Thursday, January 20, 2011

Guest Post by Lee Goldberg

I've known Lee Goldberg for years. He's a good writer, a good blogger, and a good all-around guy. One of the things I admire about him is his ability to debate, and his zero tolerance for BS.

If you haven't read Goldberg, The Walk is a great place to start. He's been blogging about ebooks for as long as I have, and he's got a somewhat different take on what's happening.

Here's Lee...

It’s astounding to me how much, and how fast, the publishing world has changed in the last nineteen months. On June 5, 2009, I began my Kindle publishing adventure with a post on my blog.
Here’s an excerpt:

My friend author Joe Konrath has done extraordinarily well selling his unpublished books on the Kindle, making $1250 in royalties this month alone. That's very impressive […] Joe is making a lot of assumptions based on the admirable success of his own Kindle titles. It's a big, big, BIG leap to think, just because his book has done well, that Robert W. Walker (or any other mid-list author) will sell 500 copies...or even 50 copies...of his out-of-print books on the Kindle each month. But just for hell of it, I decided to follow Joe's advice and put my out-of-print 2004 novel THE WALK and a short story collection, THREE WAYS TO DIE, up on Amazon for sale on the Kindle and see what happens…

A lot happened. I ended up putting my entire, out-of-print backlist – nine novels and two non-fiction books – on the Kindle. But let’s jump forward to February 2, 2010, when I wrote on my blog:

January (2010) was my best month yet in sales & royalties for my out-of-print books on the Kindle. THE WALK remained my best-selling title with 536 copies sold […] All told, I made $775 in Kindle royalties this month [...] I credit the jump in my sales to all the people who got Kindles as Christmas gifts and were eager to test drive their new toy for as little money as possible. I suspect my sales will slowly decline once the novelty of the Kindle wears off.

To say I was wrong would be a massive understatement.

I’m selling many more books than I did a year ago, but the big game-changer was Amazon upping the royalty rate in July 2010 from 35% to 70% for books priced at $2.99 and above.

This January, if sales continue at the current pace, I will sell about 3100 books this month and earn $6600 in royalties.

That’s a 166% increase in sales and a whopping 751% jump in royalties.

In just one year.

On out-of-print books that I wrote years ago that were earning me nothing before June 2009.
If those sales hold for the rest of the year, I will earn $77,615 in Kindle royalties, and that’s not counting the far less substantial royalties coming in from Amazon UK, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace.

Even if my sales plummet tomorrow by fifty percent, I’ll still earn about $38,000 in royalties this year…and I’d be very, very happy with that.

My most profitable title, in terms of hours worked and pages written, is THREE WAYS TO DIE, a collection of three previously published short stories. In print, it’s a mere fifty-six pages long, but it’s selling 24 copies-a-day on the Kindle, earning me about $1500-a-month. That means I could potentially earn $18,000 this year just from those three short stories alone.

That is insane.

But what would be more insane is if I took my next, standalone, non-MONK book to a publisher instead of “publishing” it myself on the Kindle.

That’s right. I’d rather self-publish. This from a guy who for years has been an out-spoken, and much-reviled, critic of self-publishing. But that was before the Kindle came along and changed everything. I was absolutely right then…but I’d be wrong now.

The Kindle offers mid-list writers a real option to consider before they sign their next, shitty contract extension with their publisher…and it has given new opportunity to every mid-list author who has been dropped…and it has dramatically re-energized the earnings potential of every published author’s out-of-print back-list.

That’s incredibly exciting. I believe that any midlist author who isn’t self-publishing, either their back list or new work, is making a costly mistake.

If a publisher came to me today and offered me a typical, mass market paperback deal for THE WALK, I wouldn't take it...because I don't see a scenario where I'd end up making more money on the book than I am making right now (selling about 1101 copies a month, earning $2268 in royalties) . I make more in one month from Kindle sales than I did during the two years that the book was in print in hardcover.

And unless I’ve got a book I think has the potential to be a blockbuster, a novel that could break me out of the mid-list and into the upper-ranks of mystery/thriller writers, I don’t see a scenario where taking an original novel to publisher makes financial sense for me anymore.

But I’m an established, professional author…there are a million copies of my 11 MONK books in print. I have a big back list I can exploit. It’s any easy decision for me to make.

But unlike my friend Joe, who is going to accuse me of clinging desperately to old paradigms that are no longer relevant, even today I still wouldn’t recommend self-publishing for a first-time author.

If you’ve never been in print before, I believe you’d be a fool not to take a mid-list paperback or a hardcover deal…even a terrible one…over self-publishing on the Kindle. Financially, you might make less (either in failure or modest success)...but the difference will be more than made up for in editing, marketing, wider readership, wider name recognition, and professional prestige (and that prestige does mean something, whether you want to admit it or not).

You can always go back to self-publishing... and when you do, you will be bring that wider readership, name recognition, and professional prestige with you. But a book deal doesn't come along every day, and that's still going to mean something for a long time yet...and I suspect it still will even if half the bookstores in America close tomorrow.

Of course, that’s assuming you have an agent or publisher interested in your work. What if you don’t? What if you just want to get your work out there?

You better be damn sure your book is up to professional standards.

If your book is awful, amateurish slop, you can embarrass yourself, create negative word-of-mouth, and seriously harm the reputation you are seeking to build.

There’s a gold rush mentality right now when it comes to authors and ebooks (which I am probably stoking with this article) and, like gold fever, it’s making people stupid. Keep in mind that for every Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking, there are thousands of authors who will be lucky if they can give away ten books-a-month at 99 cents each.

The majority of self-published books are unreadable crap… and that hasn’t changed just because it’s easier now to self-publish than ever before. If anything, it’s made things much worse.

Just because you can publish for free with a mouse-click doesn’t mean that you should.

But because of articles like this one, people with no discernible writing talent, or even basic writing skills, are rushing to get their atrocious, unpublishable garbage onto the Kindle as fast as they can.

The slush pile has gone digital and has unleashed a tsunami of swill onto Amazon and Smashwords. It’s going to get even harder for authors to get their books noticed by readers, who I fear are going to quickly discover that most self-published stuff is awful and, as a result, will be far less likely to take chances on writers they have never heard of… even at 99 cents.

I don’t have a solution to the problem…but I don’t intend to let the tsunami bury me and my work. I’m always looking for ways to get bring new readers to my books.

That’s one of the reasons I will continuing writing the MONK books as long as they remain success. I believe the “dead tree” editions and ebook versions of my MONKs bring thousands of new readers to my work.

It’s also one of the reasons why I’ve joined with Max Allan Collins, Bill Crider, Vicki Hendricks, Harry Shannon, Joel Goldman, Dave Zeltserman, Paul Levine, Ed Gorman, and Naomi Hirahara to launch, a site where readers can find professionally written ebooks by highly-acclaimed, award-winning novelists in a variety of genres.

This year, I intend to put at least two original novels on the Kindle, one of which will be the first in a series of books written with several well-known collaborators and a few new authors.

The publishing and bookselling businesses are in turmoil. Publishers are dropping authors, cutting advances, grabbing rights, and cutting print runs. Barnes & Nobles and Borders are struggling, closing stores and cutting back on orders. And beloved independent booksellers, like the Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles, are folding, unable to compete any longer.

It’s very sad and troubling.

And yet, this is also an incredibly exciting time to be an author…as long as you are motivated, out-going, and entrepreneurial.

For once, I feel like I actually have some control over my publishing career and that my success or failure will be due the decisions that I make, not someone else’s poor choices or lack of enthusiasm.

I am enormously grateful to Joe for leading me down this path…but most of all, I’m thankful for the readers, bloggers and fellow authors who continue to support my work.

Joe sez: I agree with 95% of everything Lee has said here. What's refreshing is that when he and I originally began discussing ebooks, he thought I was full of shit. But he put his money where his mouth was, and tried it out for himself. Then he drew similar conclusions, and wound up changing his mind.

The most difficult thing a person can do is change their mind. Lee gets a lot of flack for his opinions, but he always backs up his opinion with facts. If the facts change, his opinion changes. That's the mark of a very smart guy.

However, I disagree with him on a few bits, because he's clinging desperately to old paradigms that are no longer relevant.

While I agree that a lot of writers are putting crappy ebooks up on Kindle, and that there is a learning curve to becoming a good writer--a learning curve that previously required gatekeepers (agents and publishers) to vet new writers and nurture them along on their path to becoming competent, I disagree that publishers are still needed.

Agents are still needed. Mine sells my subsidiary rights, and is doing a great job with that.

Vetters are still needed. It's impossible for a writer to improve unless they know what they're doing wrong. This requires a second pair of eyes.

But that second pair of eyes doesn't have to be a publisher.

The vetters can be readers.

I've already seen several examples of this. But first, let's go back in time and look at something called pulp fiction.

Years ago there was a gold rush similar to the gold rush we're no seeing with ebooks. Except this one was paper, not e-ink.

Cheap paper allowed for the printing of mass quantities of paperback books and magazines. As a result, millions of these suckers were produced, feeding the country's voracious appetite for inexpensive fiction.

Of course, with a demand this big, the editors of these magazines, and the editors for these new paperback lines, needed to find writers to meet their quota.

As a result, quite a few writers who later became big bestsellers got their start in pulps. And guess what? A lot of their early stories weren't very good.

But the more they wrote, the more they improved. Sure, they sometimes had editors to help them. But unlike today, those writers were learning on the job. They got paid to learn their craft, making a living until they were good enough to go from pulp mags to novels.

Me? I have my peers vet me. I also have fans who are beta readers who spot typos and errors.

But what about green newbies who don't have bestselling author friends or loyal fans?

I've followed a few authors on Kindle who originally published some pretty unpolished stuff. But the readers point it out, usually with a bad review, and then more often than not the mortified writer goes back and fixes it.

The reader has become the vetter.

Is it ideal? No. Ideally, writers would only self-publish flawless work. Both both Lee and I originally put ebooks on Kindle with formatting errors in them, which were pointed out to us and we fixed. We learned on the job.

Yes, it is necessary to have a second pair of eyes on your work. But those eyes don't have to be an editor at a Big 6 house.

Taking a shitty publishing deal with shitty royalties just because it offers you the opportunity to learn has some merit, but I really believe these things can be learned independently of taking a shitty deal. If the writer can even get a shitty deal these days, with the way the industry is imploding.

If I were a newbie, I wouldn't sit on a manuscript, hoping to be discovered by an agent, when there is a perfect opportunity to test-market my writing on Amazon.

Lee also said: (readers) are going to quickly discover that most self-published stuff is awful and, as a result, will be far less likely to take chances on writers they have never heard of… even at 99 cents.

Again, I disagree. I give readers more credit than that. This isn't a once-bitten/twice shy scenario. Every reader has read bad books, but it hasn't soured them on reading.

With Amazon reviews, star ratings, and preview features, bad books aren't going to sell well. The Readers (aka vetters, aka gatekeepers) will warn others against trash, and reward good books with lots of ratings and increased sales.

There is a LOT of crap on the Internet, a LOT of worthless, if not outright dangerous, websites. But that doesn't stop people from surfing.

There is a LOT of crap on Youtube. But that doesn't stop the good videos from rising to the top and going viral. The bad ones don't take away from the good ones. It isn't a zero sum game.

There can also be a lot of crap on Amazon, and it won't hurt those writing good fiction. Lee is an example. Right now, The Walk has been in the top 2000 for 18 months. It doesn't matter that there are a million other Kindle ebooks on Amazon. People are still finding him.

I've told Lee that the best thing he could do for his career is stop writing Monk books and start writing expressly for Kindle. It's a big risk in a bird-in-the-hand way, but I'm pretty sure the risk would pay off for him if he did it.

The more good books you list on Amazon, the more you'll sell.

The readers will see to it.