Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Harsh (though promising) Reality of E-publishing

Yesterday, I received my 1099 from Amazon Digital Services:  in 2011, I earned $655.77.  From B&N, I made a paltry $56.44.  Now, those numbers are nothing about which to get excited.  However, in 2010, I made a mere $140, so at least I'm heading in the right direction.  Perhaps this year, I'll jump in royalty profit into the thousands; it's impossible to know.  JT Warren may have already hit the saturation point.  Only time will tell.

I'm not offering those dismal numbers because I want sympathy or because I feel I've been duped by the promise of "easy millions" through e-books:  I offer these numbers as sobering expectations for those of us who are still new to the e-publishing world.  Unlike many successful e-writers, I have not been published previously by the traditional houses, nor do I write paranormal romances geared toward teens.  I'm not criticizing here, just attempting to be pragmatic.

But I might as well be honest.  Why haven't my sales skyrocketed?  I, after all, must take some responsibility in my own success or failure.

1.  Almost no advertising.  It is common knowledge now among e-writers that if you want to sell a lot of books, you must spend a lot of time promoting them.  The number I've heard is about 70% of your time should be consumed with self-promotion, cross-promotion, tangential-promotion (guest blogs, interviews about e-publishing, what you're reading now), and any other type of promotion that gets your name (brand) out there.  I have not even come close to 70%.  This is my fault.  When I sit at the computer, I try to spend that time writing or revising.  On the other hand, if promotion can push my books into the Top Selling category, it becomes a self-sustaining organism.  If I want to read an e-book (or a traditionally published book) I either read reviews in The New York Times or I see what's selling and then buy what looks appealing, thus keeping those high-sellers in their high rank.

2.  My books aren't great.  If you read my previous posting, you know that I wrote a lot of books before realizing I had to invest ample time revising if I ever wanted to improve.  Of my 7 current titles, 4 have been extensively revised and edited.  Two merely went through two fast edits and a quick editorial polish.  Amusingly, or depressingly, those two briefly edited books are my big sellers.  I make no conclusions about that except to say that in both cases, I very consciously wrote books that I thought would have a market.  Apparently, I was right.

I won't say my books are awful--I've gathered as many 5-star reviews as 1-star reviews and often the complaint is that I'm depraved, which may actually be a compliment--but I will say that simply churning out books as fast as I can (and I can write a 50,000 to 70,000-word book in 3-4 months) makes me the classic "hack" writer.  Now, if I manage to make money as a hack, does that mean I should feel bad?

Regardless of money, I want to be a better writer and that means treating writing as a craft, working slowly, revising and editing at length, seeking trusted first readers and honestly evaluating their comments.  It means not rushing to publish simply because I think I can make a quick buck and, as mentioned above, that's pretty much all I have been earning.

The market is flooded with self-published e-books.  All books will find some readers, but most books will fall away as a kind of natural selection weeds the bad from the good.  I'd like to be part of the good.

Final note on this:  I have a book I've written and revised again and again.  I have collected endorsements from traditionally published authors.  I have two agents reading it now.  Previous agents rejected the book saying, "the shifting landscape of the publishing industry makes it challenging for a book like this to find a home."  Blake Crouch waited a long time before self-publishing Run because he wanted a traditional deal.  I wonder what I should do.  Help me out and take the survey below.

3.  No endorsements.  It's tough (or damn near impossible) to gather positive endorsements from proven authors.  I was lucky enough to have Scott Nicholson lead me down this e-path and he was kind enough to provide an endorsement as well as push my books to his fans, but the reality is the highly successful authors are either too busy with their writing and promotion or simply uninterested in reading an unproven author (think of that irony for a moment in the e-context) to have any time to give a new author a chance, let alone an endorsement.  So it's the same Catch-22 as traditional publishing:  if you want an endorsement (or an agent or a publisher) you need a readership or proven sales to deserve attention and if you want to gain a readership and substantial sales, you need an agent, publisher, or an endorsement.

Proposal to the multitude of unknown e-authors:  let's start endorsing each other's books.  We can do it quid pro quo style.  You might say that such a practice will render the whole notion of endorsements irrelevant and that may be true, but I think it could prove an interesting test.  So, if you want JT Warren's "[book title] is unputdownable.  Read it now and you'll be a fan of [author]'s forever" endorsement, e-mail me and we'll put this theory to the test.  I think 5 to 15 endorsements per book might push sales quite high until, that is, every e-book has that many endorsements.  So, hop on this bandwagon now!    

A few other side notes:

1.  Freebies:  With KDP Select, the big thing is giving away e-books to help create buzz for your book (and brand) and, ideally, garner reviews and fans.  I have done this and my books have been downloaded a few thousand times.  However, there has been no noticeable increase in sales following these giveaways.  Why is that?  Perhaps people have so many books on their e-readers they have yet to read my book and thus have not been able to become a fan or post a review encouraging (or discouraging) other potential buyers.  I think that's part of it.  However (and I'm going to admit to being part of the problem), with so many books constantly going up for free, it makes perfect sense to wait for the free ones and download a ton of titles without ever paying anything.  I do this all the time.  If I become a fan of a particular author after a free taste, I might then buy one of his/her books, but then again, why not wait for the others to be free too?  Writing a series might be a successful strategy--give the first away for free, hook the readers, and then resist the temptation to make the sequels free.  That may work but with the flooding market, which drives down e-book price, authors start to feel pressured to give the books away in the belief that freebies lead to dollars.

Side note about this:  as a high school teacher, I have heard students talk passionately about how all forms of entertainment should be free.  They, generally speaking, see no reason to pay for songs.  With many sites offering pirated music, why would anyone pay?  The few students with e-readers have mentioned that they download only free books--obviously that's not completely true (look at Hocking), but the point is further made:  if anyone is going to spend money on anything, quality is expected.

As for my creative students who want to write, sing, draw, they change their "everything should be free" tune when I ask them how they expect to make a living.  (The future rock stars point out that they'll make money selling concert tickets and merchandise; it's a shame authors don't have the same proven option.)

2.  Konrath has a good post on his blog about a potential e-book bubble.  Read the links to the two articles he posts--the one about author Franzen and the one specifically about the bubble.  There's a lot of gloom and doom there and perhaps too much assuredness from Konrath that there will be no doom and that e-books are the the be-all, but as e-writers, you will find them interesting.  Franzen may be pompous, but he's not necessarily wrong and dismissing him offhand is presumptuous.  Konrath is always good for some debate.

I don't believe there will be an e-publishing bubble burst, but I also don't believe traditional publishing will die off like dinosaurs.  Much like the music industry, the book industry will adapt and carve a path to sustained profitability.  Along with my truth about waiting for free e-books, I am also much more likely to purchase a book published by a traditional house than a self-published e-book because it says to me that the publishing company believes the book is good and has faith it will sell.  (We could argue all day about what makes a "good" book.)

3.  Books about making millions writing e-books:  I'm thinking this is where the real money is.  Wannabe successful e-authors will spend up to $5 on a book promising the yellow brick road to e-success.

This goes back to the second reason why I'm not an e-book millionaire:  with the ease of self-publishing, I am not taking enough time to write good books, tediously revise them, polish and re-polish, before publishing.  Speaking of, I need to get back to what I really love to do:  write.