Friday, November 18, 2011

Guest Post by Robert Swartwood

Robert sez: Scott Snyder is the reason I finally started self-publishing. But it's not his fault.

Let me explain.

Growing up I was the type of geeky writer who, when walking through a bookstore, would look at the copyright pages of novels to see what printing they were in. I knew all the major publishers and their imprints by heart. I could list off editors and their writers and agents and their clients like a kid naming off the stats to his favorite baseball players. Every week I checked out the new fiction reviews in Publishers Weekly and the new bestsellers in the New York Times.

Yeah, for me writing wasn't so much a hobby as something I wanted to do with the rest of my life. In my head major publishing had become, for lack of a better word, romanticized.

Just after college I scored my first agent and immediately thought I had made it. After all, once you get an agent the rest is smooth sailing, right?

Newsflash: nope, not at all.

This agent shopped two of my novels, a thriller and a literary novel, both which were ultimately rejected. But, strangely enough, both novels received great feedback from publishers. Not every publisher really liked the books, of course, but there were some who did. In fact, one senior editor at Doubleday even called my agent telling him how much she loved the thriller ... but just didn't think it was a right fit for Doubleday.

This agent and I split ways and I was agentless for awhile but kept writing. Eventually I signed with another agent, a much bigger agent at a much bigger agency. Before I had signed with this new agent, I asked what would happen if, God forbid, the novel didn't sell. He said, "We go onto the next book." It was the perfect answer, because many agents won't want to waste their time on a new client whose novel doesn't sell. In fact, this particular agent was still working with clients who hadn't sold novels even after eight or ten tries.

And yet, my two novels with this agent didn't find a home. Again, a lot of great feedback from publishers who seemed to genuinely like the books, but no offer.

Then, in the spring of 2009, I came up with this idea of Hint Fiction and word spread quickly across the internet and a very strange thing happened: W. W. Norton approached me about putting together an anthology of very tiny stories. It was one of those publishing ironies, that after all these years of trying to find a publisher, a publisher found me.

A week or two later, Joe Konrath -- maybe you've heard of him -- spent the night at my place. He was in the middle of his insane driving tour to promote his horror novel Afraid. We drank microbrew beer and talked about books and publishing. At this point Joe had started publishing some of his novels as ebooks but wasn't having major success, at least not yet. He mentioned how he was having trouble with his publisher for the followup to Afraid, how his editor wanted him to make changes that he didn't really want to make. While he didn't come out and say it, I think he knew then that he was going to go it alone with that book.

A year and a half later Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer came out to glowing reviews from the likes of The New Yorker and The Los Angeles Times. I did a little tour, going from Los Angeles to New York City, and was even interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. It was a lot of fun and a great experience but, I think, really helped kick that romanticized idea of major publishing out of my head. While I loved working with the people at Norton -- I had a lot of creative control, actually, more so than some writers get -- there were still some limitations that I didn't care for. When I had suggested about possibly lowering the price of the ebook for a week or two as a promotion, the idea was immediately shot down with the standard answer that ebooks should cost the same as the paperback.

Around this time I got an iPad. I used it less for games and watching movies than reading and editing. I began to buy more and more ebooks, loving the convenience and the idea that basically wherever I went, I had a book to read (everyone should have the Kindle app downloaded on their phone). The ebook prices ... well, it depended on the author -- sometimes the prices were good, sometimes they weren't. Most of the ebooks released by major publisher were priced at $9.99 or more, with the paperback version costing about the same. One of these ebooks was Voodoo Heart by Scott Snyder, a short story collection I had been hearing so many great things about. It was priced at $9.99, and I told myself I would come back to it sometime later.

Before then -- this was in the winter of 2010 -- I had self-published three ebooks, but they were just 99 cent novellas and stories and didn't sell very well. I was holding onto the novels because, again, I had that romanticized idea of major publishing in my head and knew that the sale of a first novel was important. But then, in February of this past year, Random House finally gave in to the agency pricing model at Amazon, meaning they could now set the price to whatever they wanted.

And would you know how much Scott Snyder's Voodoo Heart became?

Not $9.99, but $14.99! (It's currently $11.99 at Amazon.)

While advances are always nice, the one thing authors count on are their backlist. The more books they have to sell, the more readers can find those books and buy those books and keep money coming in for those writers. But when publishers start pricing their ebooks even higher than the paperback books, it's just ... strange. How is that beneficial for anyone? Certainly not for the author and publisher, and most certainly not for the reader. Even if I sold a novel to a publisher and got a decent advance, I knew deep down the ebook price would be really high and would continue being really high, even years and years after publication.

One night Blake Crouch and I had a very long conversation on the phone. Months back he had self-published Run which was doing very well. At the time I was debating whether or not to get my MFA in creative writing, with the plan being that I would eventually teach at the university level. Blake said, "If you could choose between teaching and writing full time, which would you pick?"

I sort of laughed, thinking the answer obvious, and said, "Writing full time."

Blake said, "Then do it."

Blake asked me what my most commercial book was, and I told him it was my thriller The Serial Killer's Wife, which was currently with my agent. He said he wanted to read it based on the title alone and that I should definitely put it online myself (he also hooked me up with his designer, the super talented Jeroen ten Berge). Still I was hesitant, and a while later talked to my agent about it. He confessed that it was harder than ever to crack into the thriller market and understood if I wanted to self-publish the book instead (he has other clients who have been self-publishing too). So this past summer I released the novel (along with a foreword by Blake) and it's been doing well ever since. I have it priced at $2.99, as well as my two other novels, and I've been selling over 1,000 ebooks a month on Kindle and right now earning on average just over $1,500 a month. I recently released another thriller, Man of Wax, which is the first book in a trilogy.

(I also should note that in May of this past year Amazon made one of my titles -- The Silver Ring -- available for free on Kindle (it's now 99 cents). When I initially received the email, I wasn't sure what to think, but then instantly I realized this promotion could be a great opportunity. I quickly added an excerpt from my supernatural thriller The Calling at the end of the novella, as well as an excerpt from The Serial Killer's Wife with a note that said it was coming soon. I thought I would be lucky if the ebook was downloaded over 5,000 times. Turned out that, in less than a month, it was downloaded 25,000 times, and the sales of my other ebooks picked up drastically.)

I'm still with my agent but unsure yet if I ever want to sell another book to a major publisher again. I'm certainly not against the idea, but there will have to be a lot of money to give up all of my rights. If anything, I think the dream for any indie author is to sign with Amazon, as their marketing is completely unmatched. But still, my agent understands the marketplace and continues to try to sell subsidiary rights; in fact, he sent The Serial Killer's Wife out to a film agent who liked it and is currently showing it to some directors. Will anything come from it? Probably not. But still it's good to see that my agent keeps an open mind and is still willing to work with me.

The most important thing I've learned about self-publishing, though, is that just because you can do something, doesn't necessarily mean you should. Sure, self-publishing has become easier than ever and makes a lot of sense to do so, but writers need to be sure that they have a great product first and foremost. There are novels on my hard drive that I could easily self-publish, but I won't. I know they're not good enough yet, and maybe never will be.

It's also important to note that a lot more work goes into self-publishing. It no longer becomes a hobby, or a dream, but rather a business. There are a lot of upfront costs involved, costs that usually a publisher takes care of. You become responsible for your cover art and your formatting and even your marketing. These can become exhausting, but at the same time, it's all an investment. Ideally, you'll earn that money back and keep earning.

I should also note that I've been lucky. Some writers have a lot of books out with great cover art and product descriptions and they aren't selling at all. A lot of writers spend time on message boards, but I don't find that very useful as mostly everyone on those message boards are writers just trying to sell their books too. What we need to focus on instead are the readers.

After all, without readers, what's the point?

Joe sez: First of all, congrats to Rob and the success he's having. He's doing a good job playing the game, and as the years pass and he keeps uploading professional content, he's going to earn more and more money.

Second, it was very cool that Blake took the time to not only talk at length with Rob about self-publishing, but also endorse Rob's book. Now Rob is sharing his story with the world, which may inspire other authors to take the plunge.

This is why legacy publishers should be very, very afraid. While profits are up at legacy houses (Kristine Rusch has a great post about this) I believe we're at a tipping point. While Kris doesn't believe legacy publishing is going away, I believe it is, because more and more authors are going to discover that they can go it alone. Right now publishers have a bumper crop of titles they can sell at too-high prices while reaping 52.5% royalties. But in two years, as ebook sales continue to climb, authors are going to wise up. They must, because they're getting hosed.

Rob's story is unique to him, but it tells a universal tale of rejection and eventual success. He has found out, on his own, that self-publishing is the way to go. Many others are finding this out as well.

This is how revolutions start. First, there is unrest and unhappiness. Then a few folks figure out a better way, and begin talking about it. Then more and more people try it and share what they've learned. Eventually the status quo changes.

Consider this: if you are a writer, you WILL self-pub eventually. You'll have to, because it will be the only choice left. Now, you can try to suck a few bucks out of the legacy publishing world before it dies IF you're lucky enough to get accepted and IF you're willing to bend over and take their terrible offer. If you do this, I predict you'll be counting the days until you get your rights back so you can self-publish.

Or you can self-publish now, and start earning money now.

Every day you wait is a day you didn't make money.