Profits of Doom?

James Scott Bell

Cassandra, prophetess of bad tidings

There’s a bit of a buzz (meaning less than a meme, but more than idle chatter) about declining profits for indie authors. If I’m tapping into this correctly, there are more than a few writers who’ve experienced  significant drop offs in their Kindle royalties. Some attribute this to the Kindle Unlimited program. Others say it’s the massive entertainment options that compete for our attention. 

Or could it be that the ever-increasing number of titles sprouting like steroid-laced Kudzu each day offers too doggone many choices?

That is the view of Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, who has (perhaps reluctantly) donned the robes of a Cassandra. On his blog recently he issued this prophecy:

The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over. Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it.  In recent weeks, for example, I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon dropped significantly since July when Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited… Some authors are considering quitting. It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either. When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on. Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all…. 

[E]very year there will be more and more books for readers to choose from. Unless the number of readers and the number of books read by readers grows faster than the number of titles released and ever-present, there will be fewer eyeballs split across more books. This means the average number of book sales for each new release will decline over time unless readership dramatically increases, or unless we see an accelerating pace of transition from print reading to screen reading.

He was challenged on his assertions on the Passive Voice blog. To one commenter Mr. Coker responded

[I]f you’ve got a better method of describing the big picture dynamic, please share. I’m open to suggestions. If ebook readership (both a function of the number of ebook readers and the number of ebooks read by readers) is spread thinner across an ever-growing, ever-accessible number of books, and the growth in ebook supply exceeds the growth in consumption, then what happens? Very simple question. Does the average new release get more readers or fewer?

I’ll take a stab at answering. I don’t believe that ebook readership is “spread thinner” because of an “ever-growing” number of titles. In fact, readers never choose from the whole universe of books. They filter their choices through author favorites, recommendations, genre preferences. They usually stick to certain places they like to shop for their books. Rarely, if ever, do they pull a Captain Kirk and blast out into the great unknown seeking new life and new civilizations. 

Thus, an expanding universe of content does not have a proportional negative effect on readership. 

One might call it a “discoverability” issue. But again, I don’t see a causal effect here. As I’ve emphasized over and over, by far the best discovery tool is word of mouth, which is based upon the writing itself. The more quality you produce, the greater the word of mouth. This will happen no matter how vast the sea of options out there. Add to this the author who wisely becomes an “ownllist” writer, and there is no reason to believe that we’re only going to see profits of doom henceforward.

Mr. Coker also says there is more quality now in indie books, making competition tougher. I do think he’s right about that. There are a number of reasons this is so, including more trad-midlist writers ditching the old system and jumping into the new. I think, however, Mr. Coker overestimates the breadth of the effect. Quality is always the toughest thing to produce in any enterprise. We have more of quality indie books, true. But not nearly so many that it makes competition any more formidable than it’s always been.

The writers who do the best in the future are going to be just like the writers who’ve done the best in the past. They will write books  readers love and keep that their primary mission.  

For those writers I still say there is good money to be made and deep satisfaction to be enjoyed in self-publishing. In fact I wrote a book about that. (In the interest of full disclosure, and adding to the anecdotal evidence, my own revenue has ticked upward in each of the last four months. I don’t have my novels in the KU program).

I therefore agree with Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, who says in a post at The Guardian: “Many of the association’s members are earning significant salaries now. I’m not talking here about the outliers, like the Kindle millionaires, but the many who are earning enough to leave their day jobs, feed their families, pay their mortgage, afford comforts and luxuries. And let us not forget that sales doesn’t just equal money, it equals readers. It’s one of my great delights to witness what this does for their confidence in themselves and in their work.”

One last thought. Mr. Coker surmises that, “Some authors are considering quitting.” Well, those are precisely the authors who should quit. This has never been a profession for the easily discouraged. As David Eddings has said, “Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead.”

It’s always been the case that the successful writers are the ones who can’t not write. Who exhibit persistence, discipline, production of words. Who write even in the face of serial rejection or dismal sales. These writers keep punching. As the old boxing guys used to say, you always have a puncher’s chance.

Can you accept that? Then politely tell Cassandra to put a cork in it…and get back to the keyboard.

Does Free=$$$ ?

To anyone considering self-publishing, you have to realize that you are becoming an entrepreneur. Almost any business startup requires someone to risk money upfront, and in this case it’s the author going it alone. If you go the traditional route, the publisher takes the financial risk by paying you an advance against future royalties that may never cover the expense. In addition, they print up books that may never sell and sink costs into editors, copyeditors, cover designers, and a myriad other employees whose talents might in the long run have been put to better use on other projects. So giving you a chance means taking a chance on their part. Sometimes it works out to the tune of 50 Shades of Gray, and sometimes it means taking a bath on the entire deal.
When you go the self-publishing direction—whether it’s by choice or because it’s the only option left as it was for me—you are now the one taking the financial risk. You can certainly edit your own book, proof it yourself for typos, design your own cover, format it, and post it online, but for most people that results in a substandard product, not to mention the non-trivial time you’ve spent not writing the next book that could earn you money. An alternative is to pay fees to a freelance editor, a copyeditor, a graphic artist for the cover, and someone more technically adept than you are to format the book so that it’s readable as an ebook.
So one way or another you have a quality product that you believe people will enjoy. Great! How does the book find potential readers? A traditional publisher may reach out for publicity in major newspapers, radio stations, magazines, and TV stations, as well as spend money on advertising. If you’re lucky, the publisher will put bucks into placing your book at the front of stores with a juicy “20% off” sticker slapped on the cover. Or maybe the publisher will feature your book on the splash page of Amazon or B&N’s website (yes, that online real estate is for sale).
As a self-published author, I looked into all of these options. Without going into specifics, I can tell you these kinds of promotional efforts can easily balloon into the tens of thousands of dollars. Even free publicity will cost you because you usually need to pay an experienced publicist with great connections to get featured in anything worthwhile.
Social media and blogging have been godsends to self-published authors because they are cheap ways to reach many readers. And the response can be instantaneous. If you post a popular blog or a Tweet that gets Retweeted by Justin Bieber, your book sales can spike within minutes because nothing’s easier than cruising over to the Kindle or Nook web page, particularly if there’s a link to your book.
However, those kinds of windfalls rarely happen. So that leaves what options for getting the word out about your self-published book?
Like it or not (and there have been billions of pixels spilled on this topic), last year Amazon introduced KDP Select. Kindle Digital Publishing gives you the option of enrolling in the program in exchange for ninety days of exclusivity on the Kindle platform. You get two exclusive items in return: the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and the option to offer your book for free for five of those ninety days.
Books in the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library are available only to members of Amazon Prime, their free-shipping program. Every time your book is loaned out, you get a percentage of the pot Amazon has set aside for these authors (it has averaged around two dollars per loan in the past, but may increase for the next few months as Amazon has doubled the pot available) (note to Washington and Colorado readers: I don’t mean that kind of pot). So every loan means money for you even if the reader doesn’t buy your book.
The five free offer days are even more interesting and somewhat disconcerting for the author who has spent a year or more crafting a novel. Why should you give away the book you’ve sweat and cried and labored to produce? To build readership. I know several authors who’ve done very well with this tactic and ended up selling thousands of books after the giveaway ended. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I think it’s worth a shot. That’s why I’ve decided to offer The Roswell Conspiracy for free starting Wednesday morning (12/5/12) and ending on Friday night (12/7/12). Anyone with a Kindle can download my book for absolutely nothing, and I want as many people as possible to do so.
One reason for trying to maximize the free downloads is the whole obscurity issue. Although I’ve built up a loyal following of readers, I think the market for the type of book I write is exponentially bigger than I’m reaching. My Tyler Locke series of archaeological thrillers with a techno edge is in the same vein as some authors who sell a million copies or more in the US. I think those readers would also enjoy my books, but many of them simply don’t know I exist. Readers are more likely to try a free book from an author they’ve never heard of or read before.
The second reason is word of mouth. According to Smashwords, a third of book buyers make their decision based on the recommendation of another reader. You want to find those readers who will tout your book online or to friends and family. If, say, ten thousand people download The Roswell Conspiracy this week for free, perhaps two thousand of those people will end up reading it (you’ll find that many readers download hundreds of free ebooks, many of which wind up getting deleted before they’re ever read). Of those two thousand, if I’m very lucky half will love the book. Of those thousand people, maybe ten percent will be so ecstatic about the experience, they’ll become evangelists for the book. Give or take on my assumptions, that’s about hundred people out of ten thousand spreading the word, which is why I want as many new readers as possible.
The third reason is that readers who love one book are likely to try more books by the same author. I have four other books for readers to try, so giving away one may lead to sales of the others.
To reiterate, though, however good all the benefits sound, I am taking a calculated risk. To take advantage of the free offer, I have to give up sales through other channels (Nook, iBooks, and Kobo) as well as potential sales to readers who might have otherwise have paid for my book. In addition, The Roswell Conspiracy’s paid ranking in the store will drop during the three days it’s not on sale. Once the giveaway ends, my ranking may well have plummeted, which means I will need to build up my sales from scratch.
But that’s what it means to be an entrepreneur. I’m betting that in the long run I will find many more readers than would otherwise have heard about me. And if the risk doesn’t pay off? That’s why I’m writing the next book.

A Checklist for Indie Authors – E-Book Retailers (Post 2)

To get my e-book into the hands of readers, I had decisions to make. Should I upload my book through a Distributor/Aggregator with bundled services for multiple retailers or load them directly onto the sites of individual retailers? If you have a number of titles from your backlist, this could seem daunting, but bear with me. Some retailers are easy to upload into directly, regardless of the number of titles you have, while others restrict authors who don’t have enough offerings to meet their initial minimum requirements.

As I stated in my first post on this series, if you upload to Amazon and B&N, you’ve covered 60-70% of e-books sold today. That’s a good place to start. I could have formatted my own books to save money, but I went through a service provider to do this as I continued writing my contracted books. My formatters created my e-book files for Sex, Death and Moist Towelettes & Dark Kiss through Amazon (Mobi), B&N (ePub), and Smashwords (.doc), plus my e-book and pdf file for my Print-on-Demand (POD) non-fiction book with a cover design for the front, spine, and back of One Author’s Aha Moments.

To optimize an indie author’s outreach and distribution efforts, I’m listing other options beyond Amazon and B&N in this blog series. Stay tuned for more in the weeks to come when I post about Distributors & Library Sales, Retailers with Volume Restrictions, and I draw some conclusions from all this in my final post on the indie author topic. I plan to launch a page on my Fringe Dweller blog where I will list indie resources and maintain them.

Below are the e-book retailers that allow anyone to upload content, no matter how many offerings you have or your publisher status. (Kobo will be mentioned in the next post, but there are many interesting changes happening that will put them on this list soon.) Please be aware that each of these sites operates under different formats and you should get familiar with their guidelines.

Amazon’s Kindle Digital Publishing (KDP)Amazon’s primary e-book format is Mobipocket (Mobi) files, with or without DRM. Amazon currently dominates the market on e-book retail sales. Authors and publishers have access to an effective online retail outlet. Their royalty percentages are split by price point. Currently, that is 70% if your e-book is priced between $2.99 & $9.99, or 35% for all other price points. There is a small delivery charge based on size of file and royalties are paid monthly.

Barnes & Noble – B&N’s upload service is called PubIt!. PubIt! is similar to the Amazon KDP and gives indie authors the ability to upload a higher quality of ePub file that will not be lost through an automated conversion process where standards might be lower. The system also accepts Word, HTML, RTF, and TXT documents, which will be auto-converted to the ePub format.

Apple’s iBookstore – Apple’s iBookstore is open for authors and publishers to upload their own content. You must have a Mac computer to use the iTunes Producer program to upload the files. The signup process may seem intimidating, but an indie author can earn a higher royalty percentage by going direct and not through a distributor/aggregator. If you are unable to use Apple’s system because of limitations, the iBookstore provides a link of Approved Aggregators you can go through.

Google – Google’s e-book store allows readers to purchase PDF and ePub versions of your book, protected by the Adobe DRM. (Digital Rights Management is a term for any security measures designed to inhibit piracy.) The Google e-book store is part of the Google Books Partner Program. HERE  is a link on their system requirements.

LuluLulu uses ePub, PDF, and Microsoft Reader (LIT) formats, with and without DRM. Lulu is well-known for its Print-on-Demand (POD) services and an indie author can sell e-books through them. Lulu takes a cut of sales and there could be an additional fee to use the DRM option. Lulu is an Apple-approved aggregator for the iBookstore.

ebookMall – A $19.95 submission fee is waived until June 30, 2012. ebookMall uses ePub and PDF file types. Lightning Source could be an alternate source into this retailer.

ScribdScribd uses PDF files only and cannot sell other formats.

Smashwords – Smashwords works off a specific Word document style (HERE) that must be in accordance with the Smashwords Style Guide. That Word doc is auto-converted into 9 different formats at the author’s option. In addition to selling books at its own online store with the lowest fee of any retailer listed here (15%), the Smashwords Premium Catalog offers authors and small publishers a way to distribute their titles across a variety of retailers, including Apple’s iBookstore, the Sony eBook Store, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and others.

In my next post, I will go into more detail on the various issues with a middleman distributor. Be aware that an indie author can have format issues by going through the conversion process and this can translate into downstream retailers taking issue with e-book quality from that distributor and YOU. Bottom line is, uploading directly to a retailer with relative ease might be your best option. You’ll see why in my next post when we talk about issues beyond formatting, like cumbersome and untimely price changes when going through a third party.

Some of this sounds daunting, but remember, if you’ve got your book onto Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you have your digital baby with the largest e-book retailers. Fine tuning your retailer outreach can be done as you have time. It doesn’t have to be done all at once. Many of these sites will take time away from your writing, so weigh the benefits against the time it takes for you to focus on this, but once you see how things go, you can fine tune where you will focus your retail and promotional efforts.

If you’re an indie author, please share your experiences with the retailers I mentioned and what has worked for you. If you are exploring the idea of self-publishing, do posts like this help you or intimidate you?

PayPal vs. Smashwords

By Joe Moore

In February, PayPal, the global e-commerce payment service notified Smashwords, one of the biggest indie publishers or electronic literature that they had one week to remove all books in their catalogue that dealt with themes of rape, incest, bestiality and underage sex. Failure to do so meant that PayPal would deactivate their services. The pressure to take this action appeared to have come from the credit card companies that partner with PayPal (owned by eBay). Smashwords has over 100k books available online. A quick search of Smashwords showed that there were about 1k titles tagged with the offensive subjects.

Smashwords has been able to negotiate an extension of the deadline in order to come to some compromise with PayPal and its credit card, bank, and credit union partners. In the meantime, as this situation goes on, it raises many questions starting with:

Should a business such as a credit card company be allowed to force its moral beliefs directly or indirectly upon another company?

Before everyone starts pointing out the lack of redeeming literary qualities of the specific books targeted, let’s just move to the bigger topics of censorship and free speech—and who in this example has the right to decide when and how to implement it. Does a middle-man payment company like PayPal have the right to decide what is obscene? If PayPal can tell booksellers what they can and cannot sell, aren’t they also telling readers what they can and cannot read?

What’s your reaction to PayPal’s mandate? Is this just the start of bigger things to come in the censorship arena?

How I Went From Idea to Story

James Scott Bell

I used to say this: It’s not a lie if somebody isn’t owed the truth. I don’t say that anymore. One More Lie
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new suspense collection, ONE MORE LIE. It’s available on Kindle, Nookand Smashwords.  You can view the trailer here.
This collection includes the title novella and three new stories. I thought it might be instructive to tell you how I went from idea to story for the novella.
There are various creative exercises I use to come up with story possibilities. One of my favorites is the first line game. You make up a bunch of intriguing first lines all at once and see where they lead. I learned this from Dean Koontz in his classic HOW TO WRITE BESTSELLING FICTION. Koontz himself once wrote the line: “You ever killed anything?” Roy asked. He didn’t know anything else, but the line grabbed him and eventually he turned it into the hit novel The Voice of the Night.
For ONE MORE LIE, I actually got a first chapteridea. So I wrote it. I liked it so much I put it in my “active file” to noodle on later.
It stayed there for about a year as I worked on other projects, primarily those for which I had been paid, the publishers having the perfectly quaint notion that I therefore owed them a book.
But every now and again I’d return to that opening and think about it.
The day came when I had a window of time and decided to give it a whirl. So what I did was this:
1. Fleshed out the main characters. In this case there were four, and I spent time coming up with relationships and backstory. That in turn suggested further plot developments. I call this “orchestration” and it’s one of the most important things a writer can do with a new idea.
2. I experimented with POV. I had originally written the opening in 3d person. Sometimes I’ll switch POV to see how it feels. In this case, I decided that First Person was a better fit. My previous novella, WATCH YOUR BACK, was written in that sort of James M. Cain style I like, so I went with the same for ONE MORE LIE.
3. I let the plot unfold as I wrote, but took notes and outlined as I went. This is a “rolling outline” that enables you to think ahead during the writing process itself. It allows a certain freedom in plot while at the same time you’re building a solid structure. One benefit is that a particular twist happened out of the blue that completely changed the direction of the story and gave it the deeper dimension I was looking for.
4. I completed a first draft, let it sit, then printed it out in hard copy for my first read through. I take minimal notes at this stage, wanting to have a “reading experience” first. Then I assessed the big picture and revised it.
5. I gave it to my beta readers, starting with my lovely wife, who has a great editorial eye. I got terrific notes back. One of the readers did the copy edit for me.
6. I prepared it for e-publication, sent it out to be formatted. My son wanted to take a stab at designing the cover, and who was I to argue? The price was right. As in zip.

7. My son, a film grad, also did the trailer. For that I bought him dinner.
The result is a novella that got this advance copy blurb from Ane Mulligan of Novel Rocket: “James Scott Bell is at his best in One More Lie. Fast paced, this novella will leave you breathless to the unforeseen end. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. Novel Rocket and I give it our highest recommendation. It’s a must read!”
And I still love that first chapter. So I’ve put it up online and invite you to read it. If you feel compelled to read on (and I think you will be) then for $2.99 you can get the whole thing, plus three other stories to boot. No contests. No gimmicks. Just bang for your reading buck. That’s what I’m going for every time out.
Now I want to know about YOU. How do you like to generate and nourish ideas? When do you know you’re ready to take one to the max and write? 

The Self-Pub Adventure

I am about to dive in where others have gone before. I’ve finished revising my last backlist title. It took me quite a while, as the doc file is over 500 pages and I made lots of changes. Now comes the next stage, which is to hire a cover designer.
Wait, not so fast. First, I need to determine the back cover copy. That’s not so hard. I can use the same one that’s on the original paperback with a few heading changes. But inside the book are more challenges. There are several introductory pages containing an excerpt, review quotes, and a dedication. I ditched the latter, as those people no longer apply to my current career. The excerpt and quote are reusable with some slight modifications. But what now? Do I add them to the front of my doc file? Should I include a title page? Maybe on Smashwords, these things are delineated, but I haven’t gone there yet to read the requirements. First I have to get a cover.
Getting a cover will probably necessitate filling out a description of the hero/heroine and a suggested background scene. I already have a list of cover artists garnered from other authors’ online posts. But now I must prepare these materials for when I contact one of them. Hopefully the artist will determine the proper fonts and where to put my name and book title. And I have to remember to state somewhere that this book was previously published and written under a pseudonym.
This whole process seems daunting, but I’d like to use this book as an experiment. Because who knows, if my current works on the market fail to sell, I may choose to go this route. Or I may just get tired of waiting for a response and then waiting another year or two for the book to be published.

It’s a scary thought for an author who has only sought traditional publishers or legit e-book pubs before. Plus, self-published works are still not accepted by many reviewers or booksellers for signing events, so there is a certain loss of prestige.
I know some of you have already cast off the shackles of print publishers and ventured into this new territory. Are you happy with your choice? How many of you have done it for original works?

Quirky Ramblings on E-Books, Self-Publishing and the Consumer

USA TODAY had an interesting article on authors who have struck it big with their self-published e-books. The article featured 26-yr old Amanda Hocking of Minnesota who got tired of being rejected by traditional publishers and self-published last year. In 2010, she sold 164,000 books, with most priced between $0.99 and $2.99 per digital download. And in January, 2011 (after many readers got e-readers for Christmas), she sold 450,000 copies of her 9 paranormal titles, with three of her titles making their debut on the USA TODAY’s Bestseller list.

Her percentage of that sales price range comes in at 30-70%, respectively, but she’s making money at it. And she promotes on Facebook, Twitter, and word of mouth—and credits the popularity of the paranormal genre for much of her success.

And another paranormal e-novelist, who sold 70,000 copies since July 2010, got noticed by Random House and just signed a three-book deal.

I bring this up because of a talk I had with a neighbor this week. She got me thinking about digital download books. My neighbor had received a Nook for Christmas and was downloading books online. She was feeling pretty tech savvy, for sure. And she wanted a trip down memory lane when she used to read simple sweet romance novels, easy reads that made her happy.

Instead, she bought erotica by mistake. Now her online booksellers are sending her recommendations for the same steamy stuff she just purchased. (I’m chuckling as I write this. If you knew my neighbor, you would too.) She actually had to call the online bookstore to see if they could stop sending those recommendations to her Nook, but since it was such a new product, they couldn’t help her. But she was willing to download a book that she knew nothing about other than it was a romance and she had virtually no knowledge of the plot. She only knew it was a bargain. And she’s not alone. I’ve heard on blog posts and other places that many readers are willing to try a new author for $0.99-$2.99/book.

Now I’ve resisted buying an e-reader so far. I’m not sure the technology is there yet and I like the feel of a book in my hands. Plus I spend way too much time in front of a computer writing that I think reading off a display might make my quirky eyesight worse. But I can see why a reader might like the option of downloading a book quickly, read it immediately without paying shipping, and maybe get it for a bargain. And I also have a couple of manuscripts “under my bed” that are only playthings for my cats. Maybe it’s time to do something with them and test the new marketplace of e-books.

I’d like to hear from anyone who has an e-reader. How do you like reading off it? Has owning one changed your book buying habits? Do you still buy print books? And is there a price point that might tempt you to try a new author?

And if you’re an author who has sold your e-books online through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble’s Pubit, Lulu, Smashwords, and other locations—how has that worked for you?

Blood Remains: A ghost story

This week the Killers are blogging about The Kill Zone’s new e-collection of original short stories, Fresh Kills (available on Kindle, Smashwords, and Scribd). I’m excited and honored to have my short story, ‘Blood Remains,’ included in the anthology. At its heart, ‘Blood Remains’ is a ghost story. I was inspired to write it after reading a newspaper headline (it would be a spoiler if I told you what the headline was). When I read the article I started to wonder, “What if?” As in, what if this happened, and then that?  That thought process energized my creative “boys in the basement” (Jim discussed this creative process in his Sunday post). The end result was a paranormal story: A victim of childhood abuse returns home after many years  only to discover that while memories fade, blood remains. 

The story breaks ground for me in a couple of ways: It’s my first published short story; it’s also a new genre for my writing. A bit of background: I had been developing “Blood Remains” as a novel until Jim suggested that we publish an e-collection of short stories. I narrowed the focus down to what would have been the end of the novel, and reshaped it as a short story.

About making the e-jump

Plunging into the e-book world can be as intimidating for authors as it is for readers (And for publishers, too: Here’s a recent update on the Amazon vs. Macmillan spat). I received a Kindle DX from Santa for Christmas, and I felt very tentative as I downloaded my first few books. I  soon discovered to my delight that some classic books are available on Kindle for free. Then I learned how to enlarge the text so I don’t need reading glasses. Now I’m an e-book convert, carrying my Kindle around with me everywhere. A Kindle application for PCs is available for free, by the way (Click here). Of course, Apple has now debuted the iPad, so the e-book war is officially on. It’s going to be like Rome versus the Barbarians. (Although I’m not sure which side is Rome, and which the Barbarians). It’ll be interesting to see what the e-book landscape is like a few years from now.

Have you made the e-book plunge? How’s the water?