Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interview with Karen McQuestion

"JA Konrath is selling well because he's an established name."

"The reason Konrath has sold so many ebooks is because he has a large backlist of print books."

"Konrath has a platform--that's why he's making $4k a month on Kindle sales."

"Joe Konrath has a popular blog, and he's been self-promoting for eight years. No one else would be able to sell 40,000 ebooks."

I hear and read quotes like these all the time. Even though I'm pretty sure my ebook sales are fueling my print sales, and not the other way around, I still can't seem to get people to understand that ebook success isn't about having a known name.

It's about price, quality, and professionalism.

So it was a pleasure to talk to an ebook author who is OUTSELLING me. Karen McQuestion only has six ebooks on Kindle, rather than my thirteen books, and she's been live for less than a year. Yet she's sold over 30,000 copies since July.

And guess what? She's never published a book before. No name-recognition. No platform. No backlist. No blog that gets hundreds of thousands of hits on Google like mine does.

Karen simply writes good books, with good covers and descriptions, and posts them on Kindle herself.

Here they are:

Celia and the Fairies in paperback ($8.99) and Kindle ($0.99)

For ages 7-11, or those who are young at heart

A Scattered Life ~ currently available on Kindle ($1.99)

Easily Amused ~ a romantic comedy, available on Kindle ($1.99)

Favorite ~ a young adult novel, available on Kindle ($1.99)

Life on Hold ~ a young adult novel, available on Kindle ($1.99)

Lies I Told My Children ~ a collection of thirty humorous essays, on Kindle ($1.49)

When Karen admitted on this blog how well she was doing, I knew I had to ask her some questions, to see what secrets she could reveal about selling well on Kindle. She kindly responded, and here are her answers...

Joe: How and why did you get started self-publishing your ebooks on Kindle?

Karen: I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, even during the times when I didn’t write anything at all. When my three kids were (finally!) in school, I became more focused on writing with the goal of publication. I had success getting my feature articles and essays accepted by magazines and newspapers, but my fiction went nowhere. The first novel I wrote, A Scattered Life, caught the attention of a top agent, and I naively thought I’d made it, even though I never officially signed on as her client. One year and two revisions later, the agent opted out and I had to start over again. During the next several years, there were more novels and more agents, then contests, and direct submissions to editors at various publishing houses. Increasingly I got the sense that I was getting closer, but no offers were forthcoming. Talk about frustrating.

Last spring, I read an article about the author Boyd Morrison. He’d self-released three of his unpublished novels on Kindle, and as a result of great sales and reader enthusiasm wound up signing with Simon & Schuster. His story was a revelation to me. Up until then, I honestly hadn’t known that a writer could self-publish on Kindle. Something clicked and I knew I wanted to try to do this myself. At the time, I only knew one person who owned a Kindle, and I had never actually seen one (or any e-book device, for that matter). The thought of making money for past work was intriguing, but I had no expectations. I remember saying to my husband that I thought it would be wonderful if I could make enough for a nice dinner out once a month.

I uploaded one of my novels, a romantic comedy called Easily Amused, and a collection of my humorous essays, Lies I Told My Children. By the end of the first day I had sold a few books. I was elated, but puzzled. Who were these people and how did they even find my books? Every week the sales grew slowly but surely. And then I started getting positive reviews. Spurred on by my initial success, I went back to my other novels and uploaded them one by one. I now have six books on Kindle.

Sometimes I still can’t believe the turn my writing life has taken. A year ago I was a failed novelist with years of work on my hard drive, and now I have readers and an income. Life is good.

Joe: Did you do anything at first to promote your Kindle ebooks?

Karen: I introduced myself and my books on Kindleboards.com, and also on the message boards on Amazon. Some of my first sales came from readers there, and I’m grateful they gave an unknown author a chance.

Joe: How have the sales been? Steady? Going up?

Karen: My best day to date was Christmas day, believe it or not. Overall, sales have fluctuated, but each month they’ve either equaled or exceeded the previous month.

Joe: How did the film option happen?

Karen: Ironically, the novel that got optioned, A Scattered Life, almost didn’t make it to Kindle. I hadn’t looked at the manuscript in years, so I when I opened the document file, I wasn’t certain what I’d find. I was pleasantly surprised to discover I still loved the characters and the story. So much time had passed that reading it was almost like reading someone else’s book. It needed some work yes, but I still found it touching and funny. I went back and reread the notes the first agent had given me and she was right—way too much backstory, something my earlier revisions hadn’t adequately addressed. I spent about two weeks reworking it and uploaded it the beginning of October.

A little more than a month later, I got an email from Eric Lake, an L.A. producer. At first glance I didn’t take it seriously. For one thing, it got routed to my spam folder. Not only that, but the name of the production company is “Hiding in Bed,” which was part of his email address. It all seemed a little fishy. I would have deleted it except the subject heading was the title of my book.

The email asked for the contact information for the person handling the movie rights for A Scattered Life. I think my heart stopped beating for a few seconds, but once it started up again, I checked with Mr. Google to see if this was a legitimate production company (it was) before responding.

Over the next week, Eric and I talked on the phone several times, and emailed back and forth as well. Once we agreed on terms, we were able to finalize the deal. I just heard from him recently and the project is on track. There are several more steps before it becomes an actual movie, but I’m hopeful it will happen eventually.

Joe: What are you doing now to promote yourself and your ebooks?

Karen: I still post on message boards, and make comments on heavily-trafficked websites and blogs. I think some writers underestimate the power of the message boards, especially the ones right on the Amazon site. The Kindle readers are right there, only one click away from your book.

One thing I did, which I think helps, was to set it up so my posts on Amazon come up under “Karen McQuestion, Author.” That way, I can participate in general discussions and if people on the boards are curious, they can check out my books, and if they aren’t, that’s okay too.

I've also posted comments on Gizmodo.com, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and other newspapers here in the US and worldwide. I'm genuinely interested in reading about anything Kindle /e-book/ publishing related, so it was natural for me to seek out articles on these topics online. Whenever I felt I could contribute to the conversation or politely clarify a point I did, and always mentioned that I spoke as a self-published Kindle author. I do believe this led to sales, but it's impossible to say for sure. Regardless, I felt it was a good use of my time.

Joe: Are you going to raise your prices to $2.99 in June to get the 70% royalty?

Karen: I’m still debating this issue. On the one hand—hey, more money!--who wouldn’t want that? But then I remember the readers who said in reviews or on message boards that they tried one of my books primarily because it was cheap, and then liked it so much they went on and read my other titles. I’d hate to raise my prices and miss out on even one reader. So, I’m torn.

The short answer is that I may raise the price on one of the books, and see how it goes.

Joe: Have you used Smashwords to get on Sony/Nook/Ipad? Results?

Karen: I have not used Smashwords. All of my books have been sold via the Kindle or Kindle app.

Joe: What advice would you give to newbie authors who are thinking about uploading their unpublished ebooks onto Kindle?

Karen: If your writing has been vetted and you have every reason to believe it’s of publishable quality, I say go for it.

Amazon does not discriminate against self-published authors. In fact, they’d love for every indie author to sell millions of downloads. When you make money, they make money. The book pages on Amazon don’t differentiate--small press, self-published, big publishing house— each product page has an identical layout. And it’s free to upload a book on Kindle (I still can’t get over that)!

Four tactics that will give your book a huge advantage can be set into place before the book is even on the market:

Price: Set the price low--under $2.00 is best. A low price makes a huge difference in enticing readers to try an unknown author.

Title: Choose a title that’s catchy and easy to remember.

Description: Descriptions should be brief, ideally only a paragraph. Try to avoid making it just a rundown of plot points. Start with the main character and make sure you include the conflict. Use strong verbs and specific nouns, and leave the reader wanting to know more.

Cover: A cover can make or break a book. Try to make the cover as professional in appearance as possible. For ideas, look at traditionally published books similar to your own.

Additionally, when you upload your book, make sure you take advantage of the options in picking “categories” and “keywords.” And after the Amazon book page is complete, add appropriate tags. All of these things help readers find your books.

Finally, be prepared to spend some time doing marketing. For the first six months I spent at least an hour or two a day doing promotion online and it paid off in a big way.

People can’t buy your book if they don’t know about your book, so don’t be shy—get the word out!


Joe sez: Many years ago, I was arguing with someone who said the secret to selling a books is simple: just write a good one.

I disagreed. First of all, there is no set definition of what "good" is. Second, many "good" books go out of print, and many "mediocre" books become bestsellers (at least in my subjective opinion.)

The success of as book, I posited, depended on how much money a publisher threw at it, how big the coop was, how large the print run and distribution.

In the age of ebooks, where print runs and publisher dollars don't mean anything, there is still an unknown Factor X that determines why some books sell well and others don't.

But I'm also changing my thinking a bit. Writing a good book, with an interesting premise, a professional, eye-catching cover, a decent description, a low price, and a hooky preview, does help sell ebooks. Perhaps even more than it ever helped sell print books.

Maybe the secret is to write something that people will really enjoy reading, and make sure it's cheap, easy to acquire, and presented professionally.

Karen has done just that, and has sold a lot of ebooks. I predict she'll continue to sell even more.