My last blog of 2014 will be mercifully short.
I want to thank all my readers for the support and encouragement through a sometimes turbulent year. Thanks to you, I get to write for my dinner rather than knocking over liquor stores or running for public office.
I’d also like to thank all the authors who share my thoughts via social media, many of whom have become friends.
The arts have always been a tough gig to make it in, especially for any sustained period, and being a working author is no different. Sure, we’d all like to be superstars, but the truth is most of us will be lucky to earn a living from our craft – just as most musicians riffing away in their bedrooms won’t get record deals or sell enough to buy more than cigarettes, most little girls at the barre won’t become prima ballerinas, and most singers will have to content themselves with a smattering of applause on karaoke night rather than winning America’s Got Talent.
That’s always been the case. The arts are a labor of love, man’s search for meaning as we mark time, and it’s rare that one of us gets to do it for a living. If you’re fortunate enough to be one of those, revel in it. If not, don’t bitch or whine – you knew the odds going in. Keep at it, and force the world to recognize your worth.
Success is a funny thing. It’s not the most talented who generally break biggest or have the most noteworthy careers. Music is a perfect example. Madonna is certainly not the greatest singer or dancer of our time, and yet her career was that of a force of nature. U2 doesn’t have the best singer or guitar player or songs ever produced, and yet the band’s going on its fourth decade of commercial success. I could go on and on. The point is that talent only takes you so far, and being awesome isn’t usually nearly enough, or even completely necessary. The universe can be fickle. Deal with it.
In the end, hackneyed as the sentiment may be, it’s not the destination, but the journey. And while we’d all like to make mad fat stacks from writing, the truth is that the work has to be its own reward, because this is an uncertain business at the best of times, and a brutal one at worst. As one approaches the winter of one’s days, the size of one’s bank balance doesn’t have the same weight as it might have had when one was young, when nothing seemed more important than making it, achieving, proving your worth in the world, and when ideas like fulfillment and happiness were dismissed as silliness compared to material wealth and success. I know that was the case in my misspent youth of crass consumerism. It’s only once we begin noticing a hesitation to our step or the effects of gravity on our being that most question the importance of defining ourselves by getting into the hamster wheel every day and running balls out after the treat du jour, only to wind up exactly in the same place as we started.
Our existence can be like that. But it doesn’t have to be.
A life is about what you did each day – you are the sum of those actions. Did you help a stray dog? Were you kind? Did you behave honorably even when nobody was watching? Do you have regrets over your time spent, wish you’d known then what you knew now? If an author, did you write the words that, if you could do it all over, you would again? Each day we make choices, seemingly simple. At some point, and none of us knows when, we run out of days, and what we are left with is that string of decisions and the consequences thereof as our legacy, our imprint on the planet and each other after meager time all too briefly spent.
As I wax philosophical, I’d say the most important thing we can do as artists is to live as though we only have one year to create whatever we want to create, and to mean it with the intensity of a dying man’s last gasps. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “the old bear doesn’t know how many more summers he has to come out of the cave.” Sometimes that gets lost in all the furor over which fad is selling best, or which promotional approach is in favor or out, or who’s killing it and who’s bombing, or how to attract eyes and get visibility.
In my blog I tend to focus more on the nuts and bolts of operating a content creation and retail distribution business – writing and publishing. I don’t go into a lot of craft tips, because the world’s filled with authors airing their preferences with the shrill intensity of jilted brides. I often mention focusing on craft and trying to improve each day, as that’s an essential part of content creation, and the odds of your retail distribution business are related to the quality of the content you produce. But behind all that is the belief that if you’re going to create content, you should do it with passion and relevance, no matter how trite or silly it may appear to anyone else. You have to do it with intensity, because it’s that intensity that infuses it with meaning.
The world has millions and millions of books. More than anyone could read in a hundred lifetimes. If we’re going to try to earn our keep adding to that pile, we should try to ensure that what we produce is as good as it can be. That’s our job, and our promise to our readers. It’s a great job. There are none better. Okay, maybe a few. But most of those will get you arrested.
It’s with profound gratitude that I finish the year, and I hope everyone has a prosperous New Year and knocks the cover off the ball, no matter what the goal is. Another year is under the belt, and the canvas is again blank. That’s both exciting and scary. Live with the old bear’s wisdom in your heart, and make this your year.
And of course, buy my crap.
I’ll be on the road much of next week, so I thought I’d do my annual predictions about the publishing game a little earlier than usual this year, mainly so I can loaf through the holidays and dip into more eggnog than I ought to. So for whatever they’re worth, here they are:
1) Subscription services will make it much harder to sell books. The voracious readers who are most likely to try an indie with a “WTF purchase” will instead tend to borrow instead of buy. This will result in drastic reductions in author take-home pay, all assurances of “increased exposure” aside. A whole group of readers are being conditioned to believe that books have little or no value/should be free/should only be read if virtually free. This will continue. For an idea of where this progression ends, look at music. Musicians can’t earn decent money anymore by having a hit, or even several hits. The economic model is broken in such a way that the artist sees virtually nothing, with the intermediary company that enables the download taking the lion’s share of the revenue. Musicians now earn their livings by touring, by selling merchandise (shirts, hats, etc.), by selling virtually anything but music. Alas, authors don’t have the option of filling coliseums at $50 a ticket or being cool or mainstream enough to hawk $22 concert T-shirts with their likenesses on them, so expect things to get much harder.
2) The importance of brand will increase. What do I mean? Well, I like to use water as an example. In developed countries, water comes out of the tap, and is virtually free. This has been the case as long as I’ve been alive. And yet savvy marketers have convinced the lion’s share of consumers that they need to pay, often large amounts, for a product that is essentially identical (it’s H20) to what they can get free. This is a triumph of consumerism and I believe there’s a lesson in it. As art becomes increasingly commoditized in the eyes of consumers, being able to create demand for a particular brand of commodity becomes essential. Authors who want to have careers doing something besides chasing the next fad will have to develop a brand in their readers’ minds that’s worth paying for. Back to water. Not only is water free from the tap, but there are countless generic bottled water producers. And yet some manage to position their identical product (H20) at many dollars per container, while others are almost free (bottle cost, shipping, filling, inventorying). The difference is the apparent value of the brand. Some brand adherents will go so far as to claim one virtually identical product tastes better or is in some other way superior to those icky generic variants, never mind the drinkable, safe tap water. That’s genius from the brand management standpoint, and smart authors are well advised to pay attention to what’s worked to create billion dollar industries from nothing.
3) Perma-free isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still pretty good. Used to be you could put your first book free in a series and be guaranteed tens of thousands of downloads per month, with some conversion factor to the rest of the series (paid). Now, not so much, in that the number of downloads will be lower. But it still beats putting your book out and tweeting “Buy my book” or “Today only – .99!” until blue in the face. I noticed a substantial drop in free downloads via Amazon once KU came out, so the subscription model has monetized some percentage of those readers who largely or only read free – but at the expense of author discovery. Good for Amazon. Not so much for authors trying to get visibility by giving readers a taste for free.
4) Apple is coming on strong. B&N isn’t. Kobo, yawn. Google Play, mmm, not so much. Exclusivity to any vendor will continue to cost authors more than it earns them over the mid-to-long term. The reason is that exclusivity used to pay better, in that Amazon made it sort of worth your while. Now? If you think selling your novel for $1.39 royalty via borrows is a good reason to forego every other vendor out there, hey, you better than I know what your work is actually worth. But for anything longer than a novella or short story, I don’t see it as a decent deal for anyone but Amazon. And I’m not alone in that perception. Sometimes Amazon throws us a great big meat-covered bone, and sometimes a rotting table scrap. This time, it’s not even a scrap, although I know some authors who have done well. They are exceptions. Diversification across all vendors will continue to be important for smart publishers, indie especially. On a side note, traditional publishers get full royalty on a borrow, from what I understand – it’s only the indies whose work is considered worth a fraction of a sale royalty. That should tell you a huge something about how the vendors view indies as business people, as well as how they view the value of their work. Doesn’t take rocket science to figure it out. Whether they’re right, or wrong, is open to debate. I don’t like selling ten to fourteen hours of entertainment I invested hundreds of hours into and spent thousands editing, proofing, creating covers for, etc. for $1.30-something. Some may well might. Up to them.
5) Trad publishers will step up the competition with lower priced backlist offerings. The reluctance to price lower will give way to shareholder demands for fat profits, meaning a lot of $2.99-$5.99 novels from quality names. This will result in the average price paid for an ebook continuing to spiral downward, reducing the apparent value proposition of indie offerings. As I said in my last blog, if I can buy an edited, professionally presented novel by a marquee name for $4, my interest in paying that for an amateurish, questionably or non-edited screed from someone I’ve never heard of is going to be pretty low. That’s going to make it harder for new names to break out, as well as for many names that have respectable sales to maintain them moving forward.
So there we have it. Nothing revelationary, but hey, what do I look like, frigging Nostradamus? I could make more inflammatory predictions, but wouldn’t have confidence in them. These I believe accurately describe the 2015 playing field as it’s shaping up.
All in all, it’s going to be a tougher year in 2015 than in 2014, which was tougher than 2013, which was tougher than 2012, and so on. However, there will still be breakthrough authors who come out of nowhere and whose work electrifies an audience. There will still be exceptions. Many of those will be indies.
It remains an exciting time to be an author. I certainly can’t complain. To wrap up my year, I was on the cover of The Wall Street Journal and in The Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, and a host of others at the top of the year, have sold nearly a million books now (not counting my co-authored tomes), released my co-authored novel with Clive Cussler in Sept. and hit #2 on the NYT Bestseller List with it, sold foreign rights to Germany, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, have a half dozen name production companies nosing around JET and my Assassin series, have a wonderful agent who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the biz, and have generally had a nice run of it. Next year will see a host of co-authored romances, five Russell Blake novels, another co-authored tome with Cussler, and plenty more surprises, I’m sure. For the end of my 42nd month in the publishing game, can’t whine too much, although I certainly do, early and often.
Oh, and for those who buy my crap (which should be everyone at this point), JET – Survival is available on pre-release and goes live December 26th. Hint, hint.
I just looked at the Amazon top 100. #1 is a trad pub title at $2.99. #2 is a trad pub title at .99. #3 is an Amazon imprint pre-order at $4.99. #4 is Baldacci’s latest at $10.99, #5 is Michael Connolly’s latest at $3.99, #6 is Gone Girl at $2.99, and on and on and on.
For those indie authors who have seen a marked downturn in sales since KU came in, I believe that’s only part of the story. The other is that since Amazon got lower prices from trad publishers, the price of trad pubbed books is through the floor. Sure, some of that’s holiday discounting, but not close to all.
Which means that the tried and true gambit most indies have been using, which is selling based on price, at .99 or $2.99 or $3.99 or $4.99, likely won’t work particularly well anymore. Because when you can buy Gone Girl for $2.99 and Connolly’s latest at $3.99, why would most readers buy your book at or around the same price?
If your answer is “because I wrote it,” you are likely in for a very rude awakening. If you haven’t already gotten it, my hunch is you soon will.
Readers are now being presented with a host of worthy, readable, high-quality offerings at or below the same prices indies offered their books at, eliminating the bargain perception/edge that indies learned to rely on as a differentiator.
That will translate into crap sales for many, and the effective end to many careers that relied on their work being attractive because it was cheap. In a world where everything is cheap, selling based on price doesn’t work.
Bluntly, if you as an author want to sell books in this environment, you have to do it the old fashioned way: you have to write books your audience will gladly pay for, even if a dollar or two more than the latest Michael Connolly, or Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster. That means you need to up your game, that suddenly story and craft will matter more, and that simply being cheap, with a homemade cover and lackadaisical or no editing, won’t cut it.
That’s awesome news for readers. It’s disastrous news for many indie authors.
(As an aside, I suspect if I dug into the publishing contracts with many trad pubbed authors, I’d find a clause that cuts their royalties to almost nothing when the selling price of a book is greater than a 50% discount. I recall reading about that before – a $10 list price book will pay X percent at $5 to a vendor, and drop to Y percent at below $5, making the author peanuts but the publisher a buttload of bucks if the incremental sales offset the drop in net revenue per unit. All good for the publisher, who shifts double the units to make up any shortfall, but a reaming for the author, whose revenue could drop far more than the incremental increase in units moved.)
So the days of putting out just okay work and hoping it will sell are over. That’s so 2010. This is the end of 2014, and the competitive landscape is going to get a whole lot tougher.
Now for the good news. As my prior blog discussed, more authors than ever before are earning good money as indies. So it can be done. But those authors are very, very good at delivering a reading experience their following will pay for, and they value their readers above all – they don’t put out slop, they don’t think in terms of “good enough,” and they’re every bit as demanding of their work as the harshest acquisitions editor.
At $3.99, Michael Connolly represents an amazing value. If you want to sell a reader your novel, and you’re in the same genre, you need to ensure it’s as good or better, whatever that means. To me it means the editing has to be pro, the story engaging and professionally told, the word choice and grammar above reproach, the cover a professional effort, and on and on (I use Connolly as an example – if you look at the top 100, you’ll see that virtually every genre has similar offerings, so it’s not only mystery).
If you can do all that, and communicate to interested readers that you have what they’re interested in buying, you will probably do well at this, even in the more competitive market. If you can’t – if your work’s amateurish, if you decided to spare the bucks on editing or covers, if your approach to your story is “that’s probably fine – look at all the crappy books that sell,” or any of the other litany of mistakes I’ve covered in this blog more times than I can count, chances are you won’t.
It’s that simple.
My message is that the honeymoon’s over. Time to knuckle down and demand more out of yourself at every turn, because even if you don’t, your readers will. And they now have more choices than ever at lower prices than I’ve ever seen, and those choices are largely good.
Awesome for readers. Good for some authors. Not so much for many others. But in the end, better for the business moving forward. Competition is always good. Always. Except for those who can’t compete. There’s a term for them in all businesses: Road Kill.
Don’t. Be. Road. Kill.
And don’t kid yourself that this is going to get anything but tougher. Pro basketball players don’t tell themselves that they don’t have to be all that great because there are plenty of mediocre players. Pro dancers don’t argue that they should be given center stage because they’re precious snowflakes, and their deficiencies should be ignored. Pro competitors in any arena strive to be the absolute best, and demand the most out of themselves, making no excuses, asking for and offering no quarter.
Welcome to 2015.
I was talking with another author, who does extremely well as an indie, and we started comparing numbers. He/she will earn close to two million dollars this year. Most have never heard of him/her.
I had an email exchange with another indie a few days ago who clears a cool half mil a year. You’ve likely never heard of him/her, either. He/she is friends with another author who works the same genre, who does a little better than he/she does – probably close to three quarters of a mil this year. We all trade tips and help each other – there’s no competitive snarkiness between any of us.
I’m part of a group of authors on Facebook, have been for about two years. In that time, more than a few have gone from earning a few hundred a year to tens of thousands, and in several cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. You’ve probably never heard of any of them, either. As with the above buddies of mine, everyone is supportive of each other regardless of the stage of their career. One of the reasons might be because we’ve all been alive long enough to have learned that you meet all the same people going up as you do coming back down. Another might be that we don’t feel competitive – there’s no limit to how well any of us might do, other than the market’s fickle nature and our own abilities and drive.
I thought it was fitting as we wind up the year to comment on this, and to point out that as much as we whine about the impact of Kindle Unlimited on our sales, and on the dearth of decent ad sites, and the constantly shifting marketplace, more of us than ever before are earning decent, and in some cases, magnificent, incomes, from writing and publishing, without any help from the traditional channels that used to have the book selling business locked up.
What do all of these authors have in common, though? All these indies who are making serious, and in some cases, insane, bank? First, they publish regularly. As in once every few months, and in some cases, once every month. Second, they work in genres that will support them. While most of the top earners are in romance or one of its offshoots, others are in science fiction, which voraciously consumes indie work; some are in my genre (action thrillers), some in mystery, some in fantasy. Third, they all work long hours and take this extremely seriously. Fourth, they operate their publishing businesses like businesses, not like hobbies. They have production schedules they stick to. They market and promote. They invest in professional help when necessary and grasp that you have to spend money to make it. Fifth, they write books readers enjoy reading, as opposed to books their muse dictates they write. That’s an important distinction, because what we as authors often want to write might not be all that marketable. So we compromise based on our understanding of the market. And sixth, they’re constantly adjusting their sails to best negotiate treacherous water and ever-shifting winds. They’re pragmatic. And most have great senses of humor, as well as a keen appreciation of irony. That goes with the gig, I suppose. As does pragmatism.
Some of them write magnificently original novels that push the envelope. But most don’t. They write genre fiction that supplies what their consumers want to buy. Some do it with remarkable prose, some with workmanlike sentences, but the point is that it doesn’t matter to their fans – they write the prose their audience wants.
I’ve been extremely lucky in my career thus far. Writing with Clive Cussler, I’ve learned a lot. Working with my agent, I’ve learned still more. But mostly, being paid by readers to write as many novels as I have has allowed me to hone my skill in a manner most couldn’t only a few short years ago. And seeing what readers respond to has shown me where the path to growth lies.
Most have never heard of Russell Blake. Probably 99% of my target audience has no frigging idea who I am. I find that exciting and motivating. It means that there’s a whole world out there to conquer, of potential readers who might enjoy one or more of my yarns, and might tell a friend.
Most importantly to me, I’ve been able to write novels that I would read, the way I like to write them. The good news is there are plenty of viable styles, and all of them sell well, if delivered with conviction. Certainly, as with reality TV, some fiction is written for folks who can barely make it through TV Guide, and that’s fine. I don’t read that style, but that doesn’t make it inferior. Other fiction is written so densely I can’t get more than a few pages through it without yawning. That can sell well, too. Whether you favor prose that’s more monosyllabic, or that pushes the boundaries of what language is capable of, it’s all good – do it well, and there’s someone who will buy it. In many cases, a lot of someones.
That’s my early wrap-up for the year as I wind it down in preparation for 2015. It’s been a hell of a ride, starting with being above the fold in the WSJ in early January, and continuing from there. How many authors are ever featured on the front page of the WSJ? That alone I could retire on (and some hoped I would). Fortunately, folks still buy my stories so I don’t have to, yet. But the point is I’ve already surpassed any expectations I had for this little writing thing I do.
I find it humbling, as well as inspiring, that so many authors, some of whom were traditionally published and have all the usual horror stories that go with it, but most of whom who never were, are earning incredible livings publishing their own work. It’s a wonderful and ever-evolving literary world that I’m glad to be a part of.
Here’s to 2015! Now get to work. 2015 could well be your year, but if you look at the six things the bestselling indies I know all have in common, you’ll see that hoping doesn’t feature. Hard work, application, being very smart about what you publish and how you publish it, constantly striving to improve your craft…these are the things that make your career. Sure, luck plays a role, but not nearly as large a role as many seem to believe.
There are no guarantees, except that if you don’t do whatever it takes to succeed, you won’t.
That’s been my life lesson so far. I see nothing to change my view now that I write for my dinner.
We live in a magical time, when self-determination as authors is within reach. Revel in it.
And of course, buy my crap.
If you’re expecting tips on dating in other countries, or an excerpt from my next one, Forced By The Latin Alpha Billionaire, hate to disappoint you. This blog’s about tamer fodder, although the topic is near and dear to my heart: money.
It’s been a great year for foreign rights sales, largely due to the diligence of my agent in pursuing those markets, as well as increasing international interest in my books.
Germany has been a wonderful market, with Amazon Crossing having released King of Swords in April there and it selling respectably, and Luzifer having released the German language version of JET in October.
I also sold JET and JET Betrayal to the Czech Republic, and The Voynich Cypher to Bulgaria, to release next year.
Why is that important, besides augmenting my ability to pay my bar tab? Because I view all of that as found money, and because it highlights that even if you’re not madly pursuing a trad deal, good agents still have a valuable role they can play in the mix, even with indie published books.
Are foreign sales enough to live off? Hardly. But they will pay for some nice dinners and more than a year’s worth of good tequila. For something that I’ve already done all the work on, and what to me seems like money for nothing, to date myself with song. Having been in this business for a whopping 36 months, being paid for translations in countries I never even knew purchased rights is a nice kiss on the lips, in a biz that’s a roller coaster of ups and downs.
In other news, I’m in South America nosing around for some new places to get into trouble, but am writing madly, as always (on a questionable laptop that’s developed a penchant for crashing at the worst moments, and with the spottiest internet in memory). My production schedule for Russell Blake next year will take my offerings to well over 40 n0vels (figure 5 Russell books – one Assassin, two Ops Files, two JETs), with another three or four co-authored tomes (romance with Melissa Foster using my RE Blake pseudonym), and another Clive release next fall. That’s just a crazy number. Actually, with the Clive tomes and the RE Blake books, more like 45 novels. Somebody stop me.
So much for slowing down. Oh, and I’ve already mentally outlined a dystopian romp tentatively titled The Day After Never, and a conspiracy thriller that’s the first in a new series (and I’ll possibly be releasing the first in an adventure series, too), if I get the time to write ’em. One never knows. Sigh.
Hmmm. That doesn’t really seem to be a slowdown, does it?
Ah, well. Perhaps 2016…
One side note: authors will notice that I already have a good idea what I’m going to write over the next 13 months. I’m not waiting for my muse to phone it in. I have a business that requires constant production, and I have my editors and proofreader slated for my output at specific times. That’s not to say you have to do as I do, but I will point out that my income is remarkably steady from using this approach of regular releases throughout the year, most augmenting successful series, with an occasional new series tossed into the mix. Is it the only way to make a good living at this? No. Is it the way I recommend? Absolutely.
Ironically, those who argued two years ago that my approach wasn’t a good one, or that I was too dogmatic, or whatever the argument was, are still trying to make a living at this with negligible results, while every month I get emails from authors I’ve never heard of who took my counsel to heart and have quit their day jobs, earning multiples of what they were at their careers, using the same approach I have. That’s not to say I’m so smart so you can all suck it, although there’s certainly some of that, but rather that every month more authors are doing this successfully, and if my guidance in blogs like How To Sell Loads Of Books helps them achieve their dreams, awesome.
I was telling a new friend the other day that this is more like buying yourself a new job, one you love, than in winning a lottery with a single book. I think approaching it in that manner, as an ongoing vocation that requires consistent application rather than birthing a single effort every now and then and hoping it goes viral, is the healthiest perspective. It’s a job, not a final destination or a solution to all life’s problems. To me, a wonderful job where I get to flex my storytelling and craft muscles every day, but a job nonetheless. That’s becoming far clearer as the market matures and the gold rush days become a dim memory.
So those are my thoughts for the day, such as they are. Foreign sales are good. Making money from doing something you love is good. Alpha Billionaires are still in vogue, and I’m a gonna tap that shitz like nobody’s business, unless I take a nice nap instead.
Now go buy my crap. Because everybody can use more crap around the holidays.