I'm currently on a deadline, hiding away in a cabin on a lake and writing in between catching muskie, so I asked Simon Wood to do a guest blog for me.
I’ve known Joe a long time. We met at a convention in Arizona just after he'd signed the contract for Whiskey Sour. We spent an evening in a hotel lobby into the wee hours of the morning talking. I’d admired his journey for nothing else than his stick-with-it-ness. I may not always agree with Joe, but I do respect his opinion. So I always have a lot of time for Joe and he's kindly given some of his time for me to talk about my writing journey.
My writing journey is a little different from Joe’s in that I came up through the small presses. I struggled to find an agent, so the doors to the New York publishers remained closed. A small press called Barclay Books picked up my first novel, ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN and published it in 2002. The book came out to some good notices but that was about all.
Sadly, the small press was just as green as I was and hit the skids hard about a year later. I sold a collection of horror stories to a different small press the following year and it folded shortly after the book came out. I had better luck with a collection of crime stories, WORKING STIFFS. Blue Cubicle was a small press out of Texas and I have to say it remains the best publishing relationship I’ve had so far. The process was very collaborative. The book had limited distribution, picked up some nice praise and one of the stories won an Anthony Award. It was good for my profile, but with a limited print run, it wasn’t going to break me out sales-wise.
As much as I wish I’d gotten an agent who'd landed me a big contract, I’m quite thankful for my experiences in the small presses. I learned about contracts (sometimes by making big mistakes) and how the business of publishing worked from publisher to distributor to bookstore. It’s made me a far savvier writer because of it. I’d recommend to any new writer (especially these days) to make sure they know the industry inside and out and not leave it in the hands of others to make decisions.
In 2007, I finally broke out of the small presses by landing a book contract with Dorchester Publishing. They published a much revised version of ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN. My writing had come a long way since the Barclay Books edition, so I tightened up the manuscript and cut ten thousand words in the process. Again, I circumvented the traditional way of getting to an editor by pitching the book direct to an editor at a convention. I knew what he'd published and the kind of books he’d commissioned, so I was ready for any questions he might my throw at me. This one meeting led to three more novels with Dorchester until their well-documented problems last year.
When it came to eBook world, I’d been a little hesitant to get involved. I held the e-rights to all but my Dorchester titles, but a couple of my small press publishers had asked me not to release an eBook version because it would hurt print sales. I respected their position, especially as they'd paid me decent advances and held off for a long time until one of my small-press editors admitted that he'd stopped buying print books since he'd bought a Kindle. After that, I didn't see much point in holding off any longer.
As part of my understanding of this market, I quizzed a large Kindle readers online group about their buying habits. I got several hundred responses with surprising results. Once people converted to eBooks, they stayed converts. They didn't double dip, buying some print books and some eBooks. Once they went electronic, they never went back. My print publishers worries that publishing the eBook version would rob print sales were unfounded because those customers were already gone.
So last year, I released my backlist on Kindle, etc. I released my short story collection and several novels. When Dorchester crashed last year, I negotiated my rights back to all the thrillers I’d done with them. I went into 2011 owning all the rights to all my books so far.
I have to admit sales were slow at first, but to be honest, I wasn’t approaching it right. To use a Field of Dreams analogy, just because I built it didn't mean anyone would come. Success in the eBook market thrives on endorsements from trusted voices and you find them in the blogosphere . I sent review copies, essays and articles about my books to any and all blogs and websites with a good following. This helped get the word out and it showed itself in sales. With ten titles to my name, trying to promote them all at once was monumental and diluted my message.
In April, I decided to focus on title at a time. I focused on ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN first, as this was originally my debut novel. The approach worked. I had some good feedback coming from a lot of sources. Then momentum took over, I started to see various eBook and Kindle blogs talking about ACCIDENTS or one of my other titles almost daily. Sales climbed from April to June and ACCIDENTS hit Amazon’s Top 100 titles.
Then in one of those serendipitous events, Amazon sent out an email blast about the book at the end of June. This catapulted ACCIDENTS to the #2 spot at Amazon over the 4th of July weekend, just behind Janet Evanovich’s latest.
Proving the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats, I saw incremental sales growth across the board as ACCIDENTS spearheaded the rise to the top. THE FALL GUY cracked the Top 100. I have six titles in the Hardboiled Top 20. WE ALL FALL DOWN looks to be the next title to go big judging by its rising numbers.
So what does this mean for me now? It means a few things. I will hold on to my eBook rights. In the past, I’ve lumped them in with my print rights contracts. Up until recently, eBook rights have not been viewed as a commodity. No one has had a handle on their worth. I do now. I have a track record and I can use this to my benefit in the future. My ex-Dorchester titles have outsold their print counterparts now. These eBook numbers will serve me well as I move forward.
I know Joe’s feelings and the feelings of others, but I’m not ready to cut my ties with traditional publishing. I will do what is beneficial to me. If that means working with traditional publishers then I will do so. If it doesn’t, then I won't. Either way, my agent will have some heavy caliber ammunition when she goes into negotiations with potential publishers in the future.
Throughout my writing endeavors, I’ve rolled with the punches. Part of that has been keeping an eye on how the face of publishing changes. EBooks have not only put some money in my pocket, but more importantly given me a stronger bargaining position going forward. I don’t believe publishing has reached a status quo yet, so I’ll be ready for it as it changes, and poised to adapt to the next development in the marketplace.
Joe sez: It's great to see Simon succeed, especially since he never got a fair shake in NY. I know so many authors who were dropped, overlooked, or poorly published, and I'm happy to see many of them finally finding their audience in ebooks.
Also, I'd like to point out that if I got the right deal, I would be willing to work with a traditional publisher again.
While I believe publishers have made big mistakes with my previous books, and are doing a poor job with ebooks, self-publishing is not an ideology for me. This is a business. I'll go with whatever way makes me the most money.
That said, I'm 100% sure no legacy publisher would ever pay me the amount of money I would need to sign with them, let alone agree to my terms. They'll all fade away first.
Which is why I would advise Simon, if legacy publishers do see his sales and make him and offer, to think long and hard about what his goals are.
The industry is changing fast. You don't want to sign a deal and then kick yourself a year from now. Not unless the money is so big you're willing to never get your rights back again.
Perhaps publishers will wise up. But I haven't seen any indication that they will.
I have seen more and more indie authors signing with publishers, however. Only time will tell if those authors made good decisions, or not.