Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Guest Post by Raymond Benson

Raymond Benson has been a buddy of mine for years. He wrote nine James Bond novels and a slew of others, including tie-ins for the the video games Homefront and Metal Gear Solid, and a few Tom Clancy spin-offs.

He's made his backlist and a few unpublished novels available as ebooks, but they aren't selling as well as they could.

So what's going on? He's a name author with a fanbase, his covers are decent, his formatting is professional, and his ebooks are priced right.

Here's Raymond to talk about it...

By Raymond Benson

My good friend Joe Konrath has become the poster boy of e-book publishing. I really admire him. I step back and watch him and shake my head and say to myself, “Good for him. It’s so amazing that he’s had such success with e-books.” And I think: “Maybe I can do that, too!”

So, like many of Joe’s other author buddies, I have uploaded several of my titles to Amazon Kindle and Smashwords. I figured that if Joe, who produces a new, wonderfully entertaining Grindhouse-style horror or crime novel every day (it seems) and earns oodles of cash, then why can’t I?

But I don’t write the same kinds of books Joe does. Mine are straight thrillers, for the most part, although one of the new books I uploaded has a supernatural slant.

I’m mostly known for my James Bond novels published between 1997-2002. Unfortunately, these titles are owned by Ian Fleming’s literary company, so it’s up to them to make the books available in digital form (supposedly they’re coming soon). Other work-for-hire books for which I’m known are available but, again, I don’t own them.

The way to do it, Joe says, is put all your books that you own up there, even ones that were stashed away in a drawer long ago, price them at $2.99, and sit back and collect 70% royalties. So I did that. I have ten titles up there now—seven novels and three short stories. Five of the novels and one short story were published “traditionally” in print a few years ago (and are still somewhat available in that format). Only two novels came from the “vault,” so to speak. They didn’t sell originally but I personally thought (and my agent thought) they were sure-fire winners. So they should be selling well, right?

It hasn’t worked out that way. Not yet, anyway.

I did all the things Joe says to do. Get good covers, generate some buzz on the Kindle message boards, announce their availability on Facebook and the like, and market them the best I can. And yet, my sales are puny. As the author of twenty-five published books, and one who has made money from traditional publishing, I am now scratching my head and rubbing my chin and looking at my friend Joe and asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Here’s what I have available. The two books from the vault were written in 2006. The first, Artifact of Evil, is a thriller with historical fantasy elements. A prehistoric relic has become a coveted object of destruction, and it’s up to “Rusty” Red River, a freelance forensics consultant from Texas and his ex-girlfriend, a Jewish expert of Hebrew myths and legends, to solve a series of horrid crimes that stretch from Iraq to Chicago.

The other one, Torment, is about love, obsession, and voodoo. Our protagonist is on a business retreat in Jamaica, where he becomes simultaneously “cursed” and “protected” by two different voodoo charms. He also meets the love of his life, who mysteriously vanishes the morning after. Tracing her steps backwards, our hero must undergo unimaginable torment to find her.

Previously published novels available as e-books are my two rock ‘n’ roll thrillers—A Hard Day’s Death and Dark Side of the Morgue. These feature Spike Berenger, a P.I. who works in the rock ‘n’ roll world, which, of course, has been skewed to be a very dangerous place. With lots of references to music, cameos by real rock stars, and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, these are simply a lot of fun. There’s a Spike Berenger “hit single” (short story), too, entitled On the Threshold of a Death.

My early novels Evil Hours and Face Blind have been available as e-books for years. Evil Hours was written back in the late 90s while I was doing the Bonds. It’s “Larry McMurtry meets David Lynch”; in other words, it’s a crime thriller about the underbelly of a small West Texas town. Inspired by true events that took place when I was in junior high and high school, Evil Hours remains a favorite among my own novels. Face Blind concerns a young woman with “prosopagnosia,” or “face blindness,” a real neurological condition that prevents a person from recognizing faces. It’s “Wait Until Dark meets Memento”!

All of these titles are $2.99 or less in all formats. Other books of mine, for which the e-book rights are owned by different publishers, are also available at slightly higher costs. That’s standard for every author out there who still has books with traditional publishers—and despite what Joe says, I do believe that traditional publishing is still an important and necessary means of distributing one’s work.

In fact, I am extremely grateful and excited to work with the independent publisher Oceanview Publishing, which is publishing my thriller The Black Stiletto in September, both in hardcover and as an e-book. The first in a series featuring a female vigilante working in 1950s New York City, The Black Stiletto is very close to my heart. For a sneak preview, check out the ultra-cool video I recently wrote and produced in Hollywood at (Joe sez: best book trailer I've ever seen.)

But back to e-books. From what Joe and a handful of other author friends tell me, this is the future of publishing. I had a long talk with fellow authors at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago this past weekend about the subject. Most everyone is having the same kind of luck I am with e-books, i.e., it’s nothing to write home about. A couple of folks are selling books “okay,” but nowhere near Joe’s range.

So for me, at this moment anyway, the e-book thing is an enigma. It’s the jewel inside the puzzle box that one can’t seem to open. It’s the carrot dangling on a string that pulls away just as one grabs for it. As a result, I don’t trust it. I’m not convinced.

Hence, I’ve come to the mountain to seek the wisdom of the shaman who lives in the Forbidden Cave.

“Hey, Joe!” I call out. “Toss me a rope! I’m coming up!”

Joe sez: Raymond can write.

I like Raymond's Bond novels more than I like the Ian Fleming and John Gardner novels. They're a lot of fun.

Faceblind is a wonderful novel that needs to be made into a movie.

That both Torment and Artifact of Evil couldn't find homes with the Big 6 is criminal. They're terrific thrillers that should have sold.

So what's the deal?

Armchair quarterbacking Raymond's career, I believe he should have written a spy novel right after his tenure with Bond was up. That's what his fans were expecting. Instead, he delved into noir with Evil Hours and Faceblind, and while those are good books, he lost some momentum and still hasn't recovered.

His Spike Berenger Rock and Roll P.I. books are great, but they were released by Dorchester. Anyone who knows anything about Dorchester's history can understand why the books didn't do well.

The tie-in novels are all well-crafted and a joy to read, but Raymond wasn't writing those for his fanbase, he was writing them for hire.

But that's all in the past, a remnant of the legacy publishing world. In the brave, new world of digital, Raymond should be able to find the wide audience that has eluded him since Bond.

Let me reiterate some tips that I've successfully used to sell ebooks.

Trading Excerpts in the Back Matter. Not only with your own ebooks, but with other authors. Every ebook should have three or four sample chapters from other work by the author, and by work by similar authors (who can then do the same for you in return.)

Linkable Bibliography. At the end of your ebook should be links to buy your other ebooks. You can also link within your narrative text, like I've done with Banana Hammock and did with Black Crouch for Serial Killers Uncut.

Collaborating. Sharing and swapping fanbases is always a good idea, and with Google Docs and Dropbox, stories can be written in less than half the time.

Professional Formatting. You wouldn't serve a fine filet Mignon on a paper plate. Presentation is almost as important as content.

Compiling. Several 99 cent short stories can be combined into a $2.99 collection. Two $2.99 novels can be a $4.99 omnibus. This increases your shelf space, and gives you price points for several demographics.

Deluxe Editions. The collaborative novel Draculas, which has over 80,000 words of bonus features, is a great way to offer the reader more than plain old vanilla text.

Putting Ebooks on Sale. I've had a bit of success dropping prices on ebooks, getting high on bestseller lists, then returning them to the regular price. Sales and revenue inscrease.

Print Editions. Some people still want paper. Give it to them inexpensively, using Createspace.

Multiple Platforms. Make sure your ebooks are available in all formats, wherever ebooks are sold.

Tie-ins. Readers like a series. But there is nothing stopping you from taking characters from stand-alones and putting them in new stories with other stand-alone characters. Serial Killers Uncut has more than 25 characters from my books and Blake Crouch's books. This is fun for fans, and helps sell your backlist to new readers.

Different Genres. While you shouldn't try to chase what's hot, if you enjoy reading different genres there is no reason you shouldn't try writing those genres. All of your fans may not follow you, but this can introduce you to a whole new set of readers.

Some of these Raymond has already done. Some he hasn't, but should try. The one thing that might be the most effective is putting ebooks on sale. If he's not selling well, it can't hurt to drop everything to 99 cents for a month and see what happens. It's a risk, but it often works in jump starting sales, which gets books on the bestseller lists, which spurs more sales. (Note to Raymond: If you try this, do it on the 13th of June, two days before Amazon's current Sunchine Deals Sale is over, because those books will all fall off the map when they go back to full price, leaving room for others to take their places.)

I've also been begging Raymond for years to write another spy novel. His upcoming Black Stiletto is pretty close, but if he did something in modern times similar to Fleming or Ludlum, I think he could lure back his Bond fans.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the one thing all writers hate to rely on: Luck.

We all have to keep plugging away, story after story, book after book, and hope that lightening strikes.

The more you write, the more you keep at it, the greater your chances at finding success.
I got lucky. That's why I'm selling so well. Events played out which allowed me the perfect opportunity to exploit a new technology. Sure, hard work and talent play a part. But luck is the linchpin. If Amazon never invented the Kindle, I'd be writing sci-fi novels for $6k a pop, working two extra jobs to support my family.

Remember that this isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. Ebooks are forever. Forever is a long time for fans to discover a title. What's selling poorly now could be a hit in ten years. When shelf-lives and shelf-space are infinite, all we can do is keep chugging away until we reach that critical mass/tipping point.

I know it's discouraging. I have a few titles that aren't selling up to my expectations, and I have no idea why. The goal is to keep feeding the machine, to never give up, and to constantly be open to experimentation.

Also, try not to compare yourself with other writers. Others can inspire you with their sales, because this proves high sales can be achieved, but the whole "why him and not me?" mentality only leads to misery.