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.


Nigel Bird said...

Good to see you're still sailing. I'll check out the two sites you mention to help promotion and see if it makes a difference for my own listings.



Walter Knight said...

I'd love to do a collaboration with you should you ever delve into Sci/Fi again.

Sharper13x said...

Fascinating as always, Joe.

I have a few questions about navigating “foreverness.”

When uploading a book to KDP, the page where you enter all the relevant information says that the publishing date is "optional.” Although, for me, I don’t think it was when I uploaded my first book. I noticed on “Flee” that the book has a pub date. But on “Timecaster” there is no date. Why the difference?

It seems like "no date” would be an advantage in a forever-store. How do you upload with no date? Does it have anything to do with the ISBN number?

Also, where do you stand these days on the ISBN. Is there any advantage to purchasing your own vs. letting Amazon assign one?

I’ve also noticed that once a date is on the book, it seems that it can’t be removed. Is there any way to modify key elements… like for example adding a descriptor to the Title (like some books will say "A Thriller” in parenthesis as part of the actual title) and re-upload without losing things like ranking and reviews, etc?


Jude Hardin said...

I've decided to write and self-publish a prequel to my first Nicholas Colt book, so I can take advantage of some of the promo opportunities you mentioned and hopefully generate better sales for the rest of the series. I already created a cover. Now all I need to do is write the book!

M. Louisa Locke said...

October 2009 I read your post where you shared your sales numbers--comparing traditional versus self-published author, and I made the decision to self publish the book I had written 20 years earlier (which had gone through the traditional process of getting an agent, not getting a contract, getting a contract with small press that folded, etc).

I am a social scientist, I can understand numbers, possibilities and probabilities, and for once there was clear data rather than opinion to base my decisions on.

It is now 3 years since I self-published Maids of Misfortune and it and the sequel have sold over 50,000 copies, have been downloaded over 150,000 times and made me over $100,000, and I get to write full time.

I am one of those legions of success stories that people who cling to traditional publishing keep saying are rare. We aren't. And I for one owe a lot of my success to your willingness to share. I do everything I can to pass it forward.

M. Louisa Locke

Stan Mitchell said...


It makes my day your backlist is selling so well. You're a hell of a writer and it makes my day to see your grit and determination pay off.

It's amazing looking back through your archives, which are a treasure trove of valuable information, to see how hard you tried to make the traditional route work.

And it's not surprising how much of an impact you'd make in influencing the indie/Kindle paradigm shift: Your talent and your focus was already there, just waiting to be redirected.

Huge congrats on your success, please keep dropping off some crumbs of knowledge to those of us clawing to make the same ascent.

Sincerely yours,

David L. Shutter said...


Best of luck! I'll be waiting to click on it. And the new cover look spretty sharp too.


Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Dave! I finished SYCAMORE BLUFF, btw. It's with my agent now. Thanks again for the notes. They helped tremendously.

JA Konrath said...


I never self=pub with a date. FLEE is Thomas & Mercer.

I use ISBNs for Apple iTunes, nothing else.

You can modify title and not lose ranking or reviews. To get rid of date you have to completely republish as a new title, then you lose everything.

Jill James said...

Great view of what the publishing world has become.

Sharper13x said...

Thanks, Joe.

So, you buy ISBNs, but only for Apple? Meaning that you have different ISBNs for each other outlet when the assign one to you?

"You can modify title and not lose ranking or reviews.”

Good to know.
re: date - I used my own ISBN number when publishing my first book, and I’m pretty sure that had something to do with having a date associated with it. It says “optional” but it seemed pretty mandatory to me. Am I wrong about that? or is it optional if you use Amazon’s number?

Woelf Dietrich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Woelf Dietrich said...

This stood out for me:

"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."

It incapsulates your whole post. That is what we all strive for, or most of us, anyway. And yet, there are also those of us who, given our financial situation, wouldn't mind the money either. It will contribute greatly to attaining that peace of mind. But it wont happen by waving a magic wand. Just a shit load of writing until something sticks and takes off.

Thanks for the update, Joe.

David L. Shutter said...


Ok, sounds great. Sound like you went from rough draft to final product pretty quick. Congrat's.

Just curious though; it's with an agent now? I thought you had a T&M contract?

Joe Flynn said...

I'm going the KDP Select 5-day free promo, BookBub, Ebook Booster route on March 28th with my novel "Nailed," 34 Amazon reviews, 4+star average. Eager to see how it does.

Steve MC said...

The peace of mind reminded me of this quote from Aimee Mann, who left Geffen records to start her own label.

I was just so relieved to not have to stay awake at night trying to figure out how to work within a system that’s impossible to work with.

Alan Spade said...

A great process, Joe. You are an inspiration for many authors, and not only in the US.

Even if I do not agree every time with you, your perseverance, will and foresight deserve great respect.

Jude Hardin said...

Sound like you went from rough draft to final product pretty quick.

I edit as I go, so my first drafts end up being pretty tight. There were heavy rewrites in a couple of chapters, but that was about it.

I thought you had a T&M contract?

SB is the beginning of a new series. T&M has an option on it, and then I'll be finished with my obligations for the current contract. So, depending on whether or not we come to terms, SB might be sent elsewhere. Anyway, I like for my agent to read everything before I send it in.

Ryan Schneider said...

Thanks for being so candid with your sales #s, Joe.

Gary Ponzo said...

I realize it's impossible to recite these sales figures without sounding a bit pompous, but it's posts like these which have launched hundreds of authors into the turbulent, yet freeing world of Indie publishing.

I wonder who it will be today?

Daniel said...


You continue to be the blog I check most often to see if there is a new post. You're like a coach who always reminds the players, "It ain't over till it's over." Then you add, "And the good thing is... it's never over."

So I plan on putting out new books (or books that had agents in the past, but never sold) at least at the rate of two a year. Just put out three very disparate titles, including a literary novel about adolescent firebugs and burn survivors. How often is that topic addressed in literature/film, from the kid's standpoint? Check out the cover I designed, with my girlfriend doing the aura effect behind the matches. Not too bad for amateurs, I hope.

My main problem is that the demographic I aim at -- adolescents -- don't go to Amazon like their parents do. I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to spread the word. (Yes, I'm reaching out to burn survivor networks.) One would think teachers would be a good target -- I was a middle school teacher for over 30 years -- but they usually won't touch anything not legacy published. Another issue is that I'm only in digital since I'd have to charge $8-$9 or more in paper for something I charge $3.99 (or less) in digital. That's seems a lot to pay, as you said, to try out an unknown author.

So, should I add the Create Space/P.O.D. route just to have paper editions available? And for my new book, should I go KDP?

Suggestions welcome. Good luck to all in this community.

Daniel Berenson
Freaky Dude Books

Mike Fook said...

Did you ever come out and tell us how you got the rights back to your old books? You're keeping it hushed up for some reason.

At least tell us why you can't tell us.

It would help probably hundreds of your readers get their own rights back.

Just curious why you're not spilling it.



Naja Tau said...

It's always encouraging to hear from someone who "made it!"

Unknown said...

Hi Joe. I went to a blogging event hosted by The High Desert Bloggers and a young lady told me about your blog. I loved your blog piece. I am working on publishing my first ebook through and doing a blog called Grey Voltage Your advice is priceless and story is very inspiriting. Thanks for the post.

Unknown said...


> I already created a cover.

I like the cover. It seems to be quite a departure from your other Colt covers: colder but cleaner.

> Now all I need to do is write the book!

At least the hard part's done.


Unknown said...

Hi Joe,

> I never self=pub with a date.

When I published Stormy Night on Apple iBookstore, as I understood it, the publication date was absolutely required (and if I hadn't filled it in, they would have filled it in for me). I'll pay close attention on the next two I publish there (Windy Day and EPUB Machine).

> I use ISBNs for Apple iTunes, nothing else.

I do the opposite with Apple iBookstore (I think we are talking about the same thing). They did not require an ISBN (merely recommended one). Then again, I set the price for Stormy Night at zero. Again, I'll be looking for this carefully in the next week or so as I put the other two up.

> You can modify title and not lose ranking or reviews. To get rid of date you have to completely republish as a new title, then you lose everything.

Thanks. Good to know.


John Mellies said...

Hey there, Joe.

Glad you're blogging full-steam again.

You mentioned pubbing a sci-fi under a pen name - and I remember you mentioning something about this in a previous blog post.

I was wondering, without blowing your cover, did you do anything different when promoting this standalone title, as opposed to your Konrath/Kilborn stuff? I'm switching genres and taking on a new pen name myself, so my first book was kind of a one-off deal - it probably won't be connected with the stuff I'm currently working on. Any advice on pushing a single title?

Love Endurance, btw. I'd love to see it on screen.


Aimlesswriter said...

Well said. In watching you and Zoe Winters over the last few years. (I bought your first book from the article you wrote for Writer's Digest way back when)
I like that the control is back in the writer's hands and not some (forgive me) recent grad scoping out submissions in the basement of the big 5 pubs.
I'm not even submitting to them anymore. I like to control my own life, thank you.
Now I feel like I work for me. I'm still just starting out but recent unemployment gives me more time. Now I just have to get all those rejected books off my shelf, polish and put them up.
You're inspiring Joe!

Jude Hardin said...

I like the cover. It seems to be quite a departure from your other Colt covers: colder but cleaner.

Thanks, Frank!

Christine Kersey said...

I love to hear about your success and I say AMEN to all that you said. Thanks to Indie Publishing, it's now a matter of when, not if, I will be quitting my day job to write full-time.

Thanks for being so open about your numbers and sharing your experiences.

Christine Kersey

Werner said...


Your post reads like a Horatio Alger story. It'd make a decent movie.

Anonymous said...

Inspiring as always, Joe. Do you have any interest or intention to write a blog post about estate planning? With the success you've had and will have in the future, what are you (and what should other writers) think about when planning for their work to survive them?

Ima Shrew said...

Jude Hardin...I really like your cover as well. :)

Merrill Heath said...

@Jude, add me to the list of those who like the new cover.

Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Ima!

Thanks, Merrill!

Unknown said...

You inspired me to try the KDP and go free for 5 days on book one of the Ambermere Trilogy

March 14 - 18 using one of the services you suggested. The series was traditionally published back in the 90s and the author got the rights back so might as well try. said...

I have a very simple question...after your book has been on its KDP free days, do you immediately raise it back to its previous full price, or begin at .99 and gradually increase it from there? Thank you!

dafaolta said...

Your post reminds me of a story I read when FictIonwise first came on the scene. Barry Malzberg talked about having promoted the hell out of his first book. Sold out the 1st printing with people wanting to order more. His publisher told him he hadn't sold enough to warrant reprinting. He pointed out that he'd sold out the print run and they repeated their contention that he hasn't sold enough.

Apparently without ever quite twigging to the inherent irony.

It didn't stop him writing, but I'll bet he made sure that didn't happen again. At least not to him.

I know it was one of the first things that got me thinking about self-publishing.

Anonymous said...

Let me relate a story about the two-faced Big 6 from last month:

I had a self pub release hit the top 20 overall PAID at Amazon, after a Bookbub promotion. I sent the screen capture to my agent, who forwarded it on to the editor we are negotiating with in NYC.

Her remark: "What, did you do some promotion or something? Doesn't count."

Yet, if her company released my book and ran a full page ad in that rag NYTimes, rocketing me to the best seller lists, she would certainly trumpet that achievement as evidence of the trad pub value-add.

But doing the same thing on my own is meaningless to her? She, and all of them, deserve to get their lunch eaten by indies, Amazon, and authors like Joe getting back their valuable digital rights.

Thanks for the numbers Joe, too many people for too long have been too quiet about their earnings as authors. Let's all remember that Ann Voss Peterson had 3 MILLION books in print and couldn't afford to write full time.

Alan Spade said...

"Let's all remember that Ann Voss Peterson had 3 MILLION books in print and couldn't afford to write full time."

You mean Ann Peterson had a day job during the time she was only published with Harlequin ?

Ann, if you read this, have you been able to quit your day job since you self-pub ?

Anonymous said...

Her best selling Harlequin title of all time earned her $20k in 10 years and she had this quote:

"It comes down to a business decision. I can choose to write for Harlequin (high paper distribution/low royalty rates) or some other New York publisher (likely hit-or-miss paper distribution/slightly less low royalty rates)—or I can have my son's teeth straightened."

Ann Voss Peterson said...

I'm no longer writing for Harlequin, because their royalty rates are extremely low, and I can make more money self publishing.

Some of the years I was writing for Harlequin, I worked part time and also had my husband's income to compensate. Then the recession happened, and I was left as sole breadwinner on Harlequin income alone.

I limped along like that for two years (I'm very good with money). Still by then it was clear I wasn't going to make it staying with Harlequin. So (with Joe's urging) I chose to risk self publishing instead of staying in poverty or trying to get another job (during the recession with my English-creative writing degree--good luck with that, eh?).

I'm not making Joe money...yet...but self publishing changed everything for me. I am writing full time as sole breadwinner, we're just waiting for my son to lose one more baby tooth and he'll have his braces, AND I didn't have to give up the career I've spent most of my life striving to build.

When it comes down to it, although being rich would be nice, most writers I know just want to make enough money to be able to keep writing. I could no longer do that with traditional publishing, and I can with self publishing.

And even a bit more. :)

Alan Spade said...

"When it comes down to it, although being rich would be nice, most writers I know just want to make enough money to be able to keep writing."

Count me as one of those, Ann.

Thank you for these precisions. It is gratifying to me when an author can make it on her own by self publishing, and especially an author who worked for a publisher like Harlequin. :)