The Business Rusch: Why Not?

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The Business Rusch: Why Not?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

On TV’s most popular drama series, NCIS, the main character, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, walks through the office, and if he hears a stupid statement, he slaps the speaker on the back of the head. Now, this is fiction, mind you. In any real office, military or not, he’d probably be fired, brought up on charges, or forced to have sensitivity training.

But that’s not my point.

My point is: I can relate.

I walk past writer after writer after writer, and as I hear what comes out of their mouths, I want to slap some sense into them. Because words don’t seem to be working.

Which is odd, considering that writers use words as their stock in trade.

The biggest problem writers have as a class isn’t that they work too cheaply, which I wrote about last week, or even that they don’t understand business, which I write about almost every week, but that they think too small.

Huh? you think to yourself as you read this. My last novel clocked in at 140,000 words. I invented an entire world. I don’t think small.

Oh, yes, you do. Every damn day. It’s the rare writer who actually has ambitions—real ambitions—and stands up for them. It’s the rare writer who not only dreams of glory (bestseller lists, millions of dollars, fame, lasting acclaim, or whatever) but actually works toward those dreams.

In 1968, at the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Edward Kennedy quoted his brother: “As he said many times… ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’”

That quote has stuck in my brain since I first heard it, in the background of Tom Clay’s medley version of a Dion song called “Abraham, Martin & John,” in 1971.  I was eleven. I ended up with a philosophy.

That philosophy is pretty simple: Why not? Why can’t we? Who says? Who the hell are they to tell me what to do?

(Okay, that last part has nothing to do with Bobby Kennedy, but still, you get the picture.)

I have often said, quite pointedly, to my students—most of whom are already established writers who, because of a downturn in their career, came to the a workshop Dean and I do—that I’m surprised at them. Most of these students remind me of German Shepherds. I tell them to stand in a corner, and they go stand in the corner, waiting until I tell them to leave. Then I show them this video, which is a commercial that EDS did a few years ago, which is a group of cowboys herding cats. (I love that image.) Writers should be the cats—difficult if not impossible to herd, heading to their destination in their own feisty way.

I urge these writers to become individuals and go on their own path, and if they don’t agree with something I say, then they should do it their way and prove me wrong. Most of the students are startled that I want them to question. I want them to think.

But that’s the only way you can have a long-term career as the person in charge of any business. You have to think, and be creative, and you can’t let roadblocks stop you.

You have to find a way around them.

But most of all, you have to question accepted wisdom. Last week, a lot of people came on my blog in the comments section spouting myths that teachers, editors, agents, and other writers have pounded into them, mostly telling these poor folks how impossible it is to do well in this business. By the end of the week, I was getting mad at these myth-spouters.

I have no idea why people want to hang onto the stories of failure, the impossibility of doing well without cheating or “getting lucky,” but they do. They want it all now and they don’t want to work for it. And when you tell them they must work for it, they get mad.

As I said yesterday in response to yet another of those comments (I got dozens of them by e-mail), I’m not writing these blog posts for those writers. I’m writing the posts for the rest of you, the ones who want to learn and figure out how to thrive in this new world of publishing. (Thanks to all of you who posted or e-mailed. Much appreciated.)

The first thing you have to do to survive in this world is think big.

Let me give you an example.

Last week, I sent y’all to Michael Cader’s excellent year-end analysis at Publisher’s Marketplace, and told you that if you’re serious about your business, you should subscribe. In the comments, J. Steven York pointed out—correctly—that PM is geared toward publishing professionals in the traditional publishing arena, and you have to read Cader’s blog with that in mind.

In other words, Cader does not write for writers. He rarely thinks about individual writers. Cader has a broad, international worldview of the huge industry that this is.

I write for writers. When I tell you to go to Publishers Marketplace, I do it because I want you to understand this industry—its vastness, its successes (yes, even now), and its struggles. I also want you to read everything with that writerly grain of salt.

As I read Cader’s piece, I got to a paragraph in the middle and had both a “what-the?” and a “why-not” moment. That paragraph comes under the heading, Disproportionate Attention-o-Meter:

“Self-published ebooks were a great story, but in the end roughly 20 different ebook authors made the bestseller lists during the year (we’re working on a full list). Plus 413,000 units is impressive (Darcy Chan’s numbers for Mill River Recluse), but at ninety-nine cents, that’s a gross of $413,000—while a book like Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson grossed more on the order $35 million to $40 million.”

Whoa. I’ll deconstruction this little paragraph in a moment, but let’s first look at that “full list, compiled later.” Under another post titled, “How Many Self-Published Authors were Bestsellers in 2011,” Cader explained what he meant by “20 different ebook authors.”

First of all, he defines “bestseller” by the industry gold standard, The New York Times. The Times list is purposefully murky, because publishers tried to manipulate it. Murkiness worked well in the old days of publishing, but in this era of easy computer numbers, murkiness actually hurts something like a bestseller list.

Anyway, I’ll save that soapbox for a later column. Let’s continue with Cader’s definition of bestselling author. He only counts self-published ebook authors who made the list with “an original work,” adding this parenthetically “thus we are not including reissues or short-form pieces.” Then he concludes: “Contrary to the popular impression, the total number is…11.”

Okay. Let’s take this bit by bit. Cader is comparing apples with cars. And then he’s throwing in some prejudice to make the picture even more confusing.

Bit The First: Realize we’re talking gross earnings here, without expenses deducted. If you look at what the author received, then the disparity remains great. But if you look at the cost of production only, you’ll find that Darcy Chan’s book cost millions less to produce than the Isaacson.  So the gulf between the titles isn’t quite as big as Cader leads you to believe—although I admit, it’s still big.

Bit The Second: That disparity in gross earnings isn’t as important as you think, because the books were published using different methodology. I’m not talking the fact that Chan is indie-published and Isaacson isn’t.

I’m talking about this: Chan’s book was sent out in the new indie fashion, which is a slow growth expected over years. Let’s call that the durable goods model.

Isaacson’s book went out in traditional publishing fashion, which maximizes earnings in the first six months of release, expecting the book sales to drop to nearly nothing after a few years.  Let’s call that the produce model.

Produce spoils and  must be replaced quickly with something fresher. Durable goods need to be replaced once every decade or two—or in the case of those current bestsellers on the Kindle lists, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens—once every century or two.

When you structure an earnings statement for produce, you receive the bulk of your income in the first six months.

When you structure an earnings statement for durable goods, you receive your income in a steady stream over years.

So comparing Chan’s gross to Isaacson’s gross ignores that.

Bit The Third: The Walter Isaacson book was published in all formats, from hardcover to audio to ebook, simultaneously, with media attention and a lightning strike to boot. The book was available everywhere, not just in a few ebookstores, and it came out just as Jobs died. Every single newspaper, every single obituary, every single media outlet either interviewed Isaacson and/or mentioned his books simultaneously with the death of Jobs.

If Cader wanted to make a good comparison to the Chan book, he should have taken a book released at the same time in the same genre in the same number of formats. Maybe a Carina Press book through Harlequin.  I’d even take another fiction book here, say John Grisham’s The Litigators, which got no extra press that I found. No lightning strike—no death, no movie, no nothing to goose promotion except what traditional publishers do for their bestsellers. Even if you do take The Litigators over the Steve Jobs book, Grisham’s gross earnings on that one title out earned  Darcy Chan’s by at least ten to one

Readers can’t get Darcy Chan’s book in audio or hardcover or in foreign translations. It’s not sitting in stacks at the Barnes & Noble. Nor did it get all the advertising and airplay—not because it was self published, but because the subject of the book isn’t newsworthy.

Let’s delve farther into Cader’s “Disproportionate Attention-o-Meter”  point. He arbitrarily decided to ignore the first sanctioned bestseller list to count ebooks, the USA Today list. Most traditional publishers I know pay a lot more attention to the USA Today list. Readers still believe the New York Times list is the most impressive, which leads advertise the Times list on covers, but the USA Today list tracks actual sales around the country.

(The Times uses only select (approved) bookstores, which remain secret. That goes for ebooks as well; the Times only counts the big guns like Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble, ignoring Smashwords, and other smaller sources. That’s the opposite of what the Times  does with their prestigious paper book list, which is geared toward smaller bookstores, and not the chains.)

Publishers are ecstatic when their book hits the Times list, but they also know that a book that gets in the top ten on the USA Today list will often sell a boatload more copies than a book on the top ten of the Times list. But they also get annoyed by the USA Today list because it doesn’t separate fiction from nonfiction, children’s from adult. To the USA Today list, a book is a book is a book. And when USA Today  brought in ebooks, they brought them in as books, not as part of a separate ebook list, like the Times did.

When Cader chose the Times list over the USA Today list he either intentionally or subconsciously skewed his data. For example, on January 4, in a piece titled “eBooks Fill the USA Today Bestseller list,” he notes that one year ago (in 2011), 19 of the top 50 titles sold better in ebook than in print. This year, 42 of the top 50 titles sold better in ebook than in print.

Now, most (if not all—I haven’t checked) of these 42 titles are traditionally published. But that’s irrelevant to my point. Because if the ebook editions of the top 50 books outsell the print editions, then self-published writers who do ebooks only are finally on a level playing field with writers like John Grisham.  The same article noted that James Patterson sold over 5 million ebooks. Why can’t an indie writer do that?

Well, for all I know, someone might have.

But here’s the other assumption in Cader’s first piece, the assumption that permeates all of traditional publishing about ebooks. Cader assumes that Darcy Chan’s book sold well only because it was 99 cents and it wouldn’t have sold well at a higher price.

That’s a guess, y’all. There’s no proof of that anywhere—except, perhaps, that Chan recently signed a traditional book deal for that very title. Which means that a traditional publisher believes that the book will sell a boatload of copies at a higher price—more than enough to make back all of those produce expenses. In other words, some traditional publishers’ sales department believes that Chan will sell at least 413,000 copies at a much higher price point, which means that Cader’s assumption that it’s the price point that makes the sale is wrong.

(Of course we won’t know for sure until the traditionally published book comes out, and even then we might not know, because the traditional publisher has to do the book right. Which doesn’t happen all the time.)

The other problem with Cader’s bestseller assumptions? He limits self-published writers to “original” titles only, new books—produce, in his mind—while the mainstream bestseller lists often have books on them that are backlist, sparked by a movie, say, or by one of a writer’s new books hitting the list.

A few years ago, Patricia Briggs hit the extended New York Times list with one of her new novels. (I’m hedging on the dates because, like a doofus, I’m writing this the night before I have to post the column, and don’t have time to e-mail her, so I’m relying on memory. Judging from the book covers I’m seeing on Amazon, it was sometime around 2007, but I’m not sure.)

Patty’s been publishing steadily since the mid-1990s, and gaining readers with each book. They were waiting for the latest in one of her series (I believe it was the Mercy Thompson series, but again, not sure), and bought the book the week it got released.

Patty’s traditional publisher, smart folks that they are, reissued all of her backlist with new covers. They promoted her heavily. And suddenly, Patty’s backlist was on the New York Times list. She gained new readers, and became a #1 bestselling author.

The point here is that backlist titles belong on any count of authors who get on a bestseller list. I was watching Patty’s rise; she’s someone I’ve known and rooted for for a very long time. Early on in this rise up the bestseller lists, Patty’s backlist titles were the only books of hers on the bestseller lists. I don’t know if that was over the change of a year (an arbitrary measure, but one that counts), but if so, then she should have been—and probably was—counted as an author who made the bestseller list that year even though she only had backlist on the bestseller list.

That Cader didn’t count backlist—like Barbara Freethy’s bestselling ebooks, most of which were initially released in the 1990s—is, again, skewing the numbers to make his point.

However, his statistic will probably stand among traditional publishing professionals because what he says—with actual numbers!—is what they want to believe. They want to believe that it is impossible for self-published or indie published book to ever gross $35 to $40 million.

I would wager most self- or indie-published writers would agree. Because why else would these folks sign on with traditional publishers for a smaller percentage than they would ever get on their own? In other words, these writers are exchanging a large initial advance for a lot less money in the long run.

If the writers actually believed their self-published titles could sell as well as a traditionally published title, they would never ever ever have made those deals.

Me, I read a comment like Cader’s comparing Chan to Isaacson, and after mentally upbraiding him for comparing apples to cars, I then ask, “Why not?”

Why can’t an indie-published writer sell as many copies as Isaacson? Why can’t an indie-published title earn the same gross amount? If it did, the indie writer would make a heck of a lot more money as net income than Isaacson ever will.

Let’s go back, shall we, to the USA Today list, and my mention of James Patterson’s 5 million ebooks sold. Here’s how it got reported in Lunch: “Hachette Book Group has sold over 2 million ebook units of James Patterson’s works over the past six months, and now has sold 5.072 million ebooks in all by the author as of December 2011 across all retailers.”

Assuming, like Cader does, that indie or self-published writers only publish ebooks (which is incorrect, but I’ll deal with that in a minute), a comparably priced indie author could sell 5 million ebooks as well on her own because she has easy access to the same distribution system that Patterson’s publisher does.

Will any indie writer do that this year? Probably not. Patterson has built his readership since the 1990s, and those readers wait for each book. But on a title-by-title basis, I’ll wager that indie writers can compete with the big guns. I know that for a while John Locke outsold John Grisham—and I don’t think that had anything to do with price.

But let’s go back to my question: why can’t an indie writer’s book earn the same amount of money (gross) that the Isaacson earned? It can.  In print and in ebook.

If we’re going to skew numbers, let’s skew in the indie direction.  Let’s compare the gross income over five years, rather than over six months. The Steve Jobs book will stop earning those huge numbers after 2014 (after the promotion for the paperback), but our imaginary self-published title will continue growing its readership, particularly if the writer publishes more books like Patterson did or Patty Briggs did.

If the self-published writer is smart, she can do her own audio version through Audible, add a print version through CreateSpace or Lightning Source, market those books to outlets that take them (from bookstores to truck stops), sell translation rights or hire her own translators, make sure the book is available in as many countries as possible, and, if she wants, she can advertise the damn thing (although I would argue against it).

Mark my words. Sometime in the next few years, an indie author will retain her rights—not sell the books to traditional publishers—and will have a book title that sells for more than 99 cents that grosses around 35 million dollars.

Measured in durable goods time, not produce time.

However, if that successful writer wants to do her next book in the produce model, then she could probably have that book sell about 10 million dollars gross in six months to a year. She’ll have the readership from the first book, and she can dump the book on stores and in foreign countries just like Simon & Schuster did with the Steve Jobs/Isaacson book. (Why is my number lower than theirs? Because I’m making a discount for the lightning strike factor—Jobs’ death and the attendant promotion.)

If she wants to. I have no idea why she’d want to, but that’s my prejudice.

Why can’t an indie writer do as well with a book title as a traditionally published writer? Who says she can’t?

Why the heck are so many writers believing that it’s impossible?

Because writers think small.

You work in an international business, folks. You have millions upon millions upon millions of possible readers. That’ll scare most of you. You’ll immediately think, “How can I  compete there? How will they notice me?”

Here’s the harsh truth: most of them won’t notice you. Most of them never will notice any of us. As Michael Kingswood pointed out in the comments last week, writer celebrities aren’t very famous in the big bad world. Even in the United States, the bestselling writer of 2011, James Patterson, is mostly unknown to the average person on the street.

So what? You don’t need everyone. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs book didn’t sell to everyone. It sold to a fraction of all of the possible readers out there.

I’m a voracious reader: I didn’t buy that book nor do I plan to. It’s a matter of taste.

What you want to do is build. Build, build, build. This is why I tell writers to write a lot. My bestselling title under the Rusch name in the UK right now is a short story called “The Secret Lives of Cats.”  It’s not even close to my bestselling Rusch title here in the U.S. And my bestselling Rusch title in Australia as I write this blog? “How To Negotiate Anything,” one of the Freelancer’s Guide short books.

Would I have predicted either of those books as top-selling titles? Hell, no. Why are they selling? Because they’re available. And people notice my work. Because they’ve heard of me? Nope.

Think of it this way: when you walk into a bookstore and browse the romance aisles, you see row after row after row of Nora Roberts books. You see a handful of books by other writers like Lisa Kleypas or Eloisa James. But do you notice one title by a brand new author? Especially if that title is spine out?

Only if you’ve stopped on that shelf for something else and the title catches you. That’s the only reason you’ll notice.

Well, I’m selling a lot of ebooks right now because I have a lot of titles out there. I’m sure if I break the sales down by region, like Kobo does, I could tell you that certain titles sell better in Georgia than they do in Illinois. I’m not into that sort of numbering.

Here’s the difference between me and most other writers. I’m aware that I’m in an international business. I put in the effort to be a success on a huge stage—even if most people walking by that stage don’t notice me right now.

Most writers publish one book—traditionally or indie—and expect accolades. They expect to be famous—Angelina Jolie kinda famous—and they expect it right away. They feel they deserve it.  I have no idea why. Jolie didn’t become famous overnight, even though her father and her mother were famous (Mom was an internationally known model; Dad was actor Jon Voight). Jolie worked hard at her profession for decades, and her profession is high-profile.

Ours isn’t.

A lot of people have heard of Harry Potter, but many of them don’t know that he was a character in a book first.  They only know him from the films. Even fewer people know that a woman named J.K. Rowling wrote those books. And even fewer people have read the books—even though for nearly a decade, J.K. Rowling was the bestselling author in the world.

Did that stop her from writing her books? No. Did she dream of that kind of success when she wrote them? I have no idea. Did she even know it was possible? Probably not deep down.

Most of us will never achieve Rowling’s level of success. Most of us will write for decades and have a lot of readers, but never become household names (in literate households). So what?

I’m sure someone out there, with some courage and the ability to write a lot over a long period of time, will be the first big indie success story without ever going to traditional publishing. And I mean the kind of success that will have traditional publishing people like Michael Cader notice.

Is it possible for an indie (or to use Cader’s term self-published) writer to publish a book that grosses 35 million dollars? Hell, yes. That it hasn’t been done yet reflects on the youth of the new world of publishing, not on the quality the books being written by indie writers.

If you look around and see a small world, filled with a few friends, professors, and local bookstores, you’ll never make the kind of decisions that you need to survive in an international business. If you believe you have to chase sales with low price points or blog tours or book signings at area bookstores, you’ll never make the kind of decisions that you need to survive in an international business.

If you strive to do the best you can, write a lot of books, and make sure your books are in as many bookstores as possible—ebookstores, audio bookstores, foreign bookstores, as well as US bookstores, in English as well as dozens if not hundreds of languages (over time)—then you will succeed in this international business. You’re looking at the big picture.

You’re running toward it catlike, on your path, not mine. You’re not standing in a corner, awaiting instruction from someone “in charge.” You’re not mouthing the kind of sentences that I heard off and on all last week on my blog about how impossible it is or how established writers like me don’t understand. You’re not making me want to channel Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

You’re working hard at your writing, doing your best to succeed in this great big world available to us.

Maybe you’re the person who’ll sell a book that will gross 35 million dollars. Why not?

Or at least, why not try?

Last week’s blog went viral which brought a lot of folks to my site mostly to argue with me. It also brought a lot of new folks who haven’t encountered my point of view before, some of whom appreciated it, and some who didn’t. I don’t mind disagreements, if they’re based in fact (not myth). I like learning. That’s one of the reasons I do this blog. But I dislike argument for argument’s sake.

A lot of you posted to tell me how much you get out of this blog. Thank you! As I said in a comment last week, I’m writing this blog for folks who want to succeed at this international business. And that seems to be quite a lot of you. I appreciate you guys more than you know.

Even though you can read this blog for free, I need to get paid for writing it, and I do that through direct contact with the blog readers. (When the payments dry up over the long term, I’ll cease doing the blog. I have a lot of other projects I could spend 4000 words on.)

So, as always, if you got something out of the blog, please leave a tip on the way out. I appreciate it.

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“The Business Rusch: Why Not?” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.






85 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Why Not?

  1. I agree. There is too much focus on bestseller lists. There’s too much focus even on number of copies sold. If I sell an eBook at $4.99 it earns ten times what an eBook that sells at .99 does. So why do we keep counting # sold? In fact, why are bestseller lists based on that rather than the reality that other businesses are rated on: profitability?
    I’ve hit the NY Times list through traditional publishing. This past year, I sold 347 eBooks in January. By the end of the year I had sold a third of a million which earned close to three quarters of a million dollars. I hit no bestseller lists, but I brought home a lot more ka-ching than I ever did while on the bestseller lists.
    That’s the reality of e-publishing.
    Traditional publishing hides ka-ching behind ‘good’ deal, ‘nice’ deal, etc. But those windows are so wide, and the subrights given up not listed (starting to earn real ka-ching via ACX Audible by the way with first five books out and seven more in production).
    Publishing hasn’t been run like a business and unless it starts to, the results are inevitable. I run a business.

    1. Good points all, Bob. And now I might have to add something to my column for tomorrow because of what you said… 🙂 ka-ching is right. 🙂

  2. Chris:

    You misread what I wrote.

    I netted (not grossed) $1,300 in a SINGLE DAY (December 25). I made a lot more than $1,300 because I sold on a lot more days than one.

    Actually, I earned much more than that on Christmas Day, because I’ll be paid $1.70 for each borrow in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. On Christmas Day my novel was borrowed 278 times.

    278 x $1.70 + $1,300 = $1,770

    So I actually made more on Christmas Day than I first realized (the actual value of a borrow was only announced a few days ago).

    My daily earnings, though admittedly decreasing over time (from their one-day peak of $1,770/day), remain much higher than the $5 per day I was making before the promotion.

    I use the word “lucky” because I went from making about $150 per month prior to December, to making over $5300 in December (almost all of that in the last ten days of the year).

    In December alone I made more than enough money to pay for my apartment rent for six months.

    On December 30 I quit my day job to write full time.

    So yeah, I’m feeling lucky.

    I really don’t care what the per-copy rate is. I care what my monthly income is. I’m charging $7.99, and also giving away copies for free, and also allowing copies to be lent, and I’ve probably been pirated. So what?

    In the traditional publishing world, publishers might figure their per-copy profit by factoring in library loans, review copies, pirated/stolen/pulped merchandise, and so forth. If they printed a paper book, there is a very real cost to each and every copy produced and distributed.

    If I give away one free copy of my ebook vs. 10,000 free copies, the cost to me is the same: nothing. Those free downloads are not lost sales. You’re treating them as if they were. I don’t believe it. If anything, they might be gained sales for future books.

    I did not, as you say, sell a lot of copies for very little money. I sold a lot of copies for $7.99, which by indie author standards is quite high. (The free copies weren’t sales, lost or otherwise.)

    I’ve posted more sales data on my blog, if you’re really interested (and even if you’re not). In December and January I ran a nine-day series of sales reports documenting the results of my free giveaway. You can read the ninth day summary here:

    I’m just letting people know what worked for me. They can do with that information what they will.

    What worked for me won’t work for everyone else. It might not work for anyone else. I could be a complete outlier. Maybe I’m the luckiest dude on the planet. But I’m hearing similar stories from other authors who’ve done what I’ve done, so I offer my data for the benefit of those interested.

    And I really don’t care if you’re convinced.


  3. David, I think you have just illustrated what many people are saying about promotion. You moved more than 10,000 copies of your one novel, and grossed $1,300. That works out to 13 cents a copy, which is one-fifth of what I’m getting for my traditionally published books, an amount we all are agreed is pretty damned low (about 65 cents each).

    Sure, you got your name out there, but on free copies about which you said “I’m pretty sure that most of the free downloads from Amazon and other places don’t get read.” So what is “lucky” about giving away those 9,800 copies? They got linked to other, similar works? And a relatively few people paid money for a copy?

    I would be interested to know if the effect holds for any length of time. Do the sales fall off as quickly as they started? Is there a long tail to this style of promotion? Or do those “also bought” spots change as frequently as Amazon sales ranks?

    Without a related work, other books in the series, or similar work to promote in the back of the book, all you’ve done is “sold” a lot of copies for VERY little money. That doesn’t strike me as a good business plan.

    I could be wrong. *shrug* Would love to hear if you have some data that supports your position. I’d love to be convinced, but I warn you I’ll be a hard sell.

  4. No. It’s a standalone, but there could be a sequel later. My other ebooks are short stories, a collection and a play. They haven’t benefited much from the success of the novel. I’m writing a detective series now, with the first book almost ready to publish. I have a fantasy series in mind, but only in the outline stages now. I do think series novels are the way to go. 🙂


  5. Kris,

    I’m pretty sure that most of the free downloads from Amazon and other places don’t get read.

    However, there is a big advantage to free downloads on Amazon that you don’t get when you give your book away at Smashwords, your own site, or wherever.

    Amazon uses its record of free downloads to help match your books with other books in the “also-boughts.” I think of also-boughts as “other transactions,” since no one actually bought something via a free download, but they did “vote” for that book by showing enough interest to download it. Amazon takes this into account.

    If a lot of people download my epic fantasy novel, Devil’s Lair, and then go on to purchase, say, Patrick Rothfuss’ Wise Man’s Fear, Amazon notes the correlation and uses it to make money. Amazon might try to sell Wise Man’s Fear to people who downloaded my book, and also try to sell my book to people who bought Wise Man’s Fear.

    Getting thousands of free downloads on Amazon helps your book become more visible on other pages in Amazon and should, in theory (and for me, in practice), increase sales.

    When I did a two-day free giveaway on Amazon in December, about 9,800 copies of Devil’s Lair were downloaded for free. On the third day of returning to paid sales (Christmas Day) Amazon sold 240 copies of Devil’s Lair at $7.99, earning me a one-day revenue of about $1,300.

    Of course, I got very lucky. Most people won’t see results approaching this, but I mention it to make a point.

    In three days, very few, if any, of those 9,800 free copies would have been read. The boost in sales did not come from favorable word of mouth (hopefully, good word of mouth will work its magic in the months ahead). The temporary spike in sales came from Amazon displaying my book to thousands more additional customers than it did before the free giveaway.

    So when talking about giving away books for free, I think it’s important to distinguish the various methods available. I’ve given away sample chapters on my blog and gotten page views and followers. I’ve given away ebooks on LibraryThing and gotten some reviews. I’ve given away thousands of ebooks on Amazon and gotten sales.

    While everyone’s mileage will vary, even from book to book, I think it’s important to experiment when new business opportunities, like KDP Select, become available.

    You never know. You might get lucky.


    1. Good point, David. You never know what might work. I take it that your fantasy novel was the first in a series? It’s always better to do a loss leader with a first in a series. Because if the readers like the book, they’ll pay for the next ones.

  6. Kris, I came late to this post because this week has been gut-wrenchingly busy. Your blog is tuned into the business aspect of writing/publishing and I respect that, and I appreciate the hope it gives us that if we keep at it something big can happen. I don’t just want but need to succeed financially. No different, really, from writers who put themselves out on a limb in the past and had to sink or swim. But the financial aspect is not the only one. I want to get fairly recompensed for my work, yes, but in addition to that I want it to be read. I want readers. I don’t want it to die in a trunk. That, as much as the finances, motivates my publishing it and making it avialable. Of course to keep it up I have to have sales. But what I really want is readers. Sigh. I want it all, I guess. And I will get it or die trying. Better than just dying period, that’s for sure.

    1. If you do it correctly, John W., readers = good financial results. I’m pretty convinced most of those free books never get read. I know the ones on my Kindle are stacking up, and there’s pretty good evidence that other folks do the same thing. So if you’re making money at your work, then you’re attracting readers. (Not downloaders.) Not bad, eh?

  7. I love the idea of working hard because when you set the parameters this way suddenly the majority of your success or failure depends on you. You have no control over who buys your books, but you have control of what you write and publish. And that, I think, frightens a lot of people. It’s much easier to blame the agent or the editor or the publisher for not buying your book or screwing something up that causes your book to tank. But to suddenly shift the responsibility onto you? It’s really not surprising so many people would rather spout myths instead of actually working hard for something. And to be honest, it’s this entitlement mentality I’m seeing more and more (especially in my generation of young 30-somethings) who expect if they follow a set path as explained to them by wiser individuals, they will automatically have success. In fact, success will simply fall into their laps because they deserve it.

    I am incredibly grateful I was raised in a way where if I wanted something, I had to work for it. In fact, I was told repeatedly that I was a terrible softball player, I would never be any good, and I simply shouldn’t try out. I am GRATEFUL for the parent who said that to me because instead of crying and giving up, I proved him wrong. And I did it again and again and again. Just like I’m doing now with my writing.

    I’m still figuring things out, still learning the business and how to think big, but before you can realize the potential in an international business – you first have to be aware. You have to realize it’s not just the US and Amazon. You have to envision a larger plan (even if you begin with selling to indie bookstores) and you have to be aware that you don’t have all the answers. There’s still so much to learn – and many more mistakes or ‘opps’ to make. Kris, your breakdown of Cader’s quote was wonderful because I’m still learning to read with my special publishing glasses and to read between the lines and pick up on what he’s not saying (or in some cases, leaving out). Reading your blog is invaluable. It’s another step to my becoming more aware and learning to think big. Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome, Chrissy. Good examples all. I can’t tell you how many times I stomped out of a room after someone told me I couldn’t do something and muttered, “I’ll show him.” I wasn’t going to beat him up; I was going to do better than expected. I usually did, although sometimes I fell down hard. Then I picked myself up and tried all over again. I think that’s what bothers me the most–not the folks who fail or even complain about failing, but who never try again after they’ve failed the first time. Thanks for the great comment.

  8. I thought folks might be interested – I did an updated survey of the Kindle bestseller lists yesterday, adding two genres. As we’ve moved into the new year, indie dominance of genre bestseller lists has deepened. Kindle Select dominance of bestseller lists has continued to increase as well.

    Bestseller lists aren’t *everything*, but they are an industry indicator, and worth examining as a data point, I think.

    Full rundown here:

  9. With regard to translation: I can’t claim to be an expert, but I have done the occasional translation, and I have read many translated works (English-German and German-English), and so all I can say to anyone considering having works translated is, “BE AFRAID! BE VERY AFRAID!!” So much can go wrong. Accurate translation is more difficult than anyone can imagine. Run away from translators who say anything like, “This is how I learned it” or “It has to be right; I checked it with the dictionary.” Your translator should want to express exactly what you wrote and meant, just in a different language.

    1. Exactly, Mary Jo. There are a lot of considerations too. You want the translator to be as good a writer as you are. When Mike Resnick wins awards for his work in translation, he often says that award doesn’t belong to him, but to the translator. I agree. I’ve had successful translations of my work and unsuccessful ones. And I remember reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with the realization that English was not the first language of the translator. Some of the colloquialisms were wrong and sometimes the sentence structure was not something a native English speaker (from any country) would do. Or as my French editor used to say, you want to make sure your translator is your left hand. (He meant was introducing his assistant to me, and got the colloquialism half right–or half left, as the case may be.)

  10. I go back and forth between “a few thousand people gave payed (more than 99 cents) for my novels and are reading them” and “but I want to make it BIG and it must be possible”. I’m not sure which is the healthy attitude. I sometimes think that as authors we put too much emphasis on the best seller lists and making it big, not too little. There are mid-list authors who never made one or never made the big ones but have made decent living as writers and just making a LIVING as a writer is a pretty darn major achievement.

    So I’m torn.

    But I agree that we have to have some confidence that it is possible for an indie author to do that well for it to happen. I see indie authors signing trad contract and crowing about it and have to wonder: but was it a GOOD contract? Or did you just give away a lot more than you got because people have been telling you that you have to have that piece of paper to be successful. Kind of like you have to be married or no one wanted you.

    1. JR, I like the marriage analogy. Good one. I also think that writers need to figure out who they want to be: do they want the bestselling career? If so, then they have to work toward it. Are they content to be a midlister (and still make a damn good living)? If so, then they need to work in that direction. And the midlisters have to ask themselves what they’ll do if something does hit big. Will it help them or hurt them? We’re all different, but the neat thing about this new world is that there really is room for all of us.

  11. Great, great article. I’ll be back to this blog again.

    I’m curious to see what you and your readers think of small presses publishing and promoting ebooks. I’m also seeing groups of authors getting together and forming their own indie imprints. There seem to be more options now between The Big 6 and Going It Alone.

    1. I think as long as the terms are fair, Kate, then a small press is a valid way to go. So is banding together, so long as there are contractual boundaries protecting everyone. You have to think about two things when going into business with friends: what happens when one succeeds and the others don’t, and what happens when it fails and that failure costs everyone money. If there are agreements in place to take care of all that, then I have no problems.

  12. I’m with Melissa on this. I love that all it takes is hard work. There’s no secret formula or magic hand-shake. Just straight old-fashioned hard work. I can do that.


  13. I am new to the writing world, but I have noticed that a large degree of the authors tend to look towards their peers, or some authority to tell them what to do, what to believe at times, and how to go about the rights of their book. Thinking outside the box is never very popular. But it is still very early in this transition. I agree that someone is going to blow a big old multimillion dollar hole into the concept that an indie can never do much more above spare change.

    1. We all look for someone who can teach us, David L. It’s hard in the arts to find folks who know both the art & the business. But the business side can kill the art, so you have to learn both. That’s one reason I do this: to help as many folks as I can learn both. Thinking outside the box is hard, but necessary for artists and business people both.

  14. Kris,

    Great post. I’ve been following you now for awhile, and I have to say I’m amazed at the people you talked about (stuck in a rut types). I cannot fathom being involved in my career and just accepting things the way they are because they’ve always been that way.

    I am so resistant to the notion that I started my own publishing company just to avoid 99% of the detritus and grief that I’ve seen talked about, and to provide a method for other authors to avoid it too. I’ve never sent a single query letter and I’ve sold 3,500 copies of my first novel in the last 8 months. If the fates are kind, I never will send one of those letters, and I’ll be beating authors off with a stick because I just can’t handle any more.

    Best of luck to you and to everyone who follows their dreams, making it happen despite the roadblocks!

    Jason Aydelotte
    Managing Editor
    Grey Gecko Press

  15. Thank you again for your insightful posts. I think this one pretty much summed up what I tell people when they as why in the world am I self-pubbing instead of going with the big boys; Why not?


  16. You know, I’ve been chasing down sponsorships here, blog interviews there, giveaways, doing stuff on Facebook, etc. I’m not saying that these things haven’t helped get my name out a little bit it’s taxing and the core issue of promoting your books is just what you mentioned Kris – write your next book. I’ve heard this many times from you and others. I believe it and I think from now on I’ll put more effort into writing faster and spending less time marketing.

    And yeah, the whole $0.99 thing? I’m certainly not going to price any of my full length novels at that price point.

    1. All your readers will be happy to learn you’re writing more, Victoria. That’s all readers care about–the writing and the reading. (I have to tell myself that from time to time too.)

  17. For what it’s worth, Gibbs is the man! I always tease our local NCIS agents on base, when I see them, by asking whether they’ve been Gibbs-slapped today or not. They just chuckle politely.


    Why not indeed. As a total newb, when I began researching the publishing business around this time last year and learned about KDP and other epublishing venues, my first thought was “Hell yeah!” Cut out all the chicanery and annoyance and just put product out there for people’s consumption? Why not go that way?

    Of course I quickly discovered the other side of the coin too. But yours and Dean’s are two of the first writers’ blogs that I came across. There’s something about all that logic and business-sense that I just couldn’t ignore.

    Now that I’m slightly less than a total newb (just a mostly-newb), I really have no idea how big this thing will get. I’ve got 10 titles up (a novel, 3 novelettes, 5 short stories, and those five in a collection), with another novel and novella just about ready to go. My plans this year should at least double that amount, assuming I keep my nose to the grindstone. I guess we’ll see. But yeah, from the get go I’ve thought there’s no reason I can’t be raking in some good bucks five years from now. I sure I hope I am, because that’s when I’ll retire from the Navy. It sure would be nice to not have to do the whole job hunting thing. I’m really tired of working for other people. 🙂

    So I guess I’ll just have to keep on working hard. Just like in any other job. Shocker.

    Thanks for the shout-out, btw.

    1. Thanks, everyone. It’s another of those super busy Thursdays, so I’ll answer later tomorrow as things settle into the weekend. I can still post comments though, so feel free….

  18. Two points: I am intrigued by your mention of paying a translator to translate a book for you. I’d love to read a column about how to get a book into an international market. I wrote “Farside” specifically to appeal to young readers who were not necessarily white, middle-class suburban American pre-teens, with protagonists from Japan, Russia and other countries. I’d love to get these books translated into those languages. I supervise translations of technical material at my work, and I have studied five different language myself, but I would NEVER undertake this myself. I know from experience that professional translators are expensive. So I would love to read about any experiences you or Dean have had in getting your works translated and into foreign markets. An upcoming blog, perhaps?

    Second point: Gibbs is obnoxious. I am all Team DeNozzo.

    1. Sarah S., I’ve been interviewing translators for a year or so. They’re (rightfully) expensive, and you need one who is not just a good translator but a good writer as well. So you might have to hire away from a big traditional publisher and pay similar rates. I’ve talked with my own translators in other countries. I was also lucky enough to find out about the American Society of Translators. They’re freelancers, mostly, and they’ll help you find someone. Remember, it can be costly. We’ll do it eventually. Dean & I aren’t quite there yet.

  19. The other half of the “apples to cars” comparison —

    Gross sales of traditionally published books tell nothing of any importance to us as writers — all they do is tell us how the tradpubs keep their New York addresses and dinners at trendy restaurants. Keep your eye on the ball: money to the writer (and to those who help the writer, artists, editors, &ct.).

    Hardcover royalties are, as I understand it, in the 20% of cover price area. MMPB is 8% or less. Audio books and others are (at the moment at least) relatively unimportant for gross revenue. So if gross sales are, say, 10% hardcover and the rest MMPB, average royalty is a little over nine percent. (9.2 is what I got doing it in my head; corrections welcome.) That $35 million gross represents roughly $3 million TO THE AUTHOR.

    Assuming Amazon’s 70% royalty, $3 million paid to the author is a bit less than $5 million GROSS sales. Yes, editing, cover design, and all the other incidentals come out of that — but I know damn well I can find people who’ll do it for less that $30 million!


    1. Ric, your math is close. I could quibble with the percentages, but your analysis is spot-on. And I have no idea if Isaacson got 3 mil up front. I doubt he did; no one knew this book would take off like that. So it will take him years to get his 3-5 mil. The indie writer on a lightning strike like his would have all the cash in 6 months. Another reason to be indie. 🙂

  20. You wrote: “Because why else would these folks sign on with traditional publishers for a smaller percentage than they would ever get on their own? In other words, these writers are exchanging a large initial advance for a lot less money in the long run.” Well, I can give you one reason. Most beginning writers I talk to do not see percentages like that. They see traditional publishing as doing “everything for free.” I don’t think they even consider that traditional publishing takes part of their sales because sales is often not their goal. Their goal (judging by their actions, and often their words) is to get a publishing contract. Therefore, the contract that costs them nothing right now is the best contract. They aren’t even looking down the road to when the book comes out, let alone years down the line. I see this every single week. )Of course, it doesn’t help that conventional wisdom was (with good reason, but times have changed) don’t pay money up front to get published).

    Contrast that to more experienced writers. When I explain we don’t take part of their sales, they light up. Their focus is on selling books. When we talk contracts, they see all their sales coming back to them — forever. Then, of course, the conversation turns to whether or not it’s too good to be true.

    Either way, we spend a lot of time explaining to writers that self-publishing and traditional publishing are not their only options.

    It’s been pretty interesting to see the difference in goals.

    1. Thanks, Cindie. It is hard to change long-term thinking. And you hit on an important point: writers were trained not to look at sales because writers never got the data. Now we do, and it’s changing the our world.

  21. I loved this post and the one before, thanks so much for them!

    Like Melissa, I look at this new world of writing and see all it takes is hard work and dogged persistence? Hell, I can do that! So many new writers think there is some secret handshake, some magic formula to making it when the real answer is simple: work your a** off! Do that long enough, with enough persistence, never taking a no, and you can’t help but make it but it isn’t an easy thing. Simple does not equal easy. There is no real short cut to avoid doing the work. I keep thinking of that idea of being a neo pro until you have 10 books under your belt. That kind of long term thinking supports the idea that there are things I can control to affect my success. Things like marketing, what Amazon is doing, I can’t control but I can control if I’m going to sit down at my desk today and write. The more I push myself the more I find I can do and the bigger my dreams are becoming. Sometimes it’s still a little scary but it’s really exciting too.

    I look at the writers who want it now-now-now and think ‘who’s going to be around in 10 years?’

    It’s gonna be me. Oh yeah, it’s gonna be me!

    1. Great comment, Rebecca S. I believe you and can’t wait to see it happen. 🙂 And David W., you too. It’ll be fun to watch y’all hit that 35 mil mark. 🙂

  22. Something else is critically wrong with Cader’s analysis, of course. The NYT bestseller list does not track ebook sales from retailers, like they do for print. Instead, they rely on getting numbers from *publishers*.

    And with very few exceptions, just enough to keep them from getting more egg on their faces (like they did last February when USA Today slammed their list for not showing Amanda Hocking), they don’t solicit sales receipts from indies.

    Bookscan tracks something around 2/3 of print books sold in the USA. Amazon sells around 70% of ebooks sold in the USA. So the Amazon bestseller list is, more or less, about even with Bookscan when it comes to bestseller reliability.

    Right now, the NYT has one indie on the top 25 fiction ebooks. Notably, it is Darcie Chan, who has gotten all that wonderful media attention lately (which forced them to include her book, since they would have looked publicly foolish otherwise).

    The Amazon fiction ebook bestseller list shows 17 indie books in the top 25.

    That also goes for individual genre lists, by the way. My own survey just before Christmas of bestsellers in four genres showed 60-80% of the top 20 were indie in romance, science fiction, fantasy, and thriller ebooks. Writeup here:

    Frankly, Cader either doesn’t understand his business very well – or he is aware that he is deliberately obfuscating the truth in his article, writing a “feel good” piece for publishers to read. Since its inception, the NYT ebook bestseller list has been pretty much the *least* reliable source of industry data available.

    LOVED the article, Kris. And – thanks so much for sticking with it for us writers who are listening. I stop by here every single Thursday to see what you’ve got to say. I really appreciate your efforts on our behalf! =)

    1. Kevin, thanks for the additional info on the Times. I thought that was the case, but couldn’t remember all the details and was too lazy to look them up as I inched closer to my deadline (and bedtime). If the Times is strictly relying on publishers, then all of the data is wrong, because traditional publishers still don’t have good tracking systems in place. Ah, the Gray Lady is not doing her job these days. (sigh). Great write-up, by the way. I tweeted the link, but y’all reading this should click on his post. Good info there.

      I do think Cader is a very smart business guy, but he’s traditional. And this indie stuff is new and frightening for a lot of traditional folks. The ground is shifting; they’re not sure where they can put their feet.

  23. I really appreciate this particular column. I’ve heard this message before, but it’s good to hear it again. Sometimes I’m so focused on the small, quotidian goals that I forget that the big score is possible. Be smart, work hard, and there’s a shot. Good to remember!

  24. Ms. Rusch:

    An admirably well-reasoned post, and for what little it’s worth, you can count me in emphatic agreement on every point. I’ve been doing some fairly concentrated investigation into these things for my own purposes, and the things you say check out with my information and experience right down the line.

    Except for one little thing: Your fourth paragraph.

    I know you were being facetious about slapping heads, but I cringed a bit to see it. Part of the business of being a writer is owning one’s own words, accepting one’s share of responsibility if the communication miscarries. On the one hand, you can’t tell anything to people who are determined not to listen, and head-slapping, alas, is no remedy for that. On the other hand, if you have intelligent people who are listening and just not getting it, you need to look at rephrasing or reframing your argument. I’ve been reading a lot of the comments on this blog lately, and one thing leaps to the neutral eye: A lot of the people who keep arguing with you, and not getting your points, appear to do so because they are reading your words through the filter of the particular connotations they have been taught. People can have the most awful knee-jerk reactions to the connotative meanings of words, even when the denotative meanings are wholly inoffensive. It then, regrettably, becomes part of the writer’s job to address the reader in terms that both parties can understand.

    You, of course, already knew all that (and have preached it well on other occasions). But it is sometimes difficult to remember in the heat of the moment, particularly when you are writing something for immediate publication on the Internet and haven’t time to revise for clarity.

    When I find myself not being heard in that way, I try to ask myself: ‘Where did the communication go wrong? How can I put across my denotative meaning without stepping on the land mine of someone’s connotative reaction?’ It’s better manners than slapping heads, and for a writer, it’s better practice. And I believe you’ll do all your readers an extra service by setting that example explicitly.

    * * *

    By the way, here’s a bit of purely anecdotal evidence that may amuse you. Unlike you, I am squarely in the target audience for Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. When it came out, I bought it almost immediately. But I bought it in ebook form, and — this is the important bit — I would not have bought it in hardcover, or made the trip to a physical bookshop to get it. As far as the delivery mechanism is concerned, Isaacson had exactly the same opportunity to reach me as Darcy Chan or any other writer with self-published ebooks.

    Obviously I can’t back up that anecdote with numerical evidence of how many people are like me in this respect. But it is certain that there are some of us, and a few years ago there were none; and I cannot doubt that we are growing rapidly in numbers. We are not all (pace Aonghus Fallon) voracious readers looking for cheap pulp fiction. Maybe that kind of reader is more likely to hang out and post on the Kindle forums. I myself do most of my reading for purposes of research, and want ebooks because I do not have to waste precious time waiting for delivery.

  25. The Emperor has no clothes – but his subjects feel it might be dangerous to point that out. Except that the subjects you talk about, writers, have no reason to fear the Emperor: traditional publishers.
    No publisher is going to punish a writer who would make them money. If such a writer self-publishes – and then decides to come back ‘into the (traditional) fold’, he or she will be welcomed with, well, whatever he or she can negotiate. Same as usual. If the self-publisher doesn’t return, the Emperor has no power to do anything any more. When the Emperor tries to exert power, as by keeping ‘his’ books away from certain retail or online markets, marketplace economies may or may not force him to change – but whatever happens is beyond the scope of the individual writer to affect.
    On the other hand – I hear you loud and clear, and will follow your route when I get my material in order: the idea of losing rights to my own work, when I can so easily retain ALL of them and still get published, is just wrong. I may not know all the ways to use my rights effectively – yet. It’s mind-boggling what the options are in the digital age – I will learn, and exploit them, and hire out tasks I find time-consuming or difficult. But for a fee, not a contract in perpetuity.
    All writers eventually succeed or fail on whether readers like their writing. Period. There are big best-selling novelists whose work I won’t buy any more because they’ve lost it.
    Keep telling it like it is: some of us will listen.

    1. Thanks, ABE. I love your emperor has no clothes analogy. It’s rather like someone stripped that poor emperor of his clothes and he doesn’t quite realize it yet. But he’s slowly getting a clue. Thanks for the comment!

  26. I read this bouncing in my seat and chanting “yes!” (Ok, only in my head, ’cause I’m at work and on my lunch break.) But still.

    Statistics can be skewed in so many ways. You really have to look at the raw data as much as possible and draw your own conclusions.

    I have one novel and 11 short stories up right now, that first went up in October 2011. Novel is at $4.99, stories are at $0.99 with a couple freebies. I’m not making a lot of money yet.

    But every month, I make more money than the month before.

    I have done a smidgen of social media marketing, but mostly right now I’m focusing on getting more stuff out there. And not just any stuff, but stories I enjoyed writing that I think people will want to read.

    I don’t want to be JK Rowling. I want to be PN Elrod.

    Pat Elrod is a writer I’ve been following for close on two decades now. Everything I’ve read of hers, I’ve really enjoyed. Even the really wacky stuff, like Lancelot being a vampire PI in modern-day Canada.

    I wager most of you have never heard of Elrod. But she’s been publishing for a long time, and was successful enough that she was able to quit her day job and write fulltime.

    That’s what I want. That’s what I’m working toward. I want to have my thousand dedicated fans who love my books enough to push them on their friends. (I’ve bought at least 3 copies of Bloodlist over the years, because I kept lending it out and never getting it back.)

    I want to be a midlister. I don’t want fame. Ugh. I want to make a living doing what I love doing. I don’t need to sell like Patterson or Issacson.

    But I could. Totally possible.

    I can’t control that part, though. So I’m focusing on what I can control – making time to write and publish more stuff. Last year I learned how to make ebooks and print books. Later this year I’m going to learn how to make audiobooks. But first I want to get into my writing routine for a few weeks. And in the meantime, I will continue to keep tabs on the industry via podcasts and blogs and news articles.

    Yes, it’s a lot of work. Of course, it’s a lot of work! It would be a lot of work even if I was traditionally published. But nothing in my life was quite the same as holding my novel in my hands, looking at the cover and the formatting and all of it, and thinking “I did that. I did ALL of that.” So cool! (And the print version is already starting to sell, even though no one knows who I am!)

    1. Mercy, I love PN Elrod’s stuff too. (I believe she is a bestseller–she certainly is a pioneer in the urban fantasy/mystery genre.) Great example. As for why your book is selling…sampling. Folks read a section, then give you a shot, and then buy. It always comes back to the work. If readers like it, they’ll buy more, like they’re doing with you. So great job.

  27. I suspect that the first indie to make 35 million is going to be very much like James Patterson. The way he went about his career, I suspect that if he were starting today, he may very well not have gone traditional at all. He took control of all those things that publishers usually don’t let an author control. He went about it as a very savvy business person.

    It’s going to be a similar sort of business person who will build that empire via indie publishing.

    Of course, not all of us are business people. And I don’t mean that in the “knowledge and skills” aspect of the word. I also mean that as a “personality type and goals” sort of way. Those are the people who actually want it – not just in a day-dreamy kind of way that most writers want it, but in a hard-charging “try and stop me!” kind of way.

    For me, the driving force that makes me say “try and stop me!” is not related to those success factors that are measured by someone like Cader. (35 million? I mean, that’s nice, but what on earth would I ever do with 35 million? I have no need for gilded lilies, thank you.) I do, however, know exactly what I do need financially, long term and short term — and I know it because it takes care of the thing that’s important:

    The wonderful, freeing “why not” question for this kitty is “why not write what you want and never fear that anybody else will kill it?”

    I shall not be that 35 million indie, not because it’s impossible, but because I’m not interested enough in doing the audio book and the translations, and ebook distribution plans. I’m too busy having a good time with writing and art. Maybe I’ll do those when I get enough stuff out there and am making enough money to hire it out.

    But as you pointed out… that’s the beauty of durable goods. You can build on it over a very very long period of time.

    1. Camilee, you might be right. The first 35 mil. person might be like Patterson. I think you are right that were he starting today, he wouldn’t be doing traditional publishing at all. But I also think some writer who isn’t that business savvy will stumble on a lightning moment and make that same 35 mil. As was said below, it’s just a question of who gets there first in the indie world.

  28. Meow! Or, in the acronym of Kansas State football: EMAW! [Every Man A Wildcat]

    There is something paradoxical in giving someone advice like this: “Listen to me! Don’t listen to me!”

    Paradoxical, but true.

  29. Thank you, Kris! I love your business posts. They shine a light into dark corners of the publishing world to show that it’s just like every other corporation I have ever worked in.
    As a new indie writer, with a novel due out by the end of the month, I vacuum up all the information you provide – and the inspiration too.
    I have writing plans and writing dreams, and then I have my writing Wild Blue Sky (which I don’t share with anyone). This post has just pushed the horizon a LOT further out!

  30. Great article. Usually I’m a lurker and only came out of lurkerdom because I kept banging my head against the wall about how specious the arguments against your points were.

    But I realized I’m not angry, I’m frustrated. Frustrated by people’s white knuckle grasp on publishing/writing myths. But frankly why should I care? Less people in my way, less noise is going to be out there with these people. Their ignorance is my boon.

    But I don’t feel that way. I feel like a well-hydrated guy in a desert who meets a person dying of thirst. I’m all “hey man, the water’s over there. It’s good water” only to get the finger in return.

    Let ’em die (as it were).

    But you and Dean aren’t doing it. You keep schlepping water to lost, thirsty wanders no matter how much they fight you. I’m convinced your hard candy shell must hold a soft gooey center.

    1. Nathan M, I appreciate the fact that you came out of lurk mode. You made last week’s comment section with some of your remarks. And yeah, frustration happens to me with this stuff too, but there are always new writers who need to hear the message. So I’ll keep talking as long as folks find value in it. Although occasionally, I will go all hardass on the comments section. (Like that’s news to my friends & students.)

  31. Just wanted to say thanks once again. I needed some optimism this week. I got a pair of negative reviews of my latest book. I needed this and a re-read of Dean’s blog to clear my head. Back to work!

  32. Good article. I loved that it took us from the “be your own cat” opening, which is a very worthy subject for a blog post in its own right, to the dissection of the Michael Cader article that appeared to devalue the self-publishing efforts of writers. And it all came back to the encouraging find your own way to success at the end.

    This might have been several smaller articles, but the way that it was all brought together made the sum of the parts have a much greater impact. Thanks for the post.

  33. People are upset that building a writing career takes hard work? To me, it’s liberating. You don’t have to know anybody, bribe anyone, or even cater to the tastes of this or that gatekeeper. All it takes is hard work. Great.
    Anyway, no need to worry about me standing in the corner awaiting orders. I’m the original cat running away from the cowboys, because after finishing my last book before the holidays, I took stock of what I wanted to do, and it’s…write whatever I feel like (right now, a poetry ‘mumoir’), no matter how uncommercial it is. Theoretically, I “should” follow up on my medical humor essays and medical thrillers that are selling the best, but right at the moment, I’d rather do something that feels fun and gives me time and energy to spend on my kids and my day job of emergency medicine. I’ll slowly get the rest of my backlist up as well. To others, this may seem like thinking small, but I’m heading off to the hinterlands in my own feisty way. I hope the rest of us do the same. Thanks, Kris.

    1. You’re welcome, Melissa. Like you, I love it when hard work triumphs over cronyism. I’m not that good at social stuff, but boy can I do the work.

  34. Indeed, why the hell not! Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits… God bless that original Macintosh ad, my philosophical moment.

    A dear writer I know started her new career by publishing 3 novels, 22 shorts and 3 collections to get her feet wet in 2011. This year, she’ll create over a dozen 50k word titles (using a couple pen names to do it) plus an unknown quantity of short stories and blended collections *this* year.

    The five year plan is to make a lasting impression on any future great grandchildren. Big, check. International, check. The one missing ingredient in durable goods is time,,,, If death stays away long enough, she’ll happily pay taxes on the $35m. The question isn’t why the hell not, but rather which tortoise will get there first. Cheers, -Steve

    1. I remember that ad, Steve C. I liked it. And yeah, sticking around is something none of us have complete control over. But I just watched Betty White on the People’s Choice Awards. She’s turning 90 next week and is still working. I want to be just like her. 🙂 Your friend sounds marvelous. I hope you’re doing as well. And yep, you’re right: we’ll see which tortoise gets there first, if we ever find out. (Some folks just won’t tell us.)

  35. Thanks, Kristine. You helped me realize what I’ve been doing wrong, and why I’ve been thinking too small not just with my writing, but throughout my life. I wrote about it in my blog, but I wanted to take the time to thank you for all you’ve done and continue to do for other writers. I’ve learned more about writing from reading your blogs than I did in the previous twenty years. Thanks again.

  36. My mom finally got her Regency up last month or so. She’s sold 8 copies. She was going *sigh* about it, but I pointed out that the only people who have a clue about it are the people with the intersection of “saw it on her facebook” and “like Regency romances.” But no one’s going to pull it from the shelves tomorrow. Month after month, it’ll still be there, and someone might stumble upon it. (And she needs to write another one, of course. So people’ll have more chances to stumble on *that*.) And that’s 8 copies more than it’d have sold, sitting on her hard drive. (Further, not a one of those sales is to me. I’ve got a copy; I did the conversions so she could upload ’em. (And I hope to all the pantheons that gremlins didn’t hit those conversions…))

    I wonder if people lower the expectations… to combat the “I want fame RIGHT NOW! For this half-written chapter!” mindset. Of course, it doesn’t work quite like that, as you say. Don’t lower the total expectations; just add patience and perseverance, first.

    And, in slightly (slightly?) incoherent closing: that herding cats link was *awesome*.

    1. Beth, you should send your mom over to Dean’s blog for the math of what’s happen to her book. 8 copies is a great start, better than most writers.You’re exactly right in your advice to her. And you should both read his new blog about investing in your future . He’s talking about sales like that and how they build up over time. (And I’m glad you like the video. It’s one of my favorites. Of course, my kitten is playing among the forbidden electrical cords as I type this–with a toy. She knows she can’t play with the cords themselves. [must stop typing now and move her].)

  37. Wow, you mentioned an author I’m a fan of. ^_^ Patricia Briggs is one of my favorites. (How I started reading her is a story in itself and involves an accident, because after seeing the Mercedes Thompson covers here in the US, I expected them to be racier.)
    But I’m one of those folks who found her and bought up her backlist. I’m one book shy of owning all her traditional fantasy novels. (I can never remember if I still need Raven’s Strike or Raven’s Shadow when I’m at the bookstore.)
    I used to be one of those folks who believed those “Don’t quit your day job” etc. myths, and I have to confess I shared them with my friends—who believed me. Granted, I always wondered why about the myths, but I believed and shared them. (Fortunately, my friends also heed me now when I tell them I was wrong.)
    I saw the potential in e-books and POD early on, but I didn’t see how it could work without distribution (or affordable POD).
    Eventually, I happened upon the growing self-publishing movement in 2010, to realize that my wariness of the often-publicized traditional publishing methods (involving agents-as-editors) meant I hadn’t actually finished any of my novels, because I didn’t want to go through that.

    Finishing things actually became something I wanted to do, then, because it was like the “Why not?” switch came on, something that had been bludgeoned off in the echo chamber that my research kept finding, even though it didn’t feel right to me.
    Your insistence that we readers of your blog actually think about what you’re saying is refreshing. I like thinking. 😀

    I admit, I’ve taken a few smacks upside the head when reading your blog and your husband’s (I still find it funny that I discovered your blogs because I remembered your name from one of the few Star Trek books I ever owned.)
    But I needed them. 🙂 Thank you.

    1. Great realizations about your own work, Carradee. Isn’t it amazing how we take care of ourselves as artists? I think this new world of publishing makes being a fully creative writer much more possible than it’s ever been before. And that’s so exciting.

  38. I think most new writers are as afraid of success as they are of failure; they just don’t want to admit it to themselves.

    I also think there are many established writers and publishers (especially publishers) out there who are afraid of competition from other writers, hence the perpetuation of the myth that no one can really make it in this business unless they are lucky or ‘know’ someone.

    I imagine if I make it (when I make it) the naysayers will find some spurious connection to someone else in the business and say I only made it because I ‘knew’ so-and-so.

    I love the fact you ‘tell it like it is’ in your blog posts, Kris. We new writers need to know how to get where we want to be. You help us, without any expectation of anything in return. You and Dean are doing us all a great service. It is much appreciated.


    1. Paul Andrew, yep, I think a lot of people (not just writers) are afraid of success. And there will always be naysayers. {shrug) The key is to learn how to ignore them. (And you’re welcome.)

  39. Great points. Particularly around the apples to cars analogy and the building an audience over time idea.

    This kind of comparison has always hit me as suspect. It’s sorta like the “Lake Woebegone” effect. Everybody can’t be above average. There are only 10 titles in the top 10. Volatility of the list, accuracy and source of sales data, and the time frames of observation all have a bearing.

    What’s more important is that people that nobody have ever heard of — that have never made it into the best seller lists — are now making significant incomes from writing fiction. That’s not a big number of people because — comparatively speaking — there aren’t a lot of good writers.

    Sturgeon’s Law still applies.

    The difference in this market is that the reader gets to decide which 10% is good, not a marketing manager at a publishing house. The upshot of that is the rise of the new midlist. People like Deb Geary, David Dalglish, Monique Martin, Victorine Leske, Daniel Aronson, and K.C. May aren’t exactly names to conjure with — yet — but in five years, this is going to be an interesting space.

    Thanks for your great analyses. Lots to ponder here.

    1. Nathan L., you’re welcome. I love the fact that readers get to decide. They’re the ultimate arbiters anyway, and they’ll tell everyone about something they like, and won’t read any more of stuff they don’t like. This is a welcome change, imho. Readers are now free to find what they want to read, rather than having to choose from a limited group of choices.

  40. Totally agree with you about the ‘durable goods model’ versus the ‘produce model’, but wouldn’t this just as easily provide a new lease of life to the author who produces high-end literary fiction and whose output is relatively small? A book every four or five years is still five books in two decades – the justification being something along the lines of ‘never mind the quantity, look at the quality!’ Or do you think such a niche exists? My impression from browsing various forums is that the typical kindle user is (currently) a voracious reader of pulp-fiction who is looking for a bargain.

    1. Aonghus, absolutely. “Small” books of all types are viable now. And I’m not so sure that big traditional publishing really had its finger on what’s small and what’s large. So we might be surprised to see something we think literary and small hit bestseller lists everywhere. Remember: Nobody knows nothing. 🙂

  41. Thank you for writing this. I tend to, I admit, be easily herded, but I’m hoping that blogging about what I’ve learned from my own experiences/research compared to what I’ve been told by others, I’ll break this habit. (I call it I Know Nothing, which isn’t the most splendiferous name in the world, but it’s partly a reminder that I shouldn’t assume knowledge I don’t directly have, either from my own work or from analyzing that of other writers.)

    I still bend like a reed, because it’s how I was raised, but that shouldn’t stop me.

    Again, thank you for being an inspiration and eminently sensible.

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