The Business Rusch: Comparisons
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I have spent a lot of time with other writers in the past three months, and I have seen this scenario over and over and over again:
Writers are talking about indie publishing e-books at a dinner or a lunch or over drinks. A newer writer, maybe one with little or no name recognition, mentions that his e-books are selling anywhere from one to ten per day on just one e-book site, like Kindle. Professional writers glare, cross their arms, or turn away.
Some of the professionals will say later, bitterly, that they’re not putting much effort into the indie e-book market because “it doesn’t pay off for them” or because their readers “don’t buy e-books.”
“The only writers who succeed,” one established writer of long-standing said to me a few weeks back, “are the ones who go out there and flog their stuff on the internet. This wave will pass. It always does.”
“I don’t see the point of trying,” said another established writer a few days later. “I have a book up there, and no one is buying it at all.”
I have a book “up there,” as well, and no one is buying it. In fact, I have several that aren’t being bought—so far as I can tell, anyway. And those books which aren’t being bought this month did get bought the month before, or maybe the month before that. But the pace isn’t that one to ten books a day. Nor are any of my individual titles selling at Amanda Hocking numbers even though, when her books started selling like that, I had more name recognition than she did.
Did that make me angry? Nope. Did it make me disparage Ms. Hocking? Not at all. Did I believe that she was out there, flogging her books all over the internet to get sales? I had no clue. I don’t read all over the internet, but I’ve been in this business long enough to know that promotion gets you a small blip in sales and little more.
What I did do when I heard that Amanda Hocking’s books were selling well was download a free sample to see why. And I discovered that she has major storytelling chops. Critics loathe folks who can tell stories but whose prose isn’t English-major perfect. Once Hocking got her deal with St. Martins, the literary critics all downloaded a copy of her e-books then came out guns blazing, calling St. Martins stupid for buying such a seriously bad writer.
As usual, the major literary critics—the same folks who dismiss James Patterson and Nora Roberts as hacks—fail to understand what readers read for. We don’t read for beautiful language (well, some of us do some of the time.) We read to be entertained. We read to get lost in a good story. We read to forget about the plunge in the Dow and the European Debt Crisis and the war in Afghanistan and the Somali famine. We read so that we can relax after a long day of searching for a job, or trying to figure out which bill to pay, or taking care of our ill parents. We read to go somewhere else.
Hocking takes us there. So does Patterson. So does Nora Roberts. Some do it with better prose than others. But they all take us out of our lives for the time we’re inside the book.
The writers who, year after year, continue to sell books through indie publishing or traditional publishing tell great stories. Bottom line: those writers aren’t really writers. They’re storytellers.
And as I’ve said before, the storytellers are the ones who stick with us. Charles Dickens wrote a lot, and he’s best known for his stories, not for his somewhat turgid 19th century prose. William Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into every language in the world, so it’s clearly not his poetic prose that has brought the audience to those plays century after century. It’s the stories.
I didn’t realize until I went to Germany last September that Goethe wrote the same kind of poetic prose—in German, of course—that Shakespeare write in English. Because I’d only heard Goethe’s stories. In English. Without the poetry.
And gosh, those stories are memorable.
So you’d think logically, then, that a writer with a long career whose ability to tell a story is well established would sell more e-books than any newcomer, no matter how good. And generally, that’s true.
After all, the two main things that sell books are:
1. Author reputation
2. Recommendation from a trusted friend/source
Not advertising, not self-promotion, not price. (For more on this complete with statistics, see my essay on promotion.)
So what’s going on here?
Impatience, that’s what’s going on. Most of the new writers I hear who are talking about selling at five to ten copies per month on one site are not talking five to ten copies per title. They’re talking five to ten copies over all of their titles. The handful of new writers who sell better than that started out doing heavy online promotions, particularly with the Kindle boards.
The Kindle boards work like a vicious circle—I’ll buy your book if you buy mine—and they’re not the only place that does this. Our own network of writers who’ve been to our workshops over the past 14 years use our internal list in much the same way. They kick off each other’s sales.
Those sales, then, are artificially inflated for the first month or two, and that’s usually what you hear the new writer quoting. They might have sold 100 copies of a single title in May, but only 10 copies of the same title in July. When sitting around with a group of other writers, which number is the new writer going to quote? May’s or July’s? Both are accurate, and both are inaccurate.
But there are other factors at play here as well. The newer writers don’t have long-term contracts with publishers, so these writers have a lot more material that they can indie publish (generally speaking). In other words, they have something that sells more books than anything else: A wide availability of titles. When one reader finishes book A and wants to find another book by the same author, she can easily do so. Then she reads book B, and so on.
This is probably happening with the long-established writer as well, but if those writers are like most of my friends, their e-books are published through a wide variety of sources—from six or eight or ten different traditional publishers to their own indie published titles. And readers don’t generally discriminate. If they want a book by Author A, they’ll buy that book any way they can get it—either as an e-book, put out by the traditional publisher, as a used book or as a brand new book. If Author A only has three indie published titles among her twenty e-books, how does she know how well she’s selling in comparison to the new writer?
The new writer has all his data in one place—coming through his own indie publishing company. The long-term professional has data coming through a dozen publishers, including the two or three books she’s managed to indie publish herself.
And far too many long-term writers expect their two or three indie published e-books to sell as well or better than their traditional titles. These writers certainly expect the two or three indie published e-books to sell much better than any brand new writer.
And sadly, that isn’t how it works.
Not every title sells equally. Over the past year, WMG has published more than 100 titles out of my backlist. Some of these e-books are short stories, some are novellas, some are novels. Several are series books. And a bunch have appeared under my many pen names.
I have published sf/f under Kristine Kathryn Rusch for more than twenty years now, and not all of my KKR books are selling at the same level. The series books sell best, which is a good thing. That means readers read the first book and then work their way through the series. In other words, I’m doing something right.
But the other books sell haphazardly at best. I would’ve thought my vampire novel, Sins of the Blood, would sell a lot of copies. After all, it’s a vampire novel, and vampires are hot right now. It has a kick-ass heroine. And the book is a cult favorite—people were always searching for it when it was out of print.
It does sell, but not at great numbers. And if I was comparing it to a newcomer with only a few books behind her like…um…Stephanie Meyer, I’d be disappointed.
But I have never compared myself to other writers. Not like that. I’m enough of a reader to know that taste is a factor in all book buying decisions. Just because I love mysteries doesn’t mean I love every single mystery book ever published. Other factors go into my mystery purchases.
No, what got me going on all of this was another vampire e-book of mine. It’s called The Last Vampire, and I published it under my Kristine Grayson pen name. I wrote the story for a Tekno Books anthology about time travel years ago. I had a Rusch story in the same volume, and the Grayson was a goofy afterthought of 2,000 words—shorter than this column.
That goofy afterthought is one of my bestselling titles, under any name. Yes, it sells for 99 cents. But the folks who are trolling for bargains at 99 cents get mad when they come across short stories, and so far, that story hasn’t made anyone mad.
People aren’t buying it because of price. They’re buying it because…ah, hell, I don’t know. Just like I don’t know why my short story The Moorhead House sells better than my other mystery shorts. I look at the cover, and shrug. I look at the blurb, and shrug. It’s under my name, just like the others are, and yet it sells better than they do.
I could go on and on like this, but ultimately it’s all inexplicable. If I judged the viability of my indie publishing career based solely on Sins of the Blood, I would think that there’s no way I could ever make a living at this. Yet my series books are selling five to ten times what Sins is selling. And Sins sells better than Heart Readers or did until this month. Now they’re about equal.
What’s the difference? Well, in the spring, WMG reprinted Sacrifice, the first book in my Fey series. Then the second book, Changeling, came out. Both books are fantasy. The third book isn’t out yet, so fans of fantasy, having read those two, are now looking at my other fantasy titles while they wait for the reissue of the third book, Rival.
I’m not known for writing horror, which Sins of the Blood is. Or rather, I’m not any more. I published a lot of horror fifteen years ago, including several books in Dell’s Abyss line. Maybe when there are other horror novels to support it, Sins’s sales will increase.
The Last Vampire, on the other hand, is funny. And that’s what I write under Kristine Grayson. I write funny paranormal romance novels. Well, there’s no romance in The Last Vampire, but there is a vampire and a some mention of romance novels, and humor. So readers are willing to give it a go.
I know all of this because I have access to data through WMG. I have a lot of indie-published product out there. But how well is Wickedly Charming, the title I just published as Kristine Grayson from Sourcebooks, doing? I don’t know. I’ll have to wait for the royalty statement. And how well is my Diving series doing? Again, I’ll have to wait for the royalty statements. Right now, I can only guess based on those weird Amazon hourly statistics.
So when an established writer with a dozen books out there only has one or two indie e-books up, and that writer bitches that her indie books aren’t selling very well, I tend to discount it. Because that long-term writer is basing her information on next to nothing. And with the problems in e-book royalty reporting through traditional publishers (see my post on that here), traditionally published writers don’t know what their numbers are on their traditionally published e-books either.
What bothers me the most about those faces and bitter comments that the long-term established writers make is this: it smacks of professional jealousy. I wrote quite a bit about jealousy in the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, but the relevant post is here. Professional jealousy is an extremely destructive emotion. It serves an excuse for the jealous person to avoid learning something new or taking a hard look at herself and figuring out what she’s doing wrong. It can devolve into something much uglier than that, which I explore in that earlier post.
Generally speaking, what is the established writer missing when she compares herself with the new writer? A ton of information, for one thing. Again, in conversation, people tend to exaggerate their successes or chose the item that puts themselves in the best light.
Several of the newer writers talk about sales of all their titles as if those titles are one single title. If I talk about all of my e-book sales under all of my pen names in one month that I know about, I make more than a thousand sales. If I talk about individual titles, the sales figures vary from zero to 100 in any given month. And it doesn’t stay the same. The first month that Buried Deep, my fourth Retrieval Artist novel, got reissued, it sold fifty copies in one week in just one e-bookstore. But there was pent-up demand for that book. The sales decreased the following month, and have been slowly growing every since. But they haven’t returned to that 50 book number yet on that single site.
The other thing the newer writers tend to ignore is time. Yeah, you can goose your sales by getting on Amazon or B&N bestseller lists with the help of friends on the Kindle boards or in various writing circles. But the key is long-term sales.
I knew that this whole e-book thing was going to work when the only two things I had up as an e-book—and on only one site—sold fifteen copies each in February of 2010. Those two things had terrible covers and had no promotion at all. That’s about a book per day—and those two items, with better covers, surrounded by all my other e-books, sell better than that now.
But I would have been encouraged by five sales that month or even three. The fact that someone had found the books surprised and pleased me. The fact that that same someone invested some hard-earned dollars into my books really pleased me.
I don’t look at the short term. Honestly, anyone can goose the sales of their books artificially with the right kind of promotion. The key isn’t selling 100 copies in the month of June. The key is watching slowly growing sales figures over the course of a year. Sure, you might have one sale in January on a single title— and that’s counting all e-book sites. But by July, you might have five, and by the following January, fifteen. Over the course of a decade, you’ll make quite a bit of money on that book, especially if you have other books out there under that same name.
My husband Dean Wesley Smith has a lovely post on this vary topic, about the way long-term math now works in indie publishing. If you’re have trouble with “small” numbers, I suggest you take a look.
If you’re an established writer, with a lot of published books under your belt and a fan base, and your work still isn’t selling when looked at over a year (not a day or a month), then there might be another problem.
I’ve seen some pretty suckoid cover blurbs from established writers. (And some of those blurbs, I must confess, are mine.) But more than that, I’ve seen covers so awful that the book screams self-published even when it’s not.
The Passive Guy who writes The Passive Voice Blog has an example of a traditionally published book with a terrible cover, and the lovely cover the author designed when she published the book herself. I have my own examples.
Look at this cover for Sacrifice: The First Book of the Fey:
That’s the cover Bantam Books did in 1995. It sucks so badly that the publisher apologized to me. They didn’t have the budget to commission a new cover, however, so they tried to minimize the damage with those goofy arrows.
Now look at the new cover that WMG has done. I found the artist, Dirk Berger. He’s given the book the cover it deserves.
But here’s the neat thing about the new electronic publishing world. If the book isn’t selling, and you think it should, change the cover.
We did that just recently with my Kristine Grayson short story, Knowing Jack. It bothered me that this story wasn’t selling—often not even one copy in a month. I wondered if it was the cover. Even though it accurately illustrates the story, it didn’t look anything like a cover for modern Western Romances.
So WMG replaced the cover with something that looks like a traditionally published Western Romance. And lo and behold, Knowing Jack now sells as well as that damn Last Vampire e-book.
We saw the change almost immediately. Of course, we’ve changed out some of the early covers on other e-books, and the sales have remained flat. Does that mean the new covers aren’t working? Probably not.
Right now, figuring out what sales is exactly what it has always been in the entire history of publishing—a bit of this, a bit of that, an educated guess here, a close-your-eyes-and-point there. In other words, as William Goldman so famously said about Hollywood: Nobody knows nothing.
And that’s really true about e-books right now.
So if you have the track record, if you’ve been selling books for years traditionally, then you know you can tell a story. That’s half the battle.
Stop watching your e-book numbers and get more of your backlist published. And for god’s sake stop being jealous of all the other writers with sales figures higher than yours. There will always be writers who sell better than you do. And there will be writers who sell worse.
Do your job and write the next book. Make sure your fans have a way to find that book—whether indie-published or through a traditional publisher. And once you’ve done that, do it all over again.
Stop comparing yourself to others. That way lies madness.
The best thing you can do is write, publish, and repeat. Over and over and over again.
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“The Business Rusch: Comparisons” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.