Monday, January 31, 2011

Guest Post by Blake Crouch

I've known Blake for years, and liked his writing enough to work with him on several projects, including the upcoming KILLERS UNCUT and STIRRED, the final Jack Daniels novel (which will also be the conclusion to his Luther Kite/Andrew Z. Thomas series.)

Naturally, because Blake is a friend, he's been forced to endure my endless ranting about ebooks nearly every time we speak to each other. But he's been experimenting with Kindle and ebooks for a while now, and the conclusions he's drawn have been entirely his own.

I asked him to do a guest post because he's at the point where he's seriously considering quitting his day job to write ebooks full time. If the trends continue, it's a no-brainer--he can make more money on Kindle.

Here's Blake...

My ebook journey began on March 7th of last year when I uploaded a collection of four previously-published stories called FOUR LIVE ROUNDS. Later that month, I released a novella and a nasty piece of work I co-wrote with Konrath called SERIAL UNCUT. At the time, my expectations were low—sure, Joe was pulling down a couple grand a month, but he was Joe. An anomaly. I just thought that having some new, exclusive work up on Kindle might spur my “real” book sales, meaning the four novels I had published with St. Martin’s Press over the last six years. I made $215 that first month, and as the summer progressed I released a few short stories individually and watched sales slowly grow.

Once the 70% royalty rate kicked in, it occurred to me that my greatest assets were my novels, DESERT PLACES, LOCKED DOORS, ABANDON, and SNOWBOUND. But they were tied up with my publisher.

In September, I got the rights back to DESERT PLACES and LOCKED DOORS. I blogged about the rights reversion process right here on October 11th, just after uploading those novels. I was excited, but I wasn’t sure how well the books would perform with new cover art and a snazzy price of $2.99.

My publisher had been pricing these books at $6.99 prior to the rights reversion, and sales for the last six months before I took them back had been about 200.

In the three months I’ve had these books, they’ve sold over 3000 copies, and I attribute most of this to the price, but some to the new cover art by Jeroen ten Berge.

Thanks in part to those books, this month, I will earn more from my US Kindle sales than the advance I was paid for my first novel—$6,000—and will come close to selling 5000 ebooks.

I still don’t know what to make of this, and I often wonder for whom is this experience more surreal?

(A) The unpublished writer who had dreams of a big traditional publishing deal and wound up knocking the lights out on Kindle and Pubit?; or

(B) Guys like me...who have been in the trench warfare known as midlist New York publishing, are scarred all to hell from the battle, and then suddenly...

This utopian dream.

It’s like that scene in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalypse novel, THE ROAD, where the father and the son, thirsty and starving to death, accidentally stumble upon an underground bomb shelter filled with more food and water than they’ve seen in years.

To be paid monthly to write exactly what you want to write and have absolute control over the presentation is an amazing thing.

The main reason I read Joe’s blog is for information, no matter how anecdotal, regarding how people sell and why. So here’s mine, for what it’s worth…

I have available 4 novels ($2.99), 3 novellas ($2.99), 2 short story collections ($3.99), 1 complete short story collections ($4.99), and 8 individual stories ($.99).

My two novels, DESERT PLACES and LOCKED DOORS, and SERIAL UNCUT are the top sellers. I sell far more story collections than individual stories, and surprisingly the $4.99 collection I put up looks on track to start outperforming the shorter collections. My novel, FAMOUS, which cannot be classified as a thriller, is unlike any of my other work—and I can’t give it away.

Because my work varies widely in length (from a 1500-word short story to an 85,000-word novel), I make sure to clearly designate the form (short story/novella/novel) and include a word-count in the product description.

As I mentioned previously, I spend a lot of time getting the covers right, and I think this has made a tremendous difference. I’ve nearly tripled sales this month on my novella PERFECT LITTLE TOWN following a complete revamp of its cover.

This all points to one of the great things about ebooks: the ability to make adjustments midstream, so you can constantly honing the presentation toward perfection. Something isn’t selling? Change up the product description. Retool the book cover (mine have gone through at least four modifications to arrive at a solid brand). Rename it....just did that with one of my books, and early indications are it’s working.

But to me, the best thing about the ebook revolution isn’t the money. It’s the unlimited creative potential. No more asking permission to write the book you’re dying to write. No more constraints on form (welcome back the novella!). And collaborative possibilities are endless. Writing DRACULAS with Joe, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson last year was one of my all-time writing highs.

But I NEED MORE NOVELS. My publisher retains control over ABANDON and SNOWBOUND, which is some of my best work. Even at $12.99, these books are consistently below 20,000 in sales ranking. In light of what I was paid for those books, and knowing I will in all likelihood never see another cent of royalties while the publisher owns the rights, it KILLS me to think what I could be making per month off those titles. I will get the rights back. Maybe not tomorrow. But it will happen.

Here are the questions that keep me up at night…

- Can an Indie break into the top 100 without pricing a novel at $.99? I’ve been tempted to drop DESERT PLACES to $.99 but fear upsetting my pricing balance.

- Can anyone other than Michael Sullivan do big business at more than $4/ebook?

- With instant publication now an option, will writers have the self-discipline to take the time to produce great work?

- How will readers continue to find the good stuff when there are potentially millions of shitty manuscripts being uploaded? Based upon my experience, books in the top 5000 are selling about 7/day. Which means buyers are regularly going outside of the top 100 to make purchases. Right now the system is working, but if it gets too fouled up with bad books, will it break down? Will finding that diamond in the rough become so taxing that readers predominately default to the top 100, as buyers of print books do today?

Good book, good cover, good product description, low price—is that really all we’ve learned? All we can bank on? Is this all a giant crapshoot?

I think it may be appropriate to quote the screenwriter, William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”

Joe sez: I've been following Blake's journey, watching him sell more and more ebooks each month, and a few things strike me.

1. The writing matters. Crouch is as good a thriller writer as any who have ever lived. His publisher, St. Martins, made so many mistakes with his career--mistakes beyond Blake's control--that it's miraculous he hasn't eaten a shotgun by now. Honestly, it is the most depressing comedy of errors I've ever seen in the biz.

And yet, Blake's still chugging along, and on his way to his best monetary year ever. Cream does rise to the top, if it struggles hard enough.

2. Novels DO sell better. I have 19 self-pubbed books on Kindle right now. My novels are by far the best sellers, though SERIAL UNCUT does very well. But that's almost 40k words, though, so it's actually a novellini.

3. Experimentation and an open mind are essential. Blake had been diligent in tweaking his covers, changing product descriptions and titles, trying to maximize his sales and his brand. You can't ever be completely satisfied. Once you are, you cease trying, cease learning, and cease growing.

4. The book itself matters. This one is REALLY hard to figure out, and I gotta admit I'm close to clueless as to why some ebooks sell so many more copies than other ebooks. So far this month, I've sold 5393 copies of TRAPPED. It's a horror novel by my pen name, Jack Kilborn. My other self-pubbed Jack Kilborn horror novel, ENDURANCE, has sold a respectable 2890 copies, but that's only a little better than half of what TRAPPED is selling.


To make it more confusing, for the previous four months, ENDURANCE has been outselling TRAPPED. In fact, my #1 seller has changed many times since I started ebook self-publishing. At first, THE LIST was my #1 seller. Then ORIGIN. Then ENDURANCE. Then DRACULAS. Then SHOT OF TEQUILA. And now, TRAPPED.

THE LIST, my first ebook to sell 20,000 copies, only sold 1130 in January. And it can't be because it has already saturated the Kindle market. Stephen King's THE STAND is still in the Top 10 horror category. That book has been selling for 30 years, and hasn't reached a saturation point.

No, what's at work here is some weird, unknown factor that makes certain books sell at certain times.

Of all my novels, my book DISTURB has consistently sold the fewest copies. I have no idea why. It's a fun book, high-concept. Is it the subject? Title? Cover? All of the above? Should I change the author name from Konrath to Kilborn, since Kilborn sells better? And why should Kilborn sell better? Too many uninformed yet opinionated yahoos on the internet keep crowing that my sales are a result of my previous traditional publishing background, yet my previous traditional publishing background has been as J.A. Konrath. Konrath has many more books in print than Kilborn does, so why is Kilborn the better seller on Kindle? Thrillers outsell horror on the NYT list, so shouldn't my thriller series outsell my horror books?

And if horror sells so well, why is DRACULAS--a horror novel written not only by Kilborn and Crouch, but Jeff Strand (who has a large cult following) and F. Paul Wilson (who is a NYT bestseller) not selling as well as the other Kilborn ebooks? Surely vampires are still a hot genre? And with 167 reviews and a four and a half star average, it would seem DRACULAS should be a no-brainer must-have purchase for all horror fans. But it's only sold 1000 copies this month.

Blake's experience with his novel FAMOUS, which isn't selling anywhere close to what his thrillers sell, is proof that readers aren't indiscriminately buying every ebook an author releases.

Wunderkind Amanda Hocking currently has a staggering seven ebooks in the Top 100 on Kindle. But her zombie novel, HOLLOWLAND, priced super-cheap at 99 cents, isn't in the Top 100. Why the hell not? She's a hot author. Zombies are hot. 99 cents is THE price for breaking into the Top 100. Yet this isn't selling as well as her others.

Obviously, the conclusion to draw is that the book matters. In fact, it may matter more than the author, the price, the genre, and the writing.

But I still have no idea why some books sell more than others. The only advice I can offer is to keep writing, and hope something will click with an audience. Eventually. Maybe.

The big thing on our side is that ebooks have both an infinite shelf space, and an eternal shelf life. Unlike print, which has six months or less to find an audience before it gets returned, an ebook is forever. Forever is a long time to find readers.

As for Blake's questions...

- Can an Indie break into the top 100 without pricing a novel at $.99? I’ve been tempted to drop DESERT PLACES to $.99 but fear upsetting my pricing balance.

I think so. But it may be a case of pricing it at 99 cents, then changing it to $2.99 once it starts selling really well. Obviously, more experiments are needed. The problem is, if something is selling well, do you really want to mess with the price? That takes a lot of guts.

- Can anyone other than Michael Sullivan do big business at more than $4/ebook?

We'll see. I know Blake and I, after writing KILLERS UNCUT, will combine it with SERIAL UNCUT for SERIAL KILLERS UNCUT, which will be $4.99. It'll be interesting to watch how it does.

- With instant publication now an option, will writers have the self-discipline to take the time to produce great work?

There will always be writers who strive to improve their craft. These are the ones who will sell. The ones who post crap won't sell, at least not for long. They'll either be forced to improve, or they'll give up out of frustration.

As I've said before, the readers have become the gatekeepers. Their money and their time are valuable, and they won't put up with garbage. In fact, they go out of their way to warn each other about garbage.

- How will readers continue to find the good stuff when there are potentially millions of shitty manuscripts being uploaded?

I see this concern echoed a lot. The fact is, consumers have always been able to find what they want. Doesn't matter if it's on the internet, on TV, on Youtube, in a bookstore, or on Amazon. We all constantly make choices about what to spend our time and money on, even when there is already a lot of crap out there. More crap won't mean a thing.

How did everyone reading this blog entry find my blog? With millions of websites, many of them crap, they still managed to find mine.

As Theodore Sturgeon said, 90% of everything is crap.

As I've said many times, don't write crap.

There's the answer.

But even if you do write good books, that's no guarantee you'll sell a lot of copies. Which leads to another poor argument that those opposed to self-publishing trot out without thinking. (Those opposed to self-publishing have lots of bad arguments, the majority of them unsubstantiated, specious, and poorly thought-out.) It can be summed up as:

The majority of self-pubbed ebooks don't sell well.

This is a crap argument for a multitude of reasons.

1. The majority of print books don't sell well, either.

2. The majority of ebooks published by traditional publishers sell fewer copies than self-pubbed ebooks, as evidenced by authors who have both.

3. Self-pubbing is a guarantee it will find some readers, while pursuing a traditional publishing contract is still a long shot.

4. It is notoriously difficult to have a hit in any kind of media: TV, movies, music, and books.

5. The fact that you can self-publish and not sell a lot of copies should not dissuade writers from self-publishing, because selling a few copies is arguably better than letting the book sit on your hard drive, doing nothing.

As I said, it's shit argument. But it gets trotted out as often as "Konrath sells because he's Konrath."

The follow-up argument is:

If you self-publish, you ruin your chances at a traditional publishing deal.

Now I could argue convincingly that this is a GOOD THING. Stay the hell away from traditional publishing deals, I say, because you'll make less money and have to deal with a ton of bullshit. But if you go to, you can read about many writers who are finding agents and getting publisher interest BECAUSE they self-published. If that's the route you want to go, then I say getting your book on Kindle is a quicker, and more lucrative, way to find a traditional publisher than the query-go-round.

Which brings me to: why all the haters and nay-sayers?

Self-publishing is the most important thing to ever happen to writers. It liberates us from an arbitrary, unfair, broken system, and allows us to reach more readers at a faster rate than traditional publishing ever had. Best of all, as Blake said, self-pubbing allows writers to do it on our own terms.

To be paid monthly to write exactly what you want to write and have absolute control over the presentation is an amazing thing.

Anyone who doesn't see the advantage to that is an idiot. Or brainwashed by Stockholm Syndrome. Or fearful of change.

For almost two years, I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to inform writers about this opportunity. It staggers me that so many don't want to listen.

My past attitude has been to argue with these dolts. To convince them using logic and solid data that this is the future, and they'd be better off embracing it.

My new attitude is: if you want to stick with traditional publishing, it's your loss.


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Robin Sullivan said...

@Boyd ...
Because foreign sales are becoming a bigger factor in publishing, I'd like to know if anyone has self-published a book and then sold those rights to a foreign-language publisher.

Michael sold 3 books to Czech Republic, is about to close a six-book deal with France and is in final negotiations with Spain.

He's been approached by several other countires and they are coming to "him" not the other way around.

Robin Sullivan said...

One of the current saving graces is that the big-six haven't turned their eyes on ebooks and they still look at them as a threat to print so they aren't paying much attention. But....

As ebooks start to outsell print books (as seen by the USA Today BestSeller List - where many ebook versions are outselling their hardback or paperback counterparts) then some of the same strategies that they have in the bookstores will come into play.

For instance...Right now it is an even playing field but what if Book Recommendations is sold just as Coop fees are used to sell shelf space?

Times are good now...and I'm not a pesimistic person but a year for now we may see these days as the golden days of ebook publishing that will someday be dominated by the big six just as the big-six dominates the bookstore brick and morter stores today.

Tuppshar Press said...


You make a good point, and certainly well-financed, large operations have some inherent advantages. But I don't think they will be able to use the same strategies as they did with bookstores, because those strategies were based on the physical limitation of bookshelf space for booksellers, the dynamic of which which Amazon and others have changed. We must also consider changes in buying habits, as buying on the internet grows in popularity, especially for niche books. Add in the instant availability of ebooks, and the dynamic changes further.

What we might see as an effort to use their large marketing power would be a variation on the Agency Model, in which the large publishers start demanding more than just higher prices, but also increased visibility on sites such as Amazon, or other favorable terms to try and squeeze out smaller publishers and self-publishers, much as Wal-Mart uses its muscle to squeeze smaller, local competitors. After all, the Big 6 did make Amazon fold once.

At the moment, though, I get the sense that almost everyone in the business is floundering, trying to figure out how this will work out and how they can carve out a part of it for themselves. It makes for interesting viewing, to be sure.

Robin Sullivan said...

Once they go out as e-books, I believe that door is closed forever.

100% untrue - Michael Sullivan has six-figure deal in hand for books that were self-published.

bowerbird said...

robin said:
> I often feel like
> the only lone voice in the wind
> pushing for people to get off
> the $0.99 and $2.99 price

c'mon, people. don't let robin be
the only lone voice in the wind.

chip in with your stories about
how your higher prices worked.

we've already heard _enough_
from the people who tell us
"so i lowered my prices and
sales increased significantly."

> perhaps given more time
> they'll realize that
> readers are happy to pay
> $5 for a quality read.

perhaps given even more time,
they'll realize that readers are
_overjoyed_ to pay the $12.99
that some big6 publishers want.

or not, but it _could_ happen...


bowerbird said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bowerbird said...

robin said:
> Michael Sullivan has
> six-figure deal in hand
> for books that
> were self-published.

so sign the deal already! :+)

do they have to gold-plate it? ;+)


Robin Sullivan said...

@bowerbird - still waiting for the "official" contract - all we have at the moment is the "deal memo" that outlines the broad terms. - Hard to say you'll sign anything until you read it.

Aimless Writer said...

I never cared if I was published or not. What I care about is earning enough so I can stay home and do what I love...write.

Michele Scott said...

I am also a midlist author who has gotten completely fed up with the traditional publishing route. I can't tell you how much time, personal money, etceteras I've put into my career in the last few years. Getting my rights back on some of my books is the best thing that has happened to me in the last year. I have several negative stories about big house publishing that should make any newbie run far away. I am happy to have the lessons--albeit mainly painful and expensive ones. I only wish I could get the rest of my rights back but since books are still selling that likely won't happen any time soon.

The new world of publishing is a very good thing!
Michele Scott

Blake Crouch said...

"For instance...Right now it is an even playing field but what if Book Recommendations is sold just as Coop fees are used to sell shelf space?"

I think this is called the Vine Program, and based upon the performance of some of my friends' books who have had this rolled out for them, I'm not impressed. The issue is, the Big 6 simply cannot afford to sell their books at indie rates.

Robin Sullivan said...

After much debate...I'm finally firming up my stance between self and traditional publishing.

If you sell at "midlist level" - self publsh no doubt as you'll do much better running the show yourself and be much happier as the "support" you get from the traditional publisher is minimal.

But...what if you have a chance to be a "break out novelist". I think that can only happen with the big-six. To many of the things necesary to make this happen is controlled by them

- Coop placement
- NYT Book Reviews
- Influence in the industy.

The real question then comes down to...which will you be? It is all crystal ball speculation...and depends on what kind of "lovin" you are going to get from the publisher, which you have no guarnantees of.

Bottom this stage of publishing the "safe bet" is self - and you can make not just good money but great money. Like Joe, Michael is clearing tens of thousands of dollasrs a month.

But you'll hit a glass ceiling and will never be a houshold name in self-publishing...few outside our writer echo chamber know who Amazda is.

The good's never been a better time to be a author because now you have two good choices when in the past traditional was the only game in town.

Robin | Write2Publish | Michael J. Sullivan's Writings

bowerbird said...

robin said:
> After much debate...
> I'm finally firming up
> my stance between self
> and traditional publishing.

sign the contract and then
come back in a year and
we'll talk about things then.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for such an inspiring and useful post. I have been following BV Larson from way back and was amazed he could not get traditional backing at first. In my view he was far more entertaining and polished than many i had read or listened to. I plan on tweeting this to
My group of aspirant writers and voracious fiction readers. Thanks again @occamsbeard on twitter.

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