Monday, February 15, 2010

Kudzu and Kindle

All along, the goal has been to build a fanbase.

In the history of publishing, this was usually a slow and steady process. You write a book. Then you write another a year later. And another a year after that. Hopefully the publisher keeps them in print, the bookstore keeps them on the shelf, and the fans like them and talk about them. This linear approach, if kept up long enough, can lead to a career, and even a spot on the bestseller list.

But there's an easier way to achieve market penetration and saturation.

Instead of releasing one book at once, you release sixteen.

There's a plant known as kudzu, which is widely hated in the south because it takes over cropland. It grows fast, and uses runners to spread. Kudzu can quickly saturate an entire field. One patch becomes two patches, then four patches, then sixteen patches, and pretty soon it's everywhere you look.

I'm noticing a similar phenomenon with writing in general, and ebooks in particular.

I've always believed that being prolific and diverse are the two biggest things a writer can do to create fans. Because of this, I write a lot of short stories, in various genres. The effect works as intended. I've got a few hundred thousand novels in print. But my short stories have been printed millions of times. Each published story is an opportunity to gain a new fan, some of whom will buy my books.

This approach has served me well. I get a lot of fan mail about my short work, and it often leads to the intended effect; to point readers toward my novels.

But this still isn't literary kudzu. It's a slow, gradual build up (albeit faster than if I only did novels.)

Then along comes the Kindle.

For those new to my blog, here's a recap of how I got started on Amazon.

Ever since my first novel, Whiskey Sour, was published back in 2004, I've had a website, I understood early on that people on the internet are looking for free content, and the two main forms of content are information and entertainment. So, from the very beginning, I've had free downloads on my website. Lots of short stories, and several of my pre-Whiskey Sour novels that couldn't find publishers.

After the Kindle's debut, I had Kindle readers contact me, saying the pdf downloads I offered on my site weren't compatible with their ereader. Could I please somehow make my ebooks available on Kindle?

So I did. But I wasn't allowed to give them away for free. So after some experimentation, I settled on a $1.99 price point.

This was in April 2009. In ten months and a few days, I've sold about 26,000 ebooks. In the first fourteen days of February, I've already made $1600. My bestseller, The List, isn't just the number one bestseller in the Kindle police procedure category, it's the number one bestseller in the overall police procedure category. In other words, I'm outselling print novels from Jonathan Kellerman, JD Robb, James Patterson, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, John Sandford, and everyone else. (For the curious, this book is averaging 82 sales per day.)

That's pretty astonishing. All of these writers are NYT Bestsellers. I am not. I'm just a midlister with a low cost ebook.

But here comes the kudzu tie-in. I've recently learned that all six of my Jack Daniels ebooks are among my print publisher's top 50 Kindle bestsellers. These books are priced higher than $1.99. In fact, one of them costs $9.99.

On the Kindle police procedure bestseller list, I currently have 7 books in the top 100.

This is instant market penetration and saturation. Unlike a slow, gradual growth, this is more like kudzu, which pops up in a bunch of places at once and keeps spreading out. Different readers discover different ebook titles of mine, and it sends them to other ebooks.

The more chances you have to be discovered, the more you'll be discovered. Building a fanbase, which used to be linear and gradual, now becomes more like a patch of weeds, spreading out in all directions and at great speed.

So you want to be a Kindle bestseller?

The more quality content you have, the better your chances. Short stories. Out of print books. Unpublished work that your agent couldn't sell.

This is more than just a quick way to make a buck. This is getting a firm foothold in the oncoming digital revolution.

I used to be known as the guy who wrote nine unpublished novels and got over five hundred rejections before landing a book deal.

Now I'm known as the guy who pays his mortgage selling books on Kindle that NY rejected.

Be the kudzu. Join the revolution before everyone else figures this out and it's harder to get noticed.


Max Watt said...

Thanks Joe! That's incredibly helpful.
I've learnt so much from reading your blog, that it's become invaluable!

Robert Burton Robinson said...

Congratulations on your success with your Kindle ebooks, Joe. Your philosophy is really working for you.

You have the advantage of having been published for several years now. It's a lot tougher for those of us who haven't been.

However, if I had not posted my fiction online since 2006, Google would not know me. And if Google and the other search engines don't know who you are, then you are a nobody online.

In this digital age, you cannot be a nobody online and expect readers to discover you. Giving some of your writing away for free will get attention. And it's not easy to get attention when there are a bazillion new books coming out every year.

Thanks again for this blog, Joe. Your posts always go great with a good cup of coffee. :)

Theresa Milstein said...

This is a helpful and inspirational post. I have been writing seriously for four years. Five manuscripts later, I'm still unpublished, but haven't counted the rejections. Unfortunately, although I have a blog with 50+ followers, I haven't tried to write many smaller pieces, let alone get them published. I guess I should try that next.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Hooray! It is much easier to have a goal of releasing 10 ebooks and earning a set amount of money than hoping one agent or editor will discover your genius.

RBR, it's up to each writer to not be a nobody (is that a double negative?) It's easier than ever to be somebody. YOU are somebody. You are a cottage industry, and no matter your skill level, you write unlike anyone else on the planet.

You have your own perspective and dreams and talents and experiences. You have the ability to create your cover, tag your categories, and then promote your tail off--which NY expects you to do anyway.

You deserve an audience. It may only be five people. It may be 5 million. I am so incredibly grateful to be a writer right now. For the first time in forever, I have no one else to blame, and I directly benefit from the fruits of my labors.

I am actually considering buying back the rights to all my OOP novels from my publisher, because I know I am losing thousands of dollars by not having them in my hands right now. Even with a mere seven-year license, I was incredibly shortsighted in signing those deals. But then, I figured they would stay available, too.

Now I know the real value of my work. I see it every day. Tick by tick.

Scott Nicholson
haunted computer books

Poppak said...

Joe, for you next big seller - "Be the Kudzu" t-shirts with your photo, with vines coming out will be a big seller.

Thanks as always for the article.

Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo

Karen Carr said...

I just received a kindle for my birthday, and I had a very negative view of the thing. Now that I'm using it, I LOVE it. I can see more and more people moving in this direction.

I'd be interested to see your opinion on ebook price. The publishers seem to think that $13.99 is good, but this seems a little high to me. I love the $1.99 price, in fact I went and bought The List because of it.

Betsy Ashton said...

This is terrific. I've been following your blog and website for months. I present marketing programs for writers who have no idea what it takes to build the fan base. Most are horrified at the thought of self-promotion. I tell them it's better than no promotion, particularly for writers with POD books.

I'm part of your fan base. I started with your books in hardback. Read 'em all. Listened to many in the car on road trips. Now, I'm hooked on the idea of selling low cost books through kindle.

I can't tell you how important your blog has become. Good luck and much success in expanding your fan base through e-books.

Zoe Winters said...

Dammit, Joe! Stop telling people this. I'm gonna have to have you whacked! I've gotta have a few more years of most writers waffling over whether or not they "should" put their books on kindle, so I can gain a foothold, lol.

Seriously though, I'm very excited to hear about your success with this. It gives me a model of what is possible and gives me stuff to aim for.

Zoe Winters said...

Poppak has a great idea. You really could merchandise "Be the Kudzu" You could write an ebook about your experiences with kindle and sell it on kindle, and have T-shirts and mugs and stuff.

JA Konrath said...

Before I do kudzu tee shirts, I want to make WWJAD? bracelets. :)

Edward G. Talbot said...

Great post, JA. With each round of rejections, this stuff gets more and more tempting to try, especially since I had very good response to a free audio version of my first novel.

I note that you use the term "quality content", which I think is important to remember. The work we put out there helps define us - that's why it works as a positive. But it can also work as a negative. It does not need to be perfect, but it does need to be professional.

And I also like the multiple genre angle. This is the exact opposite of what the traditional publishing model will tell you. That makes since if your model depends on blockbusters for 99% of your income, but for the huge majority of authors, I think your approach is more likely to have the kudzu effect.

Really enjoyed "The List" on kindle - one of 3 kindle books I've read, on Kindle for PC since I don't actually have a kindle. I've got Shot of Tequila from Smashwords sitting about 5th in my queue of books (mostly paper) to read.

WayneThomasBatson said...

Okay, Joe

Enough's enough. I'm sold. I too am a midlister (YA Fantasy Adventure though). Of seven published books, I've had five YA Bestsellers, granted a niche market, but still, decent sales. Overall about 400K Books sold. That said, the money coming in isn't even close to paying my mortgage. I'm stoked for you and thrilled about the possibilities.

But forgive me if I've missed this, but where/how do I start? Say I want to write a novel just for eBooks--Amazon, Nook, etc. What are the steps?

How about a new pdf for us "A Newbie's Guide to ePublishing." Please please! If you do, I'll stop bugging you about my silverware. ;-)

Dawn said...

First--congrats on your success.
One of my good friends was raving about how great your blog was, and she was right. Great information---and great moxie.

I've had two print books published and am gearing up to release a short story collection on Kindle [because I've heard short story collections are notoriously hard to sell in the print market] so your information about the short stories was very relevant to me.

PS-- My snarky muse said she wants to buy your muse a beer...

Karen McQuestion said...

Once again, another great post! I have six books on Kindle, all $1.99or less (per your advice, Joe), and all are selling well. What was once a negative--six unpublished books--is now a positive. In the last six months I've made some money, gained readers, and had a Kindle novel (A Scattered Life) optioned for film. I never could have predicted that self-publishing on Amazon's Kindle would have opened so many doors for me.

"Be the kudzu" expresses it perfectly. It's true--if readers enjoy one of an author's novels they tend to buy another, and then another, especially when the cost is low.

Your blog posts have been so helpful to me in all of this, I really want to thank you.

Debbi said...

Great post, Joe! I'll never be able to thank you enough for educating us about putting ebooks on Kindle.

And, FWIW, I've done a bit of (informal) market research on the factors that seem to govern ebook sales success, which I'm happy to share:

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have thoughts on ebooks for the YA crowd? Not just adults who read YA. Just curious because I have a YA novel coming out this summer andwould like to work with my publisher on an enhanced ebook.


Christine said...

Thank you! I have hope after reading this. I am also very motivated to get my web domain name as well! This shows me how my writing might get out there with or without an agent or a publisher. Woohoo.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe:

First, thanks for posting your screen shot of your Kindle sales last month. There were and are a lot of folks arguing on the forums about raising prices but your picture influenced me more than all of their words. '

I'd like to be Kudzu but I'm not there yet. Right now my price point is at $2.99 b/c that seems to be the magical threshold that will transport the writer to the 70% royalty threshold in June or so.

Will you increase your prices? Or how much do you think that would impact your sales?

Lastly, do you think a romance writer has any hope to become Kudzu or do you think thrillers have a more universal and less gender specific appeal?

Thanks again - you're a real inspiration!!

Mary Anne Graham

Mary Anne said...

BTW, as to my prior post, I wasn't trying to be Anonymous. Linking to my blog wouldn't have been a good way to hide my identity.

I'm.........a little technically challenged is all.

The Daring Novelist said...

I'm beginning to understand that covering the audience is three dimensional. It's not just how many stories you have out there, but how many venues.

For a long time I thought that if you have a story free on your website, there wasn't much point to offering it for download....

But this is a great illustration of why you want to blanket everything.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Naomi Estment said...

Thanks a million for an exceptional article, Joe. Not only is it inspiring and helpful, but so are the many other comments from your readers - thanks also to them, as well as Joanna @thecreativepenn for tweeting about it!

I'll go and check out your books now. May your kudzu continue to take root like wildfire :-)

Warm regards from SA,


Sandy said...

Great post, Joe. I totally agree with you.

You can Google me and find me all over the place. Smile.

I also agree that just because we're e-pubbed doesn't mean we should settle for slop, we want quality in our books or we gain a bad reputation.

Anonymous said...

thank you, what a good idea! I was thinking traditional publishing-one book after another. But maybe you are right, release at the same time and see the fireworks effect!