Indie Author Interview: James Derry

August 25, 2016

One of the authors with me in the Weird Western StoryBundle is James Derry, author of Idyll.  I got to ask him a few writerly questions:

Novel Dog: Tell me about your experiences in publishing. Any traditional contracts, or are you pure indie? Why did you choose to self-publish?

James Derry:  All of my efforts in traditional publishing never netted me more than a friendly shrug and notes that amounted to: “the genres you’re writing in (horror and Westerns) aren’t easy sells right now.” Which honestly, I thought was a perfectly valid rationale. I never took for granted that traditional publishing is a business, and that most big businesses are institutionally risk-adverse—and that, to them, niche genres amount to barely more than pocket change.

IMG_3045_smBut the big ‘duh’ moment came when I realized that most traditionally published authors don’t make enough money to quit their day jobs. I said to myself, “So I’m going to spend years going through this soul-crushing query process, and even if I succeed at it, just about the best I can hope for is a four-figure advance and a book that’ll be considered burned out after three months? And my agent and publisher won’t even help me market it?” After that, the advantages of traditional publishing seemed very marginal.

ND: What are some of your influences? What inspires your work?

JD:  A lot of the usual suspects: Stephen King and John Steinbeck. I’m inspired by a bunch of modern sci-fi authors—Kim Stanley Robinson, James S.A. Cory, Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds—but I think they’re all way beyond my league to emulate. I also draw inspiration from random sources: nature shows, video games, even reality television, because it provides constant reminders that every person—no matter how petty or selfish or self-destructive—is the hero of their own story.

ND: Talk a little about your writing process.

JD:  Usually I’m daydreaming when I find an image or a moment that strikes a chord with me. Those moments become my story beats, and I build a very rough outline around those beats. Then I write a very rough draft where I try to focus on simply connecting one sentence to the next. I try my best to keep it raw and not get bogged down on pretty phrasing, or referencing my thesaurus. Then, there’s quite a bit of revisions as I rework the first draft or move on to the second draft. Once I have the manuscript somewhat polished, I have a couple of trusted sources proof it and offer feedback. Another big help is the text-to-speech feature on my Kindle Fire. I email a manuscript to my Kindle, and then I listen to it in the car or doing chores. I catch a lot of typos that way.

ND: What is some writing advice that you wish you’d heard earlier?

JD:  Don’t be afraid to write a crappy first draft. I think that’s a really difficult idea for a beginning writer to take to heart, because when you’re first starting out, you want to have that personal validation that what you’re writing at least ’sounds’ good, even if you’re feeling wobbly on your story. But writing a crappy first draft is a good thing to do based on two facts: A) Nobody but you is ever going to read it. B) You’re probably going to end up rewriting big chunks of it anyway, because you’ll find scenes where the characterization is inconsistent, or you’ll realize you have too much exposition, or a big stretch of pages where nothing actually happens. If you don’t spend a lot of time on your first draft, then you won’t feel so frustrated when you have to rework it.

ND: Could you set up Idyll for us?

JD:  Sure thing. Here is the blurb:

Idyll is a rugged planet—a new, simpler start for some 10,000 settlers who have fled Mother Earth. But a strange ‘plague’ of contagious sleep has devastated their Settlement, sparked by a mysterious mantra called the Lullaby.

After a three-year quarantine, Walt and Samuel Starboard set out from their ranch on a mission to cure their comatose mother and find their missing father. For days they ride through a blighted landscape: deserted cabins and gravestones and the ruins of towns destroyed by fire. Just when the brothers are about to give up, they stumble upon a second pair of survivors, two beautiful and determined sisters.

Miriam and Virginia Bridge offer new hope, but they also present new problems. Stirrings of emotion and shifting priorities threaten to set the brothers against each other. Can Walt and Samuel overcome years of festering resentment, or will their rivalry tear them apart before they can reunite their broken family? And will any of them survive the revelation of who—or what—unleashed the Lullaby on their home world?

It was a lot of fun to write Idyll, and the story took some surprising turns (even for me!) as I finished up its sequel. I’m currently working on Book 3 of the Idyll Trilogy, and I hope to release it in early Spring of 2017.

All Covers Large

You can catch up with James Derry at his blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.  The Weird Western StoryBundle, featuring our fiction along with seven more authors, is available only here for a few more days!

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Five Years as an Indie Author

March 17, 2016

Five years ago today, I uploaded my first novel to the Kindle. I caught the bug instantly and have indie-published every title since.

ibmpcxt3 Back in 1986, I hammered out my first short story at the keyboard of an IBM PC XT. By 1991, I was looking to publish, so I wrote letters to several magazines, asking them for their writer’s guidelines. I made sure to include an SASE with each letter, so I would get a response. Once I had those guidelines, I could format my stories in the way that each editor wanted, and maximize my chance at getting accepted.  It took money and time, but that was the business.

Have you ever heard of an SASE? That’s a “self-addressed, stamped envelope.” In other words, a form of extinct communications technology. And in those days, if I wanted to submit to a magazine in Great Britain or Canada, I also had to include “international reply coupons.” You can think of those as a particular species of carrier pigeon.

I have vivid memories of letters, envelopes and stamps spread across my dorm room floor. That was 25 years ago.

Five years ago, after reading of the success of Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath, I was itching to try self-publishing. It was clear that the ebook market was flooded with readers and starving for writers, and the first writers who had jumped in were doing very well. I knew the ereader craze might be a fad… and that’s why I wanted in. I wanted to be a part of it, especially if it didn’t last. I was afraid that if I missed it, I would be kicking myself forever once it was gone.

So I uploaded Outrageous Fortunes in March of 2011, and started getting a nice check every month. I was hooked. Since then, publishers have continued to punish writers with deadlines, complicated contracts, occasional bankruptcies, and lately, censorship. For five years, I have been open to the possibility of pursuing a contract with a traditional publisher… but less and less open, year after year.

And the technology has continued to provide delightful surprises. How far from those SASE’s have we come? This far:

15bPCuX3YZHkcMJcsiz95EehKNzWJqbqF6

That 34-character-string is an address for a bitcoin wallet. My readers can pay me directly with it (if they know how). No stamps, no checks, no envelopes, no postal service, no banks, no governments. Human to human, anywhere on Earth, instantly.  The path between the reader and writer is now clear of all intrusive debris.

Today, not many of my readers know how… yet.  But as William Gibson said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”


What readers pay, what writers make

December 18, 2014

I thought it would be fun to break down the dollars and cents of an ebook sale. Who gets what? What’s Amazon’s haul? What does that legendary 70% royalty really add up to?

Suppose you live here in Washington State in the bucolic Pacific Northwest, and you buy Outrageous Fortunes from Amazon.com (the numbers for other ebook retailers would be similar).

The price is $2.99.

But you notice that your credit card is charged $3.30. That’s the down side of Washington State: a sales tax near ten percent. So you have blessed the people in Olympia with 31 cents, so they can keep the schools open and the buses less late.

So Amazon kicks the $0.31 to Washington State, sends 70% of the $2.99 to me, and keeps the rest — $0.94 — for itself. Amazon’s cut, then, is a little less than a buck.

My 70%, on the other hand, is a hefty $2.05. This is a comparable dollar amount to what an author with a traditional publisher’s contract might receive for the sale of a $15 to $25 book — and there’s your indie revolution that Konrath and others have written so much about.

Hold on, there’s another player involved, and that’s the American government way over in Washington D.C. As long as I’m a sole proprietor, the IRS helps itself to 28% of my royalties, or 57 cents of that $2.05. That leaves me with a post-tax royalty of $1.48.

(The U.S. Government also gets a cut of the $0.94 that went to Amazon, since most of it ends up as income for Amazon employees or vendors. I would estimate 10% to 30%… let’s call it 20 cents, leaving Amazon with $0.74 and giving the U.S. Government a total haul of $0.77.)

The final breakdown of an ebook sale:
$0.31 to Washington State
$0.74 (roughly) to Amazon
$0.77 (roughly) to the United States
$1.48 to me.

All from the $3.30 paid by the reader. I think a better definition of “royalty percentage” would come from what I actually receive divided by what the reader actually pays, or $1.48 / $3.30 = 45%.


Come on, Amazon is cool.

December 20, 2011

“I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.” – Kent Brockman

In this, my love letter to Amazon, I’m going to point out a few brilliant things they are doing. This is a big deal for me, because their brilliance has a direct impact on my life as a writer.

One: They are giving Kindles away.

Not exactly, but they are selling Kindles at a loss. I got mine last Christmas (thanks, Mom!) when the price fell to $139, which I assumed was a promotional price. Wrong – they’re now $79 (sorry, Mom!). Hard to say what they spent on Kindle R&D, but the overlords at Amazon know that the ereader isn’t the moneymaker… the ebooks are. So they are moving Kindles out the door at a rate of over a million units a week. They want as many ereaders out there as possible.

And since my work so far is exclusively digital, so do I.

Two: The uploading model.

Think of all the ways Amazon could have botched this. They could have charged $200 per novel upload, or offered twelve percent royalties, or both. Instead, uploading is FREE and the author royalty is up to 70%. Authors don’t even sign a rights contract, because Amazon doesn’t ask for any rights to the manuscript.

Instead, all authors lose is “first electronic rights” by virtue of making their work available to the public online. A big question used to be: “Can a writer still score a deal with a traditional print publisher for a novel self-pubbed on the Kindle?” The answer is now YES.

Amazon leaves an unprecedented amount of decision-making to the writer: cover, jacket copy (aka product description), price (with some nudging via royalty percentage to keep it between three and twelve bucks), tagging (which is what passes nowadays for genre), and marketing.

Ah, marketing. Amazon lets the authors tear their own hair out about how to market their books, because Amazon knows that a book’s greatest advocate is its author.

And yet…

Three: The Browsing Revolution.

The Amazon sales pages, with their lists, tags, and rows of “also-boughts” are outstanding at bringing similar books to within a click or two of each other. Right there on my sales page for Outrageous Fortunes are novels by Harry Turtledove and Peter Pauzé. If I market my tail off to drive traffic to my Amazon page, some of those potential readers click over and buy books by Turtledove and Pauzé.

Well, darn. But I’ve learned to love it, because it works both ways. My work is on the sales pages of plenty of other books, and promotions by their authors help me. This interconnectedness helps get readers to the books they will obsess about, and that way, everybody sells more books. (Are you reading this, Barnes & Noble?)

Four: In 2011, my beautiful little Creative Writing MFA program, NILA, just received a $15,000 grant from Amazon. Is there an ulterior motive? Sure, Amazon wants their 30% of book sales, and perhaps better-educated writers will sell more books (and there’s this little thing called PR). In the meantime, they are funding higher education.

Now, Amazon has taken some heat from different folks lately. I try to keep up with that stuff, and while Amazon is hard on publishers and booksellers (whose inefficiencies make them soft targets), its strategies consistently revolve around treating writers and readers with respect.

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PS: There’s mad hullabaloo about Amazon’s new KDP Select program (and what it means for Smashwords, among others). I haven’t signed up… yet. Still collecting data. More later.


6 Things I Learned as an Indie Author

September 18, 2011

This spring, I decided I’d seen enough of the writing on the wall, and uploaded a novel to the Amazon Kindle. It has done fairly well, selling about a hundred per month with no marketing. That doesn’t cover my rent, but it’s a hell of a lot more than my Netflix subscription, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about the process:

1. It’s easier than it looks.

2. Despite #1, hard work and attention to detail pay off in spades and allow you to outrun the competition.

3. Cruise the Kindle Top 100. Notice everything (covers, product descriptions, author bios, reviews, the “Click to Look Inside” feature, etc). Imitate.

4. You will obsessively track your sales. Resistance is futile. Go ahead, though. Knowing your book’s display page like the back of your hand and clicking through your “also-boughts” will help you to notice everything (see #3).

5. Kindle readers live in a different world than the Big Six publishers. They feel that remarkable storytelling is more important than lyrical wordsmithing, and they’ll forgive occasional typos but not a bland tale.

6. There are three kinds of writers. First, there are those who won’t epublish because the see ebooks as pathetic, since the lack of professional gatekeepers (agents, editors, publishers) means the ebook market is a slushy vanity-press free-for-all. Second, there are those who won’t epublish because they find all those readers intimidating, and want their work vetted by a pro before it is cast to the lions. They aren’t sure if their writing is worthy enough. Third, there are writers like me, who fall somewhere in the middle and are willing to give epublishing a try.

7. (Bonus!) By far the greatest discovery of the epublishing world: If you lower prices by a factor of five, readers buy five times as many books. Writers now have access to an insatiable audience. There are almost a million ebooks available on the Kindle, but that is nowhere near enough. The readers are waiting for more.


Traditional Agents and Publishers: a 3-Point Update.

August 25, 2011

I just got back from the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts MFA residency on Whidbey Island, here in Washington State, where creative writing grad students got to hear from a few literary agents and publishers, who told us what’s going on in the publishing world.

Three quick observations:

1. Traditional agents and publishers continue to offer fewer services (editing, promotion, distribution) and smaller advances to authors. They don’t quite acknowledge how much trouble they are in, and the reforms they will need to make to remain profitable are not yet on the table.

2. Traditional agents and publishers are still concerned about an author’s platform (e.g. “How many Facebook friends do you have? How many Twitter followers? Are you on LinkedIn?”).

I’m a bit of a weirdo in that I don’t see platform as very important. It’s a better strategy, as always, to write a remarkable book, because it’s easier for readers to find you than ever before. If your book is remarkable, your platform will generate itself.

(For an idea of what I mean by remarkable, see Seth Godin’s talk on it. It’s for marketers, but it applies to everybody, including writers.)

3. A couple of interesting changes in the language. First, “agents and publishers” are now called “traditional agents and publishers” to distinguish them from the indie or electronic world of publishing.

Second, rather than acknowledge that “self-published” no longer deserves the lame vanity stigma that it acquired years ago, they’ve embraced the phrase “independent publishing” or “indie publishing” and even “indie author” (a phrase I enjoy to no end). The phrase “self-published” has slipped further, and is becoming obsolete among agents and publishers.

So if you’ve published your earlier work electronically and are pitching your latest novel to an agent:

BAD: “I self-published my first novel.”

GOOD: “I’m already an experienced indie author.”

No more cold stares from agents and publishers on this topic. They have seen the success of ebooks and have reached the stage of grudging respect. And that, at least, is great news.

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Now a side note: I’m happy to announce that Novel Dog has been accepted to Alltop. Thanks to author Yi Shun Lai for suggesting it!