Writers have it better than any other creative profession right now but it feels like we don’t appreciate our good fortune and haven’t adopted the mindset where we fully embrace change. The transition to digital is hugely disruptive – and not always in positive ways – but it’s solving a number of long-standing problems, particularly the issue of author earnings.
It’s easy to forget how bad things were before the digital revolution made self-publishing viable and gave us all more options. I was at the International Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy at the end of September. It’s a great conference in the most beautiful location and very well run, with all sorts of interesting panels and talks. It’s also refreshingly small and you get to meet everybody.
Some of the most fascinating exchanges were when authors gathered for dinner and shared experiences. Many had been through a number of publishing contracts with different houses, and most were extremely scathing about their experience. When these writers are able to go public – i.e. when they finish up their contracts, break free of things like non-compete and option clauses, and/or get their rights back – they will have some disturbing stories to share about their “nurturing” publishers.
I was at a very different conference in York at the beginning of September. The Festival of Writing is great too, but it’s aimed at newer writers who are seeking agents and publishing deals. They have some self-publishing stuff on the program, but it’s more focused on the traditional path (and also has some truly excellent craft workshops).
When looking back at both conferences, I found it very interesting that the writers who had the most experience of traditional publishing were the ones with the least interest in pursuing that path. Newer writers, who hadn’t yet seen how the sausage is made, were those in thrall with the idea of landing an agent and a publishing deal. But I think it’s fair to say that both groups shared a lot of fear about the future.
I remember Dean Wesley Smith saying a few years back that the only thing that could kill a writer’s career was giving up. Even an author who commits the most egregious sin can keep going under a new name. In other words, nothing can kill your career – except you. However, there are lots of things a writer can do to make their path much, much harder, and sometimes our own worst enemy is the three pounds of squishy grey matter between our ears.
Authors, for obvious reasons, tend to have very active imaginations. This can lead us to being quite skittish: seeing Reds under every bed and panicking at the drop of a hat. It might also explain why we cling to dogma, find various myths comforting, and happily trot out zombie memes that have died a thousand deaths. Writers are smart and creative, and can convince themselves of anything.
It makes having an in-built bullshit detector a pre-requisite for keeping your sanity and focusing on your core job: writing books and reaching readers. There are all sorts of people engaging in FUD for various self-serving reasons, but some of the most insidious untruths are the ones we tell ourselves.
Like people in general, I suppose, writers can go to incredible lengths to avoid admitting they were wrong about something, even to the point of making career-damaging decisions. It’s the exact opposite of the start-up mentality that we should be adopting in this current climate, where change is embraced and failure is treated as a learning opportunity.
We all need to continually guard against dogma. It’s easy to slip into lazy thinking when we see something being confirmed over and over again, but we should always be prepared for black swans and shouldn't attempt to reason them out of existence just because they force us to question a hypothesis which has served us well.
The one constant since I started self-publishing in 2011 has been change. It’s not just the business which is changing but also the ways to reach readers. If you embrace change, instead of being fearful, you are in a much better position to take advantage of what’s happening. But if you think you have it all figured out, and then become dogmatic about something like pricing or marketing, you will fall behind.
The authors who are growing really fast today tend to be very aggressive with marketing and are trying all sorts of crazy experiments, rewriting the rules as they go. When Ed Robertson released the fourth book in his post-apocalyptic Breakers series in August last year, he bundled up the first three books into a 99¢ box set. The series was selling well – around 30,000 copies – so I naturally thought he was nuts.
It turned out he wasn’t so crazy after all. The box went ballistic and Ed tore up his plan to only have it discounted during the launch of Book #4, keeping the bundle at that crazy low price for six straight months. The box shifted 60,000 copies over that timeframe, helping the new release sell another 15,000 copies on top of that.
By being willing to take risks, Ed dramatically expanded his audience in a short space of time. Two books later, the Breakers series has now sold well over 200,000 copies.
And it was a gamble – Ed was risking solid income from consistent sellers – but he had been watching the really smart things that Urban Fantasy author SM Reine was doing and figured it was worth a shot.
If you aren’t familiar with SM Reine, she had been making big plays likes this for a while, with astounding results too. I guess they both figured they were fast writers and, even if things went horribly wrong, they had plenty of books in the pipeline to juice their numbers again.
As my writing speed increases – I've graduated from very slow to merely slow! – I’m becoming less conservative. Having more titles out gives you more options with your marketing. It makes you less emotionally attached to each individual book. You start thinking more in terms of what increases revenue overall than what a particular title has sold.
In other words, it gives you room to fail. When you can afford to lose, you can afford to gamble. And the prizes are going to the risk-takers.
I’m taking a bit of risk this week myself. I only launched the new edition of Let’s Get Digital in mid-September and it was pulling in good money at $4.99, but I’ve already put it in a discounted box set.
It’s called The Indie Author Power Pack: How To Write, Publish & Market Your Book and it also contains Write. Publish. Repeat by Sean Platt & Johnny B. Truant and How To Market A Book by Joanna Penn, as well as some exclusive content too.
We’ve launched the box with the explicit aim of hitting the New York Times Best Seller list. We could easily fail, but I think we gain just by making the attempt. And if you want to check out the box set, you can pick it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Kobo for just 99¢ (saving you $16).
The tech companies which are taking over publishing have a totally different mindset to risk-averse publishers. They embrace change and aren’t afraid of failure. They innovate and iterate until they hit on the process that maximizes revenue. They work on a model of abundance, instead of one of scarcity. And it’s the mentality we should adopt too.
Joe sez: There's a lot of wisdom here.
The difference between being wise and being smart if sometimes you have to stop being smart in order to be wise.
I call this phenomenon digital thinking. Examples of analogue thinking abound in this business. Pricing ebooks higher than paperbacks is analogue. Windowing titles is analogue. Pre-orders for books that are already finished, that's analogue (as soon as it is done it should be made available to buy and download).
Digital thinking means looking at how things have changed and adjusting accordingly. Here's a quickie example. Way back in 2009, I used Amazon DTP to self-publish the novels that the Big 6 had rejected. I priced these at $0.99, as a favor to fans. My idea was to use them as a loss lead, which would then make readers seek out my more expensive paper titles. Imagine my surprise when these started to make money. Very soon, they were making more than my print royalties. So I began to experiment with price, which was risky considering there was no data to look at to anticipate what might happen. Raising prices, when a product is selling well, is a risky thing to do, and there was no precident for it. But I gave it a shot. And it worked.
For a while, I was convinced $2.99 was the sweet spot for novels. And it was, for a while. Then I took a chance and tried $3.99 and liked it, and have stuck with it for about two years, putting titles on sale regularly via BookBub.
Reading David's post makes me realize I haven't taken any big pricing chances in a while. So why not give it a shot?
After you buy your $0.99 copy of The Indie Author Power Pack: How To Write, Publish & Market Your Book (buy it RIGHT NOW) please consider buying two of my bundles, each reduced from $9.99 to a mere $0.99.
A box set of my first three Jack Daniels thrillers, Whiskey Sour, Bloody Mary, and Rusty Nail, is now $0.99 on Kindle.
A box set of my first three Jack Kilborn horror novels, Afraid, Trapped, and Endurance, is now $0.99 on Kindle.
These are six novels that sell well at $3.99 each. Am I cutting my own throat here? Does this seem like a stupid thing to do?
Yes. Yes it does. And that's how a person becomes wise. I can only guess how this experiment will work. Could go badly and I lose a lot of money. Could jack up my sales and give my backlist a boost.
But I won't know what will happen unless I try it.
I'll post the results as they come in.