Sunday, March 10, 2013

Backlist Then and Now

So the six week KDP total updated last night and I made a bit over the $90,000 mark, assuming borrows are $2 each.

These past two years have been interesting, because I really haven't had a new IP of my own.

Of the last six novels I've written, five have been collaborations, and one was sci-fi under a pen name. No new stand-alones, either under JA Konrath or Jack Kilborn, and no new solo novels in my series.

And yet I'm making $15k a week.

I attribute most of this to getting my rights returned. Being able to properly exploit my backlist with free promotions and paid advertising has really helped their ranks, their positions on the bestseller lists, and their sales.

But these books are old. So why are they still selling well?

Let's look at the old, analogue way of bookselling.

Years ago, getting published was extremely difficult. So difficult it took me ten years to sell a book, during a decade where I wrote ten novels. Those novels garnered over 500 rejections.

When I finally signed my first book deal, it was 2002. My book Whiskey Sour came out in 2004, more than 16 months later.

When it did, stores ordered a few hardcover copies. These were kept in the Mystery section, spine-out, at full price ($23.95). They went to the chain bookstores, and some indie stores, but not to any big boxes like Walmart.

Without front table space, and without multiple copies in the bookstores, customers who might have liked these books didn't find them easily. They had to search for them. And if they did find them, there was no discounting, and twenty-four bucks plus tax was a hefty price to pay to try someone out.

I had a few good reviews in the industry rags (PW, Kirkus, LJ), but none in the big places--EW, NYT, People, Time. My publisher refused to let me tour, limiting my exposure to booksellers and potential fans.

So I did drop-in signings, handsold a lot of hardcovers, and spent a good part of my $33k advance going to writing conferences and bookfairs around the US.

All that self-promotion was hard work, expensive, lonely, and took away from my writing time.

In 2005, my second novel, Bloody Mary came out, in conjunction with the Whiskey Sour paperback. The prevailing idea at the time was that publishers grew and nurtured authors, giving them years to find that core readership who would sustain sales, eventually reaching a critical mass and propelling them to the bestseller lists where it became self-fulfilling.

Self-fulfilling = book available everywhere, so book sells everywhere. A classic Catch-22. I couldn't sell a lot of books, because I wasn't in a lot of retailers, and I wasn't discounted. But those retailers, and my publisher, wouldn't give me that needed marketing push to become a bestseller unless I hit some sort of arbitrary, mythical sales number.

So 2006 rolls around, I visit 500 bookstores in 29 states on tour, and I'm still trying to show my publisher that I deserve the four star, first-class treatment, with a huge marketing and ad campaign that will sell enough copies to get me on the USA Today and NYT lists.

I never get that push. I never get discounted. Nn 2007, when my fourth novel comes out, my publisher chooses not to renew their mystery line, or my contract. Which is a devastating blow to me, because I have three books left with them. Books that will get no support from my publisher.

But I soldier on. I had developed a fanbase, and a good relationship with bookstores, who reorder and handsell my series. My books go into multiple printings, despite lack of publisher support.

However, my numbers aren't strong enough (even though I earned out a $225,000 advance in 8 years) for another publisher to pick up my series. And for those who think $225k is great, that breaks down to $22,500 per year, and I spent $20k of that promoting myself.

So I change my name to Jack Kilborn and start writing horror. I sell Afraid for $20k and worry my writing career is about to end because I'm going to have to find a different job to supplement it, and once I do that I won't be able to devote my time to promotion.

Then this Kindle thing comes along.

Those rejected novels? They weren't rejected because they sucked. They were rejected because the publishing industry was, and still is, archaic, short-sighted, self-serving, broken, and often either stupid or evil, depending on which pro writer you talk to.

These rejected novels got something that my published books never got; a chance to succeed.

I no longer needed publisher coop to discount my titles and make them more attractive to readers--something I never had. Instead I could do that myself.

I no longer needed more shelf space in stores, or more retailers to carry me. I had just as much shelf space as any NYT bestseller.

I no longer was at the mercy of publishers for bad editing decisions, cover art, and title changes. I was in control.

That control meant I could publish a book two weeks after it was complete, not 16 months.

It meant I could change prices, covers, and even edit instantly by uploading a new version.

It meant I had an equal chance of being discovered, because the playing field was now even. I wasn't fighting for customer eyeballs against Patterson or King, who had dozens of books in the front of the store, and were available everywhere books were sold. King has one Amazon page per book, just like me. But I could best him on price.

The old days, where a book had a six month shelf life, then was returned if it didn't sell--or just as bad, sold and then wasn't restocked--were gone. Ebooks are forever. Shelf life, and space, is infinite, no restocking needed.

A combination of good covers, low prices, good descriptions, and good books put me on Amazon's bestseller lists, which then got me the eyeballs I never had before.

In the past, many bookstores didn't stock my backlist titles. They had to be special ordered by a customer who knew about them.

In a digital world, my backlist is instantly available to anyone. And it isn't a backlist.

To many readers, my old books are frontlist titles.

The readers who never discovered my Jack Daniels and Jack Kilborn books in print can now do so easily. If they see Whiskey Sour for the first time, it's a new book to them. And now that my publisher isn't controlling the price, I can make that book more affordable and more tempting. I can even make it free.

It's always been about exposure and cost. Cheap books, available everywhere, is why bestsellers are bestsellers. That was true in print, and it is true in ebooks.

But print was dominated by new releases. New books got the attention.

In a digital world, your backlist is new... to someone who hasn't seen it before. And that means millions of people. It is just as viable as your latest release. In fact, it may be even more viable, because it has had time to accrue a lot of positive reviews and ratings, which help inform potential readers and get them to buy it.

My previous publishers priced my ebooks too high. Now that I have the rights, I've made them more affordable.

As a result, I'm netting $2100 a day. Actually more than that, but I'm going by my six week report, and that first week was slower because I didn't have my backlist live and integrated into Amazon's system yet.

I'm not the only one doing this. Look at the bestseller lists. Lots of older titles on them. Many of them self-pubbed.

Backlist and frontlist are now meaningless. Legacy pub and self-pub are meaningless. It's all about availability and discoverablilty. And your odds at finding eyeballs improves with the more IPs you have.

What else helps you find eyeballs? Targeted advertising.

There are many websites dedicated to promoting free and discounted ebooks. Some are free to submit to. Some cost money. I've been using and to help lead people to my free titles. They are the first kind of advertising I've encountered where I can see specific, quantifiable results. YMMV, so experiment.

I've stopped trying to convince authors that signing with a legacy publisher is a bad idea. The axe I used to grind became unnecessary once my rights reverted. But my journey is both a cautionary and a redemption tale.

In the ten years I was legacy published, I made about $450k. In the four years I've self-published, I've made over 1.1 million dollars.

The higher royalty rate, the control I have, and the very little self-promo I've had to do while self-publishing means I've never been happier as an author.

I'm very lucky. I get to write for a living. And I get to do it on my terms.

As nice as the money is, the peace of mind is even better.