Archive for the ‘Publishing’ Category

Michael A. Stackpole

Michael A. Stackpole

Last weekend at World Fantasy Convention 2010, I sat with Michael A. Stackpole (one of the pioneers in independent e-publishing) and we talked about the current state of publishing, ebooks, and indie publishing. We also discussed ebook pricing and the $2.99 price point (and J.A. Konrath) that I blogged about last month. We talked about lots more, too. Sixty-five minutes later, we’d recorded a dynamic conversation on these subjects–and one that’s probably controversial on some points.

Here’s a little preface. I agreed with Stackpole’s points about 90% of the time here, but not necessarily on every point. But who agrees with everyone all the time, especially when the subject is an emotional one?

I think Michael is a very intelligent and great guy, and I’m really grateful to him for our conversation. As I mention at the start of the interview, his 21 Days to a Novel exercises got me started when I got serious about writing novels and I love following his blog and his updates on Facebook and Twitter.

This interview will probably also appear on AdventuresInSciFiPublishing sometime over the next few months. By the way, the Rhiannon Frater interview that I mentioned to Michael during the interview has not been conducted yet.

I’ll have more coverage from WFC 2010 coming up, including interviews with Guy Gavriel Kay, Laura Resnick, Elizabeth C. Bunce, and Daryl Gregory. Here’s the video I filmed of Michael A. Stackpole interviewing Dennis L. McKiernan, one of the Guests of Honor at WFC: parts one, two, and three.

Last warning: there is a curse word or two in here (the main one occurs in the minute after 34:00), so cover your kids’ ears at that point ;-)

The audio player is below. Enjoy! There’s some really meaty stuff throughout the interview, all the way up till the end.

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Just before the start of the “The Continued Viability of Epic Fantasy” panel at World Fantasy Convention 2010, I got the idea to ask the panelists if I could film the panel and put it on YouTube. It was thumbs up all around (though David B. Coe threatened in entirely good humor to sue my ___) and so I managed to film it even though the conditions for doing so weren’t ideal. All in all, the video still turned out fairly well, though. I was in the middle of the aisle, trying to get the five panelists on the screen without capturing too much of the attendees. I also didn’t have my tripod, so the angle was a bit low (the camera sat on a chair, propped up by a legal pad).

But hey, it worked out all right.

Left to Right: David Drake, John R. Fultz, Blake Charlton, David B. Coe, Freda Warrington. I had to upload the panel in four parts to fit within YouTube’s limits.

I’ll have more coverage from WFC 2010, including another video of Michael A. Stackpole interviewing Dennis L. McKiernan (here’s part one, two, and three of that). I also conducted audio interviews with Guy Gavriel Kay, Michael A Stackpole, Laura Resnick, Daryl Gregory, and Elizabeth C. Bunce, and those will be posted at AdventuresInSciFiPublishing. You can also find direct links to those interviews here on my site.

Enjoy the panel! It was a fun and lively one.


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Nielsen offers a widely used service called BookScan that tracks book sales. Editors, book buyers, and other publishing professionals can use BookScan to look up book sales and decide if they want to work with or carry certain books or authors.

Alan Rinzler writes:

BookScan numbers are like an author’s credit rating

All book publishers (and some savvy authors) subscribe to Nielsen BookScan.  The very first thing an acquisitions editor does is check a published author’s Nielsen numbers, when considering a new submission.

I just found out today, after emailing with Dennis Halby at Nielsen, that Nielson is hoping to track ebook sales by the end of 2010 and that they are working diligently on this goal, though they do not have a confirmed date so this is still speculative information.

This would be big news for publishing, because it would make it possible for anyone to compare ebook sales to print sales. We could begin to see what percentage of sales for any given book or author are e-sales and how these percentages compare between different categories (for example, fiction vs non-fiction) or genres.

Here are a couple of older blog posts on this topic. Why We Need a BookScan for Ebooks, by Ryan Chapman (September 2009) and Will Kindle Crash Nielson BookScan by Steve Weber (May 2009).

Literary agent Kristin Nelson wrote a blog post called An ISBN that could Hurt, in which she warned self-publishing authors:

Here’s something to keep in mind though (besides the fact that self published books need solid marketing efforts to succeed). Self-published books (through Lulu or similar) are assigned an ISBN—a sales identifier for that work. And here’s where the ISBN could hurt you. Once a book has an ISBN, then sales of that book can be tracked on Bookscan. If the books sell thousands and thousands of copies, not a problem but if the book sells only 20 copies, this could potentially make the road to traditional publishing more difficult. Editors often check Bookscan when considering previously published writers. Book Buyers at the major chains are looking at these numbers as well.

If the sales record is strong, no big deal; if it’s not, those low sales could create a roadblock unless the writer is willing to change his/her name to start with a clean slate.

I’m putting this out there because I imagine a lot of writers contemplating this route might not have considered the potential ISBN trap.

This new development ought to be interesting to anyone who considers self-publishing, even if just with ebooks, and still wants to be careful about keeping their options open with traditional publishers. In the past, self-publishing an ebook was something that seemed relatively harmless because your sales were a relatively private affair. Amazon has its sales rankings, but that’s a complicated formula that gives constantly changing information and can’t be used to know actual book sales.

Boyd Morrison, for example, self-published an ebook in March of 2009 and successfully used those sales to interest the Pocket Books imprint of Simon and Schuster in acquiring the US rights to his work. He wrote recently on KindleBoards.com that he self-published only electronically to avoid the potential ISBN trap that Kristin Nelson wrote about.

Now it sounds like things have changed and someone in a situation like Boyd Morrison was previously in would need to consider whether or not he wants to self-publish any ebooks.

Of course, many “indie” authors aren’t interested in traditional publishing anyway. But many others are interesting in both publishing worlds, so for them this would be a new reality to consider.

This is also good news for indie authors who have good e-sales on their resumes, though it probably doesn’t make much difference for them since they can already report their e-sales (as Boyd Morrison did, and as Amanda Hocking has reported that she did when she contacted agents).

The most interesting thing about all of this to me is that transparency may be coming very soon to ebook sales.
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I like Joe Konrath, who writes as J.A. Konrath and Jack Kilborn. He’s done the publishing universe a huge favor by publicizing his great financial success with his independently released ebooks. Before Amazon’s new royalty rates came into effect, he sold his works at, I think, $1.99 and/or $1.59. Now he sells them at $2.99, and he’s on track to make a six-figure income this year selling many novels that NY Publishers didn’t want to publish.

I also like him personally. I believe he wants to help other authors earn a living, and his blog shows that he’s invested considerable effort over the years to help others learn various aspects of the craft and business of writing fiction. I’ve always liked him whenever I’ve talked to him, and I expect to be a big Joe Konrath fan for a long time.

Joe is also the main person who influenced me to dip my toes into the waters of indie ebook publishing (though Zoe Winters has also been a major influence on this path). I am very grateful to him for that, although I am still experimenting and deciding how I want to be published. For now, I’m among the ranks of indie authors.

I’ve been reading Joe’s blog since at least the beginning of 2010, and I nearly always agree with him. I think his rhetoric against traditional publishers is often too caustic and this weakens his arguments a bit, but it’s obvious he’s had experiences with publishers that have frustrated him, and I haven’t walked in his moccasins so he gets a pass from me on that. I agree with him on the bright future of ebooks; he feels that authors now have a tremendous opportunity to earn a living by publishing their own works. Many other authors, many who have little or no platform compared to Joe, are doing quite well as indies.

But for the first time that I can remember, I disagree with Joe on an important topic.

Should Ebook Novels Cost $2.99?

Joe argues that ebooks should be priced at $2.99 and says this is a sweet spot where authors sell a lot of ebooks, readers are happy, and authors can still make a lot of money. All of those points are true.

In order to get a 70% royalty on ebooks with Amazon, the author must price his work between $2.99 and $9.99. Amazon reserves the right to lower the retail price, but even if they lower your $2.99 listed ebook price to $2.39, you still make 70% of $2.39 (they recently changed the way this works). Your other option, which is the original option, is to make a guaranteed 35% of whatever price you list your ebook at, even if Amazon discounts the price further (which they will probably do, especially if you go with the 35% option).

Where did the magical $2.99 come from? Amazon themselves set this as a kind of floor with their new royalty policy. Did Amazon do their research and then determine that $2.99 to $9.99 is the best range for ebook prices? Yes, but remember that Amazon has their own agenda. Two of their big goals are to sell more Kindles and to dominate ebook sales, so their research was also for the purpose of furthering their own ambitions.

Amazon setting the floor at $2.99 doesn’t mean that a large majority of readers wouldn’t be willing (or wouldn’t have been willing) to pay $3.99, $4.99, or more for a novel. Amazon has always been hungry for market share, and they’ve always been willing to discount prices to gain it. And isn’t it wonderful marketing for Amazon and their Kindle device to have a flood of authors extolling their abundant online storehouse of $2.99 novels? I actually bought a Kindle (which I now love) earlier this year because I wanted to check out this exciting, new indie author scene.

I do wonder if Amazon is a bit surprised that authors like Joe have become proponents for $2.99 ebooks. After all, their 70% royalty range is between $2.99 and $9.99, and authors make the minimum possible out of that 70% royalty at $2.99.

$9.99 is also somewhat suspect as a ceiling, though I personally think it’s a good one. But consider again Amazon’s overall agenda. They want to sell ebooks, they want to sell Kindles, they want to dominate the marketplace, and they want publishing itself to move in the direction of ebooks over print so that they become the greatest powerhouse in the publishing industry (they want to take the throne away from the big publishing houses). By the way, I happen to like Amazon and I always have.

Michael Shatzkin has reported on his excellent blog that the big publishers with their unpopular “agency model” pricing are actually doing just fine, thank you. July showed by far the biggest jump in ebook revenues yet for publishers, and they continue to sell popular titles at prices such as $12.99.

Big publishers aren’t winning any popularity contests with those over ten dollar prices, but the big houses are still selling ebooks and making good money with agency model pricing. Ironically, they may have been making more money before at lower prices, but that’s mainly because Amazon paid them based on their list prices before agency model pricing–but that’s another story. Publishers are trying to keep the print book business alive. Change is scary.

Critters.org Fair Ebook Price Survey

Critters.org ran a great survey earlier this year, which is still ongoing, about ebook prices.

For example, they asked, “What’s a fair price for a novel or other full-length ebook?” Survey respondents then entered their own a price for a “New release” and for “Backlist.”

Here are the current results, after 175 responses (not an insignificant sample, though not a huge number either). As of the time of this post, the average response for a fair price of a new book is $7.85. The average response for a backlist book is $4.64.

On new novels, the price at which 93% think prices are too high is $11.16. The price at which 50% feel that a new book’s price is fair is $7.85, and here’s the key figure for me:

The price at which 93% feel that a new book’s price is fair is $4.54.

They also asked: “What’s a fair price for a short story, article, or other shorter-length ebook?” The price at which 93% feel that a short work’s price is fair is $0.85.

Selena Kitt of eXcessica

Selena Kitt has argued on her blog and on Konrath’s blog for ebook novels to be priced higher than $2.99. She says:

Personally, I think ebooks should be priced based on length. This model has been used by indie ebook publishers for over ten years. (Yes, it’s true, there were thriving ebook publishers and distributors before Kindle!)

Our own eXcessica pricing is based on length:

$0.99 Short Shorts: Under 3K
$1.99 Shorts: 3-7K
$2.99 Stories: 7-15K
$3.99 Novelettes: 15-35K
$4.99 Novellas: 35-50K
$5.99 Novels 50-70K
$6.99 Super Novels: 70-140K
$7.99 Super XL Novels: 140-250K
$8.99 Super XXL Novels: 250K +

But Where is the Sweet Spot?

The bottom line on this discussion comes down to where the real sweet spot is for authors. Presumably, as prices rise demand goes down (though that’s not always the case—sometimes people will buy more of something at a higher price than at a lower price).

The reason why this matters is because it’s not easy to make a living as an author, whether as a traditionally published one or a self-published one. So we have to look at whether or not we’re hurting ourselves and even the entire publishing industry (which gives us a lot of great stuff to read and employs many good people!) over the long term by setting the bar of expectations too low at a price such as $2.99.

Let’s compare. An author selling 1000 copies at $3.00 earns the same as an author selling 750 copies at $4.00, 600 copies at $5.00, 500 copies at $6.00, or 300 copies at $10.00. Leaving aside the benefits of (presumably) selling more books to more readers at lower prices, for authors or publishers interested in the bottom line, the sweet spot is what we’re all curious about.

Will an author lose at least 25% of his sales by moving from $2.99 to $3.99? If not, then $3.99 is sweeter than $2.99, at least in terms of writing income. If yes, then $2.99 is better.

Be careful with considering any one author’s results with different prices. I’ve read a lot of discussion about ebook prices at places like Kindleboards.com and the results vary dramatically. Some people find that they sell more at higher prices, and some find they sell less at higher prices. Many have reported, for example, that they sell more copies at $2.99 than they did at $0.99.

Here’s a comment from Paul Levine from the comments on Joe’s latest blog post.

I'm testing $2.99 vs. $3.99. Appears I lose sales at $3.99, but less than the 1/3 difference in royalties. So, my gut tells me the base price should be $3.99. (Less than a Starbucks grande Frappucino, and better for you). Those books are all out-of-print backlist. I plan to put up two original novels in January and February, and for those, I'm considering $4.99.

That’s just one person, but there’s someone who is trying to test $2.99 vs $3.99 and finding that $3.99 earns him more money, though with less sales.

Someone who really surprised me is M.R. Mathias, who sells his huge fantasy epic ebook for $8.88. Most indie writers are trying to decide between $0.99 and $2.99, and here’s Mathias coming in at an unusually high price. He says, “My $8.88 title sells at about 10 to 1 over all of my $1 titles put together.”

Would he sell more and still make more money at $2.99 or $3.99? Maybe, but I’ve talked to M.R. and he’s sold around 150 copies at that price in two months (and that’s without a professional-looking cover, frankly). 150 sales in your first two months as an indie fantasy author is good even with a 99 cent or $2.99 novel, but he’s doing it at $8.88 with a cover that screams “Self-published!” So my guess is that he wouldn’t be making more money at $2.99, because he’d have to sell three times as many ebooks at that lower price to earn the same amount. I should also point out that he is a very aggressive marketer, his novel is huge, and he also has short stories and a YA novel for sale (with sales of all items combined approaching 500 sales); these things also help his sales. And I could be wrong. It is almost certainly true that he would be reaching more readers at $2.99, and that has its own benefits, financially and otherwise. But what about at $3.99 or $4.99? We don’t know.

Back to Joe

Joe argues for $2.99, but from all I’ve read from him, he doesn’t seem to have properly tested $2.99 vs. $3.99 (or any other price) and he seemed to admit this recently. He does have ebooks at different prices, though. He has some at $6.99 because his ex-publisher still owns those rights and the publisher refuses to lower the price (I believe he has asked them to lower the price—please correct me if I’m wrong, Joe).

Joe has said that his lower-priced ebooks vastly outsell his higher-priced ebooks. But we should not draw any firm conclusions from this. My guess is that when people go to buy a Konrath or Kilborn book, they look at the prices and buy the less expensive ones. They buy more of his $2.99 ebooks than his $6.99 ebooks because for the most part, bargain hunting is human nature (human nature also respects higher-priced items more, but that’s another discussion). If you offer me pretty much the same thing for $3 or $7, I’m going to buy it for $3. No-brainer.

Because people will naturally choose the lower-priced book, I don’t think we can deduce from Joe’s results that $2.99 is the sweet spot or best price. Also, in Joe’s case, remember that he was selling his ebooks for $1.99 before Amazon gave him a royalty incentive to raise the prices to $2.99, and before he was at $1.99 he also had books at prices like $1.59.

If Amazon had made $3.99 the floor, Joe would probably be arguing for that price now instead. And if Amazon hadn’t given an incentive for raising prices to $2.99, Joe would probably still be selling at $1.99. It seems that Joe settled quickly on $2.99 without properly testing other prices, such as $3.99 or $4.99. I don’t blame him and I’m not saying he did anything wrong. He’s obviously doing a hell of a lot of things right and he’s doing just fine without anyone else’s help. I’m just saying that we need to keep an open mind about pricing.

I’ve encouraged and even dared Joe to try an experiment where he raises the price of all of his ebooks to another price like $3.99 or $4.99 to see what would happen to his sales and revenue. Since he’s well-established now, that would be an interesting experiment, and I suspect he’d make more money at $3.99 despite less sales, partly because he’s already known. I could be wrong, though. And it might not be practical in his case if he’s already at $2.99 in other stores like B&N and Sony (I don’t know how long it would take the other stores to update their prices if he were to change the prices with them).

I plan to experiment with prices eventually with my own novel, but the problem is that as a new author who will be actively promoting (God willing), it would be normal (I hope so anyway) to expect increasingly more sales each month even at the same price. I won’t have a proper control to test for the ideal prices and it would be a long time before I felt I knew what my “normal” sales were.

Joe’s Argument that $2.09 is Fair

$2.09 is what an indie author makes on a $2.99 ebook through Amazon (assuming that Amazon actually keeps the retail price at $2.99, which they don’t always do). If they drop the price to $2.84, which I have seen them do, then the author earns less than $2 per ebook sold.

Joe argues that because ebooks cost less money to produce than physical books, authors shouldn’t be making more money on them than they already do with hardcover royalties. I respect the hell out of Joe, but I don’t get this argument at all if it means $2.99 versus $3.99 or $4.99.

For one, authors are likely to sell less copies independently than they would with a traditional publisher. Or at least, that’s the idea, right? For example, Joe has mentioned that he reached many more readers through traditional publishing, but that he now earns more money as an indie. Naturally, if you’re going to sell less copies as an indie then you need to make more money per copy to make the same living.

Also, indie writers have to pay for things like editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, layout, file conversions, advertising, travel, review copies and shipping, web design, and publicity. Plus they have to spend a lot more time working as a publisher wearing ten different hats, which gives them less time to write, work another job, or enjoy some free time (something they don’t have much of, I can already tell you after having a novel to finish rewriting and editing and an indie novella to promote).

And who is to say that $2.50-$3.75 for a hardcover is the “right” royalty payment for an author? That’s what the market has settled on, but that doesn’t make it a God-given standard. Despite the popular misconception about most published authors being filthy rich, most authors aren’t. Maybe more authors should be making a decent living (though I’m sure that depends on who you talk to).

Anyway $3.99 at Amazon pays the author $2.79, and $4.99 pays the author $3.49. Those figures are in line with hardcover royalties, while $2.99 pays less than hardcover royalties because it pays $2.09 per sale (likely a bit less because of Amazon discounting the price).

I don’t see why $3.99 or $4.99 is unfair, price gouging, or greedy. And I think those are awfully cheap prices for a good book.

End of Part 1

I’m going to end part 1 of this topic here. In part 2, I’d like to write about what some of the dangers might be in getting $2.99 entrenched in readers’ minds as “the” price for an ebook novel. That might take a while for me to lay out (but hey, you’re still reading this, so why not? It’s just you and me, friend).

Of course, this all comes down to the hard data. If writers make more money and sales at $2.99 than they do at $3.99, $4.99, $6.99, or $9.99, then that’s what writers should do if making money is their top concern–not that it should be. In my case, I just want to be able to make a living telling stories. Unfortunately, the evidence on these different price comparisons is still murky, so for now we have to talk about the topic on other levels. And there are some bigger questions and repercussions worth discussing.

Till next time … (I hate being so tired that I can’t come up with anything witty to end with, but for now I’m an indie author so I’m already overworked and underpaid and still somehow loving this journey ;-))
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This is a copy of my latest column for GraspingForTheWind.com:

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Twelve days ago, I published my first work of fiction to Amazon and Smashwords. It’s called The Black God’s War: A Novella Introducing a New Epic Fantasy, and it serves as an introduction to my novel with the same title (The Black God’s War). Here’s how and why I dipped my toes into the indie waters.

The Black God's War by Moses Siregar III

Getting a Word document ready for Kindle and Smashwords took a little effort over the course of a day, but after you’ve done it, you realize how easy the process is. The free Smashwords Style Guide leads you through the process, and their guide works for Amazon as well as Smashwords. Once you’re in Smashwords, you can automatically get your ebook into BN.com, the iBookstore, Kobo, and Sony.

Some of the main things you have to do are the following: create universal paragraph indentation (you cannot use the TAB key and you have to delete all tabs); insert page breaks between chapters; single space the text with a common font (12-pt Times New Roman, for example); insert graphics directly in Word; and add a copyright page at the front. You’re ready to upload. It’s easy.

I uploaded my document, book cover, and book description on a Monday morning, and by the early a.m. on Wednesday it was available for sale on Amazon. Total cost to me: $0.00.

Why?

I’ll admit to being confused about the best way to approach publishing today. The world of Publishing is changing fast and there’s a new wave of indie writers extolling the virtues of 70% ebook royalties on Amazon, full control, and no delays. So I’m testing the waters as an experiment. In an average scenario, you can get free exposure and reach some new fans, read more reactions to your work, and make a little money (some indie writers even make a lot).

So far, my book has been read by a modest number of people, and already there’s at least one review on GoodReads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, a review blog, and Smashwords. The reviews have been encouraging, and it’s nice to hear from people that don’t know you that you aren’t crazy (always a possibility). I even got an unexpected email from an American in China who said he’s now “a fan,” and someone I don’t know on KindleBoards called it a “very good read.” Lastly, I had an excuse to be interviewed by the Kindle Author blog.

At this stage in the game, those little things are nice rewards. Additionally, I’ve used the coupon feature on Smashwords to give away free copies of my novella, and it’s nice to be able to link to my Amazon page from my blog. On the flip side, I now see that promoting your work can give you another excuse to procrastinate rather than write.

It’s too early for me to judge the results of this experiment, but if it only achieves what it has so far, it will have been worth it. If I publish the book independently, then this is all pre-release marketing to generate some buzz for the full novel. And if I seek out a publisher (I’m not sure if I want to submit it anywhere, because the indie route looks pretty good to me), then hopefully having some reviews and sales to show them would help my cause.

Well, if you’ve run out of things to read you’ll know where to find this one, and if you’re interested in an electronic review copy, just let me know. The novella is around 24,000 words long, and can be read through in just a few hours.

Moses Siregar III is the author of The Black God’s War, a dramatic epic fantasy novel inspired by Homer; you can sample it for 99 cents at Amazon or Smashwords. He lives with his family at high elevation in Prescott, AZ, and blogs about passion for the writing life at Moses and Dionysus Walk Into a Bar … Learn more about Moses: Facebook or More Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads.
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1999. My late Uncle Mike (RIP) tells me, “You should put your business on the internet. That’s where everything is headed.”

Really? I thought. Well, Mike’s a business man, a true Capricorn. Maybe he knows what he’s talking about. Okay, why not, I’ll give it a try.

(thanks Uncle Mike)

Fast forward to 2010. My thought is that ebooks in 2010 = the internet in 1999, at least for authors. We can now get royalties of 70% on Amazon with ebooks. You can get into BN.com, the iBookstore, and other top retail websites. Ereading devices are cheaper, better, and more prolific every day. Bookstores and publishing companies are going to struggle, and more and more book commerce will take place online. You can get your book in the biggest book seller on earth, in the exact same place as all of the big boys.

Now I’ve got two major options. One is to take a long road as an indie writer and build up a backlist and readership over the course of many years, hoping that some day enough people will discover and appreciate my work enough to be able to make a decent income telling stories.

The other option is still a valid one. It’s to take the long road to publication with major publishers and take advantage of all of the considerable benefits along the way.

If you really want to roll the dice and see if you can go big, traditional publishing still makes the most sense. If you want more control of your career and you’re patient enough to build it over the course of five or ten years, then self-publishing actually makes sense for the first time in the modern era. But being an indie is not for everyone. Here are some of the reasons why it makes sense for me.

  1. I love doing things on my own. Websites, promotion, design, and more. I love it. When I was in college, I started a magazine and managed almost every job myself, learning the ropes along the way. Before I was done, we had a circulation of 13,000 in Athens, GA and a nice-looking, respectable tabloid. I’ll certainly hire some professionals when I need their help (for example, copyediting), but I enjoy learning skills that allow me to be independent.
  2. I love being in business for myself and have almost always operated in this way.
  3. I enjoy controlling every aspect of my business for various reasons.
  4. I have some platform already. For example, my previous business has an opt-in email list with 15,000 subscribers.
  5. I like setting the schedule for everything, including release dates.

However, I’m not closed to traditional publishing. I’ve worked with editors on my magazine articles before and it’s something I’m fine with. I love the idea of getting my books reviewed by more sources and getting professional cover design, layout, and marketing. Traditional publishing makes it easier to get in print all around the world. Traditional publishing still offers great exposure and lots of perks.

I’m still not sure if my first full novel will be published as an indie novel or with a major publisher (my first release on Amazon is a novella). I lean towards doing it myself, with a release date of May, 2011, but I’m still open to the right publishing house and contract if the deal is really good. I’m still deciding if I even want to submit it to any publishing houses or agents.

What’s amazing is that you have options now. If traditional publishing isn’t working for you, you can roll up your sleeves, publish your own ebooks and print-on-demand books through CreateSpace or Lightning Source, and get to work. Obviously your work will need to be edited, copyedited, and proofread by capable people.

Either way you go, it won’t be easy. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
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UPDATE: Here’s another point of view from the comments below: An excellent post from A.P. Fuchs about Why Traditional Publishers and Agents are Still Important.

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This post is my entry in Chris Kelly’s indie publishing blog carnival on his Dun Scaith blog.

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Michael J Sullivan

Michael J Sullivan

I made a mistake when I first discovered Michael J Sullivan. I found his books on Amazon and read some of the reviews of his first book. Despite the overwhelming ratio of positive to negative reviews (14:1), I read the handful of critical reviews and decided not to try his series. Yeah. I know, that was pretty dumb. Lesson learned (seriously).

Recently, I came across his books again, but this time I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and read it. Needless to say, I loved it and I thought it was a lot of fun. Here’s a quote from the book’s epilogue about the nature of the series:

“Eschewing the recent trends in fantasy towards the lengthy, gritty, and dark, the Riyria Revelations brings the genre back to its roots. Avoiding unnecessarily complicated language and world building for its own sake; this series is a distillation of the best elements of traditional fantasy–great characters, a complex plot, humor, and drama all in appropriate measures.”

One of the reasons I was curious about Michael’s work is that he’s an underdog. He’s with a small press, and he’s just humbly going about his business, writing his books and doing his own thing. It felt good to see his success, both for him and for what’s possible for others.

SciFiGuy.ca posted a long interview with Michael J Sullivan in April of this year, so I’m going to link to it and try not to cover the same ground. Michael also has a nice blog and he tweets, and check out all of the covers he designed for his books (below). Here’s my interview with him.
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The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J SullivanMoses: Michael, it’s great to talk to you. Let’s imagine we’re having this conversation in the Rose and Thorn tavern. What would it be like?

MJS: That would depend greatly on when we were there, as the world in my series changes dramatically over the course of the six books. However if we were in the Lower Quarter tavern during the time of The Crown Conspiracy, it would be a loud bustling pub filled with fiddle music, loud conversations and heels on hardwood. In order to hold a civil discussion, we would need to sit in the back of the Diamond Room, away from the noise of the bar, in the deep shadows of the few table candles. I would be leaning forward playing with the melted wax as it tears off the candle while failing to flag down a waitress for a mug of the dark house ale.
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Moses: In that case, I would be scribbling with a quill on parchment, rewriting a troublesome sentence far too many times and blowing all my ale money on scrolls and ink. Hm, I think I like 2010 better.

Back to today. For those who are unfamiliar with your series, The Riyria Revelations, how would you introduce it?

MJS: The Riyria Revelations is a sword and sorcery fantasy story about Royce and Hadrian, an expert thief and a highly skilled soldier, who make their living doing jobs for competing nobles. Through a series of events, they find themselves entangled in a centuries-old mystery. It is a fast paced adventure littered with plot twists and populated with memorable characters. While it makes use of many icons typical to the genre, it is presented in a fresh way that makes it a uniquely fun read.

The series is actually six books, all of which I wrote before the first was published, so I was able to construct a cohesive story arc where secrets hinted at in one book are fulfilled in later ones. At the same time, while one story, I’ve neatly divided it up into separate episodes, so each has a beginning, middle, and end, rather than having the story just stop and pick up in the next book.
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Avempartha by Michael J SullivanMoses: Your series seems to be doing quite well. You’ve got around 80 reviews on Amazon for the first book in your series, and they are overwhelmingly positive. Your books have won numerous awards and been honored in various ways. Now that you are about to release the fifth book in your series, are you able to make a living with your writing, and whether the answer is yes or no, how does that feel?

MJS: Yeah, seventy-eight reviews. 47 five star, 20 four, 5 three, 1 two, and 5 one star reviews, and yet you listened to the six out of seventy-eight who were not pleased and decided not to read it at first. That really doesn’t bode well.

The question of whether an author is making a living wage—able to support him/herself—can in many ways come down to where and how they live. As I tend to live rather modestly, I could be supporting myself nicely if I was still living where I have in the past (Raleigh NC, northern Vermont, suburbs of Detroit). As it happens, I currently live in one of the most expensive places in the country (Greater Washington DC), so my current income wouldn’t cover the expenses here. Sales have been growing steadily so I think people are just starting to hear about it. Being published though a small press means a smaller distribution network but has a lot of other advantages so all in all I’m very happy with where I am and excited to see where the books can go from here—especially after the sixth and final one hits the street in April of next year. My dream of course is to be totally self-sufficient so my wife, who has been supporting me through the “lean years” could quit her day job.

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Moses: That’s still great to hear, because you’re obviously doing extremely well given that you are with a small press. Congratulations.

Tell me about your writing and how your approach to writing has changed over the course of this series.

MJS: My writing and my approach hasn’t changed much because I wrote the entire series rather quickly. For example the first two books I wrote in two successive months.  The editing process, however, has taken years, and I’ve learned so much about that.  I’ve had the honor of finding so many people willing to help me—fans mostly. My first agent started me on that road by pointing out some basic mistakes I was making in the realm of wandering character point of view. At first I had no idea what she was talking about because you see, I’ve never taken a class, read a book, or attended a seminar that taught creative writing. Everything I learned, I learned by studying other author’s works and by writing novels. I finished thirteen novels before starting this series, so I had developed a number of skills, but as it turned out I missed some of the basics. Over the last two years that I have been published, I’ve managed to fill in many of the gaps, but I am still learning.

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Nyphron by Michael J SullivanMoses: One of the things I think you did especially well in The Crown Conspiracy was keeping the reader guessing with mysteries and plot twists. What sort of writing tips do you have for other writers in this department? Also, how did you learn this skill, or was it something that more or less comes naturally for you?

MJS: When it comes to plot development, I hate to say it, but it is just one of those things I can do without much effort. I used to see singer/songwriters on TV who could take any idea and make a great song right there on the spot. I’m kinda like that with stories. It’s kind of like a party trick—give me a few lines and I can usually lead it into pretty interesting places. The down side is I’m usually very dissatisfied with movies and books I go to for entertainment. Mainly because of think “what could have been”. Many times my wife and I debate well if they had just done this or that or the other thing how much better would that be.

As far as advice…I have a tendency to create a plot that works fine. It makes logical sense and all, but isn’t always that exciting. Then I go back and look at it and think, okay, but now if I didn’t have any constraints what would I love to see happen? Usually I can think of something pretty interesting, something that gets me excited, and something I would love to write. Then I try to see if I can finagle the plot to allow for it, and I usually can manage it. Also when I get in a bind plot-wise, I tend to think randomly, in that I flip problems completely around in ways that don’t initially make sense and just run them in my mind and see what happens. Interesting things can happen that way. Do those things a few times and you get unexpected twists.
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The Emerald Storm by Michael J SullivanMoses: Excellent tip.

With the world of publishing changing so much right now, what do you think new writers should be doing to find their way through and what avenues do you think are best for them today?

MJS: I can’t say I am the best to answer that question. My experience is limited in that I’ve never had the pleasure of being published by a big house—at least not in the US. Indications are that the big publishers are tightening their belts and not taking much chance on new fiction talent and that can make a business already nearly impossible to break into that much harder. The good news is that the Internet and print on demand technologies provide options that simply did not exist before. There are a number of small independent p resses that are “thinking outside the box” and this opens up more opportunity for those just starting out. That’s where I got my start. There are also sites like Podiobooks.com where authors often record their books and publish audio versions for free download. This preserves the print rights while building an audience. You can also self-publish with either the hope of making a success outright or, like a startup venture, the hope of doing well enough to be noticed by a big house and picked up. No matter what you do, it is imperative that you promote your book. Again, the Internet gives even the newest author a chance by providing a means to get the word out.

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Moses: Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently, whether in terms of the business end of publishing, or with your series?

MJS: Actually, I managed to accidently do most things perhaps not right exactly, but the way I am happy with. Each author has their own particular goals and one of mine has been to be able to tell my story, “my way.” Being the kind of person I am, I don’t think I would have been happy with a big press. I am too independent and controlling of my vision. A small press afforded me the acknowledgment of “getting legitimately published,” of having someone in the industry fork over thousands of dollars because they believed my work was worth it, but also gave me more control. For instance, the cover sketch I got from my first publisher for The Crown Conspiracy was…less than perfect. So, I did a quick painting to show them “my idea” and it turned out they bought it for the cover. I’ve been able to do the covers for all the books since, and that is something I don’t think I’d ever get from a large publishing house.
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Wintertide by Michael J SullivanMoses: Could you tell me something interesting that you’ve never shared with the public about your life as a writer?

MJS: That’s tough since I tend to forget what I’ve told to whom, and have been fairly open about my experiences. I have to come up with something to write about on my blog after all. I suppose I could explain what the dedication to “Dragonchow” was all about in my second book, Avempartha.

After writing thirteen novels and trying to get published for over ten years, I finally gave up and swore I would never write creative fiction again. I turned instead to my other creative interest and went into commercial art. After working in the field for a time, I started my own ad agency and did very well. I had moved away from my childhood home of Michigan, first to Vermont and then to Raleigh NC. I still had family and friends in Michigan and to keep in touch, we started playing Internet computer games. We started with Starcraft and Age of Empires, but soon moved to MMORPGs and Everquest.

My wife and I both played for three years or so, and in that time we met a number of wonderful people who we only knew through the game. They were all part of a player created guild and the guild’s name was Dragonchow.  From time to time my writing “leaked out” as I recounted tales of our in-game adventures for the guild website. They ended up drawing an audience, so I wrote a little fictional, serialized story starring members of the guild. It was a huge hit, and got me thinking about writing again. (Please note that the Riyria Revelations has nothing at all to do with my gaming experience.) When I did, the members of the guild were some of the first people to read my books.

They read the rough drafts for the first four books, and while I haven’t played Everquest in almost a decade, several of our guild mates are still fans of the series. Wintertide, the fifth book in the series that is due out this October, will be the first book that will be completely new to them. They’ve been waiting a long time to see how the series ends. I hope to make it worth the wait.

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Moses: Thanks again for sharing your story with me, Michael.

The last two books in Michael’s series are “scheduled and well on their way.” Wintertide (book 5) will be available in October. Michael also told me that the final book Percepliquis should be finished ahead of its April scheduled release. I hope you’ll check out his work.

If you have any comments or questions for Michael, feel free to post them in the comments and maybe he’ll be able to check in with us.
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Michael Shatzkin: Chicken Little or Nostradamus (if Nostradamus was right most of the time)? He knows his stuff. I’m going with Nostradamus.

Shatzkin has been writing for months about the possibility of the coming collapse of traditional print book distribution. It goes something like this. As more book sales move not only online (of course, that’s been happening for a while), but more importantly towards digital ebooks (something occurring at an astronomical pace), so many bookstores–most of which are already struggling–will become unprofitable. Even small changes in how we buy books could tip the scales and create catastrophe for brick and mortar bookstores, because profit margins are slim throughout the publishing world. And more returns by those bookstores aren’t going to help  publishers either.

Yesterday, Shatzkin wrote one of his strongest blog posts yet about what appears to be the coming bookstore apocalypse. I find his argument more than persuasive. Even if bookstores do better than he anticipates, it’s pretty clear that many stores will have to close shop, and all of them will have to reduce their shelf space for books, in an attempt to widen out and sell other products that will keep them in business.

People argue that the death of publishing has been long predicted. Granted, big publishing will survive, but it will also drastically change. Relatively new technology, from Amazon.com to the Kindle and Nook and iPad, is changing the book business and how books are sold. And for better or worse–and it’s some of both–gatekeeping is shifting from the publishing houses to readers and bloggers. Power to the people is always a dangerous proposition, but that’s the new world.

I’ll be perfectly honest. I think most writers are totally in denial about what’s happening. They’re stalking agent blogs (hey, I’ve been there, done that), writing queries, adding to slush piles, crossing their fingers for years, and praying for a winning lottery ticket. Yes, some of them will find success this way. I may still try it myself. Traditional publishing may not be dying, but in five years, when there’s drastically less shelf space for books, that business model will certainly slim down and change.

I want to echo one of the boldest points that Shatzkin made, because it has huge implications for new writers and those who aren’t already happy where they are in the publishing game. Here:

Although it isn’t often stated this starkly, the core value proposition for the biggest trade book publishers is that they can put books on shelves. All of the rest of what they do (and often do quite well) — selection, editing, development, packaging, and marketing — is fungible. And usually not scaleable.

So what if the bookstorepocalypse is real? If getting published traditionally doesn’t especially help you to get your books on the shelves of stores (unless you are talented, awesome, hard-working, and lucky enough to be a Jim Butcher), then you’ve got a legitimate reason to question whether you want to roll the dice with traditional publishers (who absolutely offer many great advantages), or get 70% royalties on your indie ebooks and get paid 80% of your print book’s list price (minus the cost of POD printing) with your print-on-demand book via Lightning Source and their 20% short discount option–which gets you right into Amazon.com and other online bookstores, just like the big boys do.

Of course, the road to self-published glory will be littered with the carcasses of many bad books, as well as so many good books that just couldn’t find their audience in an over-saturated marketplace–then again, that happens sometimes to traditionally published books, too. And while I tend to think that quality work will usually be eventually found, there are no guarantees of success in any direction, so you’d better be following your passion. And if you want to hear the arguments in favor of going rogue, you can join me in following J.A. Konrath’s blog, and you can and should find Zoe Winters in many places, including the Indie Reader blog. Michael Stackpole is another pioneer and independent author well worth following.

If the distribution advantage for large publishers becomes much less significant, and I think that’s inevitable within the next five years and has certainly already begun, then the ‘pocalypse will be bigger than just bookstores, because it will affect everyone in the publishing food chain, from agents to writers to editors and everyone else. Think ahead and plan accordingly, and find the best path forward for you.

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Another stick of dynamite just went “boom” in the brave new world of ebooks (actually, this link is more detailed than the previous one).

Self-publishing authors will be able to offer their titles on Apple’s iBookstore for the iPad at almost no cost, potentially breaking down the barriers for independent writers who want to sell their work across the globe.

According to DigitalBeat, the self-publishing service Smashwords has signed a distribution deal with Apple to put books on the iBookstore, which will be a part of the iBooks application, available as a free download on the iPad through the App Store …

The e-mail from Coker also revealed Apple’s pricing rules for the iBookstore. Each title’s price must end in 99 cents (i.e. $12.99), and books can be priced as low as 99 cents. The price of the book must also be less than its print counterpart.

Author Dean Takahashi said users can submit their work to Smashwords through a simple process that involves uploading a Microsoft Word file, setting the price and deciding where the book is to be published …

Through the service [Smashwords], authors receive 85 percent of net sale proceeds from titles, or 70.5 percent of affiliate sales. The report said the cost to distribute a book on the iPad is free …

Apple’s iBooks application is compatible with the ePub format. Apple will also sell content from some of the largest publishers in the world, including HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan, and Simon & Shuster.

Independent writers–that’s anyone who can type on a computer and upload a Word file–will be able to sell their books through the iBookstore and iBooks app via Smashwords, which will offer an overall 60% royalty rate to authors (normally Smashwords offers 85%, but that’s only directly through their own site). I’m not suggesting that everyone should start publishing junk and trying to make money that way, I’m only saying that at this time, it is very easy to get your works onto the Kindle store, iBookstore, etc.

Amazon made waves by offering a 70% royalty rate to indie authors starting on June 30th, 2010. As long as indie authors price their ebooks between $2.99 and $9.99, that’s the swell deal Amazon is offering. And without a doubt, the deal is really swell, considering that there are indie authors already selling thousands of books a month via the Kindle store. For more on that, follow JA Konrath’s blog.

Joe Konrath is doing quite well with his ebooks in the Kindle store (he expects to be making $10K/month come July), but there are also unheard-of new authors selling thousands of ebooks a month there, too. Look for stories like John Rector’s and Boyd Morrison’s, who parlayed Kindle success into traditional publishing contracts. Rector and Morrison are somewhat unusual stories, but those stories are also becoming more common. Konrath’s blog has featured others as well (especially in the comments).

Now Apple and its new homeboy Smashwords is luring authors, not with a higher royalty rate (60% vs 70% with Amazon), but by allowing authors to price their books at $0.99 or $1.99, which many authors have done on Kindle in order to generate more downloads and find more readers.

Oh, by the way: Authors don’t have to choose one or the other. They can easily be on Smashwords/iBookstore, as well as Amazon/Kindle.

The conventional wisdom remains that aspiring authors are best served by trying to publish traditionally, but the independent alternative to the conventional approach keeps getting more and more interesting, and without a doubt that trend is rapidly strengthening. Owning the e-rights to your books forever, while more and more people are buying ereaders like Kindle, Sony, and iPad (and Kindle books can be read on any computer, anyway), does have its allure.

It’s also worth noting that Joe Konrath has discouraged aspiring authors from going indie right off the bat [EDIT: See April 7 Update, below] and encouraged new writers to seek a literary agent first, but at the same time Joe has mentioned that he’s unsure of whether or not he wants to give up the erights to his future books because he knows from experience how valuable they are, and how valuable they will be.

If you want to hear from someone who argues well for the future of indie publishing and walks her talk, check out Zoe Winters.

So tell me, what do you make of all of this?
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UPDATE (April 7th, 2010): Joe Konrath has, to some degree, changed his point of view on self-publishing ebooks. On his blog today, he makes a strong case for authors retaining their e-rights. In practical terms, this likely means holding onto all rights, since publishers are (to put it mildly) reluctant to give up those rights. Yes, this would mean that dreaded thing which shall not be spoken of in serious writing circles: “self-publishing.” You may want to wash your hands now.

I asked him the following in the comments area on his blog:

What kind of advice should an unpublished author draw from your recent posts, Joe? Get an agent, publish traditionally, get your name out there, and then (based on today’s post) go indie with ebooks and POD once you think you can sell enough books that way?

Joe Konrath’s response:

I’m hesitant to give advice on this. A month ago I’d say get an agent and traditionally publish. But I was just on the phone today with a friend who has been traditionally published, and I warily cautioned him to look at the numbers before accepting any new offers, because he could potentially make more money on his own.

This blows my mind, BTW. I did NOT expect to ever be a cheerleader for self-publishing.

But numbers are numbers, and my predictions for the future of ebooks have 1 full year of data to support them.

So, hell, I don’t know what to tell you, Moses. I do know this for sure:

Everyone needs to make up their own mind. You need to follow your own path, based on your experience and experiments.

Experts are fine to listen to, but no expert (me included) should be considered Gospel.

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UPDATE April 9th, 2010. Sounds like Joe Konrath is probably going all-in with self-publishing his future novels as ebooks. Check out his post.

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