My new book, Impala, was finished in May–not just the writing, but the editing, proofreading, design, and layout. I decided to have it ready four months before release so I could do some of the promotional work that traditional publishers do: get the book into the hands of reviewers, talk to bookstores and news outlets. The ebook market is quite competitive, and like the app market for smart phones, it often seems like a race to the bottom. The writers and app developers who appear to be winning are the ones who are working really hard to sell their product for 99 cents, or to give it away for free in hopes of drawing attention to their paid works.
In the book market, hard copies still account for the bulk of sales, so I wanted to spend some time trying to get Impala into stores. Few of the ebook authors cranking out formulaic series put much effort into selling physical books, so I thought there might be a little less competition there. I’ve also noticed that the indie titles that tend to sell well on Amazon belong to genres where people tend to read quickly and in high volume: romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Amazon is to Kindle readers what 7-11 is to stoners: a place to find something quick, cheap, tasty, and forgettable that will tide you over until the next time you get the munchies.
The first step in selling to bookstores, so I thought, was getting good reviews from the reputable sources that booksellers actually read: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, local and regional newspapers and magazines. To make a long story short, most newspapers and magazines state explicitly that they will not accept self-published work. Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist say they welcome your submission, but they may or may not review it, and if they don’t review it, they don’t give any explanation why.
I spent a few hours a week for many months reading independent book review blogs, and made a list of bloggers who might like my book. I wrote individually crafted emails to each of them, but only one agreed to look at Impala. In fact, she was the only one who even acknowledged receiving my email. Many independent bloggers also now also say they will not review self-published books. I understand that, because there’s a flood of them now, and no one wants to wade through that slush pile in their spare time for free.
In the end, phase one of my strategy yielded a number of very good reviews, but not all of them came from the prestigious sources I was after. While the book was out for review, I started talking to bookstore owners and managers, and I learned a few things there as well. If you’re an unknown author, they don’t want your book taking up limited shelf space unless 1) the book takes place in their town or pertains directly to some local interest (like a book about farming in farm country), 2) you’re willing to do a reading or event in their store, and 3) you have some general marketing plan that shows you’re serious about promoting the book. The marketing plan should include a series of appearances on radio, at bookstores, and events, etc.
My first book, Warren Lane, is published through Ingram and listed in Ingram’s catalog under standard terms, which means a 55% wholesale discount, and the book is returnable. I went into a few stores and asked the manager to look the book up in their system to see how it appeared, then I asked them if there was anything in the listing itself that would prevent them from ordering the book. They all said, “Well, it’s Print On Demand (POD). We don’t stock those, but if a customer comes in and requests the book, we’ll order a copy.” That left me thinking that most customers would just order the title online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and have it shipped right to their house.
Print On Demand makes sense, both economically and environmentally. When putting out a new title, publishers have traditionally guessed how many copies they could sell, and then ordered a print run of 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 copies. They distribute those to bookstores and regional warehouses, and hope they got the number right. If the book sells better than expected, they order another print run, and hope they can get the title back onto store shelves before the first printing runs out. If the book doesn’t sell, they wind up shredding thousands of copies, losing money and wasting trees.
Print On Demand neatly solves the problems of having enough copies available and avoiding returns, but it has a stigma, as Brook Warner notes. Even though the big publishers now use POD for parts of their backlists, bookstore owners think POD means either 1) the author is self-published and therefore won’t sell, or 2) the publisher didn’t have enough faith in the book to issue an initial print run, so why should they take a chance on it?
Indies face yet another problem in bookstores. Traditional publishers send book reps out to stores to sell new titles months before they hit the market. The book rep meets face-to-face with the store owner to discuss upcoming titles. The rep and the manager have a trust relationship. They may talk every few months. As an indie author, you’re trying to get shelf space from someone who’s never heard of you, and the space you’re trying to get may have been reserved months ago.
All these obstacles led me to focus once again on online sales. I had learned a number of things about the online market after publishing Warren Lane. First, the promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily catered to readers of genre fiction, and if your book didn’t fall neatly into one genre, it’s going to be difficult to market. Second, the books that sell well are not necessarily well written or insightful or memorable in any way, but they do give the reader what they’re after. (I noticed that most of the hot-selling genre fiction on the promotional sites fell into the Romance category. I used Amazon’s Look Inside feature to read the opening chapters of some of those books, and I got a little education there too. I had thought “Romance” meant something like courtship and Prince Charming and happily ever after. Instead, I learned that women like to read porn, instead of watching it like men.)
Finally, most successful indie authors are writing series within one or more genres. They have a detective or a fantasy hero or a spaceship and crew that readers follow from one adventure to the next. The book covers in each series have a similar look, so readers can identify them, and once the series has two or more titles, the author will give away the first book, or sell it for 99 cents, to bring in new readers. That’s a good strategy for writers, and it makes economic sense. The software market these days follows a similar pattern, with free and paid versions of the same app, “freemium” web services that give you bonus features if you’re willing to pay, and open source software that companies give away, making their money through customization and support instead of sales.
What’s disheartening to me is what the genre-series model says about readers: that they only want what’s familiar, and if the book they read today isn’t just like the one they read yesterday, they might be disappointed. I’ve never quite understood that kind of reader, because I’ve always been that kind of reader. I read to find new insights, new depth and perspective. Bookstores tend to be full of books that offer those things, while the hot-selling indie titles on Amazon tend to be closer in spirit and substance to the mass-market paperbacks at the grocery checkout.
So if you’re an indie author and you’re not interested in writing a commercial series, you’re in a bind. Your real readers are in bookstores, but getting into those is difficult.
I had been lamenting this after publishing my first book, and as I was beginning to promote my second. Then, recently, I came across a series of books by Chris Fox, which embraces all of the things I had once lamented about the online book market. In a book called Write to Market, Fox describes the process he followed to produce a top-selling ebook. First, identify a sub-genre on Amazon that has strong sales and is underserved. That’s one in which the top few sellers are selling very well, but the tenth and twentieth best-selling items on the list are not moving many copies at all. After identifying a sub-genre, Fox read the top few titles and figured out their formula. In his case, he found books about spaceships with maverick captains having to fend off some alien threat that might wipe out the whole human race. The final part of Fox’s advice is to write a book that follows that formula, give it a cover and a blurb similar to the covers and blurbs of the best sellers, do a little marketing, and collect your paycheck.
Fox says he took a lot of flack for the process he described in Write to Market, with a number of readers and writers calling him a cynic and a sellout. I actually think he’s really smart. If you want to make money, you’ll do much better embracing the market than complaining about it. And I agree with his point that if you choose a sub-genre that you actually enjoy reading, you can still write a unique and compelling book, despite the fact that you’re following a formula. Think about how many painters have done landscapes and battle scenes, and what a different feeling you get from two people presenting two different views of the same subject.
If you look at fiction from a business perspective, it looks like a bunch of people creating products that no one asked for, and then wringing their hands because no one is buying what they made. Most businesses, from home building down to cupcake baking, first ask, “What do people actually buy?” And then they say, “OK, we’ll make some of those.” Writers and painters and musicians, especially the more intellectual ones, think their creations are special and that they’re entitled to an exception to the market rules. I’m guilty of that myself sometimes. We might as well expect the law of gravity not to apply to us.
So Fox’s books got me thinking about why I read and why I write. What do I look for in a book, and what do I try to create in a book? Fox has another book called 5000 Words Per Hour, which describes why and how you should write 5000 words per hour if you want to make it as an indie author. (For the why part, the short of it is that Kindle readers like series, and they’ll binge read if they can. The faster you can put books in front of them, the happier they’ll be. As your sales increase, you become more visible to new readers on Amazon, creating a cycle of sales growth.)
Now I can probably write 5000 words per hour. I can certainly type that fast. After all these years as a software developer, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the keyboard. But I know I couldn’t produce the work I want to produce if I were writing at that speed. I tried to formulate the reason why, but I couldn’t quite do it until yesterday, when I was looking at paintings in the art museum in Richmond.
I was admiring the work of Kehinde Wiley, who himself has something of a formula, and when I looked past his message to the quality and detail of his work, I was finally able to describe why I can’t be a 5000-word-per-hour genre writer. It comes down to this: There is no story we can tell that hasn’t already been told. The stories that stick with us are the ones that are told in a way that moves us. They have a little more heart, a little more depth and style than what we’re used to finding. In telling yet another version of a story we’ve heard before, they reveal a something new, reaching us in a way the other tellings didn’t.
I like writing that shows a willingness to open up and look deep, that shows attention to composition and detail, building not just the story, but an overall experience in the reader’s mind by working on many levels at once. That kind of writing doesn’t really happen at 5000 words per hour. In the online writing market, choosing the challenges of depth and detail means giving up your shot at being a first-tier seller. You’re aiming at a smaller, pickier audience that’s harder to find, and the chances of them discovering you without the marketing channels available to traditional publishers is slim.
So for now, I look at writing and earning a living as two different things. Software pays the bills, and when I have time to do it, writing is the creative outlet that keeps me going.