Monday, March 08, 2010

Whoa There, Ebook Writer

If you've been reading my blog lately, you know I've sold over 30,000 self-published ebooks on Kindle. Today it's 9:15am on March 8, and I've already sold 1322 ebooks this month.

I've gone from paying my mortgage every month on Kindle ebooks, to paying almost all of my monthly bills.

Numbers don't lie. But numbers also mean very little until significance is attached to them. It's easy to misinterpret my numbers and draw hasty conclusions.

Let's look at some truths, followed by some misconceptions.

1. More people are buying ereaders and ebooks. And the number will keep going up and up. This is true. While no one knows if ereaders will ever reach the same saturation as iPod or BluRay, it's safe to assume that as time goes on, ereaders will become better, cheaper, and more adopted by the general public.

2. Cheaper books sell better than expensive books. I'm frankly shocked not a single big publisher has released an ebook for $2.99. Value isn't about list price and royalty percentage. The true value of a book should be how much it earns in royalties. And selling 10,000 copies of a $1.99 book earns more than selling 1500 copies of a $9.99 book.

3. Ebooks make it easier for writers to reach readers. This is very true. Agents and editors--once gatekeepers, blessing the few with publication and snubbing the masses as inferior--are no longer as relevant as they once were, and unless they adapt, their relevance will continue to diminish.

4. Joe Konrath is doing well selling ebooks. And he's going to do even better as time goes on.

So far, everything I've said is true and hard to argue against. But if the amount of emails I've been getting lately is any indicator, many writers are drawing on these four facts and tailoring them to fit their individual dreams.

1. Writers no longer need an agent. Easy there, Smokey. I never said that. I never even hinted at that. Right now, in March of 2010, agents are essential if you want to be a full time fiction writer. Yes, they shop manuscripts to publishers, but they also do a lot more than that. First and foremost, they do have a pretty good instinct for vetting manuscripts, and separating the wheat from the chaff. If your manuscript isn't good enough to land an agent, how can you be sure it's good enough to be a successful self-published ebook?

2. Writers no longer need publishers. Right now I've got 12 ebooks and story collections on Kindle, and by the end of the year I'll make over $40k. But I made over $40k on Whiskey Sour, my first novel, by signing with a large publisher. Print is still the way to make the most money and reach the most readers. I don't see that going away anytime soon.

3. Print publishing is impossible to break into, so don't even bother. Wrong. You should try. You should try very hard. There is no reward in success without failure coming first. Sending out queries and getting rejections are more than rites of passage. They're learning experiences. And for fiction writers, I believe they're essential learning experiences to have.

4. I can sell a lot of ebooks like Joe Konrath. That's the seductive thing about numbers. You look at them and think, "I can do that too." Well, maybe you can. But chances are, you can't. No offense meant. You might be a better writer than I am. You might be a better marketer. But I'm pretty lucky to have these numbers. I also have a pretty solid platform I've built up over the last eight years.

Here's my advice: Keep aiming high.

As a fiction writer, your goal should be to find a great agent who can sell your book to a great publisher.

If you can't find an agent, perhaps you should rewrite the manuscript. Or begin working on the next one.

If you find an agent, but can't find a publisher, you can consider self-publishing on Kindle. But keep in mind all that entails. You'll have to edit, format, find cover art, learn simple HTML to upload your file, write a cover description, and then get the word out, all with no guarantee you'll sell more than a few dozen copies a month. Also, many editors will consider a book self-published on Kindle to already be published, and they only want first rights. By leaping immediately to Kindle, you might be forgoing a print deal later on.

Q: I've got a book I know is great, but I could never find an agent. Should I self-publish on Kindle?

A: If it's your first book, I'd say no. Sit on it for a few months and write a second book. First books are never as good as we think they are, and self-publishing a book that isn't your best can hurt your career.

Q: I have a bunch of short stories. Should I self-publish those on Kindle?

A: If you've already sold them, yes. If they're stories you never even tried to submit to magazines or anthologies, I'd try to submit to magazines and anthologies. If they've been rejected a bunch of times, maybe there's a reason for that.

Q: I wrote a novella. There are no markets for novellas. Should I self-publish on Kindle?

A: Has the novella been workshopped with a writers group? Has it been written, rewritten, rewritten, edited, and polished? Then my answer is; maybe. Though you should consider making it book length, or trimming it to short story length, and pursuing print either way.

Q: You've always touted self-publishing, Joe. Why are you changing your opinion?

A: I've never advocated self-publishing. I've advocated ebooks. And I think traditional publishers are missing the boat on ebooks, so I'm doing it myself. But I didn't become a writer so I could spend my time formatting, working with cover artists, uploading constant corrections, fiddling with product descriptions, and pimping myself on message boards. I became a writer to write. I'd much rather just write the books, and leave everything else to a savvy publisher.

In other words, writing is a job. Self-publishing your writing is two jobs. I'd rather just have one job.

Q: Now that Kindle is adopting the agency model with a 70% royalty, and Apple is opening an iBook store, shouldn't I get in on this now before the market is flooded with shit?

A: Maybe. If you have an out of print backlist. If you have an agent with books she hasn't been able to sell. If you're a published author with some shelf novels. Then yes, you should get on Kindle and iPad and Nook and Sony and everyplace else that comes up.

But if you're a newbie author who hasn't even finished your first novel yet and is already designing the cover art, perhaps you need to slow down a bit.

I'm not out to crush anyone's dreams here. But writing a good book is hard to do, and not everyone can do it. There's a learning curve. We're all eager to get read. We all want to get published. But before you let the hard-to-please masses read your work, you really have to make sure it's good enough. Readers don't care about you, or your dreams, or how hard you worked on a book. They want to be entertained. Period. If they buy your book and don't like it, they'll let you and others know.

You wouldn't buy your first saxaphone, practice for a month, then go audition for the Boston Pops. You'd spend a long time practicing and learning before you were good enough.

One one hand, authors being able to instantly reach readers without any gatekeepers is a fabulous thing.

On the other hand, too many authors may jump into this too quickly, without mastering their storytelling skills.

I know this for a fact. I've judged self-published book contests. It was awful.

If you really want my ebook sales, here's the only path I know to duplicate them.

1. Write 9 unpublished novels and get over 500 rejections.

2. Sign a six figure print deal.

3. Mail out 7000 letters to libraries, visit 1200 bookstores, and travel to 39 states speaking at writing conferences, conventions, and book fairs.

4. Write a blog that gets half a million hits per year.

5. Sign six more book deals.

6. Get one of your big print publishers to release an ebook for free.

7. Study the market so hard your spouse thinks you're crazy, then take your early rejected books, make sure they're perfect, and upload them to Kindle along with several short story collections and collaborations.

8. Cross your fingers.

That's the journey I took to get here. Your journey will be different. But no matter your path to success, I urge you not to cut corners. There is no shortcut to selling a lot of books, because books sell one at a time. Learn your craft, learn the business, work hard, try your best. That's the secret.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some writing to do...