Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Guest Post by Jon F. Merz

I love success stories.

I especially love success stories when the recipient of success struggled to attain it. The reason we all relate to the movie Rocky is because it personifies the American Dream. To wit: "You can do anything if you work your ass off."

Jon F. Merz is, by any account, a good writer. He's sold a lot of fiction to legacy publishers, has a lot of words under his belt, and began self-pubbing on Kindle around the same time I did.

Initially, he had some success. Then the success began to recede.

Merz didn't understand why.

Anyone who reads this blog knows the value I place on luck. You have to have the right book in the right place at the right time.

But you can give luck a little help by also having the right price, the right description, the right cover. You can also improve luck by doing this as many times as possible. The more books, the better.

I'm fond of saying that ebooks are forever (and you should begin forever today, not tomorrow.) I also believe that with infinite shelf space, a writer should take up as much of it as they can.

So last month, on my blog, Merz openly disagreed with me. (You can find our exchange in the comments of Lee Goldberg's guest post.)

I invited Jon to give me a call, then got busy and blew him off. But I did ask him to write a guest post, which he did on January 24th. Again, because I've had a lot of guest posts lately, I haven't had a chance to post it.

Well, now I have a chance to, along with a follow up post by Merz a month later.

It's very interesting reading...

Tales of an Ebook Nothing...
by Jon F. Merz

So, last week I called Joe out. Here on his blog. Maybe you saw my comments. I've ventured into indie publishing on the Kindle and my sales have been pretty awful. Joe's constant preaching of his and others success has, frankly, grated on my nerves for no other reason than I'm jealous as hell that I'm not selling thousands of dollars worth of ebooks on a monthly basis. I wanted answers as to what I'm doing wrong and I asked Joe to put his money where his mouth was.

But before we get to the goodness that follows (namely, Joe taking one of my books apart bit-by-bit) a little backstory is in order.

My first novel, The Fixer, came out in May 2002 from Kensington Publications Corp. Scott Nicholson and I were both there at the same time. But while Scott enjoyed a few more years, my own experience with Kensington was short-lived. Long story, short, my first agent only wanted me writing vampire novels, so I fired her. Unfortunately, she and my editor were best pals. That didn't bode well for my fledgling career. Suddenly, planned publicity evaporated and they brought out four novels within a really short space of time. Subsequently, by the time my third novel in the Lawson Vampire series came out, the first one was already out-of-print.

My plans to convince the publisher that they needed to reprint the first book involved a pretty big fan letter campaign that produced thousands of letters of support aimed at Kensington...and one very pissed off letter back from the president of Kensington to me, telling me in no uncertain terms that the series was dead to them and to please tell my fans to stop flooding them with letters.

So my first publisher dropped me. Not a nice feeling. Especially since I'd come up dreaming (like most everyone else) about big advances, publicity and bestseller lists. Now I was orphaned.

I moved to a second agent, who looked good on paper, but in reality sucked mightily. Any deals done during my time with him were ones I worked my ass off to bring to the table myself. I was busy looking for a new home for Lawson, simply because I knew the series had incredible potential and just needed the right editor/house behind it. I started doing work-for-hire novels for the bestselling Rogue Angel series from Gold Eagle. I was the first writer they brought in after the original team that had created it. Over the course of the intervening years, I've written eleven of those novels. (And, according to some Amazon reviews, have single-handedly destroyed the series because I don't let the heroine hack her way out of every troublesome spot.)

Around this time, I was working on a project that I felt sure would be my break-out bestseller. Parallax was a spy thriller about two professional assassins - one a Mafia hitman and one a retired German terrorist - who kill at the exact same moment in time and develop a psychic bond. The resulting cat-and-mouse game intertwined with a nefarious plot, was certain to catapult me onto the lists. I felt sure of it.

I worked my ass off on that novel. More rewrites than I'd ever done before. And this was while I was co-authoring two non-fiction books, working on Rogue Angel, etc. etc. But Parallax was good. It was damned good.

My second agent submitted it around New York. And the reactions from editors were more than encouraging. They loved it. We had one go so far as to tell us, "the world needs Jon F. Merz's voice." Seriously. Hey, it's publishing, you know you can't make this stuff up!

But as nice as all that praise was, the worst was yet to come. Because along with the great things they said about the book, they also delivered this buzz kill: "We can't buy it."

WTF? That was some sort of joke, right? Nuh uh. Turns out, editors have almost zero power. And the sales people they had to pitch the book to, decided that since Parallax wasn't a straight spy thriller, nor was it straight SF, but some sort of weird amalgamation of the two, it would be too difficult to even attempt to sell to their accounts.

Never mind that it was a great read. All that mattered to the sales people was they couldn't easily label it and it would therefore take too much trouble to try and convince key accounts that it would sell.

I was pissed off beyond belief. The reasoning was ludicrous. But it was also indicative of the changing face of publishing. And it was a hard lesson to learn.

I'd always resisted the idea of self-publishing. All right, that's not *exactly* true. I'd given it some thought. But I hadn't made much money with my writing so far and trying to think about doing it myself was a pretty awesome undertaking given everything else I was involved in. I was also, frankly, still one of those who saw self-publishing as the refuge for those who didn't want to do their time in the trenches and earn their way to a legitimate deal. (And yeah, that was my sentiment. Honestly. I'd read a lot of self-published stuff and everything I'd read was crap. Throw stones if you want, but that was my experience at that time.)

But Parallax getting turned down because it couldn't be easily shelved into some narrow category really annoyed me. So I heard about Amazon's new Kindle publishing program. This was back in 2009 and I put Parallax out.

It sold great. Better, the reader reviews were almost universally positive. I felt vindicated. And the sales really helped on the home front. I played around with price points quite a bit, trying to maximize revenue and strike that balance between too little or too much. This was about the same time Joe was doing his first title out there as well. Interesting times, to be sure.

And then I screwed up. I took my eye off the ball. Instead of capitalizing on the initial momentum that Parallax had gained, I got wrapped up in other projects. I was content to let Parallax sit out there and generate the passive income I'd always dreamed about. I did about $10,000 in sales during those first four-to-six months. I put out another trunk novel of mine - Vicarious, a supernatural thriller. It did okay, but nothing like Parallax had. I was starting to see problems.

Then all momentum died. I started putting other parts of my backlist out, but my sales simply didn't take off. And for the past year or so, I've sold consistently but completely unimpressively. I make a few hundred bucks each month with a combination of novels, short stories, and novella pieces. I've experimented with covers, and studied a lot of the market trying to understand, although I certainly haven't had as much time to devote to it as I wish I had. Contrary to what some believe, I'm not out here looking for an easy solution. If anything, the fact that I've experimented as much as I have rather than simply come over here and kiss ass is proof that I have tried to find the solution on my own.

But after reading post after post of others enjoying the level of success I want for my own ebooks, I've grown frustrated and tired of my own failed experimentations. As I've said elsewhere, I'm all for cutting out the middlemen and getting my stuff right to the people who matter: the readers. I just need some help finding the path.

So here I am: on Joe's blog looking for a way to kick the afterburners into gear and really get my sales up. My latest novel is The Kensei, out last week from St. Martin's Press. It's the 5th book in my Lawson Vampire series, but I want to get my first four Lawson vampire installments out onto the Kindle - a lot of people are asking about them.

But I want to do it right.

And with that, I turn it over to Joe, with the expectation that as harsh as his critique may be, it will hopefully provide some of the answers I've been seeking. And if they do, I'll be the first to shout it from the rooftops.

Thanks.

Joe sez: This was the part where I was supposed to get all preachy and lay down the tough love about tweaking his covers and descriptions, lowering his prices, and keeping at it. I was then going to point out specific examples of what to fix, and end with the rallying cry of, "Just keep on keeping on, and hopefully lightning will strike soon."

In a nutshell, for those who haven't heard me spout it before, here are my plans for ebook success:

1. Write a damn good book.

2. Make sure it has professional cover art.

3. Keep the price under $4.

4. Make sure the formatting is flawless.

5. Write a good product description.

6. Upload to Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords.

7. Repeat. Over and over, until the world can no longer ignore your work.

In Jon's case, I would have concentrated on #2 (I think his covers are too dark, so they don't look clear as thumbnails or in grayscale), #5 (I believe his descriptions can be beefed-up), and #7 (more is better.)

But, as fate would have it, Jon didn't wait for me to give him his critique and pep talk. He went ahead on his own, and...

Well, I'll just let him tell his own story.


The End of Fabruary
by Jon F. Merz

I’m excited about things ahead for one big reason: the preceding month has been renamed to “Fabruary.”

Let me explain…

I’ve always viewed the coming ebook revolution with something of a jaded eye. After a decade or more in this business, I’m always wary of supposedly “new” things. But I’ve also been playing around with ebooks for a few years now. I had some early success with it with regards to Parallax and then, after putting out a host of novels, short stories, and a few other things, my sales flatlined at about $100 earnings each month for the last year. That means I was making about a hundred bucks on sales of everything I had out on the Amazon Kindle platform. Not impressive, by any means – especially when I’d read blogs by other folks like Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking (she just bought a house for cash with her ebook earnings), and even some closer friends and colleagues – all of them were enjoying some serious success.

And I wasn’t.

So, I decided to try to remedy that. At the end of January, I put my entire Lawson backlist – four novels, a novella, and four short stories – out on both the Kindle and the Nook platforms. In February, I also debuted a new novella, SLAVE TO LOVE, and then in late February, I reworked the cover of Parallax, dropped its price to 99 cents, and put an excerpt from THE FIXER in the back of it. The goal was to use Parallax as something of a gateway drug to my Lawson series.

The results have been amazing.

Thanks to a series of incredible covers, the Lawson backlist is selling very well, indeed. As of this moment, THE FIXER alone has sold 450 copies on the US Kindle store alone. Priced at $2.99, the novel has earned me $900 and change this month. That’s 100% gorgeous passive income – and it’s 9 times what I made in total for the previous 9 months.

Ah, but I’ve got more than one Lawson novel. I’ve got four. The other three are all selling triple digits. The novellas are closing in on 3 digits and the short stories are selling very well.

So, by itself, the Lawson backlist was generating very strong sales during the shortest month of the year.

Then I dropped the price on Parallax. Until I reworked the cover, I’d sold 4 copies all month. After I dropped the price to 99 cents, I sold many more copies. As of last Friday, I’d sold just over 150 on the Kindle and perhaps 50 on the Nook.

But on Saturday morning, something incredible happened: Barnes & Noble featured Parallax in an email promo to its customers. Nothing elaborate; just a simple shot of some book covers. Parallax was featured in its “thrifty reads & great stories” section. I had no idea this had happened until very late Saturday night. Saturday morning, I saw that Parallax had suddenly sold 55 copies and I thought, “huh, interesting.” I continued to watch the numbers climb all day and into Saturday night. By midnight, it had done 347 copies for the day.

Incredible. My sales rank in the Nook store was beating the likes of JD Robb/Nora Roberts and I was on par with ebook success Amanda Hocking. I had no way of knowing if the trend would last, but yesterday, I sold 233 copies.

Staggering.

I have no idea if the Parallax burst will last, but I’m thrilled to have gotten such an amazing push. I’ve sold 25 copies this morning. You can still get it for the Nook HERE and on the Kindle HERE for just 99 cents. It’s a great book, one of my best.

So, with all that said, I’m very excited. The ebook revolution means that I have the freedom to write whatever I want and get it out there as soon as it’s ready for mass consumption. No longer do I have to slave over a proposal and hope that an editor in New York understands the scope of the project, gets excited, can then pitch it to a room full of supposed experts, gets the green light to acquire it, makes a decent offer (lol), and then tells me the book will be out in about a year. Now, if I have an idea I think is cool, I can just write the thing and put it out. If it flops, no biggie. If it’s a hit – all the better. But the amount of time and number of hoops to jump through for me to reach my readers has now been drastically winnowed.

After all, it’s always been about the readers. Or rather, it should have always been about the readers. That hasn’t always been the case with the traditional publishing model.

But now, it can be.

Am I through with traditional publishing? Probably not. But I will say this: my attitude has been changed tremendously given the success I’ve had in the shortest month of the year. I have big plans to get a lot more material out for ereaders – more Lawson, new series, fun stuff – a veritable ton of things that have only been ideas and “failed” proposals until now. (I say “failed” only because they didn’t sell in the traditional publishing world.)

The landscape is changing. Dramatically.

Borders has gone bankrupt. Is B&N going that way, too? Probably not since they adopted an ebook strategy. But the thing about ebooks is this: they’re not going to stop. And more people will get an e-reader. I love the feel of traditional books, but even I have been reading some things on my iPhone lately. We’re either at a tipping point or beyond it now. Millions are reading ebooks and millions more will soon join them.

Traditional publishers need to seriously revamp their contracts. Right now, the industry standard is 25% net on ebook sales.

That’s crap.

And as much as they may insist that costs are high for producing an ebook, it’s a bogus argument. I can put an ebook out on the Kindle and it takes me perhaps thirty minutes to do. Same for the Nook. I can hire someone to design a great cover.

So why would I give a publisher more than 50% of the proceeds from ebook sales?

For me personally, there’s a lot to think about in the coming months. Where do I want my career to go? With THE FIXER TV series moving ahead, do I want my books tied up by a traditional publisher that doesn’t pay me a fair rate?

Before the ebook revolution, the folks in New York (by and large) determined the destinies of writers.

Since the ebook revolution, that power has shifted. On a seismic scale. Writers now control their destinies. We can write what we want and sell it to our readers. Fewer middlemen means a lot of very good things, indeed.

I’m excited.

For the month of Fabruary, I just broke $3,000 in earnings for my ebooks. 30 times what I’d earned each month for the previous year. (and frankly, there are many writers making a LOT more than that right now, so my potential for sales isn’t going to go down, it’s going to go up as I a) produce more material, b) the number of folks reading ebooks climbs, and c) the number of e-readers sold climbs…)

That kind of success can make a person stop and think.

And it should.

Joe sez: Remember the end of Rocky? He lost the fight. But he still refused to give up, and then went on to eventually win in numerous sequels.

That's life. And that's the writing biz. There will be ups and downs, but you can't take it personally either way. Selling a lot doesn't mean you're the best writer on the planet and you deserve all the cash you're making. Selling a little doesn't mean you're a loser who will never amount to anything.

You just need to keep at it until you get lucky.

Merz kept uploading new material, kept experimenting, kept rethinking his approach, until luck struck.

Best of all, his luck saved me from having to keep my promise to help. Jon found success, and I didn't have to do a long blog post, lecturing him.

Which is why I'm thrilled to have him guest post. Let this be his lecture to you.