buy the bundle. I have high hopes for this promotion, and I think the lineup’s as strong or stronger than the original. I hope readers feel the same.
Now back to writing the JET prequel. Be nice to each other, and feel free to chime in about any or all of this stuff.
A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer last week. He’s 40 years old, and an author, and went full time about six months ago.
His blog on his diagnosis can be read here. It’s not what you think – it’s irreverent, heartwarming, and poignant.
NEWS: 9 More Killer Thrillers bundle is available for preorder now! Woohoo! 9 full length novels from 9 bestselling authors for .99 – WTF!!!
MORE NEWS: BLACK To Reality, the fourth installment in my BLACK noir detective series, is now available for preorder!
His name is Brandon Hale and he writes the popular Day Soldiers series, which feature a world where the undead walk the earth, battled by a group of young men and women with extraordinary stamina and courage.
Two things Brandon is going to need throughout the coming ordeal.
The other thing he’s going to need is money. He has a young wife who has her own challenges, and God knows being an author doesn’t pay particularly well. And there’s no health plan. No retirement plan. He’s a young man in the prime of life who just began pursuing his dream, fighting tooth and nail to make it in a very, very tough business. And he did it. He isn’t getting rich, but he was able to quit his crappy job and write for a living – something we all aspire to. Hat’s off to him for making that leap. And now he’s got another tough challenge ahead of him. One that I’m asking you to read about, and if so inclined, to help support.
To find out more about Brandon’s situation, here are two blogs that best summarize it: One on what getting this sort of devastating diagnosis has taught him, and the other on gratitude, and what will be required moving forward.
If you want to support his cause, as I and quite a few of my author friends have, click here.
You never know what life’s going to throw at you. Sometimes it’s all curve balls and sliders, and the only thing you can do is stand your ground and wait for something worth swinging at. What I have learned, though, is that we are at our best as humans when we’re giving, not taking. A lesson too few seem to understand these days.
My mom used to be fond of an expression that comes to mind: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Exactly. We are all cast from the same clay, and it could just as easily be any one of us. So act as you’d want to be treated if I was writing about you.
If you’re so inclined, please share this blog and encourage folks to help out. I’ve never written a blog like this before, nor shall I again. This will be the only one, and I hope that impresses upon my readership how important I feel this is.
Thanks for taking the time to read it.
Anyone that knows me knows I’m not a bleeding heart. I’m not a tree hugger. I’m certainly no vegetarian.
I do love animals. Guilty as charged. They’re often better than many humans I’ve had the misfortune of running across.
I can’t tell you how upset I am after watching the following video and reading the expose. I have to warn you it’s shocking, sickening, and shows the most disturbing acts of torture I’ve ever witnessed.
I try not to use my blog as a platform to advance agendas. That’s not why people come here.
But I feel like if I keep my mouth shut on this, I’m part of the problem. And I refuse to be part of this particular problem, even though I don’t live in the U.S.
People, read this report and watch the video. It broke my heart. Hours after viewing it I still feel like some essential part of my soul was violated. I’ve also sworn off eating pork anymore. I can’t do it. What kind of human being would I be, what sort of hypocrite, if I could? I’m not saying you should take the same action. I don’t try to dictate what people should or shouldn’t do. I’m simply telling everyone the steps I’m taking.
The events in this video are heartbreaking because this is happening in a nation that prides itself on being better. On being more advanced than the savage places it routinely vilifies. We’re somehow superior, because we have a moral barometer, a conscience.
No, what we have are special interests that keep their dirty laundry hidden, and politicians that accept blood money to enable them to hide from the average person the atrocities that are perpetrated every day.
I write conspiracy thrillers. Oftentimes they feature schemes where corporate interests work with governments to abuse and hurt. I wish I could say they were based in fiction. Truth is that I don’t need to invent – I just need to tame down reality so people will believe, because often, they don’t want to understand the world they live in. I try not to preach, but rather to inform. Unfortunately, most don’t want to know the horrors that take place. Because it’s uncomfortable for them. It might require that they do something, or inconvenience themselves, and that requires effort.
Note that I don’t have a solution other than to lock people like these up, or better yet, treat them in exactly the same manner that they treat animals. I could go to my grave with a clear conscience signing off on that. Wouldn’t lose a minute of sleep. These are sociopaths, and the world would be better without them. Plain and simple. More disturbing is that these are sociopaths who live in a corporate culture of torture and violence being not only acceptable, but mandatory.
You may not believe in concepts like good and evil, right and wrong. It’s hip to be apathetic and lacking of a moral barometer. But I can say absolutely that if these peoples’ acts aren’t evil, then I don’t know what is.
Why am I writing this blog? Because I want you to watch the video, read the short commentary, and sign the petition. I’ll let your conscience be your guide on what other steps to take. I know I won’t ever be able to eat pork again, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing, on balance.
And I want you to share it. I want you to tweet and Facebook it so the villains in this drama don’t get to hide. It needs to go viral. It’s clear that companies like Walmart will continue to support groups like this until the public outcry and bad press is such that they’re forced to stop. I believe there’s few nobler callings than getting them to stop.
I’m sorry if anyone gets disturbed by this. My intention isn’t to give you nightmares. It’s to encourage you to make a difference, even if it’s a simple act of signing something or saying no in your shopping habits. My next act will be to go see how I can donate to the organization that brought this to light. If anybody’s deserving of some of my cash, they are.
A good article came out today on the GoodeReader blog, which can be viewed here. In it, I’m interviewed and quoted about my thoughts on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.
To expand a little on my comments, I’ve always viewed traditional publishing as a lottery. Because it is. One with very long odds of success, even if you’re fortunate enough to land an agent who believes in your work and is pulling on the oars right along with you. That’s not news. It’s been like that for years. All you have to do is consider masterful bestselling authors like James Lee Burke, whose breakthrough novel was rejected 115 times by every New York publisher over thirteen years, to get a feel for the odds.
The model I liken it to is the record business. Or rather, the old record business that’s largely dying, or dead. In that model, a record company would sign 100 promising acts every year. Each would get a recording budget and one video. Then they would be spewed into the market, and the company would wait to see who caught fire. The one or two that did got most of the marketing money (along with the big selling established acts) and the rest would languish.
If that sounds familiar, that’s the NY model. Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of fine, hardworking, talented folks at publishing houses. Every book they sign, somebody had to feel had that special something that would make it a bestseller. Just as every act that was signed by an A&R department had that special something. Were these big brains all wrong, when the vast majority of their picks consistently do nothing?
Yes and no.
I think the more important point is that with self-publishing more authors than ever before are earning a livable wage. Because what might have been a yawn in terms of sales numbers for a big company is more than enough to support a lifestyle for an individual. I know at least a dozen folks who are earning in the six figures, who’ve never had a hit book. Never cracked the Top 100. But their work appeals to a readership that’s loyal, loves it, and buys every book the author puts out.
I know close to a hundred who are earning five figures and don’t go to work anymore, preferring to write for a living instead.
Sure, self-publishing is a lottery as well. The odds are long. The hours longer. You have to be prolific, dedicated, determined, and confident in your abilities to make it. And persistent.
But the chances of being able to make a nice living from self-publishing are better than at any point in history. eBooks and Kindle changed everything. The 70% royalty rate, as opposed to 25% of net, represents a roughly 5X larger payday for the same number of books at the same price. To put that into perspective, if you sell 15,000 books a year as an indie, at, say, $5, you’re taking home a nice fat paycheck for your time, and getting paid monthly. If you sold the same number as a trad pubbed author, you’d be a failure, and would probably be dropped, likely not earning out your meager advance once you were done (after reserves for returns, special discounts, related party subsidiary sales, etc.). In other words, you’d still be going to your job every day while writing at night, and you’d have made less than minimum wage when you added up all the hours you put in.
That’s the reality. Unless you’re Dan Brown. In which case, forget everything I said. You’re rich, a rock star, and the system is working for you.
But if your business model isn’t “Be Dan Brown” you have a rude awakening in store, even if you’re lucky enough to win the lottery and get an agent who knows his stuff, and then find an acquisition editor who gets your work, and then make it through committee, where a host of folks who have never written a bestseller decide the safe place to invest the company’s cash this quarter so they don’t get downsized…you are still likely to make peanuts in the trad system. It’s always been like that. But it’s getting more so now, because with mergers and tightened belts the chances of your work getting picked up are slimmer than ever.
Self-publishing is also a big crap shoot, but one where you can do things to narrow the odds. Get compelling professional covers done. Release books on an aggressive schedule. Hire pro editors to polish your work. Use out-of-the-box marketing to gain visibility. React to new changes in the landscape quickly. Price aggressively and do constant promotions.
In both systems there’s lots of risk. I maintain for the average author, though, the financial reward is considerably bigger in self-publishing. As a guy who’s built a comfortable business with a lot of titles, none of which are blockbusters, I can assure you that it’s possible to have a sustainable gig where you make more than enough money, and you can be your own boss.
Does that mean traditional publishing sucks a bag of dicks? I guess it depends. I’m shopping to the trade right now with a new series, because I want to be in airports. In my genre, being in airports is big. That’s where many thrillers and action/adventure books are purchased, and I can’t reach those readers without a trad deal. So for me it’s worth it to roll the dice – and I’m getting paid in the meantime. Frankly, with 500K books sold in 32 months, I can afford to wait a year or two if things don’t catch fire. That’s the other dynamic that’s kind of amazing. I can earn solid money while waiting and honing my craft. Maybe at a million sold I become attractive for an airport deal. If not, maybe at two million. At the end of the day does it really matter? If you have thousands of excited, supportive fans who buy your work, do you really need more? I mean, you can always have more. But do you need more?
These are exciting times. I by no means believe trad publishing is in trouble or going anywhere. I think the sentiment that they’re all going the way of the dinosaur is misguided, and probably driven by a certain bitterness over how unfair it all seems. Reality is that the publishers will continue making plenty of money – they can release their massive backlists (to which they own the authors’ rights for pretty much ever) and price them at sub-$5 whenever they like, and pay their way for years without ever signing anyone again.
The good news is that you can make a nice living outside of that system and you don’t have to worry about a deal. If you sell enough, they’ll come to you. If you don’t, guess what? You’re making money instead of waiting for a chance to maybe make money.
Although, being a buzz kill, I should end with the fact that most self-published authors don’t make much, or any, money.
Then again, most aspiring trad pub authors don’t either.
I just like that you can even the odds some and get paid while you reach readers. If you’re in the slush pile you aren’t being read, and there’s nothing sadder for an author than not being read. For me, that was the deciding factor in doing this the way I have. I wanted to build a sustainable biz, but I also wanted to see what readers thought of my work.
And now, every day’s Christmas. Which doesn’t suck at all.
I received an interesting email from a high school teacher who was seeking my thoughts on how to get her male students more interested in writing, as either a hobby or a career (why anyone would want to make a career out of this escapes me, but play along).
My response was that to be interested in writing you first had to be interested in reading. That’s self-evident. If you want kids to be interested in playing rock guitar, the place to start is to have them listen to rock music so they want to be part of the experience. Same with reading and writing.
I understand her frustration. There is a growing culture of illiteracy that celebrates ignorance. One has only to look at the latest masterpiece from Kanye West (which actually required a ghostwriter) to appreciate this trend. “I am a proud non-reader of books,” states the pop sensation. I don’t have anything I can add to that. And no, I’m not making this up.
UPDATE: The Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) went well. Questions and responses can be viewed by clicking here!
The teacher’s response to my observation was that of course reading was important, and that she thought perhaps some articles about Hemingway and some Steinbeck might fire her students’ imaginations.
I admire her ambitions, but my advice is a little different.
If you want to create readers, which is the first step to creating writers, you have to give them something that grabs them – that’s relevant, interesting, and lurid enough to capture the imagination of a 16 or 17 year old boy. Steinbeck ain’t gonna cut it. The immediate response (mine would have been at that age) will likely be, “great, another boring book about shit I don’t care about, written by a guy who was dead before I was born. Groan.”
My advice is different. I’d say get em to read JET. If they aren’t sucked in within the first three pages, wanting to know what happens next, I’d be very surprised. And once they’re in that world, it’s easier to demonstrate the hows and whys of writing – why something works or doesn’t, descriptive techniques that evoke versus fall flat, effective dialogue, etc.
That’s not to say my books should be used as anything but a cautionary tale. Rather, as a gateway to pleasure reading, which is the first step in creating a literate population. If you don’t enjoy reading you won’t do it, and if your school is making you read a bunch of crap you have no interest in, guess what the chances are that you’ll be interested in doing more of it? What are the associations you’ll likely make about reading? What will be your takeaway?
Literacy is important to society because the written word is the primary way knowledge is passed from generation to generation, in the sciences, in the humanities, in virtually every way. A nation of sheep that has no interest nor ability in reading is a nation in decline. Literacy matters. But to convince people that literacy is important it has to be entertaining or they’ll tune out. People that don’t read, don’t read because they never learned the pleasure of reading, and view it as something unpleasant. That’s my theory, anyway.
So that’s my advice: buy my crap, see if the lads like it, and use it like a gateway drug. Get them into reading and then move them up to the harder stuff. Try to start them off with work that has “literary merit” and you’ll lose more than you’ll gain. I know that’s not very PC, where knowledge should be its own reward, but I have no philosophical axe to grind, and I don’t particularly care about having kids read only “meritorious” work. If they’re reading, whatever it is, that’s good.
As a civilization it’s not a good thing to have a populace that can’t or won’t read. I mean, if what you want are voters who don’t understand any issues beyond what they see on Twitter or on TV it’s perfect, but if you want a population that can actually reason and appreciate nuance, forget about it. I personally believe that’s been part of the great social engineering experiment that’s been going on in the U.S. for years – the dumbing down of society, resulting in adults with the reasoning abilities of children – the perfect consumer society, but not one that’s going to result in positive social change, much less revolutionary ideas.
That engineered illiteracy ensures the mantle of power stays with the elite, whose children go to the best schools and are taught how to read and write and count, ensuring that no meaningful competition develops from upstarts outside that elite class. It’s perfect: as George Carlin liked to say, “a population that’s just smart enough to operate the machines, but doesn’t question what the machines are ultimately doing,” being ruled by elites who are the custodians of knowledge. If that sounds medieval, it is, only with 50 inch TVs and a new car every three years.
Throw in a heaping dose of irony and apathy with your illiteracy and the job’s done. Foster the idea that nothing’s worth trying to change because it’s pointless, and nothing’s worth understanding because there’s no value in understanding – just in consuming, in indulging one’s appetites like, well, spoiled children.
Reading can be transformational. But it’s also dangerous to a status quo that depends on dullards for voters/subjects. An informed citizenry is a dangerous one for despots and tyrants. Information is power, best limited to the erudite who are “qualified” to run things.
Reading encourages thought. It is antipodal to the short attention-span mentality of TV, where you don’t allow someone on a show who can’t articulate an idea in two minutes or less. Noam Chomsky speaks of that: it results in “news” and “commentary” that regurgitates accepted truths and chills original or controversial thought, because those thoughts often can’t be easily explained in 90-120 seconds.
The internet has changed the way many read. People want all the info in one or two paragraphs. If it takes more than that, they tune out. But the problem is that complex, nuanced messages require in-depth explanation and exploration of the issue at hand, not just a capsule summary with easy-to-digest sound bites. And that can rarely be done in two paragraphs. I mean, sure, I can explain the physics of how a 747 flies in a couple of sentences, but it takes considerably more to understand the physics (the upper surface of the plane’s wing is curved, the bottom flat, so that at a certain speed it takes longer for the air to travel over the curved area due to resistance than over the flat, creating lift). And again, to understand, we need to read.
Which brings me full circle to writing. To communicate ideas or experiences, especially complex ones, writing is the time-tested method. And to have stuff worth reading someone has to write it. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are more than enough books already in print to last a hundred lifetimes. There’s more than enough commentary and information on the web and in magazines to last a thousand. But people like the latest shiny thing so more often than not that’s all ignored and what’s focused on is the latest, greatest.
That being said, readers need writers. Just as writers need readers. They’re both solitary occupations, wherein the writer is able to affect the reader in a one-on-one manner that’s unique. Film can’t do it. TV can’t do it. Even audio books can’t do it.
What do I mean? The above control the velocity of how information is disseminated. But with reading the reader controls it. If he/she wants to go back and reread a section, fine. If his/her inner voice decides to read fast, versus at a moderate pace, super. Dialogue takes on intensely personal characteristics based on the reader’s interpretation of the written word. At the point a narrator reads it or it’s filmed someone else is interpreting it.
But back to 16 and 17 year old boys who are primarily interested in the opposite sex, hunting, and four wheel drive trucks (this is in Kansas, BTW). How to get them interested in writing? Get them interested in reading, and in understanding that unique connection a reader and writer can have, and demonstrate the power of ideas, of information exchanged in written form, not as images or sounds. In other words, make reading and writing relevant. Which has to begin with making it enjoyable.
Marketers know this. They convince countless millions to smoke every year. To take a noxious smelling substance that’s expensive, tastes terrible, and will destroy your health, and convince folks that it’s sexy or makes them independent or rebellious or whatever else they want associated with inhaling smoke into one’s lungs. They understand that to get people addicted to a substance, they have to make it appealing – enjoyable, at least in terms of perception.
We can learn from that. To make reading vital it must be enjoyable. Readers have to see something in it for them. Well-intentioned ideas about self-improvement or gaining knowledge are fine, but before any of that gains traction, reading must be enjoyable for the target audience. The rest will follow.
And for some, once they enjoy reading, they’ll think, “hey, maybe I should try my hand at writing!”
And thus are writers born.
Normally, every third blog entry of mine is a ranting polemic on how to make a living as an indie author.
Today, I read a post that makes my usual curmudgeony (yes, I coined that word, and what of it?) counsel unnecessary. Anyone considering being a self-pubbed author would do well to read it.
Wow. This whole directing people to other posts thing really cuts down on my workload. That’s awesome. Maybe I’ll do more of it.
I’ve finished up BLACK 4 and am plotting JET VII, but got thrown a curve ball: I decided I wanted to write a prequel to JET describing some of the missions that led up to her decision to fake her own death. I only have the glimmer of an idea right now, but it’s getting brighter by the day. I’m thinking I’ll call it JET – Ops File. It’s basically a thinly veneered excuse for writing a whole lot of Jet kicking asses and taking names. Not that the JET books don’t do that. But I mean just pure, joyful action with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Many would argue that’s what I normally write.
Guess we’ll see. I just need to figure out where it will fit in my publishing schedule for the year. You know, the one where I only write four Russell Blake novels in 2014. Make that five.
You can start to see why my proclamations of only writing a few books tend to ring hollow to skeptical ears.
This has been an eventful week, with Hugh Howie’s groundbreaking analysis of book sales on Amazon creating a hell of a stir.
One of the things that struck me, and probably many others, about his report and its conclusions, is that self-pubbed titles tend to average higher review ratings than trad-pubbed books. I was discussing this with someone yesterday, going back and forth at possible explanations, which included that self-pubbed authors tend to work the review mines harder than their trad pubbed peers, or have more support from other indie authors reviewing, or get higher ratings due to the generally lower price of the work (greater satisfaction due to a price/performance expectation).
Which led into a lively chat about the ocean of sewage out there: the plethora of bad books self-pubbed (never mind the sea of lousy trad pubbed books).
I’ve developed a more tolerant perspective about this over the last year. I used to take it as a personal affront when I saw bad indie book after bad indie book. Now, I don’t really care. Because I’m convinced of two things: that bad books will sink to the bottom fairly quickly and thus don’t really pose much of a nuisance to me, and that the only ones who are ultimately hurt by bad books are the authors putting them out.
I know that readers are also hurt, but there are mechanisms for redress, the foremost being the return. Sure, you’ll never get your time back, but you will get your money back. And frankly, if you couldn’t tell the book was going to suck after the Look Inside, much less several chapters, hey, takes two to tango.
That, and quality varies depending upon who you’re talking to. An acquisitions editor is going to have a whole different perspective than someone looking to kill time on a flight from San Diego to Maine. Readers who delighted in 50 Shades obviously have a different definition of meritorious than a literature professor. The point being that just because you think something is ill-crafted dross, doesn’t mean that the person beside you on the bus won’t think it a hoot. And you’re both right. For your taste and situation, and most importantly, for how you spend our money.
Ultimately, readers determine what’s adequate and what isn’t.
That’s fine by me. So far my little stories seem to entertain more than they offend, and since they keep selling, I’m going to go with they must be filling a niche. Fifty bad self-pubbed thrillers don’t make mine any worse, and in some ways, the bad ones make them better by comparison. So I say, you want to publish poorly edited stuff with a homemade cover and a horrible blurb? Go ahead. Think having a friend or one of your parents skimming it instead of a professional team polishing it is adequate? Nice. It’s your movie. Let me know how it turns out.
There have been posts recently that argue for higher standards for self-published work, but they’re generally filled with impractical suggestions/solutions. Not that I wouldn’t love to see more high-quality self-pubbed books. I’m just not sure it’s practical to do collective gatekeeping or any of the rest of it that’s proposed time and time again.
Most of these polemics argue that all self-publishers are harmed by the crap, and that we’re viewed pejoratively as a group due to the low quality of so many self-pubbed books. I don’t think that’s true. Or rather, I think it’s an incomplete position. For every person who insists upon judging all self-pubbed books as dung because of bad experiences, Howie’s data makes a compelling argument that there’s another who is delighted with the offerings, either because of lower price, or perceived originality, or any of a host of possible reasons. The point is, the market is self-adjusting and dynamic, and plenty of self-pubbed offerings are hitting the lists, indicating that those who paint all self-pubbed books as garbage aren’t hurting many self-pubbed authors’ chances.
In business, over time, the shoddily-run enterprises generally fail. I find that reassuring. Not that all businesses that succeed produce fine work. Quite the opposite – many produce barely adequate stuff I’d never consume (think most fast food). But the marketplace determines what will succeed, not some self-policing league of better restaurants, or an effete group of epicurean gatekeepers. If McD’s is what millions want to eat, it doesn’t matter whether I think it’s brilliant or rubbish – it only matters what those millions of consumers think. I’m free to avoid it, and if someone wants to open a higher quality restaurant across the street, hey, I wish them well, and might patronize their place.
Does it bug me to see a tsunami of crap, as Konrath likes to call it? At an intellectual level, sure, a little. And from a competitive standpoint it annoys me due to the additional background noise it creates, making it harder for my work to be discovered. But overall, I can compensate for that by writing material I deem the sort I’d read myself and by being innovative in my marketing approach.
And as a reader I can filter out most of it by reading the Look Inside and glancing at the packaging and reviews. So I’m not harmed, except in a general sense of being offended by bad/sloppy writing and storytelling.
My belief is not that cream rises to the top. I mean, it’s super-duper when it does. But it doesn’t necessarily rise. Just as not all stinkers sink to the bottom. Still, my belief is that over time, quality will matter, and that those who will have long, noteworthy careers selling books will produce work that not only finds an audience, but satisfies it. Readers are the weighing mechanism. I’m fine with them being their own gatekeepers. I see nothing wrong with that.
Trad publishers put out more than their share of excrement too, which readers also get to embrace or reject. In the end, to readers, I’m pretty sure that books are books, regardless of who publishes them, and carefully crafted, interesting work that’s professionally edited and packaged will do better than amateur night garbage.
One could say that’s a fundamental tenet of my business plan. To produce high-quality genre fiction at a rapid clip that withstands the test of time, leaving readers, old and new, satisfied.
If the next guy wants to take shortcuts and screw the reader with what I perceive as inferior product, it’s his career that will ultimately nosedive, not mine. There’s some natural selection going on there. I’m okay with natural selection. I celebrate it. I prefer a meritocracy to a curated market where I might not be able to get my products seen because I don’t fit someone’s idea of what’s commercial this year. From a purely selfish standpoint, I’d rather compete on an even playing field, where my determination, work ethic and commitment to quality are advantages. Let my competitors decide that quality doesn’t matter. I say good for them. Let’s see what the market says about it over time.
I tend to be judgmental when offering counsel to authors. I obviously believe that my approach, of striving to produce the best work possible and holding the reader in high esteem, is the right way to go. But there are plenty who disagree with my counsel, and every day thousands of new books hit the virtual shelves, the overwhelming majority of which will never go anywhere. When I offer advice, it’s on how to improve one’s odds for having a prosperous publishing career. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way to go about it. Just that it’s the best way I’ve found.
I prefer a marketplace where you’re able to put your product out as you see fit and the reader is the ultimate arbiter of quality. If gatekeeping really has added value, then I’m quite sure that readers will determine what additional value it has, and will reward the curated offerings with higher sales and prices. I have no problem with that. Often times I’ll pay more for something because an expert has determined it’s great. I don’t have time to be an expert in all things, so I am willing to part with the premium. But many aren’t willing to, and that’s fine to. It’s their money. Let them decide how they want to spend it.
To summarize, if you want to put out unedited pap that makes Nancy Drew read like Tolstoy, it’s your prerogative. I’m not going to read it, but it’s your career, not mine. I’m in no way challenged by you doing so, nor am I diminished.
I’m okay letting the market figure out what’s adequate. I’m not nearly smart enough to do so, and I would have probably laughed many of the last decade’s bestsellers out of the room, if asked. I would have been wrong in every case. So all I can really do is determine what I like, and what I don’t, and act accordingly. I can’t decide for all, or even most, readers. Nobody can.
Except the readers.
What a great time to be an author.
I’ve often said that most judge books by their covers, as anyone who’s ever hung out at a singles bar knows. It’s also my primary reasoning for changing covers on some of my novels until I find one that resonates with my readership – as expressed in increased sales.
But never has it been more obvious that finding the right balance on a cover is critical as I’ve recently seen with Fatal Exchange.
WOW: Fellow author Hugh Howey just released a fascinating summary of what authors are earning. The result will surprise the hell out of you, as it did me, although it confirms what I’ve suspected for some time: ebooks are a MUCH larger segment of the market than thought.
NEW INTERVIEW: Worth a look. With me on fairly detailed craft questions.
NEWS: In our “last one out turn off the lights” B&N deathwatch, this news just in on the future of Barnes & Noble. I called 18 months in December, Konrath called 2014. Please, for those at home, no wagering.
Around the end of last month, I changed the cover for the FOURTH time in two and a half years. For the record, I liked all the prior covers, but never thought they had the requisite pizazz. I also made some classic newbie mistakes when I gave my illustrator guidance in the early days – I tried to get as many story elements conveyed with the cover as possible, which made it look like a collage. Here’s the first cover, which did service for the first 10 or so months:
You’ll note that everything and the kitchen sink are thrown in there – a Patek Philippe watch, a syringe, people running, female faces, Ben Franklin, a bicycle, a dagger, blood dripping from the lettering, a backdrop of a hundred dollar bill. The only thing missing was a panda and a clown, which I would have gotten to eventually. The book sold well, but I always wondered whether I’d made a mistake with the cover. The answer, as it turns out, was yes. Bluntly, it was terrible. Way too cluttered.
And so I had another cover made. This one simplified the elements to what I thought of as the basics: hundred dollar bills, blood.
I wanted simplicity. “What’s the book about?” I imagined readers thinking, and I wanted to give them the primary plot element – a conspiracy involving counterfeiting hundred dollar bills, and a serial killer on the loose in Manhattan. So better, but still no cigar.
I then decided that what was necessary was an edgier, grungier look. Something more urban and visceral. So I had this one created:
Well, it turns out I was completely missing the point. Probably because I’m a guy. A female friend of mine who read the book and absolutely loved it asked me why I had gone with those covers, and I laid out my point-by-point explanation. She thought about it, and then said something that was so obvious it was stupefying – something I’d managed to miss with each cover: Fatal Exchange is the story of a female bike messenger, first and foremost, who finds herself embroiled in A) a counterfeiting scheme, and; B) is targeted by a serial killer. In other words, I’d been so focused on the plot elements that make it a cool story, I’d completely missed that at its essence, it’s the story of Tess Gideon, the female messenger.
Once I figured that out (duh) I was able to focus on what the story was actually about. Tess’ saga. Her story. That led to a completely different approach, which you’ll find below. As an aside, Fatal was consistently ranking around #18K or so before the latest cover change. Since then, with no promo, it’s been averaging #3500-#4800.
All because of a cover change.
So what’s the moral? Well, first of all, I’m a complete dork on my covers, obviously. Second, even the best pro designers can get it wrong unless you’re completely clear on what your book is about. Broad strokes. Not what the plot beats are, or what the cool twists are, but the essence of the story. I used three different designers, and all did the job I wanted them to do – but only the last one did the job that I should have done all along, which is to advertise WHAT THE BOOK IS ACTUALLY ABOUT. I know. That seems seminal.
What have we learned? That it’s important to visually let readers know what’s between the pages in as high concept, simple-a-manner possible. And that doing so can make the difference between slack and robust sales.
Can you guess what my exercise is going to be on my other covers? Right. What yours should be, too, preferably before you hire someone. Figure out what the story is, and then choose a theme that communicates it clearly. I think I nailed it with JET – it’s about a female ex-Mossad operative. The covers makes it clear: badass chick kicking butt. BLACK, too. Debauched Hollywood PI with a noir jones. But some of the others? Not so much. Fatal being an obvious one. Next one being Silver Justice, and probably also Upon A Pale Horse. Maybe the Assassin books at some point, although I think those pretty much say Assassin all over them.
It will be interesting to see whether new covers work miracles for those titles, too, but at this point, you could say I’m a believer. Oh, and the other take away for all you budding authors is…never give up. Don’t settle. Keep experimenting. Do not just shrug your shoulders and go, hey, I did as good a job as I could, and the book’s not selling, so F it. Never concede defeat.
Because in this business, sometimes persistence pays off.
End of sermon.
The Chicago Tribune featured me the other day in an article about mid-list authors and their unfortunate demise.
It’s not a bad piece. I mean, there’s kind of a backhand in it about my writing the equivalent of Jason Stratham flicks, but hey, there are worse things in the world, and people do seem to like em. And the author arguably conflates “mid-list” with “literary fiction” in the closing comments, but everybody’s a pedant, right?
What unfortunately gets lost in these articles is that my production speed is a function of the hours I work, not some freakish desire to vomit forth the equivalent of literary comic books. I mean, I fully understand that what I’m writing is not going to be taught in high school English class or gazed upon fondly by literature professors. It’s entertainment, and cheap at the price.
But in my defense, I strive to balance the sheer, unbridled joy of an over-the-top action romp with a certain literary flair, particularly in the vocabulary and the descriptions. There’s a fine line between purple prose and evocative language, and I try to edge right up to it and dance on the razor’s edge, rather than taking the safe route and crafting what to me are plodding, sophomoric sentences. And I’d wager I spend, in total, about the same number of hours on one of my novels as many of the big names do – I just cram six months of an hour here, an hour there, into a month of fifteen hour days. If it takes 200 hours to do a first draft, that could be 100 days if your muse only dances a couple hours a day. If you drag her kicking and screaming to the table and force her to perform for 12 hours a day, you wind up with a book completed a hell of a lot faster. No trick to it.
That’s not to say that my oeuvre is in any way important work. If you look at my biggest sellers, they’re the pure adrenaline rush series: JET, and to a lesser extent, the Assassin books. I personally like both, although it depends on the time of day which I’ll claim are better. I do like the grittiness of King of Swords a lot, but it’s also hard not to love Jet’s breakneck saga.
My standalone novels tend to tackle more challenging subjects, but they don’t sell as well. Upon A Pale Horse takes on a very difficult topic – the likely lab origin of certain viruses – and Silver Justice attempts to inform the uninitiated about what really took place in the financial crisis. They’re both good reads, and a lot of fun, but they aren’t as popular. Some of the negative reviews, and even some of the positive ones, allude to not being able to understand the “technical” details, which is fair enough. But then again, sometimes I write things that take a little work on the reader’s part. Many don’t want that – they want a fun, fast, furious read to make the time go by and transport them to a different world for a few hours. So I don’t invest a lot of time in writing anything but what readers clearly desire.
But the article’s point is a valid one. I write what readers want to read, not what I in my lofty wisdom have determined they “should” want. I don’t pretend to be the arbiter of the public good, nor evolved enough to dictate to the masses what they ought to read. I write what readers pay to read, nothing less. It’s my job, really. If I write works nobody wants, it’s not because the world sucks or everyone’s a moron or nobody understands just how ferociously clever I am. It’s because I lost sight of my primary mission: to keep the reader entertained.
As authors, we all dance at the pleasure of the king: the reader. Fortunately my readers like their heaping dose of ass kicking with some literary flair. I’m grateful they indulge me – I like to think it makes it more interesting for everyone, author and reader alike.
That’s all I have, folks. I’m busy editing away at BLACK To Reality, the fourth BLACK book, which should be ready for release in March, and then will be penning another JET, slated for June. I was going to write an Assassin book for June, but it will have to wait for Q3 – the JET story is more intriguing to me right now, so I’ll go where the muse takes me.
BTW, my co-authored romance series with Melissa Foster is shaping up. We’ve batted around some concepts and have a good one, I think. I’m very excited about this – she’s burning up the charts and becoming a mega-name in romance as we speak. If you haven’t checked out her work, you should. The Braden series, especially, is selling like hotcakes. She’s like the #50 author on all Amazon. Yay, Melissa! You go, girl!!!
Oh, and here’s a cover reveal for Fatal Exchange. While I love the old covers I developed for this novel, I really dig the new tone of this one. Check it out.
The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind, with literally hundreds of emails per day. Many ask the same questions, so I thought I’d summarize some of my responses so that everyone can read my thoughts, for what they’re worth, on what it takes to be a success as a self-pubbed author. Pretty much the same things it takes to be a successful any kind of author, so I’ll lump them together.
BREAKING NEWS: I just did my first radio interview. Aside from sounding like an old woman yelling from the bottom of a well, it could have been worse. Big thanks to Pam Stack of Authors On The Air – Blogtalk radio.
NEWS: For anyone who missed it, in the last couple of weeks I was featured in The Wall St Journal, The Times (UK), and interviewed by Examiner.com, the Huffington Post, Jeff Rivera, and Simon Duringer.
I was asked yesterday by a newbie writer to summarize what I thought was required in order to make it in this business. Now, given that every writer’s journey is different, it’s hard to pop out with meaningful guidance – I mean, some have one great book in them, others have twenty, or if you’re me, you have a whole bunch of questionable screeds banging around in your head. But it’s a question I’m asked fairly often, so here’s my attempt to answer it (with the caveat that if you’re looking for step-by-step guidance, you should also read last year’s post, How To Sell Loads of Books):
Besides a burning desire to tell a story and a rudimentary knowledge of craft, beginning (and not-so-beginning) authors need to have the three Ds: Dedication. Determination. Discipline.
None of those sound particularly fun, do they? That’s because they aren’t.
Let’s start with Dedication. I’ve found that I improve in my craft every day because I’m dedicated to doing so. I don’t have a lot of other hobbies, and I’m singularly focused on writing as my primary creative outlet. Every time I sit down to write another novel it’s with one thought in mind: that I’m going to try to raise the bar on some aspect of my writing, be it description, dialogue, plotting, pacing. I believe the best authors have that single-minded dedication to improvement, and the creation of worthwhile prose – prose that moves their audience as nobody else can.
But along with Dedication you need Determination. A sort of dogged, relentless belief that it can be done, and that even if it takes just short of forever, by God, you will do it. That determination carries you through the low points, the crises of faith, the doubts, the setbacks and rejections. One could call it being bullheaded or stubborn, and that wouldn’t be too far from the truth. A major aspect of Determination is drive (maybe I should have called this the four D’s). Drive is your willingness to do whatever it takes and create your own momentum. To overcome any obstacle. To succeed in a business where the odds are stacked against you. To sacrifice and make it happen, to be relevant, no matter what. And to push yourself, even when you don’t want to write, when the whole thing seems pointless. Determination fuels your drive.
Which is all well and good, but without Discipline, it doesn’t amount to much. Being dedicated to creating quality, and being determined to do so, are fine, but they don’t have much chance of success if you don’t have the discipline to pull it off. Writers tend to procrastinate, to spend hours on the internet reading bullshit blogs about how to succeed, to overthink and analyze and coddle their artistic side, to the detriment of actually accomplishing something. Discipline ensures you get it done. I recommend setting aside a specific time for writing every day, a target word count that you will hit (and won’t stop until you do), and a reasoned, systematic approach to creating a body of work you’ll be proud of, whether anyone ever buys it or not. But to do so, I believe you need to be as disciplined as though this were a job, where you punch the clock and do the work, every day, for as long as you’ve determined is necessary to achieve the result you want.
The three Ds.
Now, there are some other things self-pubbed authors must have, such as having the discipline to divide your literary time into writing and marketing. I counsel 75% writing, 25% marketing, because that’s what works for me. You may decide you prefer to operate differently. In most cases I’d bet you’re wrong, but hey, it’s not my career, so do what you like. But remember that books don’t sell themselves, and that the book selling business is as tough a business as any on earth. So if you believe the level of success you desire can happen without you allocating reasoned effort into marketing your wares, good luck with that. There are far too many authors out there investing time and effort into getting visibility for you to succeed with a strategy that basically amounts to hoping for a lightning strike.
This is what I tell beginning authors who want my opinion on what qualities they have to develop to do well in this business. Being an author is hard, but being a self-published author is even tougher, because you’re faced with all the tasks a publisher would handle, in addition to the writing workload. But that’s the job. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head. If you want an easier gig, there are plenty. If you want a better paying one, ditto.
But if you want to be a commercially-successful author, those are my recommendations. Get comfortable with the requirements, decide whether you’re willing to do what it takes, and if so, examine the three Ds and internalize what they mean to you and how you plan to apply them to reach your dream.