Monday, May 06, 2013

Blood Moon and Having Control

Joe sez: I asked my friend Alex Sokoloff for a guest blog about why she decided to self-publish her latest novel, Blood Moon, which is currently free on Kindle. My thoughts follow hers.

Here's Alex:

Alex: I’m Alexandra Sokoloff, former screenwriter, former traditionally-published midlist author, new e publishing convert.

Last summer I made the leap – I decided not to go for a traditional deal for my new thriller, Huntress Moon. I put it out as an e book instead.  

Much as Ann Voss Peterson wrote about here, and Rob Gregory Browne and Brett Battles wrote about here, I made more money in the first month of release, just on Amazon, than I'd ever made for a traditional advance. 

The book has just been nominated for a Thriller Award in the ITW's brand new Best E Book Original Novel category.

Joe asked me to blog for him about my e publishing experience, and my background and perspective is a little different from some of the other indie authors who have weighed in here, because I've also represented writers as a union activist, on the Board of Directors of the WGAw, the screenwriters union.

I hate to say it, but writers have a problem.  We hate business.  We have a further, worse problem. We have a collective suicidal fantasy that we don’t have to understand business because we’re creative.

I've made my living solely from my writing since I was twenty-five years old.  Making writing pay is not optional for me. That means, much as I hate it, paying attention to business is not optional, either.

I did eleven years as a professional screenwriter before I snapped and wrote my first novel. People thought I was insane to start writing books when I was making a good living as a screenwriter. That's everyone's dream anyway, right?  Add pension and health benefits and you’d have to be crazy to leave that for something that everyone says will never pay the bills.  But the thing is, I had gotten really active in the WGA, the screenwriters' union, which meant the business side of the business was in my face constantly, unignorable. I saw the film business model changing before my eyes, studios squeezing writers for more and more script drafts for less and less money, and as bad as I am at math, I could see that in a few years I wouldn't be able to sustain a living simply because of the work time added without compensation.  Add to this the fact that I’m a woman. In a good year women get a whopping 20% of the writing jobs in Hollywood.  I HAD to do something else.

So I wrote a book, and I sold it to a Big Six publisher, and then sold the next, and the advances were not enough to live on, but the foreign sales and some film options made it doable. Barely. In the meantime, though, I was learning the book business. And it wasn't looking good.

I was lucky, because early on Joe lectured me on bookstore co-op. And e books, too, back before ANYONE was talking about e books, but it was his rant on co-op that really got me thinking. I didn't particularly want to hear it, but you can't unhear something like that.  Co-op means that in publishing, the odds are stacked against everyone but the bestsellers.  The publishers pay bookstores for placement to improve on the success of their biggest cash cows, at the expense of all the rest of us. The chances of breaking out of that hierarchy are astronomical.  I was working my ass off at promotion, getting nominated for major mystery, thriller and horror awards, but I was quickly learning none of that meant anything to my publisher. By my fourth book I was done with being crippled by someone else’s mediocre expectations.  And by then, there was an option.  A scary option, but a real option.

I was slower than I wanted to be to self-publish because of just life - several devastating personal losses in the space of a year. It stopped my writing cold. It also took over a year to get my small backlist back - thank God I’m one of the ones who did. But during this really horrible time (the recession on top of everything else…) I finally started writing Huntress Moon, and I was studying e publishing.  What authors did and didn’t do. What Amazon and Barnes & Noble did or didn’t do. I read Joe’s blog. I read the Kindleboards. I watched friends like Joe, and Blake Crouch, Barry Eisler, CJ Lyons, Scott Nicholson, Ann Voss Peterson, Elle Lothlorien, Brett Battles, Rob Gregory Browne, JD Rhoades, LJ Sellers, Diane Chamberlain and Sarah Shaber.  I read the financial numbers they were so generous about sharing.   And I’d like to say something about that, right now. I constantly see and hear people criticize and disparage self-published authors for sharing sales numbers.  It’s bragging, it’s undignified, it’s not what REAL writers do.

Bullshit.  That is a massive lie deliberately perpetuated by corporations to keep writers happily slaving in the dark.  Happens just the same in Hollywood.  Don’t ever let the writers talk to each other, because then they’ll figure it out.

Writers talking openly about numbers should be the norm, not a radical political act.

But thank God I know a lot of radicals. Precisely because writers like Joe and the above shared their sales numbers, I knew e publishing for a living was not only doable, but a potentially far more lucrative option for me than traditional publishing.  So I studied, and I wrote, and I put up a non-fiction e workbook based on my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors blog, which taught me all the technical things I needed to know.  By the time Huntress Moon was done, I was already hearing things like “It’s too late.” “That e-publishing ship has sailed.” But that wasn’t what I was seeing, from people who were doing it right.  I took all I’d learned and put out the book as an e book original in July of last year.  And prayed.

In the first three months Huntress Moon was out, I made enough money on that ONE book, just on Amazon, just in e-format, to live comfortably for a year.  I got flooded with e mail from new readers who had never heard of me but who loved the book and were now buying all my others.  My Facebook subscribers jumped from 500 to 20,000 and kept growing - over 78,000 at this writing. 

That chunk of money and the steady income stream that followed has given me plenty of stress-free time to write the sequel and start the third book in the series. In the meantime, the royalties keep coming every month.  I know exactly what I’m making.  I know when I have to adjust, when I have to do a promo.  I know by when I have to make another lump sum to carry me through the next fiscal year. The clarity, compared to publisher royalty statements, is breathtaking.

And it’s not just financial. As I said, this month Huntress Moon was nominated for a Thriller Award. I am privileged to have the book recognized along with books by a star list of some of my favorite traditionally published authors.  ITW may be the first, but what do you want to bet that by two years from now every major genre award will have added a self-published category?

And yet I know far too many traditionally published authors, friends, who started out in publishing at the exact same time I did or sooner, who are struggling and sinking, and - even when traditional advances are being cut in half, and the big publishers are consolidating right and left - these writers will not grab for this obvious lifeline.  To them, I’d like to say here:

Did I do the right thing, self-publishing? I’ll paraphrase Ann Voss Peterson.  I only wish I had done it sooner.

I’m releasing the sequel to Huntress Moon this week: today through Thursday Blood Moon is free for Kindle.

You can also get Huntress Moon for just 99 cents, this week only. 

I hope you’ll give them a try!

Joe sez: First of all, everyone needs to pick up Huntress Moon for 99 cents, and Blood Moon for free. Do it now, I'll be here when you get back.

Got them? Good. You'll enjoy them. Alex is a great writer, and you can tell she worked in Hollywood because her books are, well, cinematic. She knows an incredible amount about plotting, characterization, and structure, and reading a Sokoloff book is not only entertaining, but a great way to learn how to improve your craft. In fact, you should also pick up her ebook Screenwriting Tricks For Authors. You'll learn a lot, and it's a steal at $2.99.

I was smiling reading Alex's blog post, not only because I'm thrilled for her success, but because it took me back to my early days as a writer and blogger.

Believe it or not, no writers spoke publicly about how much money they were making before I started doing so. And no writers ever talked about coop (which was publishing's dirty little secret) before I did.

I shared these things with writers for the very reason Alex states: writers talking to other writers should be the norm, not the exception.

Before writers began associating me with the self-publishing revolution, I was known as an innovator when it came to self-promotion. I learned how the publishing business worked, reverse-engineered it to find its strengths and weaknesses, and then figured out what writers could do to maximize their sales.

The sad fact was, compared to the power publishers had, writers had very little control over how well their books sold. I did my best to maximize the amount of control I had by:

1. Learning as much as I could. This was done by asking questions, talking to peers and publishing people, and speaking openly on this blog. By being frank, I encouraged frank discussions in my comments, and learned a lot from a lot of people (including those who stayed anonymous because they feared repercussions from their publishers).

2. Experimenting and refining my methods.

3. Working harder than any writer to self-promote, before or since. 

By doing this, I was able to eek out a living, keep my books in print, and develop a loyal fanbase. But I still had many novels that I couldn't sell, and my novels that were legacy published never caught fire and became bestsellers.

I didn't have enough control to do better. I was at the mercy of an archaic, inefficient, uncaring industry that refused to try and improve.

Consider these factors of publishing, and rate how important they are to you as a writer:
  1. Cover art
  2. Price
  3. Sales and free promotions
  4. Title
  5. Speed to publication
  6. Distribution
  7. Marketing and promotion
When I worked with legacy publishers, I had zero control over cover art. They chose it, with minimal input from me (that they ignored). Price was set by them. Sales promotions (if ever) were set by them. They made me change my titles. They took 12 to 18 months to publish after I finished the book. They controlled distribution (where the books were available) and coop (how it was displayed). And while I did marketing and promo on my own, I didn't have the deep pockets or reach that my publishers had.

Enter ebooks. Suddenly I had complete control over the above. And now I'm making $100,000 a month.

Coincidence? I don't think so. 

Taking control over your career is scary. It means taking risks. Failing often. Having no one but yourself to blame. Learning new skills. Branching out beyond your comfort zone. 

And there are no guarantees. Alex is smart and talented, but she took a huge risk by self-publishing. A guaranteed advance--even a small one--is hard to pass up in exchange for a spin at the wheel of fortune. Luck plays a large role in success, and not many writers get lucky.

But Alex has always been one to seek control. Her activism in the WGA on behalf of screenwriters was her way of fighting for more control. 

With self-publishing, she doesn't have to butt heads with studios, or with publishers. She can do things her way. In this case, launching a brand new title for free, which is something so gutsy I have yet to try it myself. Do you think any publisher would launch a book as a freebie? 

I hope it works for Alex. I suspect it will. And I respect the courage it took to try it, and all the courage it took to get to the point where she's able to try it.

For the first time ever, the artist has control. Now the question is: what are you going to do with that control?