Year One

by wjw on June 27, 2012

It’s been roughly a year since I started making my backlist available in epub formats, so this seems a good time to shuffle through the records and come to some kind of conclusion.

And the conclusion is this:

Thank God for Amazon!

Even if Amazon is yet another megalomaniacal Internet company bent on annihilating all competition and achieving total world domination in its chosen field (250 points!), Amazon has still provided more options for writers than anyone since Gutenberg. The Kindle broke open the world market for ebooks, and created opportunities for people like me, with considerable backlist, to find new readers for their work.

So far I’ve made 11 novels available, along with two novellas and a novelette.   Books are available on Amazon, via Barnes & Noble, and on Smashwords, which distributes to Apple, Kobo, and Sony, among others.  Sales have been growing month by month.

Sales have grown even during months in which I’ve uploaded no new content.  I expected sales to fall off after the December h0lidays, but that didn’t happen.  Sales have shown a slow but steady climb.

Probably about 80% of the sales are through Amazon.  Barnes & Noble sales, alas, are fairly anemic, which I suspect means that I have an audience of early adapters who’d already bought Kindles before Nooks became available.  At present I’m actually selling more copies via Smashwords than through Barnes & Noble, though since Smashwords acts as my intermediary for Apple, Kobo, and Sony, that may not be surprising.  My books regularly turn up on Smashwords’ best-seller list, though I think that has to do more with Smashwords’ pathetic sales figures for science fiction than for any sudden popularity of mine.

Does that mean I can now earn my living exclusively as an indie author?

Not yet.  The extra income is nice, and would have made me ecstatic back when I was a 25-year-old neo-author, but since then I’ve acquired a mortgage and some moderately expensive habits, such as eating regularly and driving a car that isn’t utter crap. For these purposes I’ll still need an advance from a traditional publisher.

But still, the trends are encouraging.  And I’ve got six novels and lots of short fiction still to upload.

Also— and let’s be frank, here— being a publisher is a lot of work.  To publish my work in e-formats I’ve got to do everything a publisher does.  I don’t have to hire an editor, since my backlist comes pre-edited;  but I still have to pay for scans and copy-editing when necessary (Kathy helps with much of the copy-editing), I have convert the text into different formats, buy or find cover art, design and create the covers, write flap copy, buy an ISBN for each work, and upload them in different formats to different online locations.  The  expense in time and sometimes money can be daunting.  But I know that the books will all earn out eventually, because they’ll be available forever, and I’ll make some money month after month.

Which books do well?  Hardwired, above all.   Its sales numbers are far and above anything else.  Which pretty much mirrors my royalty statements from that era of my career.

You might ask if I’m annoyed that a thirty-year-old book remains my bestselling work, when I’ve written a lot of worthy fiction in the years since.  My answer is simple: What— are you nuts?  I wrote the hell out of that book.  I’m proud of that book.  I’m delighted and capering with glee to know that people still want to read it thirty years later.

In the second tier, saleswise, come Angel Station and Aristoi, with roughly two-thirds of Hardwired’s sales.  Not far behind these come Voice of the Whirlwind, Solip:System, Metropolitan, and City on Fire.

Are there losers?  Unfortunately yes.

Knight Moves isn’t selling particularly well.  I haven’t earned back the money I spent on the gorgeous Stephen Hickman cover.  But it was a gorgeous Stephen Hickman cover created specially for that book— how could I resist? And the money will come in eventually.

Sales for the Maijstral books suck, except for The Crown Jewels, which I have listed as a loss-leader for $0.99.  But then the sales for those books sucked when they were first released.  They’re just too unlike my other work.

(Since the low price for The Crown Jewels isn’t doing the job of selling the other books in the series, and since I make only pennies on each sale, the price will go up next week, probably to $2.99.   So if you want The Crown Jewels for under a buck, buy it now.)

The real loser is Days of Atonement.  Sales of DoA are downright pathetic.  Which I find odd, because when it was originally released it sold as well as anything else.

Maybe it’s the cover.  I’ll create a new one when I’ve got the time.  More science-fictiony, which is ironic considering how much I railed at Tor for putting a science-fictiony cover on it originally.  (Of course, that was a bad science-fictiony cover.)

So what have a learned from indie pub during Year One?

Duh.  To keep on doing it.  (More money each month.  Lots of uses around here for money.  Walter likes money!  Go, Walter!)

Are there lessons in my career for anyone else?  Should I be encouraging eager new authors to go all indie-pub?

I’d say, No, not yet.  It’s an enormous hassle to deal with the traditional publishing scene right now, but unless you get into the indie scene with a built-in audience— and preferably with a backlist—   your brand-new indie book is going to run the risk of being buried in an enormous electronic heap of millions of absolutely crap books.  Your odds of making a million bucks from indie publishing are probably less than the odds of your being hit by lightning, and it’s a lot of work, and that’s time spent that you should be spending writing fiction.

But this may change.  And it may be different for you. But right now, if I were you, I’d at least try the traditional route first.

One other note: who are the losers in the epub revolution?

I suspect that’s a generation of writers somewhat older than me.  They’re still alive, or maybe recently deceased, but either they or their heirs aren’t hip to the changes that have occurred in the industry in the last few years, and they aren’t making their works available in electronic formats. Or they’re just too tired to deal with all that— like I said, being a publisher is a lot of work.

If you’re old enough to be a “classic” writer— and out of copyright— your stuff will be made available electronically.  But if you’re still in copyright, and you or your heirs are oblivious to the possibilities of e-formats, then you could be forgotten.

And that’s the sad lesson.


Michael Grosberg June 27, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Regarding Kindle Vs. Nook:
the 80-20 split must be, at least in part, due to the fact that Nook is strictly US bound, while the Kindle is international. You can’t buy a book for your Nook outside the US border or without a US bank account.

Are covers really that important for ebook sales?

Gary Gibson June 27, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Regarding your comment about some, often older writers missing out on the e-revolution – it’s quite true, which is why I set up an ebook ‘imprint’ all of my own to get some of them out there (‘Brain In A Jar Books’). There’s a surprising amount of previously published, and really very good stuff floating around out there that nobody gets to read because the authors haven’t taken any action on it. On the other hand, if some of them haven’t produced a great deal of work, then I guess it isn’t likely to make that much of a dent even if they did. Which is another reason for making their books part of a recognisable imprint.

And they’re not always old, either. I know authors who’ve made a bit of a name for themselves, and who could have easily put out e-editions of their work since they retained the copyright, but never bothered until I offered to do it for them. Go figure.

Pat Mathews June 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Well, I have it on my Kindle! Days of Atonement, I mean. I think its problem may be that people who like science fiction think it’s a Western and people who like Westerns may be pretty intolerant of the s/f aspect.

Plus – rural New Mexico can be pretty hard for outsiders to believe. Or even lifelong New Mexicans! I have a close friend who said the padrone-run small town was 20 years out of date; there are no such things any more. For those who find Atocha over the top (and it is!) – I give you — Sunland Park? Which should be on TV as a comic miniseries.

Steve Halter June 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Thanks, this reminded me that I should fill my Nook with these.

Is your sad lesson why Zelazny isn’t available in e-book form? Really a shame that.

mearsk June 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm

“…your brand-new indie book is going to run the risk of being buried in an enormous electronic heap of millions of absolutely crap books”

I can attest to this as a reader and user of Amazon, my “recommended” book list they supposedly personalize is getting filled with more and more of the electronic only editions. This may not be a fair thought, but as a reader I look for authors that have paper copies of their books available, because at least then I know they’ve most likely been edited by a professional working for a publishing company. The few books I’ve bought that are electronic only have been of fairly low quality. Maybe this will change, but it makes me hesitant to buy more e-books.

Markus June 27, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Regarding Nook vs. Kindle vs. iBooks: i started reading kindle books even before the Kindle device became available to me (i live in Germany), by using the kindle app on my ipod.
Kindle is a multiplatform platform 😉

Ralf The Dog. June 27, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Glad you survived the Toolbox. I was wondering if we would ever hear from you again.

One Epub writer I discovered was, Hugh Howey. The first book of his I read was Wool. For a newish writer, it was quite good, however, the story did unravel a bit if you looked too hard. Wool 2 through Wool 5 were progressively better, well knit stories. I was later somewhat shocked to find out, this author was in fact somewhat well established and publishing on dead trees and winning awards. Sad to find out that the new author you discovered was discovered long before.

James June 28, 2012 at 1:14 am

I have purchased a few books of your books via Smashwords, mainly because I was not clear if buying them in Amazon would incur DRM. This may be another reason people are going to Smashwords.

The order in which the books are selling is almost exactly the order I would put them in if I were to arrange them myself.

I also re-iterate my pledge to give you kickstarter funds for book three of Metropolitan and City on Fire.

wjw June 28, 2012 at 3:57 am

James, all the ebooks that I market myself are DRM-free. The books marketed by my publishers may not be, but there’s little I can do about that.

Michael, strangely enough covers seem to matter for ebooks. People want to look at pictures, apparently. I use stock art and design my own covers, as I’ve mentioned, and some of mine are clearly better than others; but I see a lot of professionally-designed ebook covers that are truly awful— authors =paid= for these, I keep thinking— and those are a turnoff for me. “Amateur hour,” I sniff scornfully, and look at another book.

Mearsk, for some reason the only books Amazon recommends for me these days have “Shades of Gray” in the title. I don’t know why they think I want to read amateurish fanfic BDSM fiction, but they do.

Ralf The Dog. June 28, 2012 at 4:38 am

john scalzi’s Redshirts was DRM free on every platform, mostly because he stomped his feet and screamed until they did it. If I remember, it was the first book Amazon epubbed (new word) without DRM.

All books published through bean books are DRM free. I think other publishers call their books DRM free, however, their meaning is, you don’t pay extra for the privilege of DRM.

Steven Gould June 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm

As long as I’ve been publishing my backlist on ebook (2 years), Amazon, Nook, and iBooks have had the option for DRM free books, so Scalzi is by no means the first Amazon book to be DRM free. He is among the first Macmillan/Tor books to be published DRM free.

My experiences pretty much mirror Walter’s. My Jumper books do much better than the others, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t income from the others, too.

We are in the sweet spot. We have a back list whose e-rights weren’t tied up with their original publishers, and we have sufficient traditional publishing presence so we’re not complete unknowns, so we’re not building an audience from nothing.

New writers who get a traditional publishing deal are not going to be able to hold onto their e-rights and if they try to go Indie, they have to build their audience from scratch. This isn’t impossible. But it’s not easy.

Travis June 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Glad to see the ebooks doing well for you. I gave not been purchasing as, well, I still have my freeware editions!

The wife consistently fails to complete reading ‘Hardwired’ but still asks me for books to read. I say, “go finish hardwired and then we can talk”

Vlad June 28, 2012 at 7:08 pm

I think I said this before, but I am really happy you are doing this ebook release of all your books. It’s allowed me to easily buy all your ebooks and re-read them without the hassle of either trying to find the old paper books or trying to find them to buy. I wish more authors would do this.

I’m just finishing up my re-read of City on Fire and I second the notion of a kickstarter for the 3rd book!! I would LOVE to have that story concluded.

Richard June 28, 2012 at 9:51 pm

I’ve probably chimed in before, but would also love to see Metropolitan become a trilogy. Pleeeeease….

Ralf The Dog. June 29, 2012 at 4:19 am

Mr. Gould, I would guess, the move did not hurt book sales. Any thoughts of writing another book in the original timeline?

Clyde June 29, 2012 at 8:25 am

Interestingly (at least to me), my two favorites are Knight Moves and Days of Atonement. Go figure.

Covers are indeed important for ebooks. I would rate your re-release covers in descending order as follows:

Knight Moves (no surprise there)
Voice of the Whirlwind
Angle Station
City on Fire
Prayers on the Wind
House of Shards
Rock of Ages
The Crown Jewels
Days of Atonement

This is purely subjective of course. But, I think four of the books, Days of Atonement and the Maijstral books, really would be helped by new covers.
Anyway, you keep putting them out, and I’ll keep buying them.


wjw July 1, 2012 at 3:37 am

Clyde, I tend to agree that the covers on the Maijstral books do a poor job of representing what they’re actually about— but on the other hand what covers =would= do that? Tor’s covers failed, too.

What images actually say “science fiction caper comedy of manners?” I’ve been looking really hard and I haven’t seen any.

And what images say, “Gothic Western science fiction police procedural?” I think the cover I have on DoA gives a decent idea of the books’ atmosphere, for all that it isn’t a successful commercial cover. But what =would= be a commercial cover for that book?

Jim Janney July 2, 2012 at 8:33 pm

“Science fiction caper comedy of manners” makes me think of Alexei Panshin’s Anthony Villiers books: Star Well, etc. I think Kelly Freas did the covers for those.

Clyde July 3, 2012 at 8:21 am

Actually, the Maijstral covers pretty clearly indicate that there is some trickery and humor in the stories. But, they didn’t entice me to buy them. (The fact that they are WJW stories was sufficient in my case!)

The DoA cover is a tough one. I think what bothers me is that the elements seem out of proportion with the huge police skull-star dominating a vaguely western landscape. Where I a graphic artist, I might take it on as a challenge. Unfortunately, my skill-set lies elsewhere.

Some years back I read a Louis L’Amour book, The Haunted Mesa, that had the same problem. The cover gave no clue that it was an SF-western involving portal travel to an alternate world. (Good story, by the way.)

“Gothic Western science fiction police procedural” … Meh. This is going to bother me now …

Bill Cunningham July 19, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Are you also doing print-on-demand versions of your books? We’ve found that print and ebooks work together when you package your print edition with bonus content – a short story, illustrations, essays/commentary. People read the ebook for cheap, but collectors buy the print edition for their shelves, and for their need of “more.”

Sarah Stegall July 19, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Oh NOW you put “Crown Jewels” on sale. *After* I bought the paperback when it first came out, then the e-book when it first came out… both at full price. (grin)

I had to buy the e-book versions of the Maijstral books because the paperbacks were falling apart from wear and tear. I’m thinking of having them bronzed.

I have to agree with Steven Gould: new writers going the traditional route will be doing themselves no favors. The big publishing houses are going to insist on all e-rights forever. And with what passes for “marketing” by Big Publishing for a new writer, that new writer won’t be “building an audience” in any format. New e-book releases of a new author’s work, whether it’s self-published or traditionally published, will be lost in the flood of new books, old and new, crap or not. How much did Tor or Baen or HarperCollins spend on the majority of their first-time authors last year? Not a hell of a lot. Can you name any of them? Probably not. Those writers would have been just as well off to self-publish and go on to write the next book.

Congrats on getting the backlist up. And you know I’m one of the vocal minority clamoring for yet another Maijstral book. There can never be too many. 🙂

wjw July 20, 2012 at 11:51 pm

Bill, I will in fact do PoD editions of everything, but right now I’m concentrating on ebooks.

Sarah, 99 cents =is= the full price for the Crown Jewels ebook, and always has been. I’ll be raising it, though, within the next few days.

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