Friday, April 29, 2011

eBook Experiment Update - Better Than A Poke With A Sharp Stick

I really haven't set the world on fire with my ebook publishing. I haven't even done as well as I'd hoped. But I haven't done all that bad either. In February, the most recent month for which I seem to have full data, I sold 81 books across all channels (not including freebies). I think 33 of those were at Amazon.

When I started, a little over a year ago, I knew that I couldn't expect Konrath-level success. So I sought out people who were more at my level. I have published a lot of short fiction, and had a certain amount of "almost" interactions with editors and agents on books. I also worked as a first reader, script reader and competition judge.

But I have not won out in comparison with these colleagues. After a year, I'm at the lower end of the spread.

However, I do believe I set my sights artificially high: Let's face it, the people who are quickest to tell about their experiences are those who have had the best experiences. Those who aren't doing so well don't really want to talk about it. (This happened when I was writing for eHow too -- everyone had an inflated idea of how much money an "average" article would make for members. When we did polls, we found out the actual average was lower.)

Maybe it's my ego speaking, but I suspect I'm a lot more average than it seems, and for that reason I figure I should talk about it.

And while my ego is speaking (so take this with a grain of salt) I'll look back on the year, and what I've observed, and tell you the reasons I think I haven't burst into the stratosphere:

1.) I started with the wrong book.... or did I?

The people who have done really well at indie publishing are mainly people who write a marketable, commercial book, and have a consistent body of work -- in other words, the same books and writers who are likely to do well at traditional publishing. Sure, a lot of them had a hard time getting published anyway, because it's a crowded market, and publishers thrive on scarcity. Each publisher will publish only so many paranormal romances, even if the audience is hungry for them.

It's really easy to match those books with that hungry audience, even if the author is pushing the envelope this way or that way. And once the book is matched with the audience, it's up to the book itself to sell.

For me? Last year, the future was still very hazy, and traditional publishing still looked like a good idea for my more commercial books. So I decided to test the water with my non-commercial books. My "what the heck genre is this anyway" books which I never intended to even try with traditional publishing.

So why would that be a problem for my whole career? Well, when I put out my more commercial work, any audience will find these other books confusing. Will they like my other stuff? Should they try it? And if they were to try it and dislike it, would they then be turned off everything I write?

So why would this NOT be a problem? Because everything I write is somewhat hard to categorize. Everything is a little bit non-commercial. I might as well start with the hard stuff.

And that is a nice segue into the next reason:

2.) I write in inconsistent and dead genres (and not even all the same genres).

It isn't that everything I write is not salable, it's just that everything I write is not what people expect. It's hard to raise anticipation when people can't tell for sure what something is. Is a mystery western going to be too westerny? Is it going to be western enough? Is there going to be a history quiz, or should we expect John Wayne? And the silly title... does that mean it's going to be Tarantino silly, or Bugs Bunny silly? Am I going to be wincing during the shootouts? Or am I going to be bored with how sanitized they are?

In the mean time, I have learned something over the years about my writing: editors and fellow writers, etc., always start out thinking I did certain things by accident. Then they realize I did it on purpose, and they have a moment of confusion. I meant to do that? And then they get it, and ask for more. (Or run screaming away.)

The reason it's hard to get at first is not because I am too different, but because I'm not different enough. I like to color close to the lines, and when you do that, people expect you to stay inside them. They think you made a mistake when you slip just outside the line. If you meant it, you'd go further...wouldn't you? That bugs people. At first. Until they get it. (If they get it.)

And I'm not going to stop doing that, because it's fun. (I do it when I'm driving too. I like ruts, but I don't think they should be so well defined. So I drive on the edge of the rut.)

3.) I can't afford a cover which would please me, so I'd rather be displeased with my own free covers.

Covers are important, and I'd definitely do better with better covers. But given points one and two, a really great cover will probably mislead the audience anyway. (For instance, Harsh Climate has a cover which looks more commercial, more serious, and less quirky than the story really is. Is that a good thing?)

4.) Since my books are not so easily marketable, I have chosen a much slower path toward fame and fortune.

I don't have a book in a hot genre, so there really isn't a point in getting a slick cover, pricing at 99 cents and promoting the heck out of it.

My sales were higher when I did more promotion. But the time and effort spent was not at all worth those results. If my body of work were more standard, I might put in more effort on that front. I do believe that under the right circumstances, promoting the heck out of your work and spending money and lowering your price and all that can pay off in dividends later. I don't think I have the kind of books which benefit from that, (and I don't know that even the kind of books which can benefit will always benefit).

Some of my books are commercial enough, though, that when I have several that go together, regular marketing will be more worth my time. But I'm not there yet.

So what is my strategy going forward?

Given what I've said above, it's pretty clear that I've got to get people used to my style. Which means:

1. Go back to basics; You must write. Good Old Heinlein and his rules. Get a lot of work out there and spread it around. That means I will be doing a lot of short fiction, as well as finishing up my novels and working forward on the next.

2. Get the work out there. I will be submitting fiction to commercial markets again, and also looking for guest post opportunities for short fiction. And, of course, the Story Sunday here, which will include excerpts sometimes, but I really want to commit to having fun short fiction here every week.

3. Stop worrying about strategy. Which book is next? Should I do this or that? I've got too much to do to take time to fret. If I put that energy into writing, I'll get to all the books faster. (And when I get enough books done, my body of work might start making sense.)

4. Keep working on the art. Whether it's buying a cover, or working on my own skills, a cover reflects your brand.

5. And speaking of brands, this blog is important to building a relationship with readers. This is the most comfortable way to put myself out there.

So for this week, we finish up the Hemingway's Baby Shoes competition -- the deadline is Saturday at midnight EST. I might be a little lenient since I don't have many entries yet.

I will post a list and links to all the entrants on Tuesday -- and if I don't get flooded with last minute entries, I will post the winner then too. (If I DO get flooded with last minute entries, I'll let you know Tuesday when I expect to announce.)

In the meantime, I will post my usual Story Sunday (an excerpt from The Curse of Scattershale Gulch, I think) then the story notes on Monday.

See you in the funny papers.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and open post, Daring. It's still too early for me to diagnose my own failings (I'm in my 2nd month of self-pubbing) but if I had it to do over again, I'd probably concentrate on writing a series of short novels (in the 250-pg range) and publishing them when I had 4-5 done.

As it is, I have published books that were intended for traditional publishing. In short, I would rather have geared my work to self-pubbing from the get-go.

Keep writing!

The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah, David. There are a lot of things I did on the advice of how to break into traditional publishing which have set me back on indie publishing.

It's part of the reason my body of work is so scattered. I kept being told "don't work on the sequel/series until you've sold the first. Increase your odds of selling a first book by writing lots of first books." Well, guess what? I've got lots of first books and not a lot of follow up.

David Michael said...

I hear ya. I'm finishing up my 8th month of indie publishing to less-than-stellar results. I've had good responses from readers, but not a lot of readers (or sales).

I thought I had set my sights "low enough" to avoid being disappointed.

I was wrong. ;-)

My first strategy was to get as many of my accumulated novels and stories up as seemed worthy of the effort. I'm coming to the end of that phase.

Next up is releasing new work. Which is to say, the novels I've been writing/finishing over the past few months.

Maybe in all of this I will start to appear to follow some sort genre or the other. :-)


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good analysis of your results! I'm sure, like you mentioned, that there are plenty of people who don't want to list poor sales and so it just looks like everyone is super-successful with e-publishing.

I think you've got a great plan, moving forward!

Lindsay Buroker said...

Hi, Camille!

Thanks for the comment on Ebook Endeavors. :)

I suspect most people are lucky to sell more than a few books a month. I follow a lot of folks on Twitter, and if they have a link to their books in their profile, I'll take a peep. It's actually pretty rare to find folks whose sales rankings are sub 100,000.

I just did a post taking a look some of the indie fantasy authors doing really well for themselves, and they all have at least one multi-book series out with the average of total ebooks out being around 10 (full-length novels). So, I guess we better get writing! :)

Good luck with the interviews!


The Daring Novelist said...

David M: keep plugging. Authors with a published (but available) backlist are in the best situation right now, but those of us with a good trunk full of stories also have some leverage. It's the accumulation, though, which will ultimately do it for us.

Elizabeth: Thanks! Yes, I was thinking about a saying of a friend of mine: "Simple times seven, complex times twenty." It's a rule of thumb that any simple task will take seven times the effort, time and money you plan for. Complex tasks will take twenty times.

Lindsey: yeah, it's kind of like it was in the old days. You built a career over time. Look at how many books Agatha Christie wrote, and Earl Stanley Gardner. And think about how people think of their first ten books or so as their "beginner books" which aren't as developed as their later ones.

joeythesquash said...

I never read Heinlein's rules before, though I've read some of his books. Thanks for this... Now I need to stop playing around on the internet and go finish my book.

The Daring Novelist said...

Heinlein's rules have been around for a long time -- and I think they will be more important than ever in the coming days.

(And thanks for stopping by.)

Angie said...

[I followed you home from your comments on Dean Wesley Smith's blog. [wave]]

I think this is a pretty good analysis, probably because I have some of the same issues and have thought about the situation. My writing is scattered over a few different genres, and every time I see someone earnestly insisting that every writer has to have a very narrow "brand" such that your fans know not only what genre but what subgenre they'll get when they buy one of your books, I feel like kicking something. :/

Which isn't to say branding is necessarily bad. I see it as being like writing sonnets -- there's a strict set of rules with little to no leeway, but within that restrictive perimeter there's room for quite a lot of creativity. For people who enjoy being creative at that level, this works fine.

My creativity isn't at that level, though. I'm one of those writers who always has a bunch of WIPs going, and looking at my most recently worked on half dozen pieces, I have one SF/steampunk story, one fantasy/were story, one classic fantasy story, one m/m fantasy romance, one urban fantasy m/m romance novel, and a contemporary m/m romance story. I have six stories out right now, all mainstream fantasy or SF in various subgenres.

I'm splitting pseuds between the m/m romance and the mainstream speculative stuff, but if I came up with a different pseud for every subgenre, what few fans I ever accumulated would get really impatient waiting for my "next" story. Assuming they remembered me at all.

And yeah, I poke a toe outside the established genre/subgenre bounds too, and that can cause problems with reader expectations. Becoming known as one of those writers who does weird stuff with around the boundary fences is probably my best bet. [wry smile]

Anyway, good stuff. Also great comments on Dean's blog.


The Daring Novelist said...

Angie - welcome to the blog!

The thing to remember is that in traditional publishing, a writer's brand is affected by the publisher -- who needs to genericize it a little to get that broader audience. They also need to get our books placed on specific shelves, and all the strategies are based on that placement.

But as authors our brand is US. I decided against a pseudonym because of Roald Dahl. Dahl wrote children's books, and also wickedly adult short thriller/suspense stories. You would have thought he should use a pseudonym for one of those, but he didn't -- and it worked for him because his brand is is wickedly ironic point of view.

Angie said...

Camille -- true about New York. That's one great thing about m/m, that the fact of two guys doing romantic/erotic things is the genre, even if the romance is a subplot, so you can straddle a bunch of other genres with that one connecting factor, and believe me I do. :) I'm trying to expand into the mainstream, though, and that gets more problematic.

This is yet another area where self publishing is looking more attractive, especially for longer works.

Interesting about Roald Dahl. I only ever read his kids' books, and never knew he wrote thrillers. I'll have to look some of those up.


The Daring Novelist said...

All of the very best episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adaptations of Roald Dahl stories. "Lamb to the Slaughter" in particular. I also think the Steve McQueen - Peter Lorre episode was a Dahl. Oh, and let's not forget the one with the elevator...

He also wrote a lot of "domestic" sf. Husbands and wives and some element of speculative science shifting the balance of power.

Melissa Yi said...

I also trailed over from Dean's blog. I love writing and reading outside of established genres. You sound like my kind of writer!

81 sales in a month across all channels sound darn good to me.

I agree, more of us normal people should post instead of just the bestsellers because otherwise the data gets skewed. So thanks for doing this. (I will, too, if I have time, but basically, I put up two shorts and had 3 sales the first two months, but it picked up once I put up 10 more shorts in May and suddenly people are liking my collection of medical humour, so I'm trying to lock down the medical corner of my market, but who knows?)


The Daring Novelist said...

81 sales across all channels for 6-7 books. (I don't remember just know how many I had up that month.)

I don't blame people with slower sales for not posting. I mean, it doesn't exactly make your books sound attractive, so a lot of people keep mum for that reason.

There was an advantage in those polls I did on eHow in that they were anonymous. However, here, we all have such different situations, that it's good for us to also talk about the "conditions." Different genres, and stuff like that.

The key is always to keep plugging, though.