Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Ark by Boyd Morrison

Here's a guest post from my friend, Boyd Morrison. Boyd's the one I approached when I first wanted to put my ebooks up on Kindle, and Boyd is the first to land a major print deal from his Kindle sales.

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Many thanks to Joe for hosting me today. I wish I could kick things off by sharing with you the joke I told him the night we met at the very first Thrillerfest conference, but the story about Snowflake, Feather, and Piano just won’t work in the written form. You’ll have to get Joe to tell it to you the next time you see him in person.

This is a big day for me--the official release date for my first print novel, The Ark, a thriller in which former army combat engineer Tyler Locke has seven days to find Noah’s Ark to stop the end of the world. I qualify that milestone with the word “print” because The Ark was actually for sale last year for three months as an ebook on the Amazon Kindle store. And if I hadn’t self-published electronically, I wouldn’t be holding a print book of mine today.

Like Joe, I went through years of rejection before I got my first publishing deal. The Ark is the first of my books to be in print, but it’s the third thriller I wrote. The first was called The Adamas Blueprint, written during graduate school. I sent it to five agents, one of whom read it and gave me encouraging feedback. I was quite a novice in the publishing biz at the time, so I had no idea how good a one-out-of-five response rate was. I got discouraged and stopped sending The Adamas Blueprint to agents, much to my wife’s chagrin (she promised she’d see it published some day; I’ve since learned to listen to her).

But I still wanted to write thrillers, and at that time my wife was just applying for medical school. So we made our own deal. I would support her through nine years of pre-med, med school, and residency, and when she was a full-fledged doctor, I would get to quit my job and write full-time, with the goal of getting published in nine years.

Right on schedule in 2005 when my wife became an attending physician, I quit my job in the Microsoft X-Box group and started writing my second novel, The Palmyra Impact. When I finished the book, I sent it to agents, but I didn’t quit at five. I did stop counting the rejections at 50. At least five agents read the entire manuscript, but nobody wanted to represent it.

So I did what I would recommend to everyone who wants to make writing their job. I wrote another book. One huge mistake I’ve seen writers make is that they keep re-writing the same book over and over, year after year. My advice is let it go. Move on. You can always do something with it later, as Joe has found out by self-publishing all those books that no agent or publisher wanted.

In 2007, I completed my first draft of a thriller I called The Noah Covenant. That year, Thrillerfest inaugurated a new program called Agentfest, where agents looking for new thriller authors could listen to pitches from unpublished writers. This was before the speed-dating kind of sessions they have now, so I sat at a table with eight other authors and a well-known agent named Irene Goodman. She had primarily been representing romance and non-fiction and was looking to branch out into thrillers.

Irene went around the table and asked every person to pitch her their books. If you ever pitch your book at a conference, you need to have a pithy two-line hook that makes an agent want to know more. When Irene got to me, I was prepared with the following pitch:

A relic from Noah’s Ark gives a religious fanatic and his followers a weapon that will let them recreate the effects of the biblical flood, and former combat engineer Tyler Locke has seven days to find the Ark and the secret hidden inside before it’s used to wipe out civilization again.

As soon as I said “Noah’s Ark”, she wanted to read the first three chapters. I had completed my first draft, but it wasn’t polished yet, so I told her I’d send it to her as soon as I was finished buffing it up.

Two months went by, and she thought I’d forgotten about her. On the contrary, when the final draft was ready, she was among the first agents I sent it to. She received the chapters on a Monday and called me that afternoon because she was so excited about it. I was blown away. No agent had ever called me before. Irene asked if I could overnight the full manuscript to her. After I picked myself up off the floor, I casually said sure and then ran every red light to make sure I made it to the Fedex office in time.

Irene received the manuscript on a Tuesday. She offered representation on Thursday. I accepted on Friday. That was a good week.

We did some editing to flesh out the characters a bit more, and she made one major suggestion. She thought The Noah Covenant was too Ludlum-esque and suggested that we just call it The Ark. Short. Simple. I liked it, and we were ready to send it out to publishers in early 2008.

So now it was just a question of letting the offers roll in, right? Uh, no. No offers. Not one.

We got what I call “rave rejections.” Editors loved the premise, plot, and characters, but they just couldn’t see how it would fit into a crowded thriller market. We went to every major imprint that published thrillers, and all 25 publishers turned The Ark down. Any publishing hopes for it were effectively gone.

In early 2009, I was just completing my web site (www.boydmorrison.com), and I decided, why not try to build up a readership by giving my books away? I mean, they weren’t doing any good just sitting on my hard drive. At about that time, the Kindle 2 was about to come out, and Amazon was starting to let unpublished authors put their manuscripts up for sale on the Kindle store.

The Kindle store was really an afterthought on my part. I thought, why would readers buy my books on Kindle when they could download them for free from my website? Still, I decided to put all three books on the Kindle store just to see what happened. Irene was fully supportive of the plan. I had nothing to lose.

What I didn’t do was self-publish in print because I would have something to lose. From the beginning, my goal was to get a traditional publishing deal (remember this was in early 2009, which seems not so long ago, but the ebook market was still in its infancy, and making a living from self-published ebooks seemed like a pipe dream). If I had published print books, not only would it be a hassle I didn’t want to deal with, but it would also mean my novels would need ISBNs.

ISBNs are international standard book numbers that can be tracked by publishers. If my sales were low, publishers would be able to see that and might not even want to look at my next book. But with ebooks on the Kindle, you don’t need an ISBN. If my sales were bad, no one would ever have to know. And if they were good, I could use that data as evidence that readers were interested in my books.

I figured if people could find my books for free on my web site, I had to set a low price on Amazon. I priced my first book, The Adamas Blueprint, at the lowest price Amazon allows, $0.99, as an introductory offer, and my other two books at $1.99, marked down to $1.59 by Amazon. My only expense was the small fee I paid to a graphic designer to create professional-looking covers for my books.

I was armed with glowing blurbs from generous authors like James Rollins, Douglas Preston, Jon Land, and Chris Kuzneski, all of whom I had gotten to know through Thrillerfest. Amazon let me choose up to five categories under which I could list my books, so I maxed those out (technothriller, suspense, men’s adventure, action & adventure, and thriller).

In the second week of March 2009, I put my books on the Kindle store and on my web site. I had no plans for marketing or advertising. My plan was just to see what happened.

Within several days, readers on web discussion forums noticed the low price on my books (there were very few self-published authors on the Kindle at the time). Through the magic of Google, I was notified about these posts, and I went ahead and introduced myself to members of Kindleboards.com, Mobileread.com, and the Amazon discussion boards.

Because the books were priced so low, those readers made an impulse decision to take a chance on an unknown author like me. Within a week, I started hitting a few of the genre top 100 bestseller lists.

As I wrote this blog post, I went back and looked at my email archives because I remembered that around this time, Joe got interested in what I was doing on the Kindle. It was early April, about a month after my books had gone on sale, and I had already sold 826 copies. Not bad for a newbie author after four weeks.

Joe emailed me to ask how I had gotten my books onto the Kindle because he had some unpublished books for download on his web site and wanted to see what would happen if he put them on the Kindle store (we were so green back then). I told him to go for it. If I could get those kinds of sales as an unknown, I thought he could move some serious numbers as a published author. Pretty soon, he had loaded all his unpublished books onto the Kindle store, and the rest is well-documented history.

I radically underestimated the power of the Amazon bestseller lists and word of mouth. My sales didn’t plateau as I thought they might. They kept going up. I reached the lower rungs of the technothriller bestseller lists through word of mouth and great reviews, but the rankings for my books just kept rising. My theory is this: Kindle device sales were exploding, and the first thing any new Kindle owner would want to do is download some books. So what did they do? They looked at the bestseller lists, saw my cheap books and good reviews, and downloaded them, in many cases all three at once. Because of these sales, the rankings increased, which kept them on the bestseller lists, and so on, creating a virtuous cycle.

In three months, I sold 7,500 copies of all three books together. The Ark was the number 1 technothriller for over a month, outselling books by Tom Clancy and Brad Thor, and sometimes my books occupied the top three slots in multiple genre lists. The Ark was even ranked in the top 25 thrillers overall. By June, my books were selling at the rate of 4,000 copies per month.

Because of the velocity of my sales, Irene was immediately able to take that data to publishers. She couldn’t go back to publishers who’d already rejected it (you don’t resubmit a manuscript unless they have specifically requested it), but Touchstone, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, was just making a transition into the thriller market. They saw the reception for my books and offered me a deal. That phone call from Irene will always be one of the most amazing moments of my life.

As far as we can tell, I was the first author to get a Big Six publishing contract for a self-published Kindle book. Touchstone acquired The Ark and its sequel in a two-book deal. On the strength of that deal, my foreign rights agent, Danny Baror, was able to secure deals in fifteen foreign markets covering over 100 countries and territories (for those confused by that scenario, the UK is considered one market, but they publish the book in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and 75 other countries in English; same for Spanish worldwide rights—one market, many countries).

Since then, Pocket Books acquired the rights for The Adamas Blueprint and The Palmyra Impact, so essentially I have a four-book deal with Simon and Schuster. The Palmyra Impact will be released as a mass market paperback and ebook under the title Rogue Wave in December 2010, and The Adamas Blueprint will be released under a new title in December 2011.

So why did people buy the Kindle versions of my books instead of downloading them for free from my web site? First, readers may have only seen my books in the Kindle store and not even known they were on my web site. Second, at less than five dollars for all three books, it might not have been worth the hassle to download the books and then figure out how to get them on their Kindle in the right format. And third, some people just wanted to show their appreciation to me by buying them.

Would I recommend self-publishing ebooks? It depends what your goals are. If you want to see your book in print, as I did, I wouldn’t choose that path as your first option. I was in a unique limbo because I had an agent and blurbs from bestselling authors, but I couldn’t get a publisher. Once my sales jumped, my agent was able to act on it immediately. If I had to start the agent search from scratch at that point, it would have been much more difficult.

I don’t want to seem discouraging. Obviously, I did it, so it can be done, and it has been done by John Rector, among others. Some people may even forgo publishing print books altogether and make a living solely on ebooks, as Joe has proven possible. And if you are confident that your work is the best you can make it, electronic self-publishing might be the way to go, especially if your genre is a niche market.

Some might ask, if I was doing so well selling ebooks on my own, why did I give S&S those rights? Well, I wanted a print deal. And no publisher would sign a new author for print rights without getting the electronic rights as well. Stephen King might be able to swing it, but I couldn’t. So the choice for me was either to sign over electronic rights, or no publishing deal. It was an easy decision.

My goal was always to be traditionally published. I wanted to get my books in front of as many readers as possible, and while ebooks are the fastest growing part of the market, they still represent only 3-5% of all books sold. If I wanted to reach a broad market, I’d have to be in print, and the only way to get into most bookstores is through a traditional publisher. Plus, foreign rights, which represent a surprisingly large segment of the market, would have been virtually impossible to sell without a deal with a traditional publisher. And as much as I love ebooks, there’s still no substitute for holding a print book in your hands to make you feel like a real author.

Today, I’m lucky enough—and persistent enough—to hold a book in my hands and call myself an author.

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Joe sez: I love Boyd's story. It's encouraging, uplifting, and has a great ending. But allow me to anticipate the question many of you are asking: Did Boyd really make the correct deal? Chances are, if he'd kept his books on Kindle, he'd be making several thousand dollars a month, and over $10k a month once the royalty rate changes in July.

That didn't seem possible back when Boyd signed with a publisher. Like all smart writers, he was looking to find the widest audience and make the most money, and that's what he did. Boyd was absolutely right when he signed those print contracts. I would have done the same.

But the last few months have seen some major changes in the publishing landscape. As someone said, "The happy ending to self-publishing success is landing a big print deal." That was true, earlier this year. But I'm not sure it's true anymore. I'm now thinking the happy ending to self-publishing success is getting filthy rich with zero stress. If you look through five years of this blog, you'll see the stress I went through in order to succeed, and that was tied directly with print.

To live the life of a writer, without the stress of self-promotion, worrying about numbers, or bending over backwards to please my publisher--that's worth a lot to me. It's liberating in ways I never dreamed of.

Ultimately, it comes down to goals. If you want the widest readership possible, you should sign with a print publisher. Print is still the dominant form of book media. You'll learn a great deal by working with agents, editors, publicists, and booksellers. And you can make a lot of money, and reach far more people than you could on your own.

But there are downsides. Lack of control, small royalties, and having your rights tied up for years when the ebook market is booming---these are all considerations to take into account.

I still believe the most important thing is the book, and that too many newbies try to publish before they're ready. Traditional publishing is still a good way to test if your book is good enough for prime time. It's impossible to judge that on your own.

However, unless the deal is significant, or has tangible benefits that I can't achieve on my own, I can't see ever signing with a print publisher again.

As a writer, you need to make a list of your priorities, and set your goals accordingly.

Also, as a reader of this blog, you need to buy a copy of The Ark. Boyd is an inspiration to all of us, and we should show him our support. Plus, it's a damn good read.