E-Book Success Story

I recently mentioned that one good thing about e-books (and print-on-demand) is that you have more time to become successful than in traditional publishing.

Amazon just featured the story of author Creston Mapes, who had this very thing happen to him.

“During the next eight years of doing all that was humanly possible to market my [traditionally-published] books, they sold less than 20,000 copies combined—a sales performance my own publisher would later call ‘dismal.’

Creston was certain that the books deserved a bigger audience. So, he decided to take advantage of Amazon’s independent self-publishing platform, which allows any author to bring their books directly to market. He got the rights back to those three novels, put his own covers on them, and used the self-service platform to put them on Kindle.

After offering his first book for free for a weekend, he went to the top of the Kindle charts and has stayed there.

Mapes had glowing reviews for his books, and obviously he had professionally-designed and edited books, so why didn’t they sell in bookstores? Maybe his publisher didn’t market them correctly. Maybe they were competing against much bigger books during that same time frame. Or–most likely–he just needed some time to build up word-of-mouth referrals (the biggest source of sales). But when you only have 2-4 weeks on shelves, it can be hard to get that going. (Mark Coker referred to that as “the death clock” ticking away.)

Putting Your Work on Amazon

A friend of mine is now thinking about publishing on Amazon, and he had a couple of good questions about how to do it. Since I’m on a roll with posts about self-publishing this week, I thought I’d answer his questions here:

1: Did you put your story there in Word format or convert it to HTML? They seem to want it in HTML but I don’t recall you ever mentioning that. I don’t have a new copy of Word, mine is a 1995 version which I doubt would save it in proper 2012 HTML. I do have a current copy of Open Office, so that should work, but I’ve never tried it before.

I actually uploaded my story to Amazon already in .mobi format–which is Amazon’s proprietary format. Even if they don’t require you to do that, that’s one less thing they have to do so, presumably, it makes your work go live sooner (my story was available a few hours after I submitted it).

If you want to convert your story to .mobi before submitting it to Amazon (this also gives you the ability to look at it on your reader and make any necessary formatting changes before it goes live–which is exactly why I did it that way) then I highly recommend downloading Calibre E-Book Management. This will allow you to convert your work (or other people’s stuff that you’ve downloaded) into a variety of other formats, including the formats for Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Sony e-Reader, and just straight up .pdf. I use this software to convert my work to .mobi for the Kindle and to convert public domain works which are .epub files. (Kindle will read .pdf, but not .epub.)

That being said, before Calibre will convert your Word document into one of those formats, it has to be saved as an HTML document. So you’re right back to that issue. (Incidentally, Smashwords also requires documents in the same HTML format.)

I have Word 2003 at home (the older version of Word) and it has the ability to save as HTML (even though it’s an older HTML form than what 2007 has) and Calibre didn’t have a problem converting it. Going back to 1995 might be a stretch, but you can try it and see. If Calibre can’t convert it, Amazon can’t convert it either. If it does convert it, and the formatting is okay (it should be, unless you have a lot of images associated with it), then you can just upload that .mobi file to Amazon directly.

The other option, as you mentioned, is using Open Office. And, actually, it seems to work better with Calibre than Word anyways. From Calibre’s user’s manual:

When saving as HTML, be sure to use the “Save as Web Page, Filtered” option as this will produce clean HTML that will convert well. Note that Word produces really messy HTML, converting it can take a long time, so be patient. Another alternative is to use the free OpenOffice. Open your .doc file in OpenOffice and save it in OpenOffice’s format .odt. calibre can directly convert .odt files.

If it were me, I’d go the Open Office route (and do all my future writing in it!), let Calibre convert it, then I’d give it a read-through on my Kindle. Make whatever changes you need to in OpenOffice, have Calibre convert the new version, then upload that to Amazon.

2: One of the required options is to choose to use DRM, the digital rights management option that encodes your work so it can’t be copied illegally. I know DRM is uniformly hated in video games and music, but is it something that I should check and did you use it on your story and your future works for sale on Amazon?

I did not use DRM and will not. Maybe there will be a big explosion in book piracy, but I kind of doubt it. And I don’t think DRM is the way to combat it, since hackers are always one step ahead of technology. I think the future is not selling art so much as selling a brand–movies, products, endorsements, etc. Your art gets you famous, but selling your name and image is what will make you money.

You better believe I’m going to sell t-shirts and bumper stickers and anything else I can think of in the future. “Selling out?” I can’t wait until I have enough name recognition to effectively do it.

My personal feelings on the matter aside, there is a practical reason to not go DRM. If you enable DRM, then honest people will not be able to convert their paid-for book into a non-Kindle format. What happens if their Kindle breaks and they get a Nook as a replacement? They can’t convert DRM books to Nook’s format. They also can’t save it to a computer to back it up.

Unlike the recording industry, I am of the opinion that when you’ve bought my work, you have the right to read it on your Kindle or your Nook or your computer or your iPad or your television screen (there’s probably a Wii app for that)–just as you have the right to read your paperback book in the tub, the bed, the car, on the beach, etc. In fact, if you read the legalese at the beginning of The Last Golden Dragon, you’ll see that it specifically says the purchaser has the limited right to convert the story to other formats and save a back-up copy. I put that in there because I didn’t want there to ever be a question of whether or not it was legal to do that.

If you do DRM, your readers will not have that option.

Don’t Sell It Too Cheap

As part of my investigation into self-publishing yesterday, I ran across this blog post by one of the successful independent authors mentioned on Expert Message Group: Why Your Novel is a Tall, 6-Pump Vanilla, Breve Latte Grande, Extra Hot, Heavy Whipping Cream, Extra Dry Cappuccino (Or It Should Be). The author, Elle Lothlorien, did an actual experiment with her book, comparing her sales when it was cheap, versus when it was more expensive.

She not only made more money when it was considerably more expensive, but she made more sales and had better reviews.

She likens it to over-priced Starbucks coffee: if something is expensive, people will think it’s good whether it is or not. I think there’s something to that logic, although I think it’s probably more of the other thought, which is that cheaply-priced work is associated with amateur writers.

(I just had a sudden vision of the hooker theory: the cheaper the hooker, the more she’s associated with drugs, alcohol, and venereal diseases. High-end call girls offer the exact same product, but the perception is that they’re clean and are decent enough that you can be seen in public with them.)

Expensive = good is not the way I approach reading books. I shop at thrift stores and yard sales and used bookstores (my husband and I recently dropped about $80 in credit at McKay’s in Knoxville). I like a bargain, and I know that perfectly good stuff can be found in less than upscale places.

And, as my Dave Ramsey bumper sticker once said:

(That’s past tense because said sticker got ripped off my former vehicle, not because I changed my mind about debt.)

I know I’m weird. I know I don’t shop or manage my money like the average American. So I almost certainly should not use myself as an example of how people shop for books. I think Ms. Lothlorien is probably correct: most people give more consideration to higher-priced items because there is a perceived value based solely on the price.

So, after giving this some thought, I decided to experiment for myself. I originally listed The Last Golden Dragon for 99 cents because it’s a short story and I didn’t think anyone would pay more than that for it–despite the fact that one of my pre-readers suggested that I charge more because he said he’d be willing to pay more for it.

It’s been available for almost two months and I’ve had 18 purchases (I’m excluding free downloads because all the rules of snobbery are broken when stuff is free). I just upped the price a dollar, so let’s see if I have more sales (or make more money; I’ll consider either a success) in the next two months.

Something else I need to work on is my Facebook page. I started it, but let it languish (new posts are announced on it automatically, but that’s all the activity that happens on it) because Facebook did not make it easy for me to access and use. But they seem to have corrected that problem. What’s more, I have 49 Likes. I estimate only about half of those are friends and family, because I think the last time I checked the numbers on it (when it was nothing but friends and family) it was about 23. I haven’t been advertising it on the blog, so I’m wondering where those 25 or so people came from.

That’s probably a sign I should make better use of it. And to that end, I’m off to do some research on what, exactly, you should write on your Facebook page to keep people interested in your brand, but not annoy the hell out of them.

Reconsidering Self-Publishing

I have been reading an article on authors making a living by self-publishing. And, I have to say, it’s making me rethink my reluctance to self-publish my Acceptance trilogy.

Until 2010 Amanda Hocking was just writing as a hobby. She wrote 17 novels in her spare time until April 2010 when she decided to self publish her books to the Kindle store. By early 2011 she had parlayed those books into $2 million in sales, and was averaging selling 9,000 units per day. The subjects of her books range from zombies, to vampires to fantasy worlds. Not long after hitting the Kindle Million Club, she signed on for a 4 book deal with St. Martin’s Press, earning a $2 Million advance, something completely unheard of for self published authors. Some of her stories have also been optioned to film.

Michael’s road to publishing is a varied and exciting one. He is a fantasy writer who, like Amanda Hocking, can’t stop writing even if it means there is no market to publish. When Michael finished his series Riyria there were six books in total. He was met with resistance from agents and publishers, and felt his only way out was self-publishing. Even though it carried a big stigma at the time, Michael and his wife formed their own publishing house, Ridan Publishing. They published the eBooks for Michael’s series and priced them at $4.95, which is high compared to other successful eBooks. After the release of the fifth book, things began to take off and the Sullivans approached major publishers again. This time they were offered a large advance by Orbit, Hachette’s fantasy imprint. Michael’s titles have been switched over to Orbit and he now has major distribution, and by October 2011 he was selling 10,000 units/month.

As a publishing agent said, the publishing industry acts as a filter. That applies both to the fact that they keep genuinely bad things from being published, but they also filter a good writer’s work through editors and make it as clean as possible (although I was less than impressed with Philippa Gregory’s editors/publishers recently). I find the latter idea very appealing, because nothing bugs me like an obvious typo caught after something’s already been printed. Never mind that I’m currently cleaning up Acceptance for the second or third time (that’s only grammatical edits; that doesn’t count several more content edits); I will miss stuff. And I know, when I read anything–independent or traditionally published–those errors stand out like a sore thumb.

But at the same time, I can be something of a control-freak when it comes to things I’ve created, and I’m very much there when it comes to my Acceptance trilogy. Which doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t accept constructive criticism–I just had a friend read and review my second book in the series, and based on her comments, and my husband’s, I’m planning a pretty major edit–but, ultimately, I want to call the shots when it comes to my characters and my plot. I don’t want someone to say, “This is great, but we want you to make this major change before we publish.” When you’re dealing with a series of books that have already been plotted and are in various stages of writing, you can’t make serious plot changes without blowing them all up.

Self-publishing also relieves me of word quotas. My Acceptance pre-readers all wanted the first book to be longer, although I couldn’t do that due to the fact that traditional publishers don’t seem to want to touch a new author who writes anything over 110,000 words. At this stage I would not be willing to go back and add more to it–I do have it the way I want it now–but it does relieve the pressure on future books. I think word quotas are a good thing–some people go on too long (some people would say my blog posts go on too long)–but I need and want more flexibility than I’ve been seeing out of traditional publishers.

I also like the idea of retaining rights over my work, so if I want to release the copyright before my death and make it free for everyone (something I plan to do), I can do that.

When I say “self-publish,” I mean both print and e-book format. While short stories don’t work in print (not unless you make an anthology), I have made proof copies of two of my Acceptance novels and The Flames of Prague. CreateSpace (a division of Amazon) makes it easy to have print books. The drawbacks are that they set the cost of the book (due to printing costs, obviously), and that I make a fraction of the printed price (a dollar or less per $15.95 book–although I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the return I’d get with a traditional publisher too).

As soon as the book exists on CreateSpace, it’s available on Amazon. My e-book options are completely independent, and I can choose to also publish my e-book only on Amazon, or I can take it through Smashwords and have it not only on Amazon, but in many other places as well. The major drawback with Smashwords is that their formatting standards are more onerous (in my opinion) than just publishing to the Kindle, simply because they have to translate the book to multiple formats, so the book’s formatting has to comply with many different platforms, not just one.

I’m still experimenting with self-publishing with my short stories, but I’m going to give more thought, now, to self-publishing my books.