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.”

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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!


Book Promotion Shouldn’t Make Your Head Explode

March 21, 2011

Look, I’m a huge fan of new technologies and the power they grant to artists like us. I’ve even gushed about my favorite fiction-writing innovators.

But this stuff can make you crazy. I’ll admit that as fast as anybody. I think my friend Lindsay Buroker captures the feeling nicely:


Make your own Author Swag

February 22, 2011

I came into a bit of cash and spent it on some self-designed goodies at Zazzle.

Ah, author-generated marketing! No, not really. This sort of thing is too expensive to be part of any sane business plan for promotion.


But spending money on swag like this is a chance to affirm your faith in your ability as a writer and your certainty in your future success.

They’re conversation pieces. Your friends will see them and ask what the hell you are up to. And you owe it to yourself to get comfortable about sharing your writing progress with your buddies and colleagues.

And they are wicked fun.

Here’s a mug with some tease copy for the novel I’m writing now. Do you ever wake up with cool descriptions of your novel in your head? I do, and I write that stuff down.

Here’s the other side.


Here’s a pin with a graffiti catchphrase from the novel. The main character keeps finding this scratched into park benches and spray-painted on bridges, etc.

Sort of like “Frodo Lives!” or “Who is John Galt?

This is the biggest, cheesiest hack in all my html history. Why the hell can’t I space these stupid pictures properly? Argh!

And this mysterious glyph on my book bag is a QR code, a two-dimensional bar code that usually encrypts website URLs, although they can encrypt any text (such as your latest short story). I’m strangely drawn to them — I think they look like Egyptian hieroglyphics. If you have the right app installed, you can point your iphone at one, and be taken to a website. This one, of course, sends you here.

You can create them for free here, and proofread your work here.

Lastly, here’s a t-shirt I can wear to Write On The Sound conventions and NILA Residencies. Wearing my blog on my sleeve, more or less.

(By the way, if you want a brilliant and Zazzle-free way to promote your published novel, check what marketing genius Seth Godin suggests. And if your novel is electronic, then check with Lindsay Buroker, who proposes something similar.)


The Most Forgotten Marketing Tool

April 23, 2010

Here’s a way to nudge your odds of getting published up a bit. And you don’t have to rewrite your query letter to do it. Even better, once you’re published, this trick can improve your sales.

Put some thought into your title.

I caught some footage of Bob Mayer as a guest instructor for the Whidbey Island Writers MFA Program. Here’s a bit from his bio:

Bob is the best-selling author of over 40 books. He is a West Point graduate, served in the Infantry and Special Forces (Green Berets)… He also served in Special Operations Western Command on a variety of classified assignments.

He is the Co-Creator of Who Dares Wins Publishing, a Flex Publishing house dedicated to military fiction and the non-fiction of Excellence.

He brings a unique blend of practical Special Operations Strategies and Tactics mixed with the vision of an artist.

And here’s 90 seconds of don’t do what I did:

(It looks pretty rustic for a classroom, doesn’t it? It’s actually a century-old inn on Whidbey Island, a ferry ride from Seattle. You can hear floorboards squeaking as people walk around upstairs.)

— Steve