Friday, April 09, 2010

Is Print a Subsidiary Right?

I'm having a crisis of faith lately.

On one hand, I'm an old school author. I got over five hundred rejections before landing a book deal. I've been preaching for years that the way to make a living being a writer is to get an agent, sell to a big publishing house, and self-promote like crazy. I've done book tours, have hundreds of thousands of books in print, and have spent many years teaching people what I've learned about breaking into this industry.

On the other hand, it looks like I'm going to earn more money self-pubbing on Kindle this year that I earned in six years on my first three print novels.

So I'm pretty conflicted about what advice to offer newbie authors.

By uploading my own ebooks to Kindle and Smashwords (which has deals with B&N, iPad, and Sony), I'm able to earn up to 70% royalty rates. My past sales, and the rate ebook popularity is growing, only points to bigger sales numbers in the future.

I've been lucky enough to make my living as a fiction writer since 2003. I've done everything I can to bigger my fansbase and brand--and my efforts have been extensive. Who else has visited 1200 bookstores? Who else has mailed our 7000 letters to libraries? Who else has blog toured on 100 different blogs in a single month?

And yet, all of my effort hasn't resulted in me appearing on the bestseller lists. I make a living, but I drive an old car, live in a townhouse, and my wife still works.

Then along comes this ebook thing.

I got onto Kindle as a form of self-promotion. My early, unpublished books were (and still are) on my website as free downloads. When some Kindlers emailed me, complaining their Kindles couldn't read pdf files, I uploaded them on Amazon. I couldn't give them away for free, so I priced them low, at $1.99, figurign they might help boost my print sales.

And now, Since April 8 of 2009, I've sold 36,000 ebooks. I'm selling over 1200 per week.

Crunching the numbers, I'll earn more on ebooks than I have in my entire print career, and I'll do it in a shorter amount of time.

All of my life, I've been struggling to break into print. And now print isn't the most valuable right anymore, at least to me.

Print has become a subsidiary right.

In a regular writing contract, the main rights are the North American (or world) print rights. Sub rights like book clubs, audio, movie, first serial, and electronic, have always been considered having lesser value.

But I keep looking at my numbers, where I'm currently making $125 a day on books NY rejected. And I keep thinking how much more money I'll make when the Kindle royalty rate goes up from 35% to 70% in June. And I really don't think I'll ever sell my erights again.

If I release an ebook novel, I'm pretty sure I'll earn over $100,000 on it within five years.

Assuming I can do two novels a year, I can get pretty rich pretty quick.

There certainly are advantages to this model. Cover art and titles are of my choosing. I can start selling a book a week after I'm done writing it, rather than waiting 8 to 18 months. I can set my own price. I can make instant changes and revisions. I can earn $2.80 on a $3.99 ebook, which is more than I earn on a $23.99 hardcover. I get monthly royalties, instead of bi-annual.

There are downsides, too. No professional editing (though my professional peers are a great help in vetting my manuscripts.) No marketing and sales teams behind me. No widespread distribution to bookstores and non-bookstore outlets. No advances. No advertising. No paper book to put on my shelf and stare at. (This is a biggie. I have an entire bookcase dedicated to the works I've published, and there are over a hundred.)

I never wanted to be the poster boy for self-promotion, even though my efforts (chronicled on this blog) have made folks think of me that way. And I certainly don't want to be the new poster boy for self-publishing.

What I want is the same thing I've always wanted: to earn money by writing fiction.

It's a huge surprise to me that I'm now able to earn more on my own than I have been able to earn through traditional print publishing. Even more surprising, I've been one of the fortunate ones in the print world. My advances, and sales, are better than the majority of my peers'. My books are still in print. I'm in royalty situations. I'm extremely lucky to have the print career I have.

But if one midlist writer working on his own (say JA Konrath) can sell more ebooks than James Patterson in various Kindle genres, doesn't that say perhaps there is something wrong with the way print publishers are conducting business?

And if one midlist author working on his own (perhaps JA Konrath) can earn more money on ebooks than he's earning on the titles his publishers are controlling, isn't it obvious that signing print deals isn't the way to go?

So for the first time in the history of this blog, I don't know how to advise newbie authors.

But I do know that if you're a writer, and you're changing your career path based on a blog, you aren't thinking long and hard enough about this business.

I've walked the walk for a long time. Your mileage my vary. Don't give up your agent search because I'm pondering aloud about the future. Don't rush to put your stuff up on Kindle without fully understanding and weighing the potential costs vs. benefits.

Print publishing and bookstores and agents aren't going away anytime soon. Ebooks are still a small percentage of the book market.

I know that percentage will grow. And I'm confident I'll continue to make money.

For me, print has officially become a subsidiary right. If I ever sign another print deal, it will be to supplement my ebook income.

This is a strange development, but not a bad one. The writer, for the first time ever, gets the lion's share of the profits from his work.

Never thought I would see that. But I'm sure glad it's happening.