Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Guest Post by Robert Gregory Browne

SCARED SHITLESSRobert Gregory Browne

Several years ago, Joe, Barry Eisler, Brett Battles and I all met at Thrillerfest Arizona, when Brett and I were probably two of the greenest guys in the room. We were both flush, however, with the success of finally being accepted by big-time New York publishers after years of trying to get through the gates. And, for me at least, Joe and Barry were far enough ahead of us that I felt a little intimated by them.

Come to think of it, I still do.

Flash forward and here were are, all seasoned veterans of the publishing world, facing the challenges of a new form of delivery which Joe, Barry and Brett have embraced wholeheartedly.

I, on the other hand, have been lagging behind. But when I told Joe that I had finally decided to take the indie plunge, he suggested that I sit down with Brett for a conversation about my current state of mind, which is an equal mix of elation, confusion and abject terror.

Brett Battles: First, I want to congratulate you on finally making the leap into Indie Publishing! Your first indie published book just came out last week, if I'm not mistaken. A mystery thriller called Trial Junkies (currently free on Amazon.)

Robert Gregory Browne: Last Tuesday. So it's been up for a week.

B: Well, it's about time! It's not like I haven't been pushing you to go independent for... well... forever.

R: I know, I know. I've been watching all of you guys jump in—first Joe, then Barry, then you and countless others. There's this great party that's been going on for a couple years now and I'm finally crawling out of bed, getting dressed and hoping I'm not too late for all the fun.

B: So what took you so long?

R: Well, until late last year there was this carrot dangling in front of me called fame and fortune that I wholly bought into. Not that anyone ever promised it outright, but I was told that the book I had coming out soon—after a year of waiting—would likely be my big breakout book that would launch me from the midlist into the big time. This was probably MY fantasy more than anyone else's, but I had high hopes for the book.

B: Right, I remember that.

R: So, while you and everyone else were trying to get me to join the party, I was still stuck in a contract and wedded to the old ideas and the old dreams, relying on other people to make them come true. The problem was that despite all this hope of breaking out big, I wasn’t even remotely convinced it would actually happen. Especially after I went to the RT Writer's Conference last April.

B: Why is that?

R: You were there. Barry. Lee Goldberg. I remember is you and Barry and Lee hovering around your iPad while you were showing them some cover art for your upcoming indie release, and all three of you were rhapsodizing about self-publishing. I mentioned that I had a book coming out in hardcover and you all groaned and gave me this "you poor guy" look that got me thinking, yep, the writing is on the wall.

B: I remember that. But you still waited. How did the hardcover do?

R: About as well as you could expect for a midlist author in this economy, with ebooks starting to dominate the marketplace. I won't deny that The Paradise Prophecy got me some of the best reviews I've had and certainly raised my profile—and who knows, when the mass market comes out next week it may raise it a bit more, but let's just say I'm no longer dreaming of fame and fortune.

B: All right, so that book didn't hit as you expected. Still, that was last summer. What happened between then and now?

R: A lot of soul searching. At that point in my career, I was also writing short legacy books under a pen name, had done a ghosting job and had a couple more potential ghosting assignments lined up. I suddenly realized that I was making a living writing books that I had no real emotional investment in. It was grunt work, I was burned out, and there were times I thought about quitting the business altogether—simply because I wasn’t having fun anymore.

B: We talked several times while you were working on those projects, and it was clear you were very frustrated.

R: Frustrated and depressed. And maybe a little crazy.

B: A little?

R: Okay, a lot. Just ask my agent.

B: Or anyone else who was around you. Trust me, I was one of those on the other end of the line trying to talk you off the edge. Anyway, so you did all this soul searching, and…?

R: All this time, guys like you were taking the digital original world by storm.

B: Digital original—trying to get fancy and coin a term?

R: You know me, I’m always trying to get fancy, but for some reason I’ve never liked the term ebook. But I guess we’re stuck with it. Still, digital originals is kind of how I think of them, because I often compare this current evolution to the fifties, when Fawcett started publishing paperback originals—which were brand new at the time and sold in dime stores—and the publishing establishment screamed that these books were destroying publishing and devaluing the work. Sound familiar?

B: Very.

R: So anyway, I could see that your books were climbing the Amazon charts and you were having great success, so I finally decided I needed to stop fooling myself, stop buying into the ridiculous notion that if I trust others to control my fate, I'll be just fine. It was finally time for me to take that leap.

B:And the result was Trial Junkies.

R:Right. When I sat down to write that book, I was beholden to no one but my readers and myself. And you know what?

B: What?

R: I've never had a better time writing. This wasn't a story that had been "approved" by an editor or a publishing staff or my agent, but one that I had been wanting to write for a long time.I felt free, and I really had a blast writing it.

B: Yep, writing for yourself has a way of making an author feel that way. So now that it's out, how do you feel?

R: Uh, you would ask that. To be frank, I'm scared shitless.

B: And that’s because…

R: Because now that I've finally dragged myself out of bed, hopped in the car, driven across town and joined the party, I'm suddenly petrified that nobody will ask me to dance. Despite all the success you and Joe and Barry and Lee are having, that doesn't guarantee success for me, and despite moments of elation—when I think I've made the right choice—I have periods of panic where I wonder if I've just cut my own throat. Remember how you felt when Little Girl Gone was first released?

B: Oh, yeah. Not something I’m likely to ever forget. I thought I was going to have a stroke pretty much everyday for two months. Have I done the right thing? Have I ruined my publishing future? Will I make any money? Have I gone insane?

R: Exactly.

B: There were a few nervous months there when I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to make my rent (not an exaggeration), but sales continued to grow, and now I don’t worry nearly as much as I use to.I'm sure this stage will pass soon for you, too.

R: I think part of the problem is that, as traditionally published authors, we're kind of trained to "listen to mommy," because she'll always take care of us. We feel we need to follow her lead. But now suddenly mommy's gone and we're on our own and as crazy as it sounds, it's a little unnerving. Until, of course, you look at the situation logically and realize that mommy didn't always know best. Far from it. In fact, mommy is probably far less interested in the relationship than you are.

B: Absolutely. A lot of things changed at Bantam Dell between the release of my third and fourth books—the most important being my two biggest supporters were no longer with the company, and the new folks made it pretty clear I was not a priority. When they passed on my new book proposal, once my contract was fulfilled, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. That book, btw, was Sick, which has gone on to become my best reviewed and one of my best selling books, and has spawned two sequels so far.

R: That seems to happen to a lot of people. Books getting passed on that become great sellers or even bestsellers on Kindle.

B: The key, at least in my mind, is to write the best books you can, AND get as many titles up on your virtual shelf space as possible. Last year I released almost twice as many books as I had in the previous five. The more books you have—as long as they're good—the less any single title has to carry the load. You know this, too. We've talked about it before. I believe you have several books you'll be releasing soon, right?

R: That's the plan. It took forever for me to get my backlist, but we finally got the reversion letters a couple days ago, so that's four books I'll have in addition to Trial Junkies. And I’m already working on Trial Junkies #2.

B: You mentioned what a pain it was getting the rights to your backlist. You want to elaborate?

R: Let's just say that it took a lot of cajoling on my part and from my agent and his assistant to finally get those letters in hand. It was like pulling teeth with slippery fingers. Surprisingly, they approved the reversions fairly quickly—for which I give them tremendous credit—but then it took months and months to finally get the letters themselves. But I remained patient.

B: Why?

R: Because I'm a nice guy.

B: Since when?

R: Okay, since never, but don't tell anyone else that.

B: It’s our secret. So now that you have the rights back, are you planning to release them all yourself?

R: Absolutely. With Trial Junkies going free on Amazon Select starting today, I decided to also release an updated version of Kiss Her Goodbye. And I hope to have the rest out early next month.

B: Kiss Her Goodbye was the one CBS made into a television pilot.

R: Right. A wonderful experience all around, which I wrote about in the new afterword in the book. They did a great job.

B: Yes, they did. So the big question is, are you all-in now? Or are you just dipping your toes?

R: In all honesty, I'm not sure. I was raised in this business with a certain mindset that I'm still fighting against. Like I said, I'm scared shitless because I have no idea how it'll all turn out. Not that I ever knew before.

B: Sure, it's back to the "mom" thing. It's the comfort level and the way we were brought up to think about traditional publishing versus self publishing.

R: Exactly. But with indie publishing I don't need mom's permission. I'm no longer begging her and dad to let me take the car out for a spin.

B: It's a kind of brainwashing. I don't mean that in an evil way. It's just that traditional publishing was the only way to get a novel out there for, well, like forever. Until ebooks came along. It takes a while to deprogram.

R: And I'm still deprogramming.

B: It probably took me six months to get to a point where I was no longer thinking, have I done the right thing?Six, nerve racking, stomach wrenching months.

R: I remember you telling me you couldn't sleep.

B: Yep...for a LONG time.Now, I don't even think about it. I'm just constantly excited about getting my next book done and out.

R: Plus you're writing like a fucking maniac. Book after book. And I'm envious as all hell. How many books have you written over the last year or so?

B: When PALE HORSE comes out in June, that'll be nine in fifteen months... three of which were written prior to 2011, but the rest since then. But the thing is I'm not writing any faster than I did when I had my contracts with Bantam Dell. I just had a lot more down time then…which I now wish I had used to write other books. Lost opportunity.

R: Like I said, I’m envious. And you not only write fast, but you write WELL.

B: Thanks. I think that's one of my favorite things about indie publishing. When I was with Bantam I was on a one-book-a-yearrelease schedule, and it was killing me. What that really meant was that sometimes it was up to a year and a half or more from the time I'd actually finished all the edits on a book before it hit the stores. Now I’ve hired my own editor andI just put them out as I finish them. I LOVE that. I actually remember what the book is about when people talk to me about it.

R: And it doesn't hurt that you're making very good money at it.

B: Good money. Working toward very good.

R: Which, of course, gives me hope. I was talking to my financial guy a few days back and telling him how much my friends are making through self-publishing. I said, "Some of these guys are pulling in 30-40K a month."

He says, "I'm not surprised."

I said, "Really?"

He said, "Sure, because that's the cut the publisher usually takes. You just never see it."

B: That pretty much sums it up. And ebooks are forever. Traditional publishing is ALL about that first month. But with ebooks, you don't have to fight for shelf space, and even those that have been out for a year just keep going and going.

Even if you have a bad month, or a bad year, next month or next year could be fine.

R: And the playing field is fairly even. Contrary to what some people believe, most readers don't give two hoots who published the damned book. They just want a great read.

B: Yep. And the stigma of "self-publishing," while still there, is quickly disappearing as more and more of authors jump in, and I’m not just talking about previously traditionally published authors, but also authors who’ve bypassed that path altogether.

R: But I suppose we're preaching to the choir here. Joe's been saying this for years.

B: Yes, he has.

R: And I'll be perfectly honest. When Joe first started talking about this stuff, I thought he was nuts. I really thought he'd taken a left turn into looney-ville. Shows you how much I know.

B: Many people thought that. What Joe was saying made logical sense, but it was playing against our brainwashing.

R: But Joe was a visionary and I wish I had even half the foresight he had. Okay, I'm done stroking him now.

B: Thank God.

R: But seriously, he saw something the rest of us were too blind to see. The future. And he seemed to know it was coming fast, and was prepared for it, while the rest of us—especially me—were still thinking about that dangling carrot. We were letting emotion override our common sense.

B: So what are you're expectations now that you're one of us?

R: I'm just hoping I'll make it through the next six months.

B: Don't worry. You'll eventually look back on this moment and think "that wasn't so bad."

R: Promise?

B: I promise.

R: I sure hope you're right. In the meantime I'll think I'll go puke.

Rob’s eBooks

TRIAL JUNKIES—First in a new series
BOTTOM DEAL—A Nick Jennings Digital Short

Brett’s eBooks

THE DESTROYED—Jonathan Quinn Thriller #5

Joe sez: Both Rob and Brett are terrific writers. If you like crime fiction, get them while they're cheap (or free.) I'm going to reiterate some of the advice Brett gave Rob, and add a bit more.

1. I've lost some of my faith in the Kindle Select program since it originated, and as a result I've opted my titles out. Select requires exclusivity, and I found I was making more money via Smashwords, Kobo, B&N, Overdrive, Sony, and Apple than I was through Select lends. 

The other advantage of Select--being able to make your ebook free--used to result in a nice bounce from the free list to the paid list. Lately, the bounce isn't nearly as dramatic. 

Two weeks ago Ann Voss Peterson made her thriller ebook Pushed Too Far free for a week. She gave away 70,000 copies--which is impressive, even beating many of the giveaways Blake Crouch and I had done (giveaways that got us in the Top 100 paid list and made us lots of money.)

Ann never hit the Top 100 paid. She's currently at #158. This is great, and she's thrilled, but she's only allowed to do this once every 90 days, and I don't believe the benefit corresponds to the loss of income from the other retailers.

If you do decide to make your ebook free, go all in. Use the 5 full days allotted, contact as many websites as you can find who announce freebies, and enlist everyone you know to help you spread the word.

2. Get as much content up there as possible. Virtual shelf space is like physical shelf space--the more titles you have, the more chance you have of being seen. The best advertising for your writing is your writing, so write a lot. Also, don't be afraid to experiment. If you write three books in a series that isn't selling well, try something else. Ebooks are forever. You can always go back to your series, or it could always get "hot" a few years from now and start selling like crazy. Until then, try new things.

3. Experiment with pricing, product description, and covers. Change stuff. Analyze data. Share what you've learned with your peers.

4. Bundle. Shorts can be compiled into collections. Novels and be bundled into sets. You and Brett and two other authors could each put a book into a four-novel collection and split the royalties. This is an easy way to increase shelf space without writing more.

5. Don't worry about advertising or marketing--I haven't heard of any instances where it has worked. My rule of thumb is: if it makes me buy a book, I'll try it for myself. I've never bought a book because of a  book trailer, pop-up, Facebook page, postcard, email spam, or print or online ad. I'm also not a big fan of marketing. I've never seen my sales jump because I did a print interview, radio show, or any other type of publicity. Fewer public appearances and money spent to self-promote, and more time at the desk writing. That's the best bang for your buck.

6. Pay attention. The more you know, the better off you are. Subscribe to the free daily versions of Publisher's Lunch and PW Daily even though they are biased toward the legacy industry. Read Passive Guy, Kris Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, David Gaughran, Bob Mayer, and Mike Stackpole to understand how the industry is changing. Read Mike Shatzkin to see how some people are fighting to keep the industry how it is. 

7. Ignore the pinheads. It was brave to take this leap into the unknown. Most people aren't brave. So they will ridicule, deride, debase, vilify, disapprove, mock, judge, and even lie because the are desperate for you to be wrong. Fuck 'em. The best defense is being right and living well.

8. Do for others what others have done for you. Be successful, and teach other writers who to do the same.

The world needs heroes. Be one.