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Anne R. Allen's Blog


My Photo

Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ready to be a Wrublisher? A Priter? Some Caveats for Self-Publishers from Bestselling Author Jeff Carlson

Guest Post!
When my post on three questions to ask before you self-publish went viral last week, Thriller and SciFi author Jeff Carlson  asked to join in the discussion. I think you'll find this account of his experiences eye-opening. Thanks, Jeff!

Using Both Sides of the Sword 

by Jeff Carlson

Anne and I go back to the 1990s and my days on California’s Central Coast, where we both belonged to SLO Nightwriters, the San Luis Obispo writers’ organization. These days I follow her blog. Her slogan “KINDLE NO BOOK BEFORE ITS TIME” struck a chord with me. We got to corresponding, and Anne has graciously allowed me to expand on the subject.

These are chaotic and exciting times in the writing game, but it’s important to remember self-publishing means you’re not only the writer, you also need to wear an entirely different set of hats.

My first three novels, a series of apocalyptic thrillers known as the Plague Year trilogy, were published by Ace/Penguin Group USA. They did a nice job not only with the cover art but in packaging all three novels with a “look.”  They edited and typeset the books and handled the conversions to ebooks on all platforms.  Heck, they also bought display space in the major chains, placed ads in genre and trade magazines, ran specials on the Penguin web site and generally did a bang-up job.

Did I come anywhere near the New York Times lists? No, sir. Did I exceed the expectations of everyone involved (except me!) from Penguin itself to some critics to booksellers? Absolutely. 

Plague Year is currently in its seventh printing in North America and, in Spain, became a hardcover bestseller due in part to my Spanish publisher’s enthusiasm not just for the book but for the treatment it received in the U.S. Like it or not, New York still leads the way in the corporate world. Other countries such as Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic have also fallen in line with their own excellent campaigns. Of course I take most of the credit – I wrote the books – but it can’t be argued that a fair level of support from Penguin helped convince some minds overseas.

Why am I bragging?  Because I’ve begun to self-publish on Kindle and elsewhere myself, and: it’s harder than I was promised by the e-revolutionaries!   

Ha ha. There are hurdles I hadn’t anticipated. Identifying and solving those issues has become my own personal revolution.

Anne spoke eloquently on quality writing and professionalism, so all I’ll add to those ideas is the old truth that most of us average 1,000,000 words of garbage before we learn enough craft to write superior characters, dialogue and plotlines. That learning curve hasn’t changed.

In today’s world, especially on the ’Net and with all e-things, we expect instant gratification. Everyone hopes to skyrocket onto the charts. Personally, I want a zillion love slaves to FaceBook me and then gather on Skype to sing pirate shanties about my greatness.

What’s stopping them?

Cover art

People do judge a book by its cover.

One thing I’m not is a graphic designer. When I geared up to republish my short stories in mini-collections on Kindle and Nook, I wanted to spend as little money as possible.

99 cents is the lowest price on which Kindle and Nook will pay royalties. I didn’t see any point in selling my collections at 75 cents if Kindle and Nook pocketed 100% — and below the $2.99 price point, Kindle pays only a 35% royalty, not the vaunted 70% you tend to hear, so I calculated how many copies I’d need to sell to break even. 

The best artists command as much as $400 per cover. 

People like to say ebooks are forever (i.e., you and your descendants will earn royalties until the sentient raccoons take over the world in 6400 A.D. and place humankind in chains), but I really didn’t believe I’d sell 1143 copies before the raccoon apocalypse. The average ebook sells, uh, nothing? More on that in a minute.

I went cheap with the covers. Was that a mistake? Yes and no. Go ahead, take a peek. They're not great. But there are years of evidence to support the idea that short story collections sell poorly compared to novels, so that’s an additional factor.

Are those covers holding potential readers back?  Or is the material not generating word-of-mouth? All of these stories were professionally published, btw, most of them in top anthologies and magazines. I like to think that means they’re good stuff, and yet three of my e-collections have yet to pay for their inexpensive covers.

Here’s where I’m wrestling with conflicting data:

My fourth ebook is a stand-alone novella called “The Frozen Sky.” It’s sold 8500 copies since January. That’s not a staggering number, but it’s enough to meet my wife’s car payment and most of our utilities. What’s interesting is the simple, stark, ominous cover was designed at zero cost by a superfan who gained permission from NASA to use a photo taken by the Cassini probe.

What I’m learning is that ebook cover art shouldn’t be busy, and, in fact, can be very basic, but it still needs to have a “look.” Finding someone who can deliver that look is the whole battle. If you’re not an artist, don’t kid yourself. Hire the best. My feeling now is that going halfway is wasted time and income.

Upfront Expenses  

“The money flows to the author." This maxim is a venerable standby in writing, but it's changing.

If you’re self-publishing and you don’t know PhotoShop (or want something more spectacular), need editing, and need your work converted into e-formats, it’s easy to burn through several hundred dollars in a hurry.

Referral lists aren’t always reliable, either. It’s also maddening to wait for the hired help to get organized when the whole point of self-publishing is to make your book public now, not next month.

Depending on your free time, it might pay off in the long run to teach yourself all of the above. Me, I’d rather be writing, so I’ve learned to plan ahead. I try to get each ball rolling before I need it. This can be a lot like herding cats.

I’m no longer just a writer, I’m a “wrublisher.” (A “priter”?)

My advice is to ask around for personal recommendations.  Once you find a service provider who’s reliable and affordable, love them.

You want a product that will to wow people, not a book that’s half-baked.

The Race to the Bottom

Right now there are 900,000 ebooks on Kindle.

500 of ’em are selling great; 1,500 more are selling well; the next 10,000 are doing all right; another 20,000 sell a steady trickle;  and the other 868,000 are selling zipperooni, maybe 15 copies total to Aunt Mavis and the author’s buddy Steve.  That’s right.  The vast majority of these writers are exactly where they’d be if they were banging at the gates of the evil elitist gatekeeping gatekeepers — on the outside.

I don’t like being a big fat negative-nancy, but the idea that we’re all going to upload our Great American Novels and sell sell sell is crazy, crazy, crazy.

It’s a swamp. Buyers are bees. They find the flowers and swarm.

What this has done is create enormous pressure on writers to undervalue their work or give it away free. 

Even then, most of the time, nobody’s buying. What can you do? Writers control what they’ve always controlled: their stories. Keep at it. Do the work. Patience and persistence will always be the names of the game.

Most successful first novels are not that writer’s first novel at all. I know nobody wants to hear it, but few of us are gifted enough to write a well-crafted book with our first effort. If you’d told me when I was seventeen that my derivative Stephen King rip-offs weren’t good enough, I would have argued heatedly that you were a nincompoop. But it was true. Plague Year was my third-and-a-half novel, and that’s a very, very normal trajectory. 

Remember why you got into this crazy business in the first place. Presumably it was for the love of language and storytelling.

Good writing is hard. E-publishing has subverted some of the rules, but the difficulty of finding commercial success isn’t something I predict will change. There are no shortcuts. So do the work. You’ll get there, but it may be a long haul. That’s just my pragmatic advice.

E-Revolution Now!

Having said all of that, there are break-out exceptions every week. If you think you’re ready, take your shot. The best part about ebooks is you can fix, expand or completely rewrite ’em at will, then post new versions in a matter of days instead of haggling with the corporate machine for three years to fix one freaking typo.

If there’s a negative reaction to your book (or if there’s no reaction at all), you can remove it and improve it – and if people love it, you’ve already arrived.

Readers can find free fiction, videos, contests and more on Jeff’s web site at http://www.jverse.com Find the ebook of THE FROZEN SKY on Amazon.com and both electronic and print versions of THE PLAGUE YEAR TRILOGY here. 
What about you, fellow scriveners? If you've been thinking about self-publishing, does Jeff's experience give you second thoughts? Are you on the fence about self-epubbing? Totally gung-ho either way? Have you paid for professional services and not earned back the expenses in sales? Jeff is happy to field questions and comments, so fire away!

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Anonymous Steve of Cambria said...

I am, as "they" say, on the fence about e-publishing. But I keep leaning one way, then the other so much, I now have more splinters than butt.
If I decide to e-pub a series of linked short stories, does it make sense to publish each at 99-cents with the rest offered on the same page, plus the whole collection for, say, $9.99?
---Steve of Cambria

April 24, 2011 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

Thanks for introducing your guest, Anne. Your recent posts and this new addition is keeping up with my thoughts. Neck and neck ... or as the song goes ... belly to belly :)

Jeff, I love Anne's slogan ... “KINDLE NO BOOK BEFORE ITS TIME” ... and it's brother ... Self-publish no book before you think hard about why.

In light of that, I ask you Jeff ... why? You had an established relationship and your publisher seemed to have done a good job.

Most inexperienced writers think the major motivation is $$ ... that is the message they get. It falls to those who believe they cannot get pub'd with a trad'l house. So from the perspective of an author who had successfully waded through the mote to NYC ... what was your reasoning? If not money, was it artistic control or another factor?

Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

April 24, 2011 at 11:31 AM  
Blogger Jeff Carlson said...

Steve of Cambria! My reasoning in releasing four small ebooks for 99c instead one large one for $2.99 or $4.99 is that nobody cares about 99 cents. As a price point, it's a low-risk introduction for anyone new to my work.

Also, you have to realize, there many, many ereaders who are hostile toward high-priced ebooks... and mostly rightly so. Heck, sometimes they give *me* one-star reviews on Amazon because of the publishers' price set, which is beating the horse, not the king. (Am I mixing metaphors again?)

That means a $9.99 mega collection might sell at a ratio of one-to-thousands in comparison to a 99c mini-collection, maybe worse. Sure, you'd pocket $6.99 for every copy purchased at $9.99 vs. 35cents for every copy purchased at 99c, but would you rather move 30,000 copies a year making 35c each or 3 copies a year making $6.99 each?

Btw, my backside is also full of splinters, ha ha. Which way to jump is a big decision these days. Remember, though, there's no reason why you can't e-publish and legacy publish different properties at the same time.

@fOIS, see above. My four ebooks to-date consist of a novella, a novelette and a lot of short stories that were previously published by traditional publishers in various magazines and anthologies. Now the rights are mine again. I could have bundled them into one full-length ms. and shopped it to medium and small press publishers (the big guys aren't interested in short fiction collections unless you're a big name author) for a print collection, which would look great on my book shelf. But short story collections don't sell anywhere near as well as novels, so, given that these are genre stories, odds are the print-run would be 2500 - 4000 with a sell-through of 1500 - 3000 if it did well. Maybe I'd see $2/per if that was a hardcover or fancy trade edition.

Instead, via e-magic, the four ebooks have topped 9000 sold in four months. It's good to be read and to increase my audience, and already the money is similar to what I would have seen in total from a print deal, especially since my agent's not involved, so there's no 15% off the top.

Will my leader "The Frozen Sky" continue to sell high? Dunno. Will the numbers for the three newer ebooks perk up? Dunno. But I wanted to get my feet wet in the e-post.


April 24, 2011 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger Jeff Carlson said...

Pond. I meant "e-pond" but my fingers knew I was writing a post... ;P

April 24, 2011 at 12:24 PM  
Blogger roh morgon said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jeff. I, too have been on the fence about self-publishing a novel I wrote two years ago. But a number of things have convinced me that, for this particular book, self-pub is the only way to go.

I'm still hanging onto that fence edge by my fingertips, on the off-chance an opportunity will make me scramble back over.

But every day I become more convinced indie is the path to take right now, and another finger slips from the fence.

The most important thing that anyone considering self-pubbing needs to be aware of is to go into it with eyes wide open. Thanks for opening ours a little wider.

And thanks, Anne, for your continued examination of this topic and for hosting Jeff today.

April 24, 2011 at 1:38 PM  
Blogger Jeff Carlson said...

My pleasure, Roh Morgon. Love the eyes.

For what it's worth, I'm with those who believe the seesaw will tip almost entirely to ebooks within... oh, five years? Ten? But readers, writers and publishers are all in flux. Chaos is opportunity. ;)

April 24, 2011 at 3:25 PM  
Blogger mgudlewski said...

I'm plotting my first novel now. The more I read on this topic, the more I feel like a college student who's glad graduation is still a year away.
Right now, I lean toward traditional publishing. I don't think I'd want to be writing and herding cats at the same time.

Thanks, Jeff and Anne.

April 24, 2011 at 5:25 PM  
Blogger S. F. Roney said...

Jeff's experiences are a great learning opportunity! These are all topics I've been reviewing as I take my steps toward the ebook revolution chaos. Rather than see it as negative, I think it's a positive--this is all a challenge we authors are faced with on our own.

How awesome is that? No more letting a publisher or agent do the fighting for us. The time to act and rise based on your own merits is now. I for one am excited to make my attempt to be an author in this brave new paradigm!

April 24, 2011 at 6:23 PM  
OpenID nataliefaybooks said...

Thanks for your post. People tend to glorify self publishing nowadays, and it is comforting to hear from someone who experienced the whole thing.

April 24, 2011 at 9:23 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Steve, Fois, Roh, Monica, S.F. and Natalie--aren't we lucky to have Jeff giving us the benefit of some first-hand experience? It sounds as if some of you have already made the decision to jump into the "ebook chaos"--but you're doing it with your eyes open. A lot of the rest of us are still sitting on that splintery fence. I'm up there, too.

Jeff, thanks again for all this.

April 25, 2011 at 10:06 AM  
Blogger Jeff Carlson said...

Aha ha. The good if less-than-certain news is that riding the fence looks like a perfectly viable option for years.

Amanda Hocking was savaged on the 'Net for accepting a $2,000,000 four-book deal with S&S, which is crazy. Why the hostility? She'll only GROW her e-reader audience with stacks of print copies in Wal-Mart, Target and the chains, feeding her indie-published titles... and she's virtually guaranteed to pocket another $1M in foreign deals for those four books. Then those foreign publishers will start picking up her backlist.

Hocking is such an outlier among the outliers of the outliest outliers that comparing her success to the norm is like apples to hydrogen bombs, but, again, there's no reason in the world why a writer can't go traditional *and* indie, using each to propel the other.

The trick is to decide when and which way to hop off the fence with each project.

Deep Thoughts With Jeff. ;)

April 25, 2011 at 11:52 AM  
Blogger Betty Craker Henderson said...

There are lots of ways of looking at self-publishing e-books and it always boils down to the same thing as any kind of publishing. You have to SELL whatever you have, whether it be print or e-publish, whether it be quality or trash. You'd better look at the very best you can do and produce it by looking for the very best way for YOU to do it...and keep your fingers crossed (all eleven of them). Right?

April 25, 2011 at 8:01 PM  
Blogger Clarissa Draper said...

These are excellent points. I think it's hard to sell books right now because it's a changing market. People are still deciding the best price to sell e-books and buy them. I am excited for the change but nervous as well.

April 27, 2011 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Betty--You're so right. We all need eleven fingers to cross. You've got to have a great product, but you've also got to have phenomenal luck.

Clarissa--We're in the middle of an earthquake. Everybody's looking for something solid to hang on to, but everything is getting shaken up. Exciting but scary times.

April 28, 2011 at 10:03 AM  
Blogger Holly said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 28, 2011 at 5:53 PM  
Blogger Holly said...

I plan to self-epublish at some stage because I'm odd--and my writing tends to reflect that. I've made small publishers' short lists a couple of times, because my work is different, but when the "can we sell it?" question is asked, it's too different... They don't know how to market it. (Fair enough, neither do I, but I'll worry about that later.) Maybe there is a small press out there that would be prepared to take that gamble, but I don't see the point in wasting my time--or anybody elses time--pitching my work at publishers when the tools are available for me to do it myself.

And that is, in my opinion, the gift the internet offers writers. If your work is niche market/non-commercial stuff, or just plain odd, you now have an option. It doesn't mean you'll be able to reach your audience--or even that there is one out there--but you at least have the opportunity to try.

Money is not my motivation. I don't expect to make any, and I'm fine with that. And I like
the fact that I'm the only one taking a risk. Don't have to worry about sending any small press into early bankruptcy...

Jeff--I think the "The Frozen Sky" image looks great. From what I've seen of ebook covers,
simplicity is indeed the key. It has to look good in thumbnailish size.

Anne--Maybe holding onto things that look solid is our biggest problem. Sometimes, the stable looking buildings are the first casualties.

April 28, 2011 at 6:31 PM  
Blogger Holly said...

Good grief... How am I going to successfully format an ebook when I can't even post a comment properly... There's no hope for me.... :)

April 28, 2011 at 6:35 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Holly--Good luck with the self-pubbing. Keep us posted about your progress.

My point exactly: there is no "solid" when everything is shaking. Those terrible pictures of Tuscaloosa on the news tonight show how fragile our places of "safety" are. Nothing is solid. I have a friend there I'm praying is OK.

April 28, 2011 at 6:40 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Hillier said...

This was a great post. I love seeing the real numbers. Puts everything in perspective.

And interesting what a good cover artist charges? I'd honestly never thought about it!

April 28, 2011 at 10:44 PM  

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