Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Ghost Domino

Like many indie novelists, I found my way into independent publishing after my umpteenth legacy rejection and realized that I was better off hanging out my own shingle. In my case, it wasn't so much about trying to make a buck - although the bucks are nice - as it was about taking control of my professional destiny.

In the legacy world, there are so many moving parts that simply keeping up with them can be a full-time job: authors, editors, agents, sales personnel, graphic artists, booksellers, buyers for major chains, and... who am I forgetting here?... ah, yes: the readers. Out of that entire list, the readers are the only ones sending money our way. I like readers. I like them A LOT. So do legacy publishers, whose PR arms can theoretically reach out and tap any of them on the shoulder with the spine of a printed book. It's not a perfect system but it's served us well so far and, besides, nothing says "erudition" than a home full of groaning bookshelves.

And yet, legacy publishing is struggling while indie publishing is thriving. The problem is the domino ghost. For a legacy book to succeed, all the dominos - the editors, artists, et al - have to be lined up perfectly. If any one of them doesn't fall when it should, the book fails. The more dominos, the greater the chance of failure. And then there's the ghost: even if they all fall as they should, a book can still fail for no apparent reason. And it's all out of the author's control.

Indie publishing removes most of the dominos from the line, leaving behind the only two that matter: the author and the reader. I won't discount the importance of a good cover - Joe has discussed this at length in previous posts - or the need for solid editing. In many ways, they're more important than ever. But the author now has far more control over the editing and cover design process than... no, that's not right. The author ACTUALLY HAS CONTROL over the editing and cover design process. Want to hire a freelance? Go ahead. Want to go it alone? Knock yourself out. It's entirely your decision.

Of course, a book can also fail if the writing sucks. (Note that I didn't say it ALWAYS fails when the writing sucks.) Traditionally, though, the writing was the only part of the process that the author could control. Indie publishing changes that. The author runs the show. With fewer dominos standing between the author and the reader, and with the ghost running out of ways to wreak havoc, there are fewer things to fix if something goes wrong and those fixes can be implemented much, much faster.

I love indie publishing. I published my first novel last June and plan to have my second out by the end of the year. Will they sell well? I have no idea. I'm doing what I can to promote my writing without being obnoxious about it. And it hasn't been easy - sales are modest and my dream of supporting my family through my writing seems a far, distant dream. But, for now, I'm okay with that.

If the dominos don't fall because of a legacy publisher's error, I'm left frustrated and helpless. If the dominos don't fall because I made a mistake, I can live with it. Better yet, I can fix it. This is good. I want to succeed or fail on my own terms. When I do succeed - and make no mistake, I WILL succeed - I want to make sure the fruits of that success go to my family and not to a legacy publisher's mortgage.

And I don't believe in ghosts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why I No Longer Price My E-book at $7.99

It's simple, really: it wasn't selling. At all.

I've therefore cut the price to a more palatable $4.99. And I'm going to keep it there.

At $2.99, sales were modest, as were the commissions. At $7.99, the commissions were better but if you don't sell, you don't earn.

I'm hopeful that $4.99 is the long-sought sweet spot, the price point where earnings reach the maximum relative to sales. And besides, it used to be the price of paperback novels 20 years ago. I think my book is worth today what it would've been worth in 1991.

Meanwhile, the writing of Book Two continues slowly, far slower than I'd like. With a recent cross-country move behind me and some decent job prospects in the offing, I think I can finally start to devote some mental energy back to my writing.

Of course, if the first book sells, I wouldn't have to worry so much about finding a new job in a new city. But I have to keep reminding myself that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Every reader counts.

And I'm grateful for every single one of them.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why I Re-Priced My E-book at $7.99

In a free market economy, people generally pay what they perceive an item to be worth. While 99 cents for a full-length novel, or worse yet, free, does strike me as lowballing, such works sell well because the price is below the perceived value and is therefore seen as a bargain. And we all love a bargain.

I'll admit that this price hike is part of a broader strategy. I hope to release my next novel in early- to mid-December. When that happens, I intend to cut the price of my first novel down to a sum to be determined. Thus, if I do it right, does the price drop below perceived value.

The problem that many of independent writers face, I think, is that the perceived value of ebooks is quite low. With the proliferation of cheap ebooks has come the public expectation that prices should be in the range of $3.00 or less. Major publishers are fighting back against this, of course, and I have no objection to their doing so. (My quarrel is with their ebook royalty structure but that's a complaint for another thread.)

If a story is worth, say, $27.95 in one format, why is it worth less in another? The value of the medium - hardcover versus paperback, for instance - may vary greatly but the words themselves are unchanged from one to the other. The price difference, therefore, lies in the medium rather than with the story.

It used to be that the cheapest format for a book was the mass market paperback, the small, glossy books found on racks in supermarkets and drugstores as well as in bookstores. That changed when the ebook came along. But publishers have been loathe the undercut the price of their own paper so ebooks have been priced similarly to hardcover and paperback novels, depending on the timing of their release relative to said paper.

So, for now, I'm going to play their game and see if it works for me. Maybe it will succeed. Maybe it fail. There's only one way to find out.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Re-pricing my book

It was with a bit of ironic amusement that I read Craig's thread on the Kindle boards about cutting his price to $0.99. I decided a couple of weeks ago that I'd raise the price of my own book at the end of August. My rationale: sales have been very, very slow. Therefore, I have little to lose and lots to gain.

I settled on a $7.99 price point after clicking through lots of other books on Amazon in my genre. It seems that $7.99 is the low end for an ebook from a traditional publisher. My bet is that readers see a $2.99 book (my original price) as self-published, with all of its attendant stigma. A price reflecting that of a traditionally-published book, however, might be taken more seriously.

As with anything else related to price, this is an experiment. I'm willing to be wrong. I'd love to be right. Either way, I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, August 22, 2011

We've Just Moved (Halfway) Across the Country

My wife, daughter, and I are in the midst of a cross-country move. Things happened very quickly. I'll post a more substantial update when time permits.

Thanks for sticking with me.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The E-Book Revolution Continues

The Economist recently reported that South Korean schools plan to ditch all paper-and-ink textbooks by 2015 and switch to an entirely electronic format.

The cost of setting up the network will be $2.1 billion. It is hoped that cutting out printing costs will go some way towards compensating for this expenditure. Environmentalists will of course be pleased, regardless. A cloud network will be set up to host digital copies of all existing textbooks, and to give students the (possibly unwelcome) ability to access materials at any time, via iPads, smartphones, netbooks, and even Stone-Age PCs. Kids will need to come up with a new range of excuses for not doing their homework: the family dog cannot be blamed for eating a computer, nor can a file hosted on a cloud network be left behind on a bus.

The education ministry also plans to use the network to offer online classes for children who are too ill to attend school. Given this country’s utter obsession with education—driven by parents’ fear that their children will “fall behind” unless morning, noon and night are spent studying—it is perhaps not surprising that even the ability to pull an occasional sickie is now being cut out.

While I don't see the United States moving in the direction on a national level any time soon, I can imagine some well-resourced school districts taking a closer look at the idea and watching the Korean experiment very carefully.

I do wonder how these e-texts will be priced. Texts in dynamic fields like biology and history need constant updating, which would justify as a somewhat higher price. Calculus, on the other hand, hasn't changed much since Isaac Newton invented it some four centuries ago and I'm hard-pressed to see how publishers can justify the constant production of new editions beyond trying to squeeze already-indebted young people for their precious few dollars.

Either way, I will be following this story with great interest. And I suspect I won't be the only one.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Words Count

Or should that be "word counts?"

When describing the length of a written piece, it's customary to refer to the word count rather than the number of pages.  A lot of writers tend to use this method to track how much they write on a day-to-day basis.  It's a great way to develop discipline when starting out as a writer, especially if you aspire to novel-length works.  I did for my first (and now deeply-buried) novel, as well as for Sakura Blue.  Checking my daily word count became an affirmation of my progress and an inspiration to finish.

For my current project, however, I'm not counting my words.  Instead, I'm concentrating only on finishing the story.  It's the second book in the Buddha's Relics series and I've set a hard deadline of December 1, 2011.  Daily writing for the next five months should be more than enough time to finish the story.  Give it a ten-day cooling-off period, followed by a week of editing, and, barring any major mistakes or time-consuming corrections, it should be ready for upload to Kindle by December 21.

For me, what matters isn't pounding out a particular number of words each day.  Rather, I'm making a concerted effort to simply tell the story to its end.  On a given day, I write until I hit a block or I'm too tired to keep going.

And by "block," I don't mean writer's block.  I don't believe any such thing actually exists.  I mean where to take the story next.  I have two cures for that: (A) write something else or (B) review the larger story arc.  Sometimes, I do a bit of both.  Take yesterday, for instance.

I was 62 MS Word pages into the story.  My main characters are at a restaurant in San Francisco (the Great Eastern on Jackson Street, actually.  It's excellent.  If you ever get the chance, go with some friends for lunch and sample as much as you can from the dim sum menu.  The service is a bit spotty, though, so be warned.)  They're meeting face-to-face for the first time in a while (and for some, it's for the first time ever) and it's a pivotal scene.  The decisions they make at this meeting will determine the course of the rest of the novel.  And, since I don't sketch out plots in advance, I was in something of a bind.  What they say, and how they say it, establish both their characters, from which action is derived, and the actions themselves, which in turn influence and shape the characters.

So I went to a work on a totally different story, a thriller about an FBI agent's kidnapped daughter and the larger forces at work behind it.  It cleared my mind of my other problem quite beautifully.  Periodically, though, I'd bounce over to the primary story problem and pick at it a bit.  I'd mull it over by typing, deleting, typing some more... then, I had a breakthrough.  There were a couple of plot threads - running themes, really - that I'd put in Sakura Blue and intended pick up in the second book.  This would be the perfect time to bring those threads back into play.

Today, I'm looking at 72 MS Word pages and a much better sense of where the novel is going.  I think it might be one of those days in which I stop because I'm too tired to keep going.  Those are best kind of days for a writer.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

JK Rowling to Self-Publish Her Harry Potter Series Electronically

You can read all about it here.  It's part of her new website, called Pottermore, and the new e-book distribution shows that she either re-acquired the electronic rights to her books from Scholastic or was savvy enough not to sell them in the first place.

Her books were probably among the most electronically pirated books on Earth and she's lost God knows how many millions of dollars as a consequence.  Now, I hope, she'll be appropriately compensated for her work, irrespective of how it's acquired.  I'm also sure many fans feel that it's about time Harry and company were legally available for download.

E-books are a fast-growing market and the market is likely to continue growing for years to come.  Whether the market is large enough to professionally sustain dozens of self-published novelists is yet to be determined but I'm optimistic that this is the case.  If nothing else, this news will doubtless spur a spike in e-reader sales.  This can mean only good news for those of us published on the likes of Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and elsewhere.

The real news for fans, though, is the new website itself, which promises not only news about the characters but offers, in a partnership with Sony, a new interactive game that's likely to keep fans returning for years.

All in all, a very savvy move for the world's richest novelist.  Harry's been very good to her.  I hope my characters are even 1/100th as good to me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Picking a Price

Ultimately, I did indeed settle on the $2.99 price point.  But not for the reasons you might think.

I'd figured - and still do - that $2.99 was the sweet spot for a first-time writer.  Low enough to attract readers willing to take a chance on something new, especially after reading the sample that Amazon provides, but high enough to actually kick a little money my way.

After all is said and done, I earn $2.04 for each $2.99 sale, which is a commission of roughly 68%.  This is far better than the 15% most traditional authors make on hardcovers and infinitely better than the 8-10% they get on paperback sales.

Amazon, where I've done all of my selling so far (more on this in a minute), offers two commission rates: 35% and 70%, minus a "download fee."  The lower rate is for public domain works being repackaged (think Shakespeare and the Bible), as well as for - and we come now to the other reason I picked $2.99 - books selling at $2.98 or less.

In other words, to get the 70% royalty rate, the minimum price I could set on my book was $2.99.

Meanwhile, I've also published my novel on Smashwords.  Smashwords is a site that allows one-stop linkups to variety of e-readers, such the iPad, Kobo, and Nook, as well as Amazon's Kindle.  The commission rate varies by platform but seems to average around 60%.

It would seem, then, that it is in my economic best interests to drive as many sales via Amazon as possible.  This would be false.  Accessibility is far more important to a new writer than high commissions.  My first job is to find as many readers as possible across as many media as possible.  Once that's done, the money will come, irrespective of platform.

In fact, the only reason I haven't sold anything on Smashwords yet is the site's uploading and review process. Formatting the book to their standards was laborious but, once it's in their "Premium Catalog," it'll be available directly through the iPad, Nook, Kobo, etc.  Until then, it's available only on Smashwords itself.  And on Amazon, of course.

In the end, I may still lower the price to drive sales, assuming I'm convinced that there's enough demand at a lower price point to make up for the lower commission.  We shall see.

Meanwhile, I'm going to go back to doing the most effective thing I can to boost sales: writing the next book.

Friday, June 17, 2011


For a professional author, writing is both an art and a business.  This post is about the business end.

Blogger Joe Konrath has written extensively about self-publishing e-books and he should know - he's one of the runaway success stories being profiled in major newspapers.  One of his points of agony, however, is setting the price of an e-book.

I think we can all agree that paying $9.99 for a download when a paperback is available for $7.99 is insane and yet, we see it all the time from major publishers.  The majority of self-published writers, however, tend to cluster around $0.99 to $2.99 price point, offering better value for readers while taking in a far larger percentage of the royalties.  The question I'm facing, then, is how to price my book.

It's a delicate balancing act.  On the one hand, I want to make a decent income from my writing and I won't do that if I practically give the books away.  On the other hand, I want to give my readers the best value for their dollar and keep a low enough price to encourage sales.  Moreover, I'll make far more selling 1,000 books at, say, $1.49 than selling 200 books at double that.

As Joe Konrath has discovered, however, one of the crucial things to remember about e-books is the relative disconnect between price and popularity.  He's conducted a series of small experiments with the prices of his books and found, in some cases, that sales have increased when prices have gone up.

It's counterintuitive to anything you'll hear from sales and marketing gurus.

So where does that leave this unknown, first-time author?  What's a good introductory price point for a first novel?  A peek at Amazon's Kindle Top 100 reveals prices ranging from $0.99 to $14.99, although only well-established bestsellers occupy the upper end of this scale.  Most of the self-published authors price their books below the $5.00 mark.

At the moment, I've settled on a $2.99 price point.  But, if that seems to inhibit sales, I can do one of the things that makes e-book publishing such a dynamic, fluid market: I can change the price with a mouse click.

I hope to post monthly sales reports once the book is made available.  Maybe there's a formula in there somewhere authors can use to maximize profits.  Or maybe, once it's in the ether, it's all up to luck.

My bet: it's a bit of both.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Writing What You Know

It's the oldest piece of writing advice most of us have heard.  In On Writing, Stephen King expounds on it brilliantly - who else would point out that a plumber can write excellent science fiction by writing about a plumber on a starship?

In my case, when writing Sakura Blue and its sequels, I can't claim any experience using my body's bioelectric impulses to read people's memories or kill them in any number of agonizing ways.  It's fun to imagine, sure, but it's not something I've ever done and it's not what the books are about.

To me, writing what you know comes down to two things: setting and emotion.

Setting is the milieu, the places and atmosphere that define the story.  Is the setting bright?  Cheerful?  Dark?  Big, with wide open spaces?  Small, confined to a single house?  Does everything happen in one town or across galaxies?  The tales of the Buddha's Relics are set all over the world.  The vast geography is critical to the flow of the story, taking readers to places they want to know but have never experienced.

Better still, the setting is seen through the characters' eyes.  New York City is a far different place to Carrie Bradshaw than to Jack Reacher.  How a character feels about a place influences how we, as readers, understand it.

And that brings me to my second point: emotion.  No matter where they live or who they are, all of your readers are emotional people.  Jean-Luc Picard and Fitzwilliam Darcy, however different their experiences and worldviews may be, resonate with us because we can relate to their emotions.

Giving characters emotional depth is the single most important job of a writer.  If we can't emotionally relate to a character, we won't care about them.  And if we don't care, we won't read the story, never mind shell out our hard-earned money for the privilege.  Even bad guys - in some cases, like Darth Vader, especially bad guys - can be emotionally compelling.  Who hasn't want to cast off the inhibitions of polite society, even if for a moment, and wreak havoc on an obnoxious boss, client, driver, or that idiot on the subway who keeps popping his gum?

Emotions build connections to the reader.  However brilliant your descriptive powers when writing about a building, room, or landmark, your effort will be wasted if you don't build an emotional connection with the reader.  Why does the Golden Gate Bridge or main character's childhood basement deserve such rich treatment in your story?  Why should the reader care?  The best way to do this - and, in my opinion, the only way - is to give your characters honest emotional reactions to the world you're building for them.  If they react in ways that are true, the reader will accept it and share the reaction.

And that's the connection right there.

These two things, setting and emotion, are just the beginning of the story, not its end.  Without them, though, your writing will be flat and interesting to no one.  Flat is for pancakes.  Your readers deserve the whole banquet.