EBooks ARE a Game Changer

It’s been exactly one year since I uploaded my Lawson Vampire backlist to Amazon and Barnes & Noble and started selling them as ebooks for the Kindle & Nook. Prior to doing so, the way I made money as a writer was as follows:

1. Come up with an idea that I was both excited about AND had tremendous marketing potential (in other words, one that would hopefully sell a gazillion copies)
2. Write up an exhaustive proposal package containing the idea, a synopsis of the first book, sample chapters, character breakdowns, marketing competition analysis, and a marketing plan.
3. Submit this to my agent, who would then submit the package to a number of editors.
4. Wait.
5. Wait.
6. Get rejections from most editors; maybe get an acceptance from another.
7. Wait.
8. Wait.
9. Get an offer. Usually this offer was in the low five-figures. Certainly, it was never enough to “live on” in the real world.
10. Wait.
11. Wait.
12. Eventually, a contract would arrive at my agent’s office. My agent would then go over the contract, argue certain clauses, get push-back, etc. etc.
13. Wait.
14. Wait.
15. Eventually, I would receive my advance check after it had first gone to my agent who took his 15%. An advance is just that: an advance against future royalties. Said royalties would normally be a low percentage of the retail price, ranging from 6% at the low end to 10% at the high end.
16. Wait for the book to be published – usually at least one year from the contract signing. In some case, up to two years.
17. The book goes on sale.
18. Wait.
19. Wait.
20. Traditional publishers give you an accounting of sales of your book twice each year. If your book sells well, it is at this point that you get “paid.”
21. Except that your pay, in this case, actually goes back to cover the cost of your advance. When you “earn out” that means you’ve made enough to cover the advance the publisher paid you. If you’ve sold well enough, you then earn royalties beyond that advance and get paid.
22. Except that publishers have this antiquated business model that allows the book sellers to pay them long after they get the books. So publishers have this nefarious little clause called “Reserves Against Returns,” which means they hold onto a sizable chunk of any money you’ve earned beyond your advance in order to cover the possibility that some of the books the bookstores “bought” might come back to the warehouse if the title doesn’t move.
23. Wait another six months and repeat #22.
24. Hopefully, somewhere down the road, you actually earn out and see royalties.
25. In the meantime, your agent is *hopefully* (and I say, hopefully because an awful lot seem to NOT pursue this very aggressively even though they should) selling subsidiary rights like audio, foreign translations, film/TV, etc. which earns you more money. But your agent undoubtedly has other clients vying for his attention, so your subsidiary rights get forgotten, unless you hustle your ass off and bring deals to them directly. And even though you were the one that went and got those deals, your agent still takes a nice cut.

While all this is going on, you are simultaneously writing new proposals and doing work-for-hire novels – possibly to the tune of writing eleven Rogue Angel novels like I did (if you live in the real world, that is, where you must make up the shortfall of that crummy advance by picking up other writing jobs to cover the household finances, make mortgage payments, etc.).

The old way had a lot of “hope” in it. As in, “I hope this sells,” “I hope they pay me better than last time, ” and “I hope this editor’s boss doesn’t have his head on speed dial with the bottom part of his alimentary canal.”

Enter the world of ebooks. According to publishing industry veteran Michael Cader, it’s premature to call ebooks “a game changer.”

Really.

Well, howzabout we just look at how much of a game changer they’ve been for me…

Since I uploaded my Lawson backlist late last January and then throughout the year introduced new Lawson adventures, a few standalone novels, some non-fiction, and a bunch of short stories, the way I earn a living has changed dramatically. Here’s how it works now:

1. Come up with an idea about something cool I’d like to write.
2. Write it.
3. Let my beta readers check it out, offer critiques, suggestions, etc.
4. Edit until I’m confident it reads well.
5. While 2-4 is happening, hire a cover artist to come up with a concept I like and one that I think will help sell the book.
6. Once finished editing, format the ebook.
7. Upload the ebook, set a price point.
8. Announce publication of book.
9. Sell the ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, iBooks, Kobo, and any number of other places.
10. 60 days after the book goes on-sale, I start seeing the money from the sales.
11. In the meantime, the work I already have on-sale continues to earn me income. I get paid every single month, direct deposit to my checking account by Amazon US, Amazon UK, every other Amazon store internationally, and Barnes & Noble. Smashwords pays every six months (which is a ludicrous throwback to traditional publishing and one Smashwords absolutely needs to change if they hope to remain relevant).
12. As a result of getting paid every month, I can budget my household finances better, which means infinitely LESS stress.
13. As a result of less stress, my creative juices flow better and I come up with more cool ideas (ideas that I do NOT have to run past a whole committee of supposed “professionals” in New York who think they understand the tastes of the reading public) I then turn into books and put on sale earning me more money.
14. The more ebooks I have on-sale, the larger my virtual shelf space becomes, and the more I sell. As a result, my monthly income tends to go up – it’s like getting a raise every time I write something new.
15. As more people migrate to digital e-readers, my potential market share also increases. Coupled with my social media presence, I am always growing my fan base and therefore, selling more ebooks while still barely scratching the surface of the entire ebook-reading public.
16. Ebooks are forever. Whereas a traditionally published book MIGHT have a lifespan of six weeks on a bookstore shelf, my ebooks stay on their cyber shelves forever, meaning they earn money for me forever.
17. Since I bypass all the various middlemen that make up the world of traditional publishing, I get paid between 65-70% of the RETAIL royalty rate compared to the horrifyingly insulting 25% NET royalty rate offered by traditional publishers on ebooks. The result: me much happier.

Now, as I said, Michael Cader believes it’s still premature to call ebooks a game changer. But Michael Cader also works for an industry that is in serious trouble; his livelihood depends on keeping things the way they are, so of course he’s going to perpetrate such silliness.

Ebooks most definitely ARE a game changer for one simple reason: when the lifeblood of your industry (in this case, the content creators aka “writers”) figures out they can make more money, get paid on a consistent and steady schedule, do it all without jumping through stupid hoops like “acquisition meetings,” and bypass all the middlemen and go directly to the most important part of the equation – the readers themselves – then you have real change occurring.

Whether folks like Michael Cader accept it or not.

I’ve been writing since 1994; I’ve been a traditionally published author since 2002. In the ten years I tried to play the game by New York’s rules, I’ve seen so much ridiculousness, it amazes me the publishing industry has lasted as long as it has. Midlist writers (that is to say those who are not gifted with million-dollar advances and groomed for the supposed bestseller lists) are treated like indentured servants: crummy advances that New York insists are “livable,” crappy royalty rates, contract clauses that are meant to provide steady income for the publisher not the writer, and an accounting system woefully behind-the-times and deliberately complicated so as to render auditing it both costly and intimidating for the average writer.

In the year since I’ve been publishing as an indie, I’ve made more money than at any other point in my writing career. I’ve sold more books than at any other point in my writing career (over 20,000 copies of my Lawson adventures JUST on the Amazon US marketplace). And I’ve been able to engage and meet more fans than at any other point in my writing career. And I’m not even as succesful as other indie ebook authors – some of them are making thousands of dollars every single DAY.

Traditional publishing loves to claim that they do a ton of stuff for writers – hence the low pay and royalty rates.

It’s BS.

Unless you belong to that rarefied strata of bestselling author, traditional publishers aren’t doing much for you.

1. These days, editors rarely edit. Back in ’02, my first editor never even edited the first four Lawson novels. I’ve had exactly two editors ever edit me at all: one for a short story and one for a novel. Otherwise, “editing” doesn’t much happen at all.
2. Marketing falls to the author to accomplish. The last marketing person I worked with at a major house lined up exactly ONE signing and ONE interview. My huge blog blitz? All those other interviews, podcasts, etc.? All done by hustling my ass off.
3. Publishers pay lip service with regards to cover art & design. The author doesn’t get a say in what the final cover is, because the sales & marketing folks think they know best what will sell a book. Sometimes they’re right; but more often they’re wrong.
4. Bookstore presence: yes, you have print versions of your book available in major retailers. Oops, I mean RETAILER. Because right now, Barnes & Noble is the only real national major chain. One chain. Down from about four. Why is there only one major chain left? Because people don’t visit bookstores like they used to – they are switching to ebooks. And as far as indies go (and side note: I love indie bookstores – Jim at Park Street Books in Medfield, Massachusetts is awesome and everyone should go buy from him!) they only account for roughly 10% of sales in the publishing industry. So this argument is no longer as viable as it once might have been. An enterprising author can set up a book at Lightning Source for about $100 bucks, get into the major distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor (they service those bookstores) and have print editions of their books without giving up the enormous percentages that signing a traditional deal would hamstring them with.

I have complete control over my books now. I write them as I think they should be; I design them as I think they should be; and I sell them for a very reasonable price point instead of price-gouging consumers the way traditional publishers do (really New York? $16.99 for an ebook? Who are the wizards who came up with THAT one?)

As you read this, THE FIXER is being translated into Spanish in preparation for it going on sale in the HUGE Spanish language market. I’m at work on a TON of stuff I’ve wanted to bring out for years. And my middle grade/YA boys adventure series (y’know, the one that LANGUISHED for 18 months as editor after editor sent back notes like “boys don’t read,” “what if the protagonist was a girl?”) THE NINJA APPRENTICE gets sets to debut to the burgeoning demographic of younger readers. Apple has rolled out a new ebook authoring tool for free that will enable me to embed multimedia in my ebooks that are sold on iBooks. And each day, more and more people are discovering the convenience, ease, and enjoyment that ebooks offer.

All of which makes people in the traditional publishing industry – people like Michael Cader – very, VERY worried. Hence they make silly proclamations in the hopes of stemming the tsunami with a finger in the proverbial dike.

Here’s my prediction: in 12 months, I’ll still have a job in the publishing world – I’ll be doing what I love to do: creating exciting entertainment for people looking for an escape from their everyday lives. I’ll do this regardless of how my stories reach my audience. If ebooks suddenly implode (they won’t) and I have to carve my writing out on discarded pieces of tree bark, then that’s what I’ll do. Because long ago someone taught me that when one thing doesn’t work, you adapt and overcome. You evolve. You get smarter.

Insisting that things are the same when they most obviously are not isn’t adapting. It’s not meeting the challenge and figuring out how to make the best of it. It’s not evolution.

And it’s definitely not smart.

I wonder what Michael Cader will be saying 12 months from now…

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