Sunday, January 23, 2011

Guest Post by Jeremy Robinson

Continuing my series of guest post by writers doing well with self-publishing, here's Jeremy Robinson.

Like the previous guest posts, he's come to this point by taking his own, unique path. It's worth mentioning again that every writer needs to set their own goals, and you should never compare yourself to anyone else. Everyone's journey is different, and your mileage may vary.

That said, there are a lot of commonalities among those selling well. A while ago, I mentioned 4 elements needed for Kindle success.

1. A good book (and good formatting to go along with it.)
2. A good cover.
3. A good product description.
4. A low price.

I'm going to add two more to the list.

5. Continually adding more books to the virtual book shelf.
6. Perseverance, and the willingness to experiment.

As with print books, the more products you have available, the likelier you are to be discovered and bought.

Also, this isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. While it's easy to look at these guest posts and think, "I bet I can make that much money," this doesn't happen overnight. It took two years for me to be selling at the rate I'm currently selling at (700 books a day), and six years prior to that busting my hump in the traditional publishing world.

If your sales aren't where you'd like them to be, you need to keep trying, keep tweaking, keep experimenting, and keep writing.

Now here's Jeremy...

For people to truly understand my thoughts on e-publishing, the first thing you need to know is that I’m a risk taker. My advice may not be for you if you prefer not to rock the boat. And before I offer my advice, for perspective, I offer the wham bam thank you ma’am version of my path to publication and e-publication.

My wife and I got married at twenty and for the first ten years I worked at becoming a writer, full time. I made no money while my supportive, loving, amazing wife worked. There were years where, combined, we made an entire year. Keep that number in mind for later. In 2003 I started making progress publishing articles and a non-fiction book about screenwriting, but nothing that paid the bills or remotely close to the fiction I wanted to write.

In 2005, after deciding no one would want to publish a mainstream thriller featuring Jesus, I self-published my first novel, THE DIDYMUS CONTINGENCY, using Within a year I had sold 6000 copies at $18 and made about $1 per book. Good sales. Crappy income. I did some research and discovered that if I cut out the middle man and started my own small press I could make $4 per book and turn that $6000 into $24,000, which for my wife and I was enough to live on. But there was a hitch.

We had a daughter. And a son on the way.

So I did what any responsible parent would do. I started a small press, Breakneck Books, using three credit cards and took our family to the brink of financial ruin (the only money in the bank came from credit cards). I put out three more of my own novels (RAISING THE PAST, ANTARKTOS RISING and KRONOS) and a few by authors I knew. And, thank God, they sold. And for a few years I eked out a living as a publisher/writer. But just barely.

I sold well enough to attract the attention of my agent, and then Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press who offered me a three book deal based on my previous books’ sales, a 75 page sample and a summary of the first book. The advance was nearly three years income for me and I snatched it up.

So now I have PULSE out in hardcover and mass market. INSTINCT is out in hardcover and arrives in mass market on February 1. And THRESHOLD, the third book in the series comes out in hardcover on March 29. Hurray for me! Now I can quit the day job, right (which for me is self-publishing)? I thought so. So I stopped. I got out of the publishing gig.

What followed was a rude awakening. I wasn’t going to instantly become the next James Rollins. I wouldn’t make money hand over fist. I was...I was...a mid-list author.


I had left the publishing company I started to focus on my writing and had only one book left that I hadn’t signed away. So I went back to my roots and self-published BENEATH on Kindle, in February of 2010. I sold 1000 copies in the first month and since then have sold 7000+ copies.

I spent the spring and summer of 2010 writing two novels, one under my name and one under a pen name (which I have yet to publicly claim is me). After writing three books in a series, I found both books incredibly liberating and fun to write because I could experiment. THE LAST HUNTER is a YA book that takes place in the world of ANTARKTOS RISING, 20 years before the events of that book. The novel by the pen name is dark and gruesome horror that I could never get away with as Jeremy Robinson.

With the bank account once again becoming barren, I put both books out as e-books in mid-November.

And now, just two months later, I have sold 9052 e-books, not including Smashwords and Nook sales. I made $10,000 in December and am on track to make $10,000 in January. In two months I will have made more than I did in previous years. And even if sales fall, which I expect them to do, I will still make more than I do from being a mid-list author. A lot more.

This week, I put out two more experimental books, INSOMNIA, a book of short stories, and THE ZOMBIE’S WAY, a humorous illustrated inspirational...for zombies, under the pen name Ike Onsoomyu (sound it out). So now I’ve got five e-books out. I’ll be writing the second book in the Hunter series in the spring and the second horror novel under the pen name this summer. Both will be out by the fall. And when the rights to my first four books revert back to me, I’ll have eleven e-books. I’m making 10k from just three, so I’m fairly excited to see what happens when I have eleven.

Now, the first thing critics are going to point out is that I, like Joe, and am established mid-list author so that must be why my e-books are selling well. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Keep in mind that I was selling lots of books long before I had a traditional print deal. My books sell because I work like a bastard. I do my book covers (even Thomas Dunne asked for my help on the covers), website, interiors, marketing and PR, never mind writing the books. The only thing I don’t do is edit. If anything, my hardcovers sell well because of my self-publishing efforts.

Also worth mentioning is that the horror book released under a pen name, which isn’t linked to me in any way, is selling twice as many books as those under the Robinson name, and will soon outsell my hard cover releases in a fraction of the time. In two months, this book published under a no-name pen name has sold 4900 copies.

So what about that advice I promised you? It’s two fold. Part one is simple, take risks. Jump in. You have nothing to lose. Seriously. You’re not going to blow a future print deal by self-publishing an e-book. The numbers aren’t tracked by Bookscan. You can make the book disappear with the click of a button. At the same time you might just sell enough to entice a publisher to make a sweet offer (if print is your goal). If you fail, pull the book and send it back to the slushpile.

Part two is not so simple. Do it right. I’m not saying I’ve done everything right. I make plenty of mistakes. But I am dedicated to putting out books that rival those produced by the big publishers in every way. I want my covers, my interiors and my story and writing quality to match, or beat, those produced by the big guns. And you should too. If you don’t, you’re not going to sell. You’re going to be disappointed and you might just give up on your dreams. Don’t be afraid to pay for a cover. To hire an editor. You might spend $1000, even $2000, getting your book ready, but if you don’t believe you can sell the 500 - 1000 copies of your book at $2.99 and make that money back you shouldn’t be self-publishing. If you don’t believe the book will sell, it probably won’t. Don’t half-ass it.

So, have I given up on print? Despite making more money than I ever have before, no. I just agreed to write two more (stand alone/non-series) books for Thomas Dunne/St. Martins and will have new print books coming out until 2013. Why? A few reasons.

First, I still cling to the hope that I will be the next Crichton, or Rollins, or King. Those kinds of sales can’t currently happen with e-books. Second, I love hardcovers and really enjoy having my books in that format. Third, my editor has vastly—vastly—improved my writing and I’m still learning a lot from him. Fourth, having my books in stores and online increases my market exposure. Those who find me at B&N are picking up the e-books, and those that find the e-books are picking up the print books. Last, if my books never break out of the mid-list I may lose money on the print books vs. e-books, but I currently write three to four books a year, and am willing to take the hit on the chance of becoming a print book bestseller. Imagine the bump the e-books would get if that happened!

Whether or not I become a print bestseller, I expect e-books will be my main source of income for years to come. By 2013 I plan to have fifteen e-books out, thirteen of them novels. My personal goal is to make $20,000 a month by that time. With three novels selling 5000 books a month now, and the ever increasing e-book market size, I think that’s doable, and worth the risk. Don’t you?

Joe sez: Robinson is a smart guy, and a good writer. He's also willing to take chances, which is a plus.

I agree with much of what he said here, up until he agreed to write more books for his publisher. To me, that's a big mistake. I'll take it point by point.

First, I still cling to the hope that I will be the next Crichton, or Rollins, or King. Those kinds of sales can’t currently happen with e-books.

Actually, it's close to happening. Amanda Hocking is going to wind up with over 250k ebooks sold by the end of this month, if she hasn't hit it already. She's on track to do a million sales within by the end of this year. That's more than most bestselling authors do.

Hoping your publisher gets behind you is like buying a lottery ticket--you could win, but it isn't a sound business investment. Robinson says he hopes to make $20k a month by 2013. I believe, if he had the rights to the books that his publisher currently publishes, he'd currently be making what I'm making; over $35k a month.

The fact that his publisher is releasing his Kindle ebooks for $7.99, $9.99, and even $14.99, is hurting his sales, not helping them.

I'm pretty convinced that bestsellers are bestsellers because of the lack of choice, coupled with habit. Go to a drug store, they have twelve different titles available. Naturally, those books available in drug stores will sell more copies than those only available in bookstores. And when you go to bookstores, you see those same titles selling at 40% off, in huge stacks at the front of the store. Of course they sell a lot.

Over the next few years, as ebooks become the dominant format, we'll see a change in bestselling authors. Ebook buyers aren't going to continue to plunk down $14.99 for titles, because they'll have a choice. Right now, we're in a transitional period, and people are buying what they're familiar with buying--bestsellers.

But once the switch to ebooks happens, and readers are given unlimited choices, price will become a dominant factor. And publishers aren't going to be able to price the latest King or Patterson at $2.99. So readers will go elsewhere.

Second, I love hardcovers and really enjoy having my books in that format.

I love hardcovers, too. And I get a fair amount of email from people who want my books available in hardcover format. So that's what I'm going to do this summer.

Along with the trade paperback versions of my ebooks (which sell at $13.95 and currently earn me $85 a day). I'm going to make limited edition hardcover versions. They'll be signed, numbered, with a ink fingerprint on the title page, and full color dust jackets. I'm pricing these for the collector's market at $40 each.

That's a lot of money, but I've paid this for collector editions of authors I love, and I think this is fair for what is increasingly becoming a luxury market. They'll be available exclusively on my website for anyone who wants one, and they'll satisfy both my personal need and the needs of uber fans who demand them.

But, unlike the hardcovers a publisher releases, which essentially punish fans by charging high prices for a book when it comes out, I'm going to release hardcovers concurrently with the trade paper and the ebook releases. I won't make my fans wait a year to get a less expensive format. Nor will I gouge them by charging the same for an ebook as I do for a hardcover. I think that sucks, big time.

Third, my editor has vastly—vastly—improved my writing and I’m still learning a lot from him.

That's great... until the editor wants Robinson to change something he doesn't want to change. It's happened to me a few times, and it stings.

A great editor can vastly improve a book. But editors are people, and people make mistakes, and the writer can wind up suffering for it.

Or, in my case, the writer can get out of the contract, self-publish the book in question without making any changes, and earn a lot more money than he did with the publisher.

Fourth, having my books in stores and online increases my market exposure. Those who find me at B&N are picking up the e-books, and those that find the e-books are picking up the print books.

Maybe. Some do. But for the most part my self-pubbed ebooks are lifting the sales of my traditionally pubbed books, and not vice-versa. I know this because my ebooks are selling my traditionally pubbed books (in all formats combined) at a rate of 10 to 1, and the vast majority of email I get are from folks who discovered me through my self-pubbed titles.

And, as I stated above, while Jeremy may get a few people buying his print books in bookstores who then get his self-pubbed ebooks, he's also irritating people who buy his ebooks and like them and then have to pay $14.99 for his latest.

Looking at his rankings and his reviews for his $14.99 ebooks, they aren't selling nearly as well as his self-pubbed, and his fans don't like the high prices.

Last, if my books never break out of the mid-list I may lose money on the print books vs. e-books, but I currently write three to four books a year, and am willing to take the hit on the chance of becoming a print book bestseller. Imagine the bump the e-books would get if that happened!

Again, this is playing the lottery. Except he's gambling with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars, in the hopes of winning a million.

If he kept his rights, he'd eventually get the million without having to gamble.

But Robinson isn't alone in his desire to stick with mainstream publishing. It has been a goal of his since he began writing, much like it has been a goal for most writers.

We've had it drilled into our heads that the only way to succeed is to follow the age old formula of: write a book, send out queries, get an agent, hope for a book deal.

Robinson, and most of my peers, have been conditioned to believe publishers are essential. And they still believe this, even though they aren't essential anymore. If we look at Robinson's five reasons for sticking with his publisher, they fall right in with the dream that publishers have been selling us for years: hope for a bestseller, the importance of an editor, getting into bookstores, the chance of huge success. Even the vanity of having a hardcover version has always been a carrot on the stick for authors. I know several authors with paperback deals who have pursued a hardcover deal for years, simply because of the prestige of having a hardcover.

That's nuts.

The gatekeepers have sold us a dream, and we've bought it hook, line, and sinker.

Another oft-heard argument for traditional publishing is "being validated."

Now, I don't discount that if a book is accepted by the Big 6, it meets a minimum quality standard. It is difficult for writers to judge their own work, and acceptance by an agent is a good indicator that the work is up to par.

But guess what? Selling a shitload of ebooks is a much better validation. Getting a stamp of approval from readers is more important than a stamp of approval from a publisher.

This is a business. When I see writers acknowledging that they'll probably earn less money by signing with a publisher, but still wanting to do it, I plainly see how much publishers have perverted how writers think.

It is not good business to sacrifice thousands of dollars for validation and a pipe dream. Yet the myth is so entrenched in writers' minds that they're willing to walk away from cash in the bank to be part of some bizarre club.

Yes, the club is exclusive. It's also expensive, poorly run, and often abusive toward its members.

We've all heard the term "gifting a white elephant." According to Wikipedia:

To possess a white elephant was regarded as a sign that the monarch reigned with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was simultaneously both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favour, and a curse because the animal had to be retained and could not be put to much practical use, at least to offset the cost of maintaining it.

Kinda sounds a lot like signing a publishing deal, doesn't it?