Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Interview with James Rollins

I haven't blogged in a week, due to attending BEA, and now that I'm back I have three things I need to blog about immediately.

First, many of you may have heard about my friend Barry Eisler signing with Amazon for his next Rain book. Barry and I did another 10k word dialog about that, and some other publishing stuff. I'll post it complete tomorrow, but if you can't wait, Barry has already posted the entire conversation on his blog (he couldn't wait either.)

Second, I have a book coming out today. it's called Timecaster, and my publisher is charging $7.99 for the paperback, and $7.99 for the ebook (ugh.) It's a sci-fi thriller filled with humor, sex, over-the-top violence, and Harry McGlade. The hero is Jack Daniels's grandson. I love this book, and so will my fans. It's easily the craziest thing I've ever written, and loads of fun.

This fall, I'll release the sequel myself for $2.99. I'm also working with Brilliance Audio to release both books as audiobooks for extremely low prices. Stay tuned.

Finally, my friend James Rollins has released a 99 cent short story on Kindle. When a big NYT bestseller starts releasing inexpensive ebooks, it is time to ask questions.

Joe: It's great that you're putting out a 99 cent short story. Why did you do it through your publisher, rather than solo?

Jim: I initially was going to self-publish this story. And I naively thought that my publishing house would have no problem… heck, it’s only a short story. But when my agent approached them about this, they were adamant that I must not do that. And while I certainly could have refused, I also had to respect the fact that HarperCollins had done a great deal to brand my name out in the marketplace, and I couldn’t blithely ignore that, nor trample roughshod over their wishes.

We did come to a compromise, though—moving this story into the gray world between self-publishing and legacy publishing. William Morrow (my house at Harper) and I are co-publishing this book, which means we split all royalties beyond the cost of this book’s production. I’m personally curious to see how this all plays out in the marketplace. Yes, I’m losing half my royalties, but Harper has deeper pockets and more marketing connections to hopefully help get his story some attention. Plus they are more personally invested to use this story as a vehicle to promote this summer’s book (The Devil Colony).

As you well know, it’s a new world out there in publishing. Paradigms are shifting all over the map. So this co-pub deal is yet another experiment, a possible compromise between the old world and the new. But is it the best of both worlds or the worst? Only time will tell.

Joe: I'm a big fan of your Sigma novels, so it's great to read a short featuring those characters. How does writing a short story vs. a novel differ?

Jim: A couple of years ago, I wrote a Sigma short story, titled Kowalski’s in Love It appeared in an anthology edited by James Patterson and explained how Kowalski (who first appeared in Ice Hunt) became an adopted team member of Sigma. I found that a short story is a great vehicle for filling in “gaps” in the Sigma universe. And that’s how this story came about. In this summer’s book, The Devil Colony, the mysterious assassin Seichan arrives on Gray’s doorstep with a package of information. The Skeleton Key explains how she acquired that bit of intelligence.

I also wanted to write this story for those readers who have never read a Sigma novel. So I crafted this thriller so it could be enjoyed by anyone new to the series. Confined to one character and restricted to a self-contained adventure, I hoped this story could serve as a “sampler” for any reader interested in the series but too daunted by a full novel.

As to writing a short story versus a novel, they are definitely two different vehicles in which to tell a tale. While both vehicles need a beginning, middle, and end, a short story requires writing very tightly, sticking to one character and really getting into their head, under their skin. Seichan has always been a bit mysterious. The Skeleton Key gave me a chance to reveal more about her.

Joe: How do you like writing in a shorter format?

Jim: It was a daunting task. I think my mind is too wired to think of “story” in a longer format. To restrict this tale to one character, one setting, one goal was a challenge. I wanted this story to “feel” like a full Sigma international thriller. So I did my best to make Paris come to life as a character. I threaded in a bit of its mysterious history, added a smidgen of strange science, and crafted a larger danger looming over the more intimate threat. I hope this story captures the essence of a Sigma novel in a tight, little package.

Joe: You're also releasing one of your previous novels, Black Order, today as an ebook for $1.99. Your idea, or your publishers?

Jim: It was theirs… and I have to give them credit. It think it’s a great program. They did it last year with Map of Bones, and it was a resounding success and introduced a slew of new readers to my books. And in this new ebook world, this is another area of consternation and confusion: how to price an ebook?

I see that this is still unsettled in the self-publishing world. There seems to be two camps. Price a new novel at $2.99. This seems to work well when an author has the cushion of several books. But I see another school of thought at setting the price point at $4.99. This seems to be the course with authors with their first book or with only a limited backlist.

As to the $1.99, this is purely a promotional price to encourage someone to sample a new author. I believe it’s not so much done to move volume and make money, as it is a loss leader to draw in new readers.

Again I’m curious where this “price point” issue will settle in the marketplace. As I’m sure you are, too.

Joe: You write in your author’s note that the apocalyptic cult, the Order of the Solar Temple, really existed. How did you stumble across this in your research, and what made you decide to feature it in a short story?

Jim: I wish I could say there was some mysterious connection, but it was basically Google. I researched various cults operating around Paris and stumbled upon the Order of the Solar Temple, which believes the Knights Templar are still alive and well and manipulating history. This cult’s suicidal and apocalyptic stance was perfectly suited for the story I wanted to tell.

Joe: What kind of research or travel did you do for The Skeleton Key? Have you visited the catacombs of Paris?

Jim: I did visit those catacombs. As an avid caver myself, I longed to explore beyond the boundaries of the tourist areas. Those catacombs delve beneath half of Paris, encompassing two hundred miles of tunnels and caverns. While I couldn’t go there myself, I learned of amateur explorers who secretly venture into those unmapped sections of the catacombs (they call themselves cataphiles). This story allowed me to become one of them for a short while—and I wanted to take my readers along with me.

Joe: What did you find most interesting or surprising to learn as you mapped out the plot to The Skeleton Key?

Jim: I think it was how fragile those catacombs are. A cave-in back in 1961 swallowed up an entire Parisian neighborhood, killing scores of people. And even today, sections of those tunnels collapse every year, damaging parts of the city—which, of course, made the writer in me wonder: what if something MUCH worse happened?

Joe: The Skeleton Key follows the adventures of Seichan alone, as she is separated from the rest of Sigma Force. Why did you decide to feature Seichan’s point of view?

Jim: I always wanted to feature her in a solo adventure. Being a loner, she was perfectly suited for her own tale. This vehicle also offered me the opportunity to explore more about her, while allowing new readers an entry point into the series. Plus her story allowed me to fill in a “gap” in the backstory to The Devil Colony.

Joe: Do you have a favorite Sigma Force character, one whose point of view you especially enjoy writing?

Jim: I enjoy writing them all. Each has their own unique flare: Gray’s intensity, Kowalski’s humor, Monk’s good nature, Seichan’s internal conflict, Painter’s craftiness. They are like an extended family, and I enjoy visiting with each one of them.

Joe: Without giving away any secrets, will Seichan—and the answers she finds in The Skeleton Key—have a major part to play in the upcoming Sigma Force novel The Devil Colony?

Jim: Indeed. What she discovers in Paris is vital to the plot of the The Devil Colony. It will begin to expose the true identity behind the shadowy organization called The Guild. And trust me, there are some MAJOR surprises coming up in this next book.

Joe: Do you plan to write more Sigma Force short stories?

Jim: In one word: yes. To tell more would ruin the fun.

Joe: Will you ever self-publish?

Jim: Yes. I have some non-Sigma Force short stories that I’m planning on releasing as fundraisers for the Humane Society of America. When it comes to such a cause, I’m not willing to split royalties. Plus I’m starting a new cause to help animals at risk called “Sigma to the Rescue.”

Joe: Where do you see the future of the industry heading?

Jim: I think we only have to look at the music industry to fathom that answer. Publishers will need to adjust, evolve, and transform to survive. If they don’t, the industry is in trouble. As it is, I think we’re heading into a further round of consolidation and winnowing of houses. Will there still be physical books out there? Sure. But the writing is on the wall as a majority of sales move from books to ebooks.

Joe: How are your ebook sales compared to your print sales? Percentages?

Jim: As The Devil Colony is the first new book from me in two years, I can’t personally attest to where the market is at the moment. In just those two years, the publishing world has drastically changed. I did hear from a New York Times bestselling author that the sales of his newest book are split about 70% ebooks and 30% hardbacks. That’s a new world indeed.

Joe: How did you react to Barry Eisler's decision to decline the contract St. Martin's offered and sign with Amazon?

Jim: Barry must have balls of steel (or maybe even admantium). Someone had to strike out first. I know every published author on the planet is watching to see what happens. And I’m no exception. My prediction: he’ll do fantastic. Then again, I’m prejudiced: I love Barry and his books.

Joe: Wouldn't you like to live in a world without deadlines and appearances?

Jim: Of what fantasy world do you speak? What is this mythic landscape? Okay, I get your point, but I think self-publishing has its own headaches. And to be honest, I need deadlines. I’m a deadline sort of writer. If left on my own, having to set and stick to my own deadlines, I’d probably still be a veterinarian.

And while book tours are often hard, I also like meeting readers. Yes, I facebook and tweet. But there’s something about meeting people in person. When you get the right mix of people—all likeminded readers—in a one room, sometimes it’s magical.

Joe: What's next for you?

Jim: I’m working on my third Jake Ransom novel (of my kid’s series), while researching and putting the final touches to the next Sigma novel. Speaking of deadlines…I’d better get back to writing. Otherwise, all this talk of publishing—self or otherwise—is moot, because ultimately if you want to be a writer you have to write. Of course, nowadays that’s the easy part.

Joe sez: The Skeleton Key is classic Rollins, and well worth the 99 cents. If you haven't checked out Black Order for $1.99, that's another great read and a steal.

Both were released today, and both rankings are dropping quickly. Kudos to his publisher for understanding that you sell more ebooks for low prices.

Which naturally makes me wonder why Morrow is releasing Jim's latest, The Devil Colony, for $14.99 on Kindle. Ouch. I can already see the dozens of one-star reviews from annoyed fans who won't pay that much, which is unfair to Jim, and to the book. Plus, guess who is going to be pirated like crazy?

Note to Morrow: The way to fight piracy is with cost and convenience. High cost encourages piracy. No one will pirate The Skeleton Key, or those that do wouldn't have bought it anyway. With The Devil Colony, fans who otherwise would have bought it will become pirates, due to your pricing.

Windowing is useless in a digital world. Ebooks are forever, and there is no longer a shelf life, so we shouldn't be forced to pay a higher premium for things just to experience them sooner.

Buy a hardcover for $25 on the release day, or wait a year for the $7.99 paperback. That's always been unfair, in my opinion, but you are getting a better, higher quality version with the hardcover.

But with ebooks? $14.99 now, or wait a year and it'll go down to $8.99 for the same exact version? Or wait a few years and it will go on sale for $1.99?

There are only two reasons for pricing so high. 1. To encourage and protect hardcover sales. 2. To make as much money as possible before the industry collapses.

Ebooks have zero costs to print and ship. They shouldn't be $14.99. And The Devil Colony should be a #1 Ebook bestseller. Perhaps it will be. But it would be one for much longer at a more reasonable price.

Jim will make $2.23 on each $14.99 ebook sold. I make $2.04 on each $2.99 ebook sold, which is why all of my ebooks are outselling his, even though he's a much bigger author than I am.

Now he's getting big advances, and his house is taking care of all the uploading and marketing. If I had a chance to switch careers with him I'd be tempted. Except for the book touring. Meeting fans and booksellers is a noble, worthwhile thing, but travel is exhausting and cuts into my writing time, and I make my money by writing, not by jetting around the world.

If ebooks are really outselling hardcovers by that large a margin, I have to wonder how long it will be before bestselling authors begin to realize that even with large advances, they're losing money long term...

Friday, May 20, 2011

Indie Bookstores Boycott Konrath?

It's come to my attention that on a Yahoo group for booksellers there has been a call to boycott Amazon's new Thomas & Mercer imprint. I signed with Thomas & Mercer for STIRRED, the eighth Jack Daniels novel, co-written with Blake Crouch (who will chime in on this topic after me).

I've also heard that certain booksellers want to return any books of mine they have in stock as a punitive measure.

So signing a deal with Amazon makes me the enemy of bookstores?

Me, who has signed at over 1200 bookstores? Who has thanked over 1500 booksellers by name in the acknowledgements of my novels? Who has named five major characters in my series after booksellers?

Now I'm the bad guy, for wanting to continue my series and make a living?

You may know that my publisher, Hyperion, dropped my Jack Daniels series after six books, even though they continue to sell well as backlist titles. The only way I could get print books in the series into the hands of fans was to sign with another publisher.

Thomas & Mercer stepped up to the plate to give my fans what they want: more Jack Daniels books.

Amazon allowed me to get into bookstores--something self-pubbing couldn't do for me without a lot of extra work on my part. They offered me a terrific deal, and have done more marketing and promotion than any of the publishers I've previously worked with.

They've treated me with nothing but respect, listened to and implemented many of my ideas, and have been an absolute joy to work with.

They're the new publisher on the block. But they're already doing it better than anyone else.

This trend won't end with me. Amazon will continue to publish more and more authors, because the major publishers are making a lot of major mistakes and a lot of writers are getting hurt by the Big 6.

So my question to indie bookstores is: When other authors sign with Amazon, and they will, are you going to boycott them as well? What happens when it is a major, bestselling author? Is this how you service your customers, by limiting the amount of choice they have?

I'll be honest. I'd love it if my books went out of print, so I could have the rights back. I'm getting financially reamed by my publishers, just like every other author is. Sending my books back isn't hurting me in the least.

But it saddens me that any bookseller would take such a limited view of my intent.

My goal remains what it has always been: to write books for fans and make a decent living.

I get a lot of hits on this blog. I could mention the name of the bookseller that thought up this boycott, and ask my readers to boycott them right back. I bet I could even get a picket line going to protest.

Of course, I would never do anything like that. I love bookstores. I want them to succeed. I haven't done many signings lately, but I'll be at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago on Saturday June 4th at 11:30 am, signing at Big Sleep Books, one of my favorite indies.

I'm not the enemy. Neither is Amazon.

The threat to bookstores is a technology that is rapidly being embraced by readers.

I didn't invent ebooks. But for the first time in my writing career, I'm making a comfortable living because of them. So are many other authors.

This doesn't make us bad. It doesn't make us anti-bookstore.

It just makes us human.

The times are changing. In a few years, there may not be anymore chain bookstores.

The indies have a chance to survive, and even thrive. But only if they embrace change.

Being afraid of change has never lead to success.

So what can indies do?

Read on. Blake and I have a few ideas...


I’ve published four novels with the legacy publisher St. Martin’s Press. For my first two, I toured extensively, on my own dime, across the country, almost solely visiting indie bookstores. I did this because I love indie bookstores, the booksellers, the owners... you can feel the love of books when you walk into one, which is often absent in the chains.

My decision to release RUN on my own has been extensively chronicled on this blog. It had nothing to do with turning my back on Indie bookstores. It had everything to do with seeing the change happening in the market, and wanting to make a living for my family.

My agent tried valiantly to sell RUN to Big 6 publishers, for many months. There were no takers. And yet, I've managed to sell 20,000 copies on my own in just a few months, and I'm currently in talks with a well-known independent bookstore to release a limited edition hardcover version of RUN.

So to have indie bookstores now calling for the boycott of my work is baffling, but I understand this is a scary time for bookstores. When panic sets in, this leads to knee-jerk reactions.

I recently met with the book-buyer at my local indie store to discuss this very thing... what do indies do when they’re losing writers to ebooks.

First of all, I think indies need to understand that the vast majority of the writers whose work they try to sell are getting reamed financially by their publishers. They’re probably not making a living on the books they write. The vast majority of writers get dropped by their publisher. And those who don’t are fighting a battle to survive that is largely out of their control. For every Patterson or Grisham you have, there are hundreds, if not thousands of books that fail. I understand you need those heavy-hitters to keep your lights on. But I need ebooks to keep mine on. This would seem to set our interests against each other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

Ebooks are here. They’re now the preferred way to read, and lashing out against writers embracing this to make a living isn’t going to change anything.

My choice to sign with Amazon was twofold: (a) it allows me to reach more readers and fans than I ever could on my own; (b) Amazon is also releasing a trade paperback of Stirred, and will have the full distribution power of any major New York publisher. Even on the books I release myself, I make everything available in print, and these are easily ordered from the major distributors.

The bigger question, the one I discussed with the folks from my local bookstore, is what happens next for Indies?

Here are some ideas Joe and I had:

1. Sell used books. There are billions of books in print, and they aren't going away anytime soon. Joe's publisher charges $7.59 for an ebook of Fuzzy Navel. You could sell the used paperback for $1.99.

2. Remember why people shop indie. My local store has the best, most knowledgeable, well-read staff around. They can turn you on to a book you’ll love based upon a short discussion. They read constantly. There is still something about a live, in-person recommendation that beats reading Amazon and B&N reviews any day. I have no doubt that Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colorado will survive as long as there are publishers, because the experience they give the customer walking in the door is unmatched, and you simply cannot get it on the Internet.

3. Author events. But you need to give people a reason to attend other than just a signature. Perhaps an exclusive short story from that author, free to everyone who buys a book. Perhaps a $30 admission includes a book, a coffee, a copy of the talk on DVD, and a signed t-shirt. Give your customers something they can't get elsewhere.

4. Start publishing. If you're an indie store beloved by authors, ask those authors for a story to put into an anthology, which you can then publish in print or as an ebook. Or ask favorite authors with out-of-print backlists if they'd like to partner with you to re-release those books. If Amazon is becoming a publisher, why can't you?

Between Joe and I, we have over twenty book-length works available. If you'd like to publish any of them and sell them out of your store, contact us. We'll give you an 85% royalty, send you our already formatted interiors and covers, and you can print and sell as many as you'd like. Or we can do the printing, and ship them to you signed, and give you the same 40% discount the major NY Publishers give you per book.

These are trade paperbacks, 9"x6", priced at $13.95.

Our titles include:
65 Proof (Collected Stories)
Shot of Tequila
The List
Jack Daniels Stories (Collected Stories)
Horror Stories (Collected Stories)
Banana Hammock
Desert Places
Locked Doors
Serial Uncut
Killers Uncut
Serial Killers Uncut
Fully Loaded (Collected Stories)
Thicker Than Blood

You might think, "That's a nice gesture, but how will it help me compete?"

Between Joe and I, we've sold over 400,000 self-published ebooks. I'm betting some of your customers would want the print versions of these.

And we're just two authors. Imagine doing this with a hundred authors. Your own imprint, selling books the chains don't sell, signed copies that Amazon doesn't sell, for a higher profit margin than you get anywhere else.

5. Ebooks. Google Books has been underwhelming so far. But the ABA is a powerful group, and certainly this coalition can get a system in place to get the works of writers to their fans. Indies selling Indies. With the current retailers pretty much letting anyone publish anything, there is a window here for the ABA to hone the overwhelming sea of crap currently offered by other ebook retailers and to present a better Indie bookstore.

Imagine the Indiebound Indie-bestseller list. Indie recommendations. Indie book groups. Then you’ll be able to have virtual events. Internet booksignings using Autography to sign ebooks and Skype for the author talk. We've already partnered with OverDrive to get our books into libraries, and we're on every major (and minor) ebook platform.

Indie bookstores should have a platform. You're a smart, tough, dedicated group who loves to read. You don't need to wait for others to bring you into the fold. You can create your own ebook network.

When this happens, Joe and I will be the first in line to give you our work to sell.

Nobody wants to see the Indies disappear. There is a tremendous opportunity here, but it starts with taking the emotion out of how you view ebooks and looking at it with an eye to what customers want.

What they want hasn't changed. They want your advice about what books to read.

You just need to figure out how you can best serve them in this brave, new world.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tech Talk and the Active Ebook

Let's talk about technology, specifically in conjunction with media.

There are a few absolutes we can work with.

1. New formats and vehicles are invented that will replace old formats and vehicles.

I'm using the word "vehicle" as a term for the delivery of media, and I'm labeling "media" as content in the form of information or entertainment.

Media can be a novel, a song, a movie. It exists via various formats. A "format" is the form a medium takes.

A song's format can be on a cassette tape, vinyl, CD, mp3, wma, flac, etc.

The vehicle used to play the song depends on its format. We can listen to vinyl on a turntable stereo, mp3s on an iPhone, flac on a computer.

Often formats and vehicles compete with each other until one dominates (vinyl vs. cd, cd vs. mps, VHS vs. Beta, BluRay vs. HD DVD.)

When new formats and vehicles are created, they usually allow a user to enjoy experience media in a superior way over previous formats and vehicles.

The mp3 format allowed for compression of large digital files, which was needed because years ago memory was more expensive. These digital files could then be stored, traded, and many could be carried portably on an mp3 player.

2. As formats and vehicles improve, so does media.

Formats and vehicles often evolve in tandem. For example, as computers improve, software improves, which requires better computers, which allows for better software.

In the case of music, we now have lossless files, which sound better. These files can also carry data other than the music itself; cover art, song title, liner notes, lyrics.

DVD didn't just have a better picture than VHS, it also allowed for extras. Commentary. Alternate endings. Different cuts.

3D is changing movies and video games, taking them in new directions.

3. Prices drop.

This always happens. Once upon a time, a VCR was $1000 (in 1981 dollars) and a copy of Wrath of Khan would set you back $39.99 on VHS. Now you can get a DVD player new for $30 and Khan for $4.99. Or you can stream Khan on Netflix and only pay $9.99 a month for unlimited films.

As prices drop, more people leave their old formats and vehicles and adopt the new, superior ones. Eventually, the old formats and vehicles become niche markets, and the new tech becomes mainstream.

Until another tech takes over and restarts the cycle.

So what does this mean for books?

For hundreds years, the format and vehicle for novels was the bound book.

Then the ebook came along.

The ebook was different than many other new types of technology, because it required users to have both a format and a vehicle for their media.

Readers were used to buying a book and being able to read it. Now they needed special ereaders, and had to buy their media in a specific format.

But the superiority of the technology eventually won out, and now ebooks outsell print. As ereader prices come down, and the technology improves, more and more readers will adopt it.

Being able to hold a thousand books on a single device, adjust font size, and buy ebooks instantly, are just a few of many advantages ebooks have over print.

I have no doubt we'll see $99 ereaders by the holiday season.

Those paying attention to the publishing world may have heard that my upcoming Jack Daniels thriller, Stirred (co-written with Blake Crouch) is being published by the Thomas & Mercer imprint of Amazon.

Amazon is pricing it competitively at $2.99--something no other publisher will do. (In fact, I pulled my second Timecaster book from Berkley because they wouldn't work with me on lowering the ebook price.)

But if prices are coming down, and vehicles are getting better, what about my second rule of tech?

So far, ebooks are just text, which isn't an enhancement over print.

There have been a few efforts to blend video with text, but these require even more expensive vehicles ($500 iPads rather than $140 Kindles) so I don't see these being widely adopted anytime soon. Plus, I don't think a video/text hybrid is what draws people to books.

So I spent some time pulling a Steve Jobs. Instead of guessing what the future holds, I looked at what people are currently doing.

Jobs, as you know, paid attention when music fans began converting and trading mp3s. While the music industry tried to fight it, Jobs created a user-friendly portable device (the iPod) that played mp3s. As a result, a computer company is now the biggest music retailer in the world. All because he watched what fans are doing with music and gave them something to make it easier for them.

That made me look at at what readers are doing with books.

On sites like Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Shelfari, Goodreads, and Librarything, readers are running book groups, reviewing, recommending, sharing what they've read (and how much they've read), and discussing books.

When a book is very popular, readers are writing their own fan fiction.

Readers often contact the author, to ask questions, or say how much they enjoyed a book, or demand a sequel.

It's important to note that readers are doing these things independently, without the author or publisher prompting them. This is what readers enjoy doing with book, above and beyond reading it.

Which makes me ask: why aren't we giving readers what they want?

Enter the Active Ebook.

I'll make an admission. It kills me that my print books are still owned by publishers, who are pricing them too high and sticking it to me with poor royalties.

Because my agent reserved the "interactive multimedia" clause in my contracts, I've been salivating to come up with a way to release these on my own.

So I thought about enhanced ebooks like the Big 6 did. Maybe I'd add some video and audio. Maybe an mp3 director's commentary at the end of each chapter, explaining things about why I wrote it. Linkable footnotes, pictures, and maybe even some games like word search.

But that wasn't evolution. That wasn't Ebook 2.0.

I was missing something. Something big.

User aggregated content.

I've talked about this before. Google is a billion dollar company because they allow users to navigate websites that other people created.

YouTube is all content created by uploaders, for free.

Most of the big internet successes of the last decade were because of users adding to the site.

And as I explained above, users are eager to add content concerning books. The want to do reviews and recommendations and talk to authors and even write fan fic.

All of this happens outside of a book.

What if it happened inside of a book?

What if you don't join a social network to discuss books, but instead you joined a book that was a social network?

Here's how this scenario plays out in my head:

I'm on my ereader, and I get an electronic invitation from a trusted friend to buy Whiskey Sour by J.A. Konrath. It's only $2.99, and the description looks good. Not only that, but it has a community of 12,393 people, so there will be plenty to do.

I buy the book with the click of a button. But rather than begin reading right away, I message my friend who is also in the book, and we decide to join the 4:00pm Whiskey Sour Book Club. There are eight other people signed up for that time slot, and we can all read and discuss the book together. There is also a 3pm slot open, but that's for fast readers, and my speed is moderate at best. The 4pm is a moderate speed club.

Since 4pm isn't until later, I browse the Whiskey Sour Forum, and read a few reviews. I also join a chat session and meet two of the other readers who are in my 4pm Book Club. One of them is a bit abrasive, but the bot monitoring the chat session warns him, then kicks him off. Typing on my keyboard becomes tedious, so I plug in my headphones and we voice chat for a bit, talking about thrillers we liked.

Four o'clock rolls around. I'm in the kitchen, making a sandwich, but my ereader calls my home phone to remind me of the start time.

I read a few pages, enjoy them, then let the ebook read to me until the chapter ends. There are already two people in the bookclub forum, discussing what they read. I join in. Others enter, and my friend links to the FAQ and Author Notes on Chapter 1, which we all discuss.

Whiskey Sour has a full length, author-read commentary, where Konrath explains where, why, and how he wrote certain scenes.

Some of the group wants to continue, but I'm curious to listen to the mp3 commentary, so I beg off and decide to join the 6pm Club for Chapter 2.

The commentary is interesting. Konrath is an entertaining guy, says a lot of funny things. But I realize I'd enjoy it more after I finish, so I pop into the next book club.

Me and another guy read straight through and discuss the book all night, and when we finish I write a review of it in the forum and recommend it to my friends via my ereader. I also notice that Konrath is having a live chat tomorrow, and sign up for it.

The next morning, I find I can't get some of the characters out of my head, so I pop into the forum again and read some of the user created stories. These are fans who have written about the characters in Whiskey Sour. Most of them suck. Some aren't bad. Some are even as good as Konrath. I rate a few, recommend a few, and vote for the top five.

I watch TV for a bit, until a screen comes up saying it is chat time. I sync my ereader with my TV and watch Konrath's talking head as he fields a Skype chat. Several people express that they wanted a longer ending. Konrath says he's working on one, as well as three new chapters which will be inserted into Whiskey Sour at the end of the week.

"Hemingway said that a book is never finished, it's simply due," Konrath says. "But now, books no longer have to be finished. They can continue to grow and improve for as long as the writer is alive. And beyond."

He says that the new additions will be marked as such. People can read the original, or the new version.

I get on my ereader, and ask it to call me when the new material is uploaded. I also ask for updates when people respond to my forum comments, or vote on my review.

Then I finish listening to the audio commentary, pop into the forum to discuss it, and wind up text chatting with Konrath, who is talking about his latest book.

Sounds pretty good. I click on the link to buy it.

Sure beats surfing the internet and watching TV.


Okay, some of the tech isn't there yet. But most of it is.

The idea of a book as a community (which is basically what a website is) makes complete sense if you look at what readers are already doing.

I also love the idea of a book that never ends, where the author can keep adding to it. That may not be for everyone, but there are dozens of books I wish had been longer. Some authors (Stephen King's The Stand, David Morrell's The Totem, my Trapped) have put out different versions of the same book. But if King wrote an extra chapter to Salem's Lot, I'd be the first in line.

Instead of books simply being static text, this scenario allows them to become active. Alive. Growing. Readers continually generate content about books they're read, in dozens of places. Why not centralize all of that content in the one place it should be; within the book itself.

With an Active Ebook, you would have more than a novel. You'd have an ongoing, regenerating, constantly biggering community that brings fans together, encourages user aggregated content, and allows the author to reach a lot of readers at once.

A book could be its own, miniature website, self-contained on an ereader.

Or you could ignore all of that and just read the book normally.

Either way, isn't it worth your $2.99?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why You Won't Succeed

Ebooks aren't a straight path to fortune and fame. I never said they were.

But I have said, repeatedly, that writers are better off self-publishing than going through a legacy publisher. In the long run, you'll make more money, and sell more books.

However, I keep seeing writers making the same mistakes when it comes to self-pubbing. So here's a hot dose of reality to temper those dreams of vast riches.

Why You Won't Succeed As A Self-Published Ebook Writer

1. You're not self-publishing any ebooks. If you're a writer who would rather complain about ebooks, embrace the past, and spend all of your free time coming up with crummy arguments about why ebooks suck, congrats. You have fulfilled your own dim-witted prophecy, and you won't make a dime.

2. You expect instant success. This is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to find an audience. But you have a much better change finding it with an ebook, which has an infinite shelf life.

3. You tweak too much. It's smart to experiment with different covers, prices, and book descriptions. But there comes a point where you have to let it go, and write something else.

4. Your book sucks. Read your reviews. If you're averaging 3 stars or less, you need to take a closer look at your writing. Story problems, grammar errors, typos, poor formatting, and sloppy editing will make people avoid you.

5. You aren't promoting. For people to buy your book, they have to know it exists. With millions of ebook titles now available, you need to make folks aware of it, or remain mired in obscurity.

6. You're promoting too much. Spamming, constantly talking about your ebooks, tooting your own horn, and abusing Facebook, Twitter, and forums with nonstop blatant self promotion will turn folks away from you.

7. You're priced too high. Value has nothing to do with the cover price. it has to do with how much money the ebook makes. And lower prices sell many more copies and usually make more money.

8. Your cover sucks. If it looks homemade, you won't sell as many. Period.

9. You're a jerk. Try to avoid being an ass clown in public. A bad reputation will follow you around for years.

10. You haven't written enough. The more you write, the more you'll sell. This is all about shelf space. Have as much as possible.

So what does all of this mean?

If you treat this as a business, act professionally, and keep at it for the long haul, you'll do fine.

But many of you will give up before then. Which is fine. Have fun wallowing in bitterness and bemoaning the unfairness of the world. I'll happily sell my books to the readers you would have had if you'd tried harder.

Like this one:

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Guest Post by Stephen Leather

I became aware of Stephen Leather after hearing about his huge Kindle success on Amazon.co.uk. Naturally, I asked him to guest post and share his perspective on self-pubbing.

Here's Leather:

I stand in awe of Joe and his success selling eBooks. And I’m no slouch myself – I’ve sold more than 250,000 eBooks on Kindle alone since Christmas, almost all of them in the UK. (I’m sure you remember the UK – we’re the guys whose nuts you pulled out of the fire sixty-six years ago, for which many thanks!)

Joe is at the vanguard of ePublishing, shouting from the rooftops that traditional publishing is dead and the self-publishing is the way to go. Long live the revolution!

Is he right? You know, deep down I think he probably is, but I’ve just signed a new three-book deal with my UK publisher for close to $500,000. Could I make more money doing it myself? Yes, probably. So why don’t I? Here’s the thing. I love books. Real books. I always have. And one of the biggest kicks I get is to walk into a bookstore and see a shelf-full of my books. I’ve got more than twenty ‘real’ books in print so often I get a shelf to myself. And I get an even bigger kick if my 12-year-old daughter is with me and she can see for herself the results of Dad locking himself away on the laptop for hours on end. I never get the same kick when I see someone reading a Kindle. It’s just not the same. So I’ll be sticking with real books, for a while longer at least!

But for most writers, a traditional publishing deal just isn’t possible. It used to be that a writer could send his work off to pretty much any publishing house and someone there would read it. I came up through the ‘slush pile’ and so did most of the writers of my generation. But one by one the publishers stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts and agents became the new gatekeepers.

Literary agents in the UK are actually quite nice people, but they are a totally different animal in the US and I do understand the frustrations writers face when trying to get an agent in America. I’ve been writing for almost a quarter of a century and in all that time I’ve only met one decent human being working as a literary agent in the States – the rest have been horrible, self-centered, arrogant shits. Pardon my French. They seem to take pleasure in denying writers access to publishers and I for one hope take pleasure in the fact that the new ePublishing route cuts them out of the loop. Good riddance, hopefully.

So I do understand why so many writers are embracing Joe’s philosophy and turning to self-publishing eBooks. But there is one cold hard fact that I don’t seem to see anywhere on the blogs and forums devoted to ePublishing. You probably won’t like hearing it, especially if you are one of the new wave of “Indie” writers. But I’m going to say it anyway. Here goes. The vast majority of self-published eBooks are bad. Worse than bad. Awful. There, I’ve said it.

By “bad” I don’t just been badly formatted or lacking originality. I mean badly written. Bad punctuation. Clichéd descriptions. Clunky dialogue. And here’s the thing. When I hear “Indie” writers talking about their books, all they seem to talk about is how they go about marketing their work. How they blog, how they work their Facebook contacts, how they post on the forums. I never hear them talking about how they want to improve their craft. For most of the ones I come across it’s all about the selling. I get emails all the time from “Indie” writers asking me what the secret is to selling a lot of eBooks. I don’t get any asking how they can become better writers.

Here’s another home truth that I always used to tell wannabe writers. A good book will be published, eventually, by a traditional publishing house. A bad book almost certainly won’t be. The fact that Amazon and Smashwords have no quality controls in place mean that home truth no longer applies. Any book can be published. The floodgates have opened. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I think of writing a book as being akin to running a marathon. Anyone who finishes a marathon deserves kudos. It’s a long haul. It’s hard work. But just because you’ve run a marathon doesn’t mean you should be running at the Olympics.

If you have written a book then you deserve a pat on the back. Well done you. But just because you’ve written a book doesn’t mean it’s good enough to be published. And just because you’ve been published doesn’t mean that people will buy it. It seems to me that the rush to embrace self-publishing means that the quality of the work has become secondary to the marketing of it.

Every “Indie” writer now has a blog, mostly pale imitations of Joe’s, they have a Facebook presence which they use to constantly push their work, (a quarter of my Facebook “friends” are writers who do nothing other than post about their books) and they spend hours on the various eBook forums. It’s all about the marketing. They ask for other writers to tag their books, they get friends and family to post favorable reviews (it’s amazing how many self-published eBooks start of with half a dozen five-star reviews on Amazon, mostly from readers who have only ever reviewed the one book) and they share Tweets with other writers. Every “Indie” writer is following the same formula. Sell, sell, sell. The quality of the work seems to have got lost in the process.

A very wise friend once told me about the Rule Of Ten Thousand. Basically he took the view that it takes ten thousand hours to acquire any skill. That’s about how long it takes to learn a foreign language, or play the piano proficiently, or play pool expertly, or become a good poker player. It applies to almost everything (except maybe free-fall parachuting).

My first book was published, by Harper Collins, but by the time I had written it I had been working as a journalist for more than ten years and so had been writing for at last 10,000 hours. To be honest, I didn’t hit my stride until my fourth book.

Let’s say you write for two hours a day. That means you hit the 10,000 hours after 5,000 days, which is what, thirteen years? And yes, that’s probably how long it has taken most writers to reach the stage where they get published. Writing for the most part is a craft. A skill that has to be learned. Very few writers published the traditional way see their first book in print. It’s often their fifth or sixth that is good enough to be published. Jack Higgins famously wasn’t published until after he’d written more than a dozen novels and he didn’t achieve any real success until his 36th – The Eagle Has Landed.

EPublishing has removed that learning curve. Now any book can be published, no matter how awful. And I think that’s bad for writers. The one or two times I have suggested that a writer spend some time improving their craft I’ve had abuse heaped on me so these days I don’t bother saying anything. Yes, “Indie” writers need to sell their work, yes marketing is important, maybe vital, but let’s not let the medium become the message. My advice to any writer who has finished their first book is to relax, take a deep breath, and start the next one. Send your first novel out to every agent there is, and see what happens. You will probably be ignored, you might get a one-line rejection, but the fact is that if the book is good then it will be picked up. Eventually. And if you can’t get an agent, maybe consider that the book isn’t very good and make the next one better. And make the one after that even better.

Once you’ve done your ten thousand hours you can consider yourself a real writer and at that point you can go back and examine your early work. You’ll probably realize how much it can be improved, or maybe that it’s simply not publishable. And if after you’ve done your ten thousand hours you still haven’t got an agent or a publishing deal, then maybe you should think about self-publishing.

Even as I write this I can feel Joe at my shoulder saying ‘What about the money?’ Yes, I know that as a self-published writer you get to keep a bigger chunk of the profits. Yes I know that it’s ridiculous that the traditional publishers keep up to 85 per cent of the money they make from selling eBooks. Yes, it is a fact that you can get an eBook up within hours but a real books takes up to a year from delivery to being on the shelves. But for me at least, being a writer is about producing quality work. Work that I can be proud of. And that takes time and effort. I’m a better writer now than when I started because I have been traditionally published for more than twenty years. I really believe that if the Kindle had been around twenty years ago and I had rushed into self-publishing I would probably have made a lot of money but wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good a writer as I am. And for me, it’s the writing that matters.

Okay, that’s my ten cents worth. Now here’s the sales pitch. I’ve just put my book Nightfall up on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZCIN0I

Nightfall is an interesting one. It’s a real book, published by Hodder and Stoughton in the UK. I don’t have a US deal so I have the US eBook rights and am free to sell it myself. That means that an eBook that costs about ten bucks in the UK can be sold in the US for the Amazon minimum – 99 cents.

The hero is Jack Nightingale, a former cop turned private eye who discovers that he was adopted at birth and that his real father was a Satanist and that Nightingale’s soul has been sold to a devil, a devil who will come to claim it on his thirty-third birthday, just three weeks away. Think Angel Heart crossed with The Dresden Files with a bit of Constantine thrown in and you won’t go far wrong

Oh, don’t give me any grief about the cover – my daughter designed it for me and I love it!

Joe sez: I've said it time and again: Don't Write Shit.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to know if you've written shit or not, because you're too close to the material.

In the past, the gatekeepers (agents, editors) vetted manuscripts and screened out the majority of the shit. Up until last year, I believed this was a necessary part of the process.

Then I realized that the self-publishing revolution has gatekeepers in place. They're called readers.

Most readers don't have the experience of industry pros, and may not be very helpful in their critiques. But they do vote with their dollars, and a wise author should pay attention to reviews that say similar things (I hated the hero, the writing is repetitive, this needs an editor, etc.).

Writers like me and Stephen have spent years honing our craft. Many indie writers self-pub their first novel, and it's doubtful they spent 10,000 hours on it. As unfair as the old gatekeeping system was, it did force writers to improve, and those who were accepted were battle-tested and reached a minimum quality standard. If the Kindle had been around when I wrote my first book back in 1988, I would have self-pubbed it, and it would have been a big mistake. That book simply wasn't good enough.

But that legacy system also rejected some good books I'd written--books that I've gone on to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars on.

So my overall opinion of the legacy gatekeeping system is that it can blow me. Those traditional gatekeepers aren't almighty differentiators between good and bad. They're ordinary people, and they make a lot of mistakes.

We're better off without them. But that isn't an excuse to write shit.

I've said for years that all writers need to have goals. One of Leather's goals is to see his books in bookstores. He places more value on this than higher profits, and that's fine.

Personally, I've had my fill of seeing my books on the shelf (especially since I know 50% or more will likely be returned), and I feel that the majority of bookstores will be gone in a few years, so those who pursue this goal had better be quick about it.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same thing it always has: write good books.

Once you do that, you can decide which path to publication to pursue. The fact that we have a choice, for the first time ever, is a wonderful thing. Don't take it lightly.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Guest Post by Scott Sigler

I've never met Scott Sigler, but he and I are often mentioned in the same breath when people talk about self-publishing success stories. His route was different than mine and... well, I'll just let him tell it. Here's Scott:

Back in 2008 I had a Big Idea (I’m making air-quotes with my fingers here, folks ... a “Big Idea”). At the time, I thought this idea was so disruptive that it would impact traditional publishing. Turns out an entirely new phenomena cropped up to impact both my Big Idea and Big Publishing, a phenomena that has changed both forever.

If you want to read about my writing background and how I built an audience, I’ll put it near the bottom of the article. But first, my Big Idea: a self-published, high-end collectible hardcover, pre-sold to raise capital prior to printing.

I give away all of my stories as free, serialized audiobook podcasts at scottsigler.com and at podiobooks.com. I’ve been doing that consistently since 2005, so I’ve built a good-sized online audience. I thought that if I could get 10 percent of my 10,000-odd weekly listeners to buy a self-published print book, I could make some scratch.

If you want to self-publish, that’s easy enough to do with trade paperback POD. If you want hardcover, it’s not so easy, and if you want high-quality, collector’s edition hardcovers, it’s going to cost you. POD for that kind of book makes the price points ridiculously high. To do it right (and to actually have product cost low enough for a real profit margin), you need to do an actual print run. I didn’t have the capital to do book of that caliber, but I knew where I could get it.

From my fans.

This was 2008. The eBook craze was just a blip on the radar for all but the truly prophetic. Some guy named “Konrath” was jabbering how he was going to make all this money. Blah-blah-blah. Sure, Konrath, go crazy with your “eBooks” — like that’s ever going to catch on.

I partnered with a PMP-certified Project Manager named AB Kovacs who runs a successful logistics management company in San Diego, CA. I had the marketing and content, she had the management and planning skill set — together we formed Dark Øverlord Media and decided to melt faces.

We set a goal to sell 600 pre-orders of a signed, numbered, limited-edition $34.95 hardcover, which would generate a $21,000 budget for cover art, interior layout and hard cover print run of 3,000 copies. If I could sell those 600 books, I would have no out-of-pocket overhead. Everything beyond the 600 copies? Step 5: profit.

At the time of our first book together, I already had two hardcovers, INFECTED and CONTAGIOUS, out for Crown Publishing, a division of Random House. Crown wasn’t interested in my scifi/crime/sports book called THE ROOKIE. I describe it as “Star Wars” meets “The Blindside” meets “The Godfather.” You can see how that might not fit into their thriller-based marketing strategy.

So, A and I used THE ROOKIE to test out our theory. We launched our pre-order of THE ROOKIE on April 25, 2009. Despite a server crash due to unexpected demand, we hit our 600-copy goal in the first three hours, thanks mostly to die hard fans who hustled to get the lowest possible number. Huzzah! We covered our costs!

Eighteen days after launch, we pre-sold copy number 1,000.

Dark Øverlord Media had made a profit on our first book. Well, what the hell, let’s do it again! We repeated the process on April 1, 2010 with the next book in the series, THE STARTER. That time out, it took only ninety minutes to sell the six hundred copies. We reached the 1,000 copy mark in just eight days.

We also crashed the server — again. That cost us money, as some people didn’t come back. It damaged our brand. What was funny the first time around now annoyed our customers. Unacceptable.

Late in 2010, we launched eBooks for both THE ROOKIE and THE STARTER. We’re also selling audiobooks for both. Combined with the hardcovers, we had too many products to manage on our site. We partnered with BackMyBook.com. Their e-commerce platform now handles all the product sales on our site, both for physical items and for digital downloads. BackMyBook.com helps track our inventory, fulfill orders, and handles the big file transfers needed for the audiobooks. While it’s great to make 70% selling an eBook from the Kindle store, it’s even better to make 90% selling that same book from our own site.

Even as eBooks are blowing up the market, it seems our fans still want these special hardcovers. Just a few weeks ago, on April 1, 2011, we launched the pre-order for the third book in the series, THE ALL-PRO. On our third try, we sold 600 books in just under one hour, and the first 1,000 in just three days.

To reach our primary goal of 1,000 copies, we cut the time from Book One to Book Two in half, then halved it again from Book Two to Book Three. The model works, y’all.

Oh, and this time? The server didn’t crash. Thanks, BackMyBook.com!

Now, this may all sound like a movie that should be titled Happy Times in the Candy Land of Magic Publishing, but it’s not that easy. We still manage a 3,000 copy print run. This is not POD, but an offset print run through RR Donnelley & Sons. The books ship from North Carolina to a rented warehouse in San Diego, where I sign every single book. Then A and I number, package, and ship approximately 1,500 hardcovers. We put the remaining 1,500 copies into a smaller warehouse, then manage inventory and shipping until those sell out.


It was fine and dandy for me to sell my 1,000 books, but what would have happened had a Stephen King or Stephanie Meyers done that? Imagine Meyers puts out a collection of Twilight short stories. She partners with web-savvy folks like BackMyBook to handle the pre-order, hires people to do production, but she controls a direct sale to the end reader. Say instead of a 15 percent royalty, she shifts into a 70 percent profit margin. She would sell, comfortably, 200,000 copies in the first day. That’s $250,000 at $34.95, a first day gross of $700,000 (shipping is paid by the customer, or course). She brings the money in up front, her project managers use it to pay staff and manufacturing. Of course there are plenty of costs involved, but sooner or later the 70 percent profit margin is going to whoop ass on the 15 percent royalty, no matter what the advance.

Because of the internet’s ability to allow authors to sell directly to the end reader, I thought that if big-timers adopted this pre-order they would have little need for a Big Publisher. If Stephen King puts out one short story collection a year, sells it directly online, he makes an extra million. Or two. Probably three. Oh, right, like his publisher is going to slap his hand and say “No, Stevie, you can not put out your own book!”

Maybe the model will be disruptive in the future, if big-timers want to manage their own process, but more than likely it won’t — not when they can do the same thing with an eBook and avoid all of the physical costs.


All of this hardcover stuff is a grand old time, but we now define inventory as a curse word. We dream of a day where our inventory is nothing but ones, zeroes, and possibly print-on-demand paperbacks. We’re going to keep the hardcovers as a special, in-the-know item for the fans that really love the series.

We are happily watching people like Konrath, Amanda Hocking and Jeremy Robinson and plotting to follow in their footsteps. THE ROOKIE and THE STARTER are now available as eBooks, priced at $2.99. They’re available in the Kindle Store, BN.com, Sony’s eBook store, Apple’s iBooks store, and directly from us at scottsigler.com/gfl (at our website they are available for all eBook formats, because that’s how you bake a pie, people).

We only have these two eBooks right now, and I think that hurts our ability to make each title rank higher in their respective stores. We’re not getting a multi-title multiplier, if you will. THE ALL-PRO hits the eBook market on September 6 of this year, probably for $4.99. We also have a short story collection, BLOOD IS RED, hitting for 99 cents this week on Mother’s Day (because it’s One Bad Mutha of a book, you see). By the end of 2011, we hope to have five eBooks. We’ll see if that impacts the individual success of each book.


Yes. In fact, right now we’re podcasting THE STARTER, unabridged, for free. I’ve been podcasting since 2005; it’s something my fans have come to count on. We’ve refined the process so that instead of recording an episode each week, I record the book all at once. And even though we give it away, we also sell the unabridged audiobook as a digital download ($19.95). More ones and zeros, sitting there making us money whenever a customer wants to hear the whole thing all at once. It happens every day.

If you hear only one thing in this rambling blog, hear this — we give all the stories away for free, and people still buy them. There is something to be said for having the confidence that your storytelling and production chops are just that bad-ass, then letting the customer decide if the content merits their money. We don’t hold content hostage.


Probably. The fans love them. We crank up the collector’s value with sixteen-page color inserts and bonus content you can’t get in the free podcasts. The annual April 1 pre-order anchors our process and gives us clear goals to keep producing content. The pre-order process drives our eBook, audiobook, and podcast — if we get the hardcover done correctly and on time, everything else will fall into place.

But, high-quality hardcovers are a ton of work. We need the big print run to drive per-unit costs down to $8 or less (not counting the labor of A and I), which is the only way the process makes financial sense.


Like most authors, I spent years in the trenches trying to attract the attention of Big Publishing. My agent at the time, Joshua Blimes, worked his butt off but we just couldn’t find the right fit. I kept writing and editing, and racked up four novels of 120,000+ words as well as dozens of short stories. Oh, and racked up rejection letters: I had a goal to collect 100 rejection letters. I defined that effort as the price of proving to myself I was in this game for good.

We eventually landed a deal with an imprint of AOL/TimeWarner to publish my thriller EARTHCORE. The book was due out as a mass market paperback in May of 2002, I believe. The 9/11 recession, however, killed that dream — AOL/TimeWarner scrapped everything that wasn’t already profitable. That included my book, just weeks before it would have hit the printing presses. Imprint scrapped, book deal gone, back to square one.

Joshua worked to land a new deal, but it didn’t happen. In February, 2005, I read of this newfangled thing called “podcasting.” I learned how to record and create an RSS feed. In March 2005, I was one of the first people to put out a “podcast novel.” EARTHCORE had already been professionally edited, so I released it as a weekly, serialized audiobook.

The book quickly attracted a big following. I finished the EARTHCORE podcast in August 2005, then quickly rolled into my next podcast novel, ANCESTOR. I landed a two-book print deal with an indie publisher, Dragon Moon Press, who put out EARTHCORE in trade paperback in 2006.

In 2007, I was on my fourth podcast novel when lightning struck. I had a new agent, Byrd Leavell of the Waxman Agency. Byrd was circulating my novel INFECTED to New York publishers. On April 1, 2007, I published ANCESTOR in trade paperback with Dragon Moon Press. The book hit #1 on Amazon.com’s SciFi and Horror charts, and was #2 overall in fiction. It only held those numbers for a couple of days, but it was #1, right when several publishers were considering INFECTED. INFECTED went to auction, and I wound up with a three-book deal with Crown Publishing.

Two weeks later, Rogue Pictures optioned INFECTED. A book deal! A movie option! Holy crap! But wait, there’s more ...

Crown was very excited about my potential, so the brass decided they needed to control the Sigler brand. They bought up the rights to EARTHCORE and ANCESTOR. A three-book deal became a five-book deal.

At the time, I had hit the jackpot. A five-book, hardcover deal with one of the bigs. It’s been a great ride with Crown and I love working with them, but the one thing I didn’t think about at the time was the deal tied me up for at least five years, probably more like seven.

The movie didn’t get made, the option expired. And my, how publishing has changed since 2007.

So, I’m still happily putting out books with Crown. I’m also happily putting out my own books: hardcover, downloadable audio, and eBook. By 2013, I’ll be done with Crown’s five-book deal. At that time, I estimate Dark Øverlord Media will have ten or more full-length eBooks of our own in all the stores. We’ll see if I sign with a traditional publisher, or decide that we’re just better off doing our own thing and selling straight to the end-reader.

Joe sez: There's a lot to like about Scott's story.

The first is his dogged determination. He refused to give up, even when getting repeatedly knocked down.

The second is his innovation. He saw an opportunity with podcasts, and he went for it.

Show me someone with an open mind who refuses to ever say die, and I'll show you someone making a lot of money.

I've been giving away ebooks for six years, and had the same experience as Scott: free leads to sales. Not to turn this into a talk about piracy, but I've always believed that the more readers you have, the more money you'll make, whether those readers pay you or not.

Remember the 10,000 Hours I talked about last blog? Scott put in his time. Now he's reaping the benefits.

Currently on Amazon, in the Horror category, the Number 1 ebook is Sigler's Blood is Red.

It amuses me to no end that #2 is Run by my writing partner Blake Crouch, and #3 is Trapped by some guy named Jack Kilborn.

It gets better. All top 8 horror bestsellers are indie. Indie authors are outselling King, Koontz, and Harris.

Even more amusing is that combined, Blake and I have 14 of the top 100 horror books on Amazon. Not just Kindle ebooks--but ALL books, including hardcover and paperback. And 46 of the Top 100 are self-published by indie authors.

The revolution hasn't just begun. It's pretty clear we're going to win.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

What Works: Promo for Ebooks

I get bombarded by email, mostly from people either thanking me or asking me for something, and I simply can't respond to everyone. If you've emailed me and not gotten a reply, it's because I need an assistant, not because I hate you.

That said, one reoccurring question seems to be: "I've got an ebook, now what can I do to make sure it sells a lot of copies?"

The bare-bones answer: There's nothing you can do to guarantee a lot of sales.

Sales involve luck. Luck is all about random chance, which can't be predicted or planned for. There is no magic bullet for generating big sales.

But... there are a few truisms I've discovered.

1. Sales Fluctuate. What is your best seller this month may drop off next month and may again be your bestseller two years from now. Ebooks are forever, and forever is a long time for a book to find its audience. Don't sweat it. Don't panic. This is like surfing. Waves may die, but new waves always come along.

2. Remember the Four. I've noticed the books that sell best seem to be professional looking (covers, formatting, editing), have low prices, good product descriptions, and are well-written. Don't put up anything less than terrific on all counts.

3. The More the Merrier. The more books you have for sale, and the more you keep adding to your virtual shelf-space, the better you'll do. Right now I have 40 ebooks available. That's a lot of ways to be discovered. And once discovered, it's a lot of titles to sell to fans.

4. Exploit All Platforms. Kindle is still King, but remember to upload your books to Createspace, B&N, Smashwords, and Overdrive (more on Overdrive in an upcoming blog post.)

5. Practice Makes Perfect. I'm currently reading a book that was recommended to me by my buddy Henry Perez, called Outliers: The Story of Success. It mentions the 10,000 Hour Rule. In short, no one becomes an expert at something without having invested 10,000 hours in it.

I found it interesting to apply this to my career. It took me twelve years to become published. While holding down a fulltime job, I still managed to write over a million words during that time--roughly 15 to 20 hours a week. Guess what? That's 10,000 hours.

Since being published in 2004, I've been writing fulltime. But the majority of my job has always been promoting my work, not the writing itself. It wasn't unusual (and still isn't) for me to work 60 hours a week.

Guess what? In order to reach the point where I understood the opportunities that ebooks presented, and was able to capitalize on that opportunity, I'd put in another 10,000 hours learning how the publishing industry worked.

So according to the 10,000 Hour Rule, I'm a dual outlier, in both writing and self-promotion.

In other words: if you aren't a raging ebooks success yet, keep at it. You may not have put in enough time yet.

Now what does this all mean to you?

While none of the above guarantee success, if you're doing them all you're maximizing your chances for success. But success STILL involves chance.

Chance. Luck. Randomness. We hate these things, because we want to be in control of our careers. We want to believe that working hard will make us winners.

That isn't necessarily true. But working hard can improve your odds at success.

Years ago, when I was more known for my self-promotion techniques than I was for ebooks, I used to always caution that the things I tried did not guarantee I'd become a bestseller. All they guaranteed was that I'd sell more books than if I hadn't done anything at all.

All promotion results are twofold. First, there are the tangible results of a marketing effort, which are usually calculated by immediate sales. But there is a secondary result that is tougher to gauge. Much of what we do to promote our work is intangible.

In other words, we may not know that what we're doing is working, until later. Sometimes years later.

My first novel, Whiskey Sour, is still selling strongly after 8 years. I attribute this to the massive amount of work I did in the past. I visited over 1200 bookstores. I signed tens of thousands of autographs. (Hell, I wrote the definitive article on how to do booksignings.) I traveled to 40 states, met countless librarians and fans and booksellers.

I began blogging in 2005. I gave away ebooks that same year. I was one of the first authors to use MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to promote my work. I did a mass mailing to 7000 libraries. I amassed a newsletter list of 10,000 names. I've gone to scores of conventions, conferences, and book fairs.

As a result, my books are all still in print, while many of my peers are out of print. (A cruel irony, since right now I'd pay big money for my books to go out of print so I could get the rights back.)

My efforts didn't turn my early books into bestsellers, even though I did more to promote them than just about any other author who ever lived.

But I did sell some books.

These days, I no longer do signings. I don't speak at libraries, or visit conventions. For years, I talked about having a one-on-one interaction with fans, and now I don't answer my email. I used to scramble to get interviews, now I turn them down.

In 2011, the game has changed, and so have the rules.

So what are the new rules?

Here are my thoughts. Again, none of these will guarantee huge sales. And none of them work all the time for all books. But doing these things will help to sell more books than doing nothing at all, and I've found them to be the best use of my time.

1. Use Your Fans. Blake Crouch and I have done well by sending free advance ebooks to fans we've got on our mailing lists, or found on Goodreads.com. Offering a freebie in exchange for an honest review seems to work well.

2. Social Network. Being active on Twitter and Facebook beats not being active. But remember it is about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell. No one likes ads, or being sold.

3. Change Your Price. I've become a fan of putting ebooks on sale. The more books you have available, the easier this is to do without hurting your pocketbook. Keep in mind that you may not see instant results.

4. Write More. The best advertisement for your writing is your writing. The larger your virtual shelf space, the more you'll be discovered.

5. Diversify and Experiment. I've had as many failures as successes. Though my ebooks Trapped and Origin continue to sell hundreds per day, I've got other ebook titles that only sell a hundred per month. I have no idea why some sell better than others, but I'm continuing to explore new genres and experiment with formats.

My worst selling novel on Kindle is Banana Hammock, a humorous Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type of interactive narrative. I think it's funny as hell, and perfectly suited for ereaders.

Oddly enough, it is one of my bestsellers on OverDrive for the library market. Go fig.

If your sales are in the gutter, switch genres. Get a pen name. Try something different. Play with the cover art and product description. Switch the category label. There is no surefire path to success, but if you want to hit a home run, you gotta swing at everything.

6. Use Your Peers. Do guest blogs. Trade back matter excerpts. Review each other. Buy each other. Support one another. We're all in the same boat, and we all need to row.

(My latest novel Flee is now available on Smashwords, Amazon, Nook, and the Apple iBookstore for just $2.99.)

7. Prioritize It. In my never-ending quest to get into Bartlett's Familar Quotations (there's a quote list at the end of this blog post) I've coined yet another axiom that I invite all to retweet:

"Don't prioritize the mundane."

By mundane I mean routine and ordinary.

If you want to have extraordinary sales, it means devoting an extraordinary amount of time to it. That means sacrificing other aspects of your life, like leisure, sleep, and family.

If you don't want to give up Netflix, or miss your kid's baseball game, or get out of bed at 4am, that's fine. It's your life, and you decide what is important.

But while you may win Dad of the Year, never have bags under your eyes, and be able to quote every episode of Seinfeld, you probably won't ever sell 1000 ebook a day, either.

I realize these rules aren't what writers want to hear. A writer would much rather be told, "Tweet your Kindle URL three times a day for three weeks, and you'll sell 15,000 copies." That just isn't how this works.

In fact, doing that could actually harm you. In that spirit, here are some things that I don't believe work.

1. Advertising. Joe's First Rule of Marketing is: Only do things that work on you.

I have never bought an ebook because I saw a Facebook ad, a Google ad, a print ad, or any kind of ad. Ditto postcards, bookmarks, or any sort of handout.

I've never heard of an ad campaign for a book that paid for itself.

I've never met any writer truly satisfied with the results of advertising, but have met many who aren't.

Those who wish to sell you ad space will tell you that ads are meant to announce releases or inform potential fans, and have intangible effects that reinforce brands.

That's fine. But I'm not paying $500, let alone $5000, for intangible effects. I get plenty of intangible effects on my own, for free. If I don't see an immediate sales bump, I'm unimpressed.

I feel the same way about publicists. I've met some terrific publicists who do exactly what they say they'll do: get you publicity. Radio interviews, newspaper and magazine coverage, and press releases are all well and good, but guess what? I've been featured in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The LA Times, and many others. I've watch my sales while this happened, and didn't notice any appreciable uptick.

Odd, isn't it? Being on the front page of the LA Times, and not seeing a huge boost in sales?

How many publicists would be able to land you on the front page? How much would they charge?

Are you sure you want to pay for publicity?

You can see the effects for yourself. Tomorrow, I'm mentioned twice in a long ebook article in the Washington Post. Watch my Kindle rankings. See if they change dramatically.

Here's what I'd like to see with publicists and advertisers. I believe their purpose should be to sell books, not sell the writer their services. So offer to pay them a percentage of every sale that can be directly linked to their campaign.

I doubt you'll find any takers.

And let me state here that I don't doubt that ads and publicity have intangible, long-term benefits, and even some tangible short-term ones. I'm sure they do sell some books.

But in order for me to be behind them, I need to be shown they can sell enough to at least cover their own cost.

2. Appearances. I used to evangelize public appearances, and would speak at every opportunity I could. These appearances undeniably had value, both tangible and intangible. I sold books while there, and sold books after I'd left, for sure.

But I never sold enough to justify the cost of travel, or the time it took away from my writing.

These days, I get offered decent money to speak. But being flown to Texas, or Italy, is a minimum of three days lost to me. Even being paid $5k or more for an appearance, my hatred of travel, and the burnout I still feel from giving so many talks, panels, and lectures, does not make it worthwhile. So I quit cold turkey.

And my sales have increased.

Now it could be said that perhaps my sales would have increased even more had I kept up with appearances, but if you look at the biggest sellers in both print (King, Patterson, Rowling) and ebook (Hocking, Locke) you'll notice that they do very few public appearances.

I've eased up a bit on my moratorium. Amazon is bringing me to BEA (I'll be wearing a tee shirt will a bulls-eye on it) and OverDrive asked me to be the keynote at Digipalooza, which I agreed to because I'm pretty sure ebook lending at libraries is going to be the next big thing.

But in these cases, the main reason I'm going is to meet the people I'm working with, as face-to-face time at the bar is great for cementing relationships. Meeting fans is secondary, though I'll do my best to dazzle those I encounter.

The conference/library/bookfair/book touring circuit I've embraced in the past helped me sell a lot of books, though not in proportion to the time and money I spent traveling.

But until Autography becomes fully implemented and organizers begin catering to the ebook crowds, appearances have little value for self-pubbed authors.

3. Spam. Spam comes in all flavors these days. You can spam via email, via Twitter and Facebook, via Goodreads, Library Journal, Shelfari, via forums, via blog comments.

As mentioned earlier, no one likes being sold. Especially hard sells, repeated again and again and again.

It's a fine line to walk between blatantly tooting your own horn and informing those that want your message. So tread carefully.

Have a mailing list and make sure it is opt in/opt out. I use www.ymlp.com. When you use Twitter or Facebook, make sure links to your books are vastly outnumbered by content. Content, as you know, is information and entertainment, not spam.

Building relationships online is about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell. This blog wouldn't be popular if it was about me trying to sell my shit. Surf through a few dozen of my past entries, and see how many are about me offering information, vs. me trying to sell my books. Even though people come here of their free will, I could easily lose readers if I began to spam my own blog with constant self-promotion.

Occasionally it's okay. But out of the 600+ blog posts I've written (over 500,000 words) I doubt there are more than 30 that are dedicated to me selling my ebooks. The rest are content, which is why people keep coming back.


I fully believe that the ultimate reason I'm selling so many ebooks is because I got lucky.

I was able to improve my odds by being a good writer, being prolific, being professional, and learning a lot about writing and promotion. But it still came down to luck.

Ultimately, there isn't anything we can do to guarantee success.

However, as I'm fond of saying, being "successful" isn't a good goal.

Goals should be within your control. "I want to hit the Top 100" or "I'm going to sell 10,000 ebooks by June" are not goals. Those are dreams.

Goals are "I'll have three books up on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords by September" or "I'll be active on Facebook and Twitter until I get 5000 friends each." Those are within your control, and worthy pursuits.

Everyone needs to stop worrying about things they have no control over, and focus instead on the things they can control. Write well. Be professional. Experiment. Learn from mistakes. Keep an open mind.

There are no longer any gatekeepers. But that doesn't mean being a writer has gotten easier.

You want the real secret for success? Work your ass off until you succeed, no matter how long it takes.

Konrath Motivational Quotes

There's a word for a writer who never gives up... published.

Denial is a powerful opiate.

If you're selling eggs, don't piss off your chickens

Ebooks are forever, and forever is a long time.

When you're learning how to walk, you don't take classes. You don't read how-to books. You don't pay experts to help you, or do it for you. You just keep falling until you learn on your own.

Before you make the key, study the lock.

People would rather fight to the death to defend their beliefs than consider changing their minds.

It's about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell.

You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than becoming successful in this biz. But if you really want to get hit by lightning, you can improve your odds.

No one is entitled to anything.

What are the last ten books you bought, and what made you buy them? Use those techniques to sell your books to other people. Do what works on you.

Hard work trumps talent. Persistence trumps inspiration. Humility trumps ego.

Praise is like candy. We love it, but it isn't good for us. You can only improve by being told what's wrong.

Your book is your child. You can't recognize its shortcomings, any more than a proud parent can consider their child dumb and ugly.

The experts don't know everything, and they might not know what's right for you.

Fate is a future you didn't try hard enough to change.

Anyone looking for you can find you. Get them to find you when they're looking for something else.

Life gives you wonderful opportunities to conquer fears, learn skills, and master techniques. "I can't" shouldn't be synonymous with "I don't want to."

People seek out two things: information and entertainment. Offer them freely, and they'll come to you.

The Internet isn't temporary. What you post today can lead people to you decades from now.

Writing is a profession. Act professional.

No one said it would be fair, fun, or easy. But it can be worthwhile.

We're all in the same boat. Start rowing.

If you can quit, quit. If you can't quit, stop complaining--this is what you chose.

There are a lot of things that happen beyond your control. Your goals should be within your control.

Just because something is publishable doesn't mean it will get published. Just because something is published doesn't mean it will do well.

Write when you can. Finish what your start. Edit what you finish. Self-publish. Repeat.

The most successful people on the planet have one thing in common: nothing can stop them. Don't expect to reach your goals without sacrificing things that are important to you. You can't be both happy and ambitious.

Being your own best advocate is about understanding how people react to you.

Fake confidence, and real confidence follows.

Maybe you can't win. But you sure as hell can try.

Always have two hands reaching out. One, for your next goal. The other, to help people get to where you're at.

If you can't be smart or funny, be brief.

If you're not in love with the sound of your own voice, how can you expect anyone else to ever be?

Knowing you're not original is the first step in becoming unique.

There's a word for a self-published writer who never gives up... rich.