How to make it to the Big Show

“Do you know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? That’s 25 hits…25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points…okay? There’s 6 months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks, that means if you get just one extra flair a week, just one. A gork, you get a ground ball, you get a ground ball with eyes! You get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.” 

— Crash Davis in “Bull Durham.”

By P.J. Parrish
I love Crash Davis. And I really love his great speech about that razor-thin line between the major and minor leagues. I was thinking about this speech the other day as I read our royalty statement from Amazon. 
Because for two weeks, we made it to the Big Show. We made it to number one on a Kindle bestseller list. We had 47,000 downloads in 48 hours. We made some really good scratch.
We did it with one book. One book that is 12 years old. A book that is now out of print. A gork, a flair, a ground ball with eyes.

So this is the story of our great Kindle experiment. It’s only one writer’s limited experience. But it has totally reshaped my thinking about my career and my place as a business person within it. Maybe you’ll find it instructive. Or maybe it will inspire you to try something different than what you are now doing. Because I believe that in this fast-shifting landscape, we writers — nay, storytellers — are the only things that can’t be replaced. In fact, this new publishing machine is going to have to be rebuilt around us.  We aren’t cogs anymore; we’re the engines.

A quick caveat: Five years ago, I was one of those folks who preached the gospel of Never Self Publish. It was the road to oblivion, the realm of the desperate. There was a special ring of hell reserved for writers who didn’t want to work hard or pay their dues. And five year ago, self-publishing WAS all that.

But ebooks have changed everything. Now major authors are buying back their ebook rights; mid-listers are finding new life for their abandoned backlist titles; newbies like Colleen Hoover are breaking into bestsellerdom; and everyone is reading the small print in their old contracts.

Five years ago, you were a fool if you self-published. Now, you’re a fool if you don’t.

Another caveat: I was really apprehensive about doing this. I had to be talked into it by two writer friends.(Take a bow Christine Kling and Sharon Potts.). I didn’t think it would work. Boy, was I wrong.

Here’s the background: Kelly and I have published twelve books with two traditional New York publishers.  Only our first two-book contract from 2001 has no mention of “electronic rights” so we decided to self-pub.

We chose our second book, “Dead of Winter” because it is far superior to our freshman effort. First rule of ebook self-publishing: DO NOT PUT OUT A “LESS-THAN” BOOK.

We decided to enroll it in Kindle Select. This means you can’t load it into any other reader formats like Nook and Kobo. Why did we do this? Because Kindle Select lets you give the book away if you want (More on that later) and the book is placed in the Kindle library, which means readers can borrow it instead of buying it. (More on that too)

Also, Kindle’s formatting is pretty easy to learn. Many authors pay others to do this but Kelly is tech-savvy and we mastered the learning curve quickly. Nook’s formatting program is a bitch. (More on that later).

Kelly designed our cover (below). You can’t legally use the original one your publisher created.

Then we wrote our “description.” This is like the back copy on your book and potential readers can click on it to find out what the book is about. It’s important that this be enticing; authors often go back and tweak this endlessly to get it right. Here is what we wrote:

Available for the first time in eBook! Read the thriller that launched the award-winning New York Times bestselling Louis Kincaid series.

In the quaint tourist town of Loon Lake, Mich., a killer is taking his vengeance. One by one, the bodies of cops are found, brutally executed, with mysteriously coded death cards placed with each corpse – the gruesome signature of a psychopath. And the only sound louder than doors being locked against evil is the sound of hearts beating in terrors. Louis Kincaid came north looking for refuge, a place to forget his past. But now he’s landed in the middle of an investigation that’s a terrifying journey through a town’s fiercely protected heart of darkness.

2001 Edgar Award Finalist
“Stylish blend of mystery, knife-edge tension and a complex hero readers care about.” – USAToday
“Tense, thrilling, and your manicurist’s best friend – you’re going to bite your nails.” – Lee Child
“Full of intrigue and edge-of-the-seat suspense.” – Michael Connelly
“The author’s ability to raise goose bumps puts her in the top rank of thriller writers.” – Publishers Weekly starred review

We priced it at $2.99, loaded it up, sat back and waited for the hordes to line up at our virtual door.

After 51 days, we had sold 128 copies. I’ll do the math for you: Even at Amazon’s 70% royalty rate, that means we made $267.90. Which means I made $133.95. (Remember, there’s two of us.)

Big whoop, huh?

We decided we didn’t like the way the cover looked in the Amazon store. It looked muddy and had no pop. (I wrote a KILL ZONE blog about bad ebook covers Jan 15; you can find it in KZ archives) We downloaded a new cover.

On day 52, we pulled the trigger on Amazon’s giveaway option. We gave our book away free for three days.

In the first forty-eight hours, we had 47,000 downloads. It shot to No. 1 in Amazon’s free bestseller store for all mysteries and thrillers.

After three days, we took it back to $2.99. In the first three days, it sold almost 3,000 copies. And here’s the gravy: It was “checked out” of the Amazon library almost 1,400 times. You get an extra royalty for that which averages $1.88 per download but has gone as high as $2.85 for us.

“Dead of Winter” rose to No. 15 on the PAID mystery/thriller bestseller list. It made it to No. 39 on the paid list for ALL Kindle books (that includes all fiction and non-fiction, classics, cookbooks and even the Bible). We — P.J. Parrish — suddenly appeared on Amazon’s Most Popular Author’s list. (I didn’t even know it existed).

We did no advertising. Nada. We announced it on Facebook and sent out a newsletter blast (But that goes to our fans who’ve already read it; we were trolling for new fish). The only thing we did was to take a day to contact blogger sites that are dedicated to giveaways. (There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to this. See Christine Kling’s FOR WRITERS website for advice on this. Nancy Cohen also listed some here at KZ in her February 13 post.)

The book continued to sell at the same fast rate through all of January and into February. Our borrows increased. Today, as I write this, the “glow” is over. (That’s what Christine calls that big sales bump after a giveaway). Sales are on a slow descent but even last week, the book sold an average of 112 books a day.

Other benefits I didn’t see coming: Our reviews for “Dead of Winter” went from 32 to 93, all from readers who said they had never read us before. The book was featured on dozens of blogs. And get this: We saw a bump in sales for our other ebooks (based on Amazon ranking). The ones put out by Pocket, priced at $7.99 moved up. But we saw a significant bump for the ebook that our other publisher priced at $4.08. That book, “An Unquiet Grave,” published 7 years ago, went from Amazon Siberia up to no. 7,057 and today is hanging on at No. 64 on the Private Eye Bestsellers list. Which illustrates, to me at least, the important of being able to price your ebooks right.

And I just found this out an hour ago: our new book HEART OF ICE (due out next week) has crept onto the bottom of the Amazon PI bestseller list at No. 97.

Now one word here about Nook et al.

While we were doing “Dead of Winter” we self-published CLAW BACK. Because it was an original novella, we wanted to make it available to all formats. We went to the Barnes & Noble author website to find out how to self-pub it. It was like trying to cut your way through a thicket with nail clippers. We bought the Scribners software to learn Nook formatting but were defeated by its intricacies. (You have to decide where your tech breaking point is).

We sent “Claw Back” to Smashwords, a formatting company. Smashwords also distributes your ebook to all the non-Kindle sites. A week went by and the book still wasn’t in the Nook store. We emailed; B&N said it was in the system. Two more weeks went by. Crickets. B&N just kept saying it would appear “soon.”

On Jan. 17, we pulled it and enrolled it in Kindle Select at $3.99. Sales were small. We dropped the price to $2.99 and it took off. Sales aren’t as great as “Dead of Winter” but they are steady. As I write this, “Claw Back” is No. 95 on the police procedural bestseller list. And we haven’t given it away yet because we want to time it as a “slingshot” prelude for our new book.

I’m not trying to bash B&N here. God knows I don’t want to see any bookstore die. But a report in Slate this week says that contrary to earlier reports, losses in the Nook division are going to grow this year rather than staying flat. They didn’t exactly make it easy for me as an author to reach my readers.

So what’s the take-away here?

I won’t turn my back on traditional publishing. I still want “tree” books in my readers hands, if that is the delivery method they prefer. But I want to reach as many readers as I can and I want to do in ways that are creative and flexible. So I will continue to self-publish.

Because you can hit a gork or a flair and make some good money. If you’re good and lucky you can even make enough to live on so you can write more. But maybe even more important, you get control. YOU decide when to put your book out there. YOU decide what the cover looks like. YOU decide what the price should be. And YOU decide exactly what direction your career is going to go.

Oh, there’s one more cool thing: You can actually make sense out of those Amazon royalty statements.

38 thoughts on “How to make it to the Big Show

  1. Encouraging and educational. Exactly what I needed to get motivated this morning.

    But let me add, I got into your books through this site. TKZ was a great idea on someone’s part because if an author can prove they can write an interesting and comprehensive blog, odds are good they can write a good read. I prefer to read a writer’s blog, visit their website, than trust a review or advertising.

    And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. So, kudos to TKZ.

    • Thank you, Amanda. We all need encouraging to get going in the morning. 🙂 Yeah, there’s a lot to learn about self-pubbing and it’s scary at times but like all things, if you do your homework, do the hard work, it can be a springboard.

  2. Congratulations! Wow. Great post & thanks for sharing the links. I’m so happy for you. The cash flow of getting your money sooner is reason alone.

  3. Jordan, exactly! It’s kinda nice to get paid every month instead of twice a year. (If you even get that, right?) I am wondering if the Amazon buisness model will eventually make publishers rethink their payment mode. The old paradigm involving discounting and returns never made sense and makes even less now.

    • Publishers have been getting paid monthly for years. They won’t part easily with the money. They take advantage of the cash flow. Theirs. It would require them to treat digital separately, which they refuse to do, to date.

      Ditto on the discounting & returns thing. Print books so they can destroy them? Pffft.

  4. Wonderful narrative about our first adventure to the brave new world of ebooking. I hope the next ride is just as fun. And the next and the next and…

    PJP/Kelly (That’s some profile pic by the way, sis.)

  5. Very informative and straightforward lesson on e-publishing. Even though we’ve discussed Kindle publishing here many times, I don’t think I was really clear on what “Kindle Select” was.

    Amazon is like Google. Why do you need any search engine besides Google? And at least for me, I would feel no pressing need to look beyond Kindle. It has the most reach, at least at this point in time. Thanks for sharing the e-book journey. It’s a terrific help.

    • Friends who’ve blazed the trail have helped me with this so I’m trying to return the favor. I was at a conference over the weekend and I learned SO much about self-pubbing from other authors as we were just sitting around BSing.

  6. Same boat. I have a very good person who does layout. But I recently wrote an SF short story, and it took 6 months to get rejected. So yesterday I said, “Well, hell, let’s see about self-publishing.” And instead of paying for cover art and layout, I’m doing it myself. Cover art for it turned out to be inexpensive and easy. I’ve been pretty lucky with my novels as ebooks (and yes, the royalties are easy to figure out) and yes, I agree with you, B&N’s PubIt is a little odd. There is a nice sense of control doing things this way.

    • Amen Mark. This also helps you keep you name out there between bigger projects. Lots of writers doing this now with novella and short stories.

  7. One very important thing we learned about the do-it-yourself approach: As hard as you try you won’t catch all the typos and mistakes yourself. And we had a bunch of them in Dead of Winter. Readers noticed…boy did they notice! You can pay for two types of editing: line editing (major shaping of your story) and copyediting (someone to catch the stuff you miss). I recommend BOTH if you’ve never pubbed before (and maybe if you have). But I definitely would pay a good copy editor next time. Errors just piss readers off.

  8. Oh! Another great thing about Kindle. If you DO miss typos or formatting, you can go in and easily and quickly reload a corrected manuscript. Your book will be unavailable for a brief period of time but then Amazon just puts it back up. We have done this twice with Dead of Winter. Try fixing a mistake in a traditionally published book…ha!

  9. P.J. – Based on my exposure to you on TKZ I snatched “Dead of Winter” off my library’s “to be retired” paperback shelf. A bit tattered and lots of bent pages but an excellent read!
    Congrats on your e book success. I feel I’m chaneling JSB when I suggest that the key reason for your success is your well-written, outstanding story! Thanks to TKZ I now look forward to the pleasure of reading the rest of your work.

    Additionally, in reference to your ‘comment’ where you stress the importance of a good copy and a good line editor – due to TKZ I am lucky enough to be working with an editor who excels at BOTH. Jodie Renner, a contributor to this blog and the editor for Joe Moore and Lynn Sholes excellent books is helping me prepare my debut book for release.
    Thank you P.J. and thank you TKZ for providing me access to resources that enhance my reading and writing!

    • tom: Wow! I was snatched back from the brink of retirement! (albeit a bit tattered). This is welcome news to a woman of a certain age who just started taking her social security. Thanks.

      Re Jodie: Joe already turned me on to her. We all need a great pair of second eyes.

    • Thanks, Tom, PJ and of course Joe, for your kind words re my editing! I loved working with Joe and Lynn on The Blade, which is coming out tomorrow (Yay!) and am really enjoying working with Tom on his well-written, intriguing medical thriller.

  10. I love that you ended this post with your comments on getting control and making your own decisions. As great as it is to get some extra money, I think most of us are looking at the long view. We want sustainable careers and because the traditional publishing model keeps us in the dark on numbers of copies sold and dollars made for so long, we are never able to see if what we are doing with our marketing is working or not. The best thing about self-publishing is that WE DECIDE to change our cover art, done. We decide to change prices, done. We decide to publish a short story, done. For those of us who have been frustrated by our inability to do something to help our careers move forward in the traditional model, this is heady stuff indeed.
    Great post!

    • Chris, Kelly and I liken this process to being married for a long time to a man who takes care of everything for you, pats you on the head and says, “don’t worry about the hard things, sweetie. I’ll take care of you.” When you leave him, you have to learn to do everything yourself. It’s scary at first but empowering. And, if you want, you can still go see the old guy once in while. Just don’t marry him.

  11. Thanks for this post! It’s inspirational to see how experienced authors “take the plunge” into a Brave New World! And how it takes a bit of summoning up of courage, for everyone.

  12. One thing you mention, Kris, that I want to emphasize is that the book you put out there had better be a great book. And DEAD OF WINTER is. Those 60 or 70 new reviews were mostly 5-star reviews and that helped bring in positive buzz and even more readers.
    A month ago, you and I sat in a restaurant talking about taking the jump with Kindle’s free program. You were hesitant. But you also did your homework, then you jumped in. All I can say now is, brava!

  13. Good on ya, Kris. Fortune favors the brave, and in self publishing, it favors strategic planning and action combined with quality writing and time. But there is no reason traditionally published writers should not be establishing a footprint in indie, because the terrain is shifting and one does not want to get stuck in the mud. Short form, novella, novelette, something. The possibilities are virtually endless, and that’s the exciting thing.

  14. PJ – I have been paralleling your experiences in my own, smaller way. My only quibble is that perhaps you should have been less impatient with Smashwords and B&N. The Nook version of my stories usually shows up right about the time you said you abandoned the effort. For my Dinosaur Wars science fiction novel, Nook has outsold Kindle by quite a bit, and Smashwords collects the royalties automatically for me and sends them via PayPal. On the other hand, when I release my next medical thriller, I think I’ll go with Amazon select, as you suggest.

  15. Hey Tom,
    I’m not really advocating one format over another. Our novella had a built-in time element in that it is a prequel to our upcoming book and we were trying to time it for max impact. So when B&N failed to get it posted within two weeks after we submitted it, we saw no point in keeping it there. Smashwords is great. The problem, for us, was with B&N. We just didn’t have time to mess with it and the payout wasn’t worth the time invested. We still might try it again with a future project. We are all finding our way…

  16. Congrats!

    I’m not making anything on my shorts, but it gets me tickled when I put it on promotion and get 135 downloads. 😀

    That means something to me for some reason.

  17. Great article, PJ! I just came back from a week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where I was looking for more beach reading material and found your book A Killing Rain in a little bookstore. Just started it and it’s definitely got me hooked! I look forward to reading more of your fiction!

    • Jodie: Really! That’s cool…Mexico. I love hearing stories like that. Someone wrote the other day and said they found a copy of one of our old books on a bus. Hey, I’ll take a reader anywhere I can find him.

  18. This is all great info, thanks so much for sharing. I have two original mysteries I’m going to consider self-pubbing after I finish my current projects. Wild Rose Press just entered Warrior Rogue into the KDP program and I had a five-day giveaway period. In that time, I made #1 in Kindle free ebooks paranormal fantasy. How many books were downloaded? I have no idea, since WRP is the publisher. But your story is one of many that are convincing me to put out more on my own. The daunting factors? Hiring an editor, cover artist, etc. and paying out up front.

    • Nancy, I hear ya…re the effort and subcontracting required to do this yourself. That is the big question everyone has to consider in this: How much extra work are you willing to take on yourself? One great thing about DIY is you can find out IMMEDIATELY how your book is doing. Amazon provides daily updates from Bookscan with exact figures, including WHERE geographically you are selling. It charts everything from 1 day back to 1 year back. And you know how many were downloaded, how many were borrowed, how much $$ you made each day. It’s pretty amazing.

  19. One of the more exciting aspects of the new self-pubbing is that you are no longer just a writer. You are also an entrepreneur. We must now consider packaging and pricing along with prose and punctuation. That makes e-publishing the equivalent of television’s ‘Shark Tank’ for authors. The same questions apply: “Do you have any sales? What are you numbers? How is your product different than the competition? Where are you selling? What is your marketing plan?” It’s both daunting and exhilarating. More importantly, it’s the future.

  20. I’m so happy for y’all’s success. That’s awesome to hear. As for the video, that’s one of my favorite scenes. It always trips me out. And maybe it’s because I didn’t play long enough past little league, but I have never heard any type of a hit referred to as a “gork” before that movie, or since.

    But it’s such a great word, that the moment he says it in context, you can actually picture what kind of lucky, dribbling, my-grandma-coulda-made-that-play bloop hit he’s talking about.

  21. Great info here, PJ. I love being able to tweak my e-books on Amazon and in less than 12 hours, they’re back up there, updated. I’ve done that numerous times.

    And why not consider self-pubbing your books in paperback form, too? I’m doing that on CreateSpace now, which is really painless. They’re affiliated with Amazon and guide you through the process, and they also distribute your books.

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