books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lawrence Block Talks Self-Publishing


I can’t quite believe we have one of the most successful mystery writers of all time here on our blog! Mr. Block is the author of over fifty novels and even more short stories, including his two long-running series featuring P.I. Matthew Scudder and gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Read Lawrence Block's Blog
He has been named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and is a four-time winner of the Edgar and Shamus Awards. He’s the recipient of prizes in France, Germany, and Japan and received the Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers' Association—only the third American to be given this award. The list of his awards goes on for days.

He’s also a master teacher who has authored some of the great books on the craft of writing, including one of my favorites, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit

So why would a superstar turn to self-publishing? Read on:


D-I-Y Publishing—
New Tricks for an Old Dog
by Lawrence Block

It was in 1954 that I first entertained the motion of writing for a living, and a few years later I was doing it. I sold a story to Manhunt in the summer of 1957, and by the end of the following year I’d published a batch of magazine stories and articles, and written and sold three novels. (Most of the stories have been recently republished by HarperCollins in One Night Stands and Lost Weekends; the novels—Strange Are the Ways of Love by Lesley Evans, and Carla and A Strange Kind of Love by Sheldon Lord—are newly available as Open Road eBooks.)

In 1964 I took an editorial job in Wisconsin and stayed there for eighteen months, but with that exception I’ve spent all my working life as a free-lance writer.  (And in fact I did write a couple of books during that year and a half of honest work.) The friends of my youth were in the same fragile boat, chasing the same dragon—or white whale, or what you will. We spent many long nights, generally with glass in hand, and we talked about everything—God, how we talked! You’d have thought we were still getting paid by the word, even away from the typewriter.

We often talked about publishers. I don’t think we saw them as the enemy, or regarded the writer-publisher relationship as inherently adversarial. But it seemed to us, as I suspect it has seemed to every writer since Homer, that they were ham–handed oafs who did everything wrong. The fault, dear Bruce, was neither in our stars nor in ourselves; it was those dimwit publishers who kept us off the bestseller list.

And of course we dreamed of doing their job ourselves. Why let some twit in a Brooks Brothers suit screw up our careers when we could screw them up ourselves? Self-publishing was a seductive fantasy, but it was never more than that.  Because, while we may have been crazy, we weren’t flat-out stupid. While publishing was not yet the multinational corporate industry it has since become, and while enterprising fellows did start successful operations on not much more than a shoestring, they put in eighty-hour weeks and hustled like mad. Publishing wasn’t something for a creative type to engage in on nights and weekends, after his real work of making up stories was out of the way. You needed capital, you needed distribution, you needed no end of unattainable expertise.

But in 1985, with my nights and weekend already given over to an interactional seminar for writers, I decided to venture into self-publishing.

It was a special situation.  I felt the need for a book version of the seminar, both for attendees to take home with them and to make the material available to the many people unable to get to one of our sessions. My publisher at the time was Arbor House, and they’d done quite well with Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, so I might have persuaded them to take a shot at Write For Your Life—but I couldn’t delude myself into the notion that this would be a book with broad commercial potential. 

No, the book’s natural market would be limited to writers who’d taken the seminar or were thinking of taking it, along with readers of my monthly Writers Digest column. I was reaching precisely those people with my print and direct-mail advertising for the seminar, and I could easily piggy-back a pitch for the book in those ads.  The book didn’t need to be in bookstores, so I didn’t need a distributor.  All I needed was books, and if I was ever going to publish anything myself, this was my chance.

Besides, the sooner I had books in hand, the sooner I could sell them.  A publisher would take a year or longer. By using Arbor House’s production guy, who did this sort of thing in his spare time, I got books professionally produced in a couple of months. I printed 5000 books, and, even though I was unable to process credit card transactions, I managed to sell just over 4900 of them by the time Lynne and I got out of the seminar business.  (It had been great fun, and produced some positive results in people’s lives, but all the income went to hotels and airlines, and we were working our butts off for 50¢ an hour. And I was also beginning to feel uncomfortable with the role of a Writing Guru, and knew it was time to get back to writing.)

Self-publishing.  A success, all in all, and by no means an unpleasant experience.  Still, I never expected to find myself doing it again.

Right.

What changed, of course, was the world. I was aware of eBooks 20 years ago, and knew right away that they had a future, but wasn’t sure any of us would be alive to see it. Kindle was the game-changer, and Amazon’s self-publishing program didn’t just level the playing field. It broadened it as well.

I got right into it, making a handful of backlist titles available for Kindle. When Open Road came around and made a deal for 40+ backlist books of mine, I took down the few I’d published myself—except for a couple of novelettes that I thought of as pieces of string too short to save.  I left them where they were, and they went on selling a few copies a month, and when I noticed the numbers creeping upward, I started uploading various uncollected short stories at 99¢ a pop.

Gradually I learned how to buy stock photos and make my own eCovers; it turned out to be easy to do, and sometimes the results were better than any number of covers to have graced my books over the years.  Some of those short stories got two or three downloads a month, but others got two or three dozen, and my top sellers got two or three hundred. 

It wasn’t long before I had two dozen stories out there, on Nook as well as Kindle. I could know at a glance exactly how they were selling, and I could refresh the page every ten minutes if I wanted. (And even if I didn’t want to.  I mean, if you’re not going to be obsessive-compulsive about something, why bother with it at all?)

I didn’t self-publish, for Nook or for Kindle, any of my Matthew Scudder short stories.

I had nine of them, and the more recent were on my hard drive in digital form, so it would have been a cinch to render them eVailable. And I knew they’d be popular with readers. The only thing that held me back was the thought that they really ought to be a book.

Well, that was easy enough.  Just gather them together into a single file, think up a title and slap it on a cover, and publish it the way I’d published the short stories.

Or I could do it right.  Add a vignette previously published only as the text of a limited-edition broadside, and write another wholly new story to cap off the collection.  And make of the whole something rather more professional than my previous Nook-and-Kindle efforts.

I had lunch with two friends of mine, the screenwriting/directing team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and left the table with an idea for that new story, along with Brian’s offer to contribute an appreciation of Matthew Scudder. 

Now I was really determined to do it right, and I arranged for the folks at Telemachus Press to do the heavy lifting—scanning the non-digital stories, proofreading the nightmarish OCR scans, formatting the text for all eBook platforms, and performing all the tasks that make a world of difference.

I wrote the new story, plus an afterword that put all the stories in historical perspective. I found a stock photo, picked a display font.  I wanted to make sure the cover was outstanding, because somewhere along the way I decided to gamble on a Print-on-Demand paperback edition.

Available Here Just $2.99!
You don’t need a full play-by-play.  What’s remarkable, it seems to me, is that it was the middle of July when I first thought about doing all this, and on September 30th the eBook went live on Kindle and Nook. Two weeks later, on Friday, October 14th, I took delivery on 500 gorgeous trade paperback copies of The Night and The Music, and by Saturday afternoon I’d shipped 350 copies, filling all my prepaid orders.

It is, I assure you, a slow way to get rich.  But it is clearly a very fast way to bring a book into existence, a book which might well otherwise not exist at all, ever.  I’d already discovered this with two collections of Writers Digest columns, The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion, which Open Road brought out as eRiginals, and confirmed it with Afterthoughts, a piecemeal memoir composed of the afterwords I wrote for Open Road’s editions of my backlist titles.

These were all books that seemed unlikely to provoke interest, let alone enthusiasm, from a traditional commercial publisher.  But readers have been finding them, and saying nice things about them, and my world is fuller for their presence in it. 

I might have found a publisher for The Night and the MusicI never looked for one.  I wanted the experience of self-publishing in this intrepid new eWorld. I knew it would be interesting, and I figured it would be fun.  So far it’s been both.

And will it turn out to be profitable?

I think so.  One of the first decisions I made was to price the eBook at $2.99. No end of folks assured me that this was too low, that I was leaving money on the table, that Scudder fans  would gladly pay two or three times that for a new collection. I was told, too, that a low price would somehow be demeaning to the book.

I decided I wanted to maximize my audience, and had come to believe that the price-sensitive eBook market would reward a low price.  (As for a low price demeaning the book, I decided that was crap; there are enough egos I have occasion to worry about in my daily life, and I don’t need to ascribe an ego to the book and take care not to bruise it.)

At $2.99, it looks as though the eBook will cover its expenses within six weeks of publication, if not sooner.  Once it does, everything’s profit.  The paperback, higher in price at $16.99, cost more to publish, and there are ongoing printing and shipping costs for every copy I sell.  Even so, it’s already edging into the black.

And there’s Otto Penzler’s $150 leather-bound collector edition, too, limited to 100 signed and numbered copies. I won’t get too much out of that beyond a gorgeous book for my library, but that’s okay—and its mere existence makes the trade paperback look like a remarkable bargain, and the eBook an out-and-out steal.

But all of that’s secondary, really.  The Night and the Music is a book, for heaven’s sake! A new book, filling a spot on the shelf where once there was but empty space. Whether the shelf is physical or virtual, there’s my book, and don’t she look grand?

So would I do it again? 

Not with my next new novel, which I’ll be delighted to publish with Mulholland Books, who did such a fine job with A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Not with Jill Emerson’s next effort, should she happen to write one, which I’d hope to publish with Hard Case Crime, who’ve done so well with Getting Off. Not with a batch of backlist titles, which I hope to see ePublished by Open Road.

But with the right material, and at the right time, and if I continue to enjoy the whole process as much as I’m enjoying it right now…

Yeah, you bet I’d do it again.

********
And he designed that brilliant cover himself. Amazing. Self-publishing is now officially mainstream.

For me, one of the most positive messages here is: short fiction is back! For so many years we’ve been told to treat short fiction as “beginner” and “practice” writing, because short stories make no money and anthologies are impossible to place.

But they’re back in style with ebooks. These days—with people reading on their phones and tablets while on the go—the short form is very reader-friendly. You can sell them one at a time or as collections.

Also: $2.99 seems to be the sweet spot for ebook pricing.

How about you, scriveners? Does this ease any doubts about self-publishing? Do you have any short stories in your files that might make good ebooks?

********

This week my blog tour will make a stop at Mystery Writing is Murder, the blog of Elizabeth S. Craig/Riley Adams, author of the wonderful Memphis Barbeque mysteries. I’ll be talking about bad writing advice.

36 comments:

  1. LB, of course, comes through with a terrific blog. Plus he creates his own covers! A truly talented man.

    As for short stories, I wrote ss for men's magazines back in the stone age. You know, guy in arctic with a choice between a pissed-off polar bear and freezing to death. Or: a guy in the jungles facing down hunger-crazed cannibals & he's armed only with a knife--or maybe not even a knife. You know what I mean...;-)

    Gee, I wish I still had those but created on a typewriter (remember those?), they're gone forever.

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  2. For the established author, I can see the value of self-publishing. (I'm still working on that. Not that I'm ready to self-publish any time soon.)
    My eBook came out at $4.99 and after three months my publisher reduced it to $2.99. That is indeed the sweet spot, as my book's been in the top twenty science fiction best sellers on Amazon for three months now.
    Great information here!

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  3. Whew. Great post. I'm a bit star-struck right now.

    I'm also very happy that there is more of Matt Scudder in the world for me to read and enjoy.

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  4. Great post! Lots of useful info. Thanks! I priced my first e-book, "Remy Broussard's Christmas," at $3.99, and it's selling nicely. Kindle co-mingles free and priced downloads, sorta like co-mingling stats for purchasing steaks and grazing at Costco's.

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  5. So interesting to hear about a well established author choosing to self publish. Also great to hear about the author's writing journey - have always been a great fan of The Burglar novels!

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  6. Ruth--That's tragic about losing all your stories. If you have them in print, an OCR scanner can help you without copy typing. But it sounds as if they're gone in hard copy, too. Sad.

    Alex--Top 20 for 3 months? Major congrats! That's awesome. Also a great example of 2.99 pricing working best.

    Cynthia--Me too.

    Kittie--That's interesting that you chose $3.99 and it seems to be working for you.

    books--I love me some Bernie Rhodenbarr, too.

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  7. Thank you for this great post. I especially like that you touched on the low prices of ebooks as whether or not you thought they were demeaning. I agree that the broader market you can reach the better and while some people may be discerning about price and leery of a lower cost, most people just want a good deal on an ebook.
    Thank you!

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  8. What a fantastic post! Really down to earth and helpful - and very encouraging for wannabes like me, haha!

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  9. Great post. Love Lawrence, love Bernie.

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  10. Here Florence is once more as your friendly "anon." :)

    Love this info and how it confirms some aspects of the new changes in publishing. The more I read from experienced writers, the more I believe there are several ways to approach this issue. I would not pub my novels or literary work, but I have an idea perking to write a separate group of shorter pcs. for e-pub.

    Thanks so much Lawrence, glad to meet you :)

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  11. Florence meant she would not SELF PUBLISH ... her other work ... sorry.

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  12. This is a massively encouraging post! When silverbacks like Lawrence Block trumpet e-short stories, you know we've entered a brave new world. Short stories nearly became extinct a few years ago, and could only be spotted in zoos and game preserves, but now we're about to enter a new golden age.

    And Mr. Block, a slow way to get rich is still fine by me!

    William Doonan
    www.williamdoonan.com

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  13. Great post. Thanks Anne and Lawrence!

    Stand alone short stories and anthologies are making a big comeback right now, and that can only increase further as ereading becomes the norm.

    There's never been a better time to be a writer!

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  14. Great post. Thanks for making the murky waters of publishing your own work seem clearer. The definition of a Publisher is: A person or company that prepares and issues books, journals, music, or other works for sale. So in my opinion anyone who does the business of pushing works to sale is a Publisher. Writers just need to think bigger when it comes to their work and push to get it to market whether through a large publisher or a small / indie ... or becoming a publisher themselves.

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  15. Love this Anne. Thank you for sharing. I need to learn a lot more about these things and how to do them.

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  16. As an "author" (in the broadest possible sense of the word) I went with self-publishing for one primary reason: fear of rejection. With CreateSpace and Kindle Direct, I'm making the same amount of money I would be if I were looking for an agent (approx. $0), but at least I have a book on my shelf.

    I had a lot of fun writing and editing, and designing a cover. I even made a signed limited hardcover edition of 10 copies. Remove the stress of writing/sending submissions and worrying about money, and being a writer can be fun.

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  17. It's great to see even "old dogs" can learn new tricks. Self publishing can be a great new tool for even one of the greats. Thanks, Anne, for getting one of my personal all time favorite authors to drop by.

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  18. I've got some short stories and novellas out there, in addition to full-length works. That's one of the things I like about ebooks - stories of all lengths are welcome.

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  19. What a terrific article! Very, very inspiring and terrfic to see a major author like Lawrence Block choosing the path of self publication. I noticed that he used the same publisher that John Locke used in his amazing sales campaign. Might check them out. Great job, Lawrence and Anne! I wrote an article on Locke's marketing plan, if anyone's interested. http://www.yourshelflife.com/?p=997 And I just set this post to broadcast on my Twitter account, so lots more people will see it, hopefully.

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  20. Great post! Thank you (Anne and Lawrence) for sharing! :)

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  21. What a fantabulous post. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  22. Shannon—Yes! I think if Mr. Block can sell ebooks at 2.99, nobody can argue that “quality” ebooks have to cost more. (And glitches happen just as often in those expensive ebooks, according to a recent piece in the NYT.)

    Spook and Liz—Thanks.

    Florence—It's so easy to leave a word out, isn't it? I just got a Google alert on this post and saw the word “have” was left out of line one. I couldn’t see it in the post, but caught it in the alert. Shows how “invisible” typos show up in a different format.

    William and Mark—You’re so right about short stories being on the endangered species list. So glad to see them come back.

    LM—Thinking “bigger” is a good way of putting it. It’s not just about the writing any more. Seems sad, but it’s really empowering.

    Ann—It does take time to learn, and it’s OK to go to pros for help when you're ready.

    Mike—Fear of rejection isn’t actually the best reason for self-pubbing. :-) Reviewers can be just as rejecting as agents, and the humiliation is more public. Glad you’ve enjoyed your experience, but it’s best to make sure your work is as perfect as possible, and that usually involves some initial criticism and rejection.

    Books—I’m still getting chills seeing his picture on my blog.

    Sandy—Thanks for the tweet, and I’ll definitely check out your piece.

    Susans—Thanks a bunch!

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  23. Wow, I didn't know Mr. Block has such experience with the self-publishing industry. I'm a bit skeptical because his rep was already rock solid when the Kindle first came through.

    I'd be curious to hear his thought about the possibilities for a first time writer to hit a home run in the Kindle store, due to its "Far West" nature

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  24. With regards to "public humiliation", a further advantage of self-pubbing is that if I start to get ravaged by readers, I can just pull the plug, call it a day, and go back to my day-job.

    However, I don't think that will happen because people who read my book seem to like it (there is a certain amount of self-selection going on here: anyone who buys a self-published juvenile time travel book by an unknown author will tend to like the book). Agents, on the other hand, don't choose to read my book on their own, so bias against it (based perhaps on reading a single page or less) is more probable, and actually almost certain.

    Everyone has their own goals, and if I sell one more copy of my paperback, I'll cross the threshold at which Amazon will cut me a check. At that point, I'll consider my little endeavor a success and maybe I'll start transcribing the notes I have made for a sequel.

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  25. Anne, I've been looking forward to this post since you mentioned it some weeks ago. As an OCD vintage mystery collector, I've got several of Mr. Block's books on my enormous wall of mystery bookshelves. I use the opening scene of The Canceled Czech to teach writers Hook with a great big capital H--one of the best Hook scenes ever. And mystery writer Elizabeth Craig highly recommended Telling Lies for Fun & Profit in our recent interview.

    I'm so pleased to read about Block's venture into self-publishing. This is an excellent, realistic perspective on the opportunities of self-publishing for the serious writer.

    Now I'm on my way to Elizabeth's blog right now to read your guest post on bad writing advice. Hot dog, what a Monday!

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  26. Ben--Obviously a Grand Master like LB is going to have an advantage, but first time novelists do become bestsellers on Kindle. Like Amanda Hocking, Karen McQuestion, and Elisa Lorello. In the UK there's Mark Edwards and Louise Voss and Saffina Desforges. Irish author David Gaughran is another--and he has a great blog.

    Mike--I didn't mean to say it isn't working for you--just that newbies reading this shouldn't try unless they've got a thick skin. They might want to read my archived post "Three things to consider before you self-publish."

    Victoria--Thanks a bunch for stopping by. Your blog is awesome. I loved your interview with Elizabeth. I did notice she and I are both LB fans. Alas, my post on her blog doesn't go up until Thursday November 17th.

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  27. I am and have been (for years) a huge fan of Mr. Block. Great information.

    Thanks!

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  28. This was really lovely to read! Thanks to both of you for doing this. I love that cover. :)

    As for short stories. I'm happy to announce my collection, TRUE COLORS, will be coming out in the next few weeks. Lizard cover and all.

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  29. Great post that mirrors my thoughts on self-publishing, and that of many author friends.

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  30. Ranae--Somehow your comment came in out of order and I didn't see it there. Great to hear you're experimenting with different lengths.

    Journaling W.--Thanks for stopping by.

    Michelle--Awesome! Great news. I love the lizard. You're a fantastic short fiction writer.

    Linda--Me too.

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  31. Anne, Thank you for hosting Lawrence Block. This was an excellent inside look at a brilliant author.

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  32. Very interesting and informative post! Lots to think about here. Thanks again for keeping us informed!

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  33. I too have been involved with ebooks for the past 18 years. Like Mister Block I've always believed they would be a part of the publishing future. I haven't ventured into self-publishing yet, but I do know of those who have and are doing well with their book sales.

    Very interesting post. Thanks so much.

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  34. Barbars S--I feel so honored that he visited our blog.

    Christine--Things zoooom along, don't they?

    Barbara M H--Wow. You had an ebook 18 years ago? I think I was still writing on my old Panasonic word processor back then. Good for you.

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  35. This is so incredibly interesting. And he's about my age, a little older, and wow! what he's done in his life with writing. I'm just meeting him, and so happy to have mt him. Short stories should be IN, in these fast-moving times. I loved the short story. It was my first love. In the Fifties I kept checking out the O. Henry Award short stories and reading and reading them. And I just put up a short/true story of my own last night. I concur that between $.99 and $2.99 ebook pricing IS the "sweet spot."

    I love this post!
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

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  36. Thanks for the great post and helpful information. I'm thrilled to learn that short stories are no longer unmarketable.
    Donna v.

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