Monday, January 31, 2011

Guest Post by Blake Crouch

I've known Blake for years, and liked his writing enough to work with him on several projects, including the upcoming KILLERS UNCUT and STIRRED, the final Jack Daniels novel (which will also be the conclusion to his Luther Kite/Andrew Z. Thomas series.)

Naturally, because Blake is a friend, he's been forced to endure my endless ranting about ebooks nearly every time we speak to each other. But he's been experimenting with Kindle and ebooks for a while now, and the conclusions he's drawn have been entirely his own.

I asked him to do a guest post because he's at the point where he's seriously considering quitting his day job to write ebooks full time. If the trends continue, it's a no-brainer--he can make more money on Kindle.

Here's Blake...

My ebook journey began on March 7th of last year when I uploaded a collection of four previously-published stories called FOUR LIVE ROUNDS. Later that month, I released a novella and a nasty piece of work I co-wrote with Konrath called SERIAL UNCUT. At the time, my expectations were low—sure, Joe was pulling down a couple grand a month, but he was Joe. An anomaly. I just thought that having some new, exclusive work up on Kindle might spur my “real” book sales, meaning the four novels I had published with St. Martin’s Press over the last six years. I made $215 that first month, and as the summer progressed I released a few short stories individually and watched sales slowly grow.

Once the 70% royalty rate kicked in, it occurred to me that my greatest assets were my novels, DESERT PLACES, LOCKED DOORS, ABANDON, and SNOWBOUND. But they were tied up with my publisher.

In September, I got the rights back to DESERT PLACES and LOCKED DOORS. I blogged about the rights reversion process right here on October 11th, just after uploading those novels. I was excited, but I wasn’t sure how well the books would perform with new cover art and a snazzy price of $2.99.

My publisher had been pricing these books at $6.99 prior to the rights reversion, and sales for the last six months before I took them back had been about 200.

In the three months I’ve had these books, they’ve sold over 3000 copies, and I attribute most of this to the price, but some to the new cover art by Jeroen ten Berge.

Thanks in part to those books, this month, I will earn more from my US Kindle sales than the advance I was paid for my first novel—$6,000—and will come close to selling 5000 ebooks.

I still don’t know what to make of this, and I often wonder for whom is this experience more surreal?

(A) The unpublished writer who had dreams of a big traditional publishing deal and wound up knocking the lights out on Kindle and Pubit?; or

(B) Guys like me...who have been in the trench warfare known as midlist New York publishing, are scarred all to hell from the battle, and then suddenly...

This utopian dream.

It’s like that scene in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalypse novel, THE ROAD, where the father and the son, thirsty and starving to death, accidentally stumble upon an underground bomb shelter filled with more food and water than they’ve seen in years.

To be paid monthly to write exactly what you want to write and have absolute control over the presentation is an amazing thing.

The main reason I read Joe’s blog is for information, no matter how anecdotal, regarding how people sell and why. So here’s mine, for what it’s worth…

I have available 4 novels ($2.99), 3 novellas ($2.99), 2 short story collections ($3.99), 1 complete short story collections ($4.99), and 8 individual stories ($.99).

My two novels, DESERT PLACES and LOCKED DOORS, and SERIAL UNCUT are the top sellers. I sell far more story collections than individual stories, and surprisingly the $4.99 collection I put up looks on track to start outperforming the shorter collections. My novel, FAMOUS, which cannot be classified as a thriller, is unlike any of my other work—and I can’t give it away.

Because my work varies widely in length (from a 1500-word short story to an 85,000-word novel), I make sure to clearly designate the form (short story/novella/novel) and include a word-count in the product description.

As I mentioned previously, I spend a lot of time getting the covers right, and I think this has made a tremendous difference. I’ve nearly tripled sales this month on my novella PERFECT LITTLE TOWN following a complete revamp of its cover.

This all points to one of the great things about ebooks: the ability to make adjustments midstream, so you can constantly honing the presentation toward perfection. Something isn’t selling? Change up the product description. Retool the book cover (mine have gone through at least four modifications to arrive at a solid brand). Rename it....just did that with one of my books, and early indications are it’s working.

But to me, the best thing about the ebook revolution isn’t the money. It’s the unlimited creative potential. No more asking permission to write the book you’re dying to write. No more constraints on form (welcome back the novella!). And collaborative possibilities are endless. Writing DRACULAS with Joe, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson last year was one of my all-time writing highs.

But I NEED MORE NOVELS. My publisher retains control over ABANDON and SNOWBOUND, which is some of my best work. Even at $12.99, these books are consistently below 20,000 in sales ranking. In light of what I was paid for those books, and knowing I will in all likelihood never see another cent of royalties while the publisher owns the rights, it KILLS me to think what I could be making per month off those titles. I will get the rights back. Maybe not tomorrow. But it will happen.

Here are the questions that keep me up at night…

- Can an Indie break into the top 100 without pricing a novel at $.99? I’ve been tempted to drop DESERT PLACES to $.99 but fear upsetting my pricing balance.

- Can anyone other than Michael Sullivan do big business at more than $4/ebook?

- With instant publication now an option, will writers have the self-discipline to take the time to produce great work?

- How will readers continue to find the good stuff when there are potentially millions of shitty manuscripts being uploaded? Based upon my experience, books in the top 5000 are selling about 7/day. Which means buyers are regularly going outside of the top 100 to make purchases. Right now the system is working, but if it gets too fouled up with bad books, will it break down? Will finding that diamond in the rough become so taxing that readers predominately default to the top 100, as buyers of print books do today?

Good book, good cover, good product description, low price—is that really all we’ve learned? All we can bank on? Is this all a giant crapshoot?

I think it may be appropriate to quote the screenwriter, William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”

Joe sez: I've been following Blake's journey, watching him sell more and more ebooks each month, and a few things strike me.

1. The writing matters. Crouch is as good a thriller writer as any who have ever lived. His publisher, St. Martins, made so many mistakes with his career--mistakes beyond Blake's control--that it's miraculous he hasn't eaten a shotgun by now. Honestly, it is the most depressing comedy of errors I've ever seen in the biz.

And yet, Blake's still chugging along, and on his way to his best monetary year ever. Cream does rise to the top, if it struggles hard enough.

2. Novels DO sell better. I have 19 self-pubbed books on Kindle right now. My novels are by far the best sellers, though SERIAL UNCUT does very well. But that's almost 40k words, though, so it's actually a novellini.

3. Experimentation and an open mind are essential. Blake had been diligent in tweaking his covers, changing product descriptions and titles, trying to maximize his sales and his brand. You can't ever be completely satisfied. Once you are, you cease trying, cease learning, and cease growing.

4. The book itself matters. This one is REALLY hard to figure out, and I gotta admit I'm close to clueless as to why some ebooks sell so many more copies than other ebooks. So far this month, I've sold 5393 copies of TRAPPED. It's a horror novel by my pen name, Jack Kilborn. My other self-pubbed Jack Kilborn horror novel, ENDURANCE, has sold a respectable 2890 copies, but that's only a little better than half of what TRAPPED is selling.

Why?

To make it more confusing, for the previous four months, ENDURANCE has been outselling TRAPPED. In fact, my #1 seller has changed many times since I started ebook self-publishing. At first, THE LIST was my #1 seller. Then ORIGIN. Then ENDURANCE. Then DRACULAS. Then SHOT OF TEQUILA. And now, TRAPPED.

THE LIST, my first ebook to sell 20,000 copies, only sold 1130 in January. And it can't be because it has already saturated the Kindle market. Stephen King's THE STAND is still in the Top 10 horror category. That book has been selling for 30 years, and hasn't reached a saturation point.

No, what's at work here is some weird, unknown factor that makes certain books sell at certain times.

Of all my novels, my book DISTURB has consistently sold the fewest copies. I have no idea why. It's a fun book, high-concept. Is it the subject? Title? Cover? All of the above? Should I change the author name from Konrath to Kilborn, since Kilborn sells better? And why should Kilborn sell better? Too many uninformed yet opinionated yahoos on the internet keep crowing that my sales are a result of my previous traditional publishing background, yet my previous traditional publishing background has been as J.A. Konrath. Konrath has many more books in print than Kilborn does, so why is Kilborn the better seller on Kindle? Thrillers outsell horror on the NYT list, so shouldn't my thriller series outsell my horror books?

And if horror sells so well, why is DRACULAS--a horror novel written not only by Kilborn and Crouch, but Jeff Strand (who has a large cult following) and F. Paul Wilson (who is a NYT bestseller) not selling as well as the other Kilborn ebooks? Surely vampires are still a hot genre? And with 167 reviews and a four and a half star average, it would seem DRACULAS should be a no-brainer must-have purchase for all horror fans. But it's only sold 1000 copies this month.

Blake's experience with his novel FAMOUS, which isn't selling anywhere close to what his thrillers sell, is proof that readers aren't indiscriminately buying every ebook an author releases.

Wunderkind Amanda Hocking currently has a staggering seven ebooks in the Top 100 on Kindle. But her zombie novel, HOLLOWLAND, priced super-cheap at 99 cents, isn't in the Top 100. Why the hell not? She's a hot author. Zombies are hot. 99 cents is THE price for breaking into the Top 100. Yet this isn't selling as well as her others.

Obviously, the conclusion to draw is that the book matters. In fact, it may matter more than the author, the price, the genre, and the writing.

But I still have no idea why some books sell more than others. The only advice I can offer is to keep writing, and hope something will click with an audience. Eventually. Maybe.

The big thing on our side is that ebooks have both an infinite shelf space, and an eternal shelf life. Unlike print, which has six months or less to find an audience before it gets returned, an ebook is forever. Forever is a long time to find readers.

As for Blake's questions...

- Can an Indie break into the top 100 without pricing a novel at $.99? I’ve been tempted to drop DESERT PLACES to $.99 but fear upsetting my pricing balance.

I think so. But it may be a case of pricing it at 99 cents, then changing it to $2.99 once it starts selling really well. Obviously, more experiments are needed. The problem is, if something is selling well, do you really want to mess with the price? That takes a lot of guts.

- Can anyone other than Michael Sullivan do big business at more than $4/ebook?

We'll see. I know Blake and I, after writing KILLERS UNCUT, will combine it with SERIAL UNCUT for SERIAL KILLERS UNCUT, which will be $4.99. It'll be interesting to watch how it does.

- With instant publication now an option, will writers have the self-discipline to take the time to produce great work?

There will always be writers who strive to improve their craft. These are the ones who will sell. The ones who post crap won't sell, at least not for long. They'll either be forced to improve, or they'll give up out of frustration.

As I've said before, the readers have become the gatekeepers. Their money and their time are valuable, and they won't put up with garbage. In fact, they go out of their way to warn each other about garbage.

- How will readers continue to find the good stuff when there are potentially millions of shitty manuscripts being uploaded?

I see this concern echoed a lot. The fact is, consumers have always been able to find what they want. Doesn't matter if it's on the internet, on TV, on Youtube, in a bookstore, or on Amazon. We all constantly make choices about what to spend our time and money on, even when there is already a lot of crap out there. More crap won't mean a thing.

How did everyone reading this blog entry find my blog? With millions of websites, many of them crap, they still managed to find mine.

As Theodore Sturgeon said, 90% of everything is crap.

As I've said many times, don't write crap.

There's the answer.

But even if you do write good books, that's no guarantee you'll sell a lot of copies. Which leads to another poor argument that those opposed to self-publishing trot out without thinking. (Those opposed to self-publishing have lots of bad arguments, the majority of them unsubstantiated, specious, and poorly thought-out.) It can be summed up as:

The majority of self-pubbed ebooks don't sell well.

This is a crap argument for a multitude of reasons.

1. The majority of print books don't sell well, either.

2. The majority of ebooks published by traditional publishers sell fewer copies than self-pubbed ebooks, as evidenced by authors who have both.

3. Self-pubbing is a guarantee it will find some readers, while pursuing a traditional publishing contract is still a long shot.

4. It is notoriously difficult to have a hit in any kind of media: TV, movies, music, and books.

5. The fact that you can self-publish and not sell a lot of copies should not dissuade writers from self-publishing, because selling a few copies is arguably better than letting the book sit on your hard drive, doing nothing.

As I said, it's shit argument. But it gets trotted out as often as "Konrath sells because he's Konrath."

The follow-up argument is:

If you self-publish, you ruin your chances at a traditional publishing deal.

Now I could argue convincingly that this is a GOOD THING. Stay the hell away from traditional publishing deals, I say, because you'll make less money and have to deal with a ton of bullshit. But if you go to Kindleboards.com, you can read about many writers who are finding agents and getting publisher interest BECAUSE they self-published. If that's the route you want to go, then I say getting your book on Kindle is a quicker, and more lucrative, way to find a traditional publisher than the query-go-round.

Which brings me to: why all the haters and nay-sayers?

Self-publishing is the most important thing to ever happen to writers. It liberates us from an arbitrary, unfair, broken system, and allows us to reach more readers at a faster rate than traditional publishing ever had. Best of all, as Blake said, self-pubbing allows writers to do it on our own terms.

To be paid monthly to write exactly what you want to write and have absolute control over the presentation is an amazing thing.

Anyone who doesn't see the advantage to that is an idiot. Or brainwashed by Stockholm Syndrome. Or fearful of change.

For almost two years, I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to inform writers about this opportunity. It staggers me that so many don't want to listen.

My past attitude has been to argue with these dolts. To convince them using logic and solid data that this is the future, and they'd be better off embracing it.

My new attitude is: if you want to stick with traditional publishing, it's your loss.