Note from Brian: People often ask me how I would go about doing things if I was starting my writing career now, rather than almost 20 years ago. I always tell them I’d be doing exactly what up-and-coming writer Robert Swartwood has been doing. And here’s Rob to tell you what that is.
Awhile back Brian and I took a road trip to see Nick Mamatas, and on that road trip Brian and I talked about the ongoing changes in publishing and what I’d been doing recently with ebooks. He asked me to talk about my success — what it is I’ve been doing to get where I am now — so I’m going to stay away from the whole major-publishing vs. self-publishing debate that seems to be all the rage these days. The truth is, both have pros and cons, and there is no truly right path. Every writer is different, so in the end you need to do what you feel is best for your career and not be pressured by your peers or some kind of publishing romanticism.
In 2010 I actually tried talking a friend of mine out of self-publishing his novel. Less than a year later, I ended up taking the plunge myself. I talked about this back in November over at Joe Konrath’s blog, where I mentioned I was averaging about $1,500 a month. Now, less than six months later, I’m averaging over $5,000 a month (to put that in perspective, in April of last year I barely earned $150). So is it possible to make money self-publishing ebooks? Yes. Is it guaranteed you will? Hell no. A lot of factors are involved, the major one being luck, but the truth is sales fluctuate. I’ve been fortunate so far. My sales have been increasing every month. But next month, or the month after that? They could start slowing. Who knows, by the end of the year I could hardly be making any money at all. That’s the cold reality of publishing — both traditional and self — but it’s a reality that needs to be mentioned up front before we begin.
Now, again, I’m not going to talk about the pros and cons to self-publishing. I’m just going to assume that if you’re still reading, you have self-published or are thinking about it at some point in the future. I’m also assuming that the novel or novella or short story or whatever you’re self-publishing is as perfect as can be. You’ve read it over one hundred times, had your writing group read it over, some close writer friends who won’t bullshit you and tell you it’s great when it really sucks. Maybe you even hired an editor to go through the MS. Whatever the case, I’m assuming what you’re planning to publish is top-notch and is free of simple grammar errors and typos. If that’s the case, then you’re already way ahead of the pack when it comes to the majority of self-published stuff out there.
See, readers complain about a lot of self-published stuff being shit, and they’re right. Anybody can upload a book these days. The distribution is there, after all, so why not? A lot of these writers think they’re good writers, which is never a good sign. As the saying goes, only bad writers think they’re good. But the thing is, self-publishing is no longer a last-ditch effort for writers. For many, it has become the first choice. When my agent told me how much he thought he could get me for my thriller The Serial Killer’s Wife, I thought long and hard and told him I wanted to try it myself first. Within a year, I’ve earned that amount my agent quoted me, and every month I keep earning more. Could the novel have bombed? Certainly. I could have also had my agent shop it around first, just in case (and who knows, maybe it could have sold for ten times that originally quoted amount). Blake Crouch did that with his novel Run; his agent sent it around, and while there were a few nibbles, no publisher made an offer. So what did Blake do? He self-published it, and a year later made over $100,000. (Granted, that’s a special case, but you never really know; that’s why I said you need to do what you feel is best for you.)
The reason I mention Blake is because he introduced me to his designer, Jeroen ten Berge, a kick ass graphic designer who does work for many of the major self-published writers in the field right now — Barry Eisler, Joe Konrath, Lee Goldberg, Joel Goldman, and a slew of others. Jeroen is a joy to work with, and while his rates are high, they’re an investment. I typically earn back the money I spend on the cover for a particular title within a month or two. Of course, Jeroen isn’t the only designer out there. There are many others, some whose rates are higher, some whose are lower. The thing is, though, you want to find the right one to work with, who understands your vision and is able to produce the cover you want. (You could also contact graphic design classes at a local college, as they’re always looking for new assignments, or maybe you even have a friend who is a graphic designer who might be able to help you out for free — that was the case for my novel The Calling.) Because readers really do judge a book by its cover. So if you can manage to produce a top-notch cover — a cover that rivals those produced by major publishers — then you’re one step closer to competing with the big boys.
The other important thing is formatting. I use Scrivener to format my ebooks. Yes, I do my own formatting, because quite honestly, it’s not that difficult. But I have gone through a lot of trial and error over the past year. There is no standard when it comes to formatting. I just looked at a bunch of ebooks — both traditionally published and self-published — and noted what I liked and disliked about the different formatting. (You can also, just like with cover art and editing, outsource the formatting for a one-time cost.) Which brings me to my next point …
If you’re going to self-publish ebooks, make sure you’re familiar with ebooks. This doesn’t mean you need to buy a Kindle or NOOK or iPad, but at least be aware of how readers use the medium. You can download the Kindle app for both PC and Mac, so you can view samples of ebooks and, more importantly, spot-check your own ebooks before you make them live.
A strong product description is essential. Just a paragraph or two that really grabs the reader’s attention even more (remember, the cover was the first thing that grabbed their attention) and makes them want to at least sample your book. It also helps to include the word count, or total page number, of the novel. This way readers can’t complain later that they purchased a novella for $2.99 when it clearly states in the product description the book is 25,000 words long.
Right now ebooks have given writers endless distribution. Never could I try to compete with Stephen King and Dean Koontz when it comes to print, even if my books were published through a major publisher. But digital? Three of my titles have been in the paid Kindle Top 100 for horror, right alongside King and Koontz and other major writers. My novel The Calling, which came out last year, has been in the Kindle Top 100 for horror for the past couple months, in both the US and the UK. And you know what? That’s not the only self-published novel sitting side by side with King and Koontz. There are many, many others. Why? Well, price plays a major factor. Amazon offers 70% royalties to any writer who prices his book between $2.99 and $9.99 (the industry standard from major publishers is 25% for digital). That means on a $2.99 ebook, I make about two bucks. That’s pretty crazy when you think about it. Major publishers typically price their ebooks $9.99 or more. Many readers don’t care to spend that much, and are willing to give lesser known authors a try. But these readers, time and again, get burned with really shitty self-published books, which is why, again, it’s so important you make your work top-notch so it can stand out above the rest.
Brian has mentioned his fear about digital piracy, and free and 99 cent ebooks. Well, in terms of digital piracy, I don’t think there’s anything we can really do about that. Trying to stop people from pirating our work is like trying to stop the wind from blowing. But the 99 cent ebook? I’ve experimented with it in terms of a few novels, and I don’t care for it at all. Granted, some of my work is available for 99 cents, but those are short stories and novellas. You only earn 35 cents for each unit sold. Over a year or two ago, a 99 cent ebook might work well to get readers’ attention. Now that price point has become so abundant it doesn’t stick out anymore. They are, I remember one writer saying, just drive-by sales. Readers might grab them (after all, 99 cents is an impulse buy), but there’s no guarantee they’ll actually read the book. In fact, they probably won’t. I own quite a few 99 cent ebooks that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. But the ebooks I purchased which were $2.99 or more? Those are a higher priority for me. Imagine that.
Free has become pretty abundant too. In many ways, it’s become the new 99 cent ebook. A few months ago Amazon introduced their Kindle Select Program, where writers can make their ebooks exclusive to Amazon for 90 days. By doing this, Prime members then have the chance to possibly borrow that ebook, and at the end of the month the borrows are averaged out and writers are paid from a kitty that’s $500,000 or more. What really makes this program worthwhile is the opportunity to make your ebook free for up to 5 days during that 90 day period. This can work as a great promotional tool. I did it with some titles back in January and had great results with two of those titles. After the titles went back to paid, their sales surged for a week or so. But not all writers have the same luck. In fact, many writers periodically make their books free, conditioning readers that they don’t have to pay for that author’s work, because if they wait, they’ll just get it for free. If you do decide to make your book free for an extended amount of time, there should be a damned good reason for it. My story “In the Land of the Blind” won one of the Chizine short story contests nearly a decade ago; it was the inspiration for my nontraditional zombie novel The Dishonored Dead, so last year I made the story available as a 99 cent ebook and included the first few chapters of the novel at the end. But, again, the 99 cent ebook has become too abundant, so I made that ebook free (making it free in Smashwords so Amazon would match the price), and why not? It’s a loss leader to drive readers to the novel (it gets downloaded over 1,000 times a month, compared to dozen or so sales previously), which is the main thing I’m concerned about selling (in fact, I include the story as bonus material in the novel anyway).
Finally, what about message boards and bombarding your followers and friends with links on Twitter and Facebook? I don’t subscribe to that model of self-promotion, but to each his own. When I have a new book out or there’s been a new review, sure, I’ll post links. But that’s it. And message boards? Please, do yourself a favor and spend more time writing. It’s great that writers want to support each other, but in the end they’re just marketing to each other, when their main goal should be getting their books out to readers. The more books you have available, the more you’ll sell. At least that’s how it’s been for me, and many other writers I know, though some other writers have been very lucky to have major sales with only a book or two. (Note that I’m not saying quantity is better than quality; quality always trumps quantity.) I was fortunate to have several novels ready to go when I decided to self-publish, so I started out with a strong backlist. When readers finish one book, they can easily find more of my novels (I’ve had readers email me saying after they finished such-and-such, they went and purchased all of my ebooks). I provide excerpts and product descriptions at the end of all of my ebooks for those readers interested. Despite what you might think of Amazon, their algorithm is essential for readers finding your work. It’s how my books get recommended to readers. I don’t go around telling people again and again to buy my books. Instead, I present top-notch books with great cover art and strong product description, and let the readers decide whether or not they want to buy the books.
So far, it seems to be working just fine for me.