I met Brian Rathbone, author of the World of Godsland fantasy series, on Twitter. I posted something relating to self-publishing, he answered, and pretty soon we were exchanging emails. I found that although I had learned a lot in more than ten years of self-publishing, there were lots of new trends that I had kind of missed. One of them being Twitter itself, which I was not making very good use of, and another being ebook publishing & distributing (when I met Brian, I had about 250 followers on twitter and he had 15,000. I had given away tens of thousands of free ebooks but sold only a few dozens of them). It was Brian who turned me onto Smashwords, which I now use to distribute my Acts of the Apostles to half a dozen ebook retailers, including Apple and Barnes & Noble. (See my interview with Smashwords founder Mark Coker here).
Brian is a very creative user of social media, and also of “podiobooks” — self-recorded audiobooks (which he explains below). He’s not only a good writer and creative self-publisher, he’s also an extremely nice fellow. I encourage you to check out his interview below the fold, and by all means, buy one of his books!
Brian joins the roster of luminaries interviewed here on Wetmachine about the future of publishing that includes Smashwords’ Mark Coker, Writer’s Digest honcho emeritus Jane Friedman, book designer extraordinaire Joel Friedlander, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks.
Q: It’s a tradition that I start these interviews on the future of publishing with “Dirk’s Question”, named for my friend the novelist Dirk VonN. Whenever I write to my list looking for questions, Dirk says “ask them what the fuck is going on”. Can you summarize trends you see in publishing?
Great question. The short answer is that there is a lot going on–now for the really long answer. The publishing industry is changing. I’m not one of those who feel that print is dead, but I do believe that publishers are going to have to adapt to changes in the marketplace. For one thing, ebooks are here to stay. My main prediction for 2011 is that eInk enabled eReaders will fall below $100, and this will further fuel the ebook revolution. This shift is partly driven by technology and partly driven by economics. On a technological level, eReaders such as the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, and Kobo are bringing a more natural reading experience with non-backlit displays, which are easier on the eyes. Also the proliferation of smartphones and tablet computers are putting ebook capable devices in the hands of the masses. All these devices allow for instant purchase and delivery of tens of thousands of titles-some rival or even exceed the print reading experience. For those with visual impairments, for example, the ability to change the font size can be life changing, and the ability to have text read to you further enhances accessibility. For avid readers, the economics of ebooks are hard to ignore. Ebooks cost a lot less to produce and are priced lower. For those who read a lot, it doesn’t take long to make up the cost of the reader.
People’s love of print books isn’t going anywhere, and I don’t think that readers will be eReaders or print readers, but instead many readers will become hybrid readers. I’m one of them. There have been a number of times that I discovered an ebook, which led to the purchase of the print edition. I haven’t even mentioned audiobooks yet, but the same things hold true. There are books that I own in print, ebook, and audiobook editions. Google is one of the first companies to embrace this notion with their introduction of Google Editions. Now when you purchase a print book from a brick and mortar book store, you may be offered the opportunity to purchase a discounted ebook version of the same title. Why would you want the ebook if you have the print edition, you ask? Flexibility. Let’s face it, you can’t always carry that print edition around, but there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have your smartphone with you. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the ability to read a chapter of your new book wherever you are? I also predict that someday soon Google will realize that the audiobook version should also be part of the bundle. As many commuters already know, an audiobook can really make the time pass in pleasant fashion. I want my content when, where, and how I want it–plain and simple. Give me what I want and I’ll be willing to pay for it. Add the fact that electronic editions allow near instant access to a global market with little to no risk, and you have a very compelling proposition.
This new world poses some new challenges and decisions for authors as well. In days past many writers lamented the gatekeepers who would decide who was worthy of being in print and who was not. Then came the self-publishing revolution and those barriers were dropped to both good effect and ill. The good part was that writers had the option to bypass the gatekeepers, the bad is that many bypassed them when perhaps they shouldn’t have. The result was a glut of poorly written and poorly edited books flooding the market and self-publishing took on a very negative stigma. What few writers wanted to admit was that the gatekeepers had been acting as filters—sifting through the crap and occasionally finding a gem. I’m not saying that all self-published works are crap, but many of them are not as good as they should be. If you are considering self-publishing, I urge you to resist the urge to go to print, or ebook until you have had your manuscript professionally edited. Perhaps the only form of publishing that is tolerant of unedited works would be podcasting. There are a few reasons for this. First is that podcast novels are generally free, and those who get something for free tend to be a lot more forgiving. Secondly, many writers use the podcasting method to get feedback from listeners, which they may apply before going to print, thus listeners feel engaged in the creative process. And third is that the act of podcasting is, in a way, a very effective form of editing. When writers edit their own work, they often see what they think they have written rather than what is actually on the page. When we read aloud, however, our brains process the information much differently and many errors become more obvious when spoken. Many editors suggest reading your work aloud as a way of spotting errors, and podcasting just takes that process a couple steps further. For new writers, podcasting can be a great way to build an audience and make their work more attractive to publishers. Some would argue that podcasting a novel makes the work less attractive to publishers, so you must exercise your own judgment on that one. I think it can go either way, and the success rate is dependent on the level of promotion, production values, and other efforts made by the author after the recording is done. If you’d like to see how this process is working for other writers, check out Podiobooks.com.
Q: You followed a route to building an audience that I had never before encountered — through podcasts of your books. Can you summarize how you did and what you’ve learned from the process?
A good friend of mine pestered me for months to create a podcast version of my books, and I’m really glad he did. For a long time I thought it would be too much work—I wasn’t really too far off the mark, as it was a lot of work, however I feel that the results have been worthwhile. To date, I’ve had over 400,000 episodes downloaded, and many listeners have made donations or have gone on to buy the print edition or even the premium audiobook edition. The Podiobooks.com format is to provide serialized editions of your work, where it is broken into episodes which resemble television episodes in that every episode has an intro, outro, and possibly some author chatter or even light advertising. An audiobook, on the other hand, has only one intro at the beginning of the book and one at the end of the book. There are those who prefer audiobooks over serialized podiobooks, and they are willing to pay for the less chatty editions. Podiobooks.com now offers authors the ability to sell premium versions of their work and even provides the ability to publish the premium versions on Audible.com,
Amazon.com, and iTunes. Selling over 1,000 copies of the audiobook has made the production time and hardware costs a lot more palatable for me.
Q: Can you elaborate a little on your move from podcasting to print books to ebooks? Which is your primary platform
a) In terms of audience reached?
b) In terms of income generated?
As with most things in my life, my podcasting journey has been the opposite of the norm. I seem to have a talent for doing things backwards and somehow still achieving the desired result. It is a gift and a curse.
I went to print first, then to ebook, and lastly to podcasting. I also chose not to release my episodes over time; instead I dropped entire books onto Podiobooks.com in a single shot. This had the advantage of driving many downloads in a short period of time from listeners who prefer to only download works that are complete. This is most likely due to the negative trend in podcasting known as podfade, where podcasters lose interest or run out of time and for whatever reason are unable or unwilling to finish what they have started. You can imagine how well that goes over with listeners. The disadvantage of dropping all the episodes in one shot was that I missed out on repeatedly being featured on the Podiobooks.com front page in the “new episodes” section. When I do my next podiobook, I will probably finish the work in advance and then release it over a couple months, which should get me as much exposure as possible.
I was also glad to have my print edition and ebook edition available when the podiobook launched, since that helped drive sales. It’s that whole hybrid reader thing.
At first, Podiobooks.com was my primary method of building my audience, and it still brings me many new listeners each month, but the ebook revolution is in full swing, and I’m now having more success in the ebook market than I am in audio and print. My print efforts are somewhat dismal, but that is more a reflection of where my efforts have gone and my intolerance for financial risk. If I were to put my print edition into traditional distribution I would have the opportunity to tap the sales at brick and mortar bookstores, but I would also take on the significant risk of returns. If you want to become a published author and you are not already familiar with terms like “selling through” and returnability, I highly recommend you do some research and save yourself some heartache. In short: book store distribution = significant financial risk to the publisher.
One of the reasons that I am having such great success in the ebook market is that I have control over the pricing of my ebooks, and I have embraced the “freemium” model, which basically involves giving some content away and charging for subsequent content. For some authors the idea of giving away any of their books is tantamount to heresy, but financial gain was not my preliminary goal, which I’ll talk more about in a bit.
When I published my ebooks, I had three books in a series completed. I decided to give away the first book for free and to only charge $0.99 for the other two. I also published an omnibus edition that I charge $2.99 for. This has accomplished a number for things for me. For one, a free ebook is super easy to promote and they fly off the virtual shelves. This allows me to introduce my work to a large number of readers. Those who like my work then check out the subsequent titles, and when they see the price is only $0.99, they tend to just buy both at the same time. This creates a compounding effect. I often say that the best way to sell books is to sell a lot of books (or ebooks). While it may seem somewhat paradoxical, here is the logic. When your books start to sell in large numbers a few things happen. You start to climb the charts which makes your books more visible to others—instead of them having to search for you, your books just start showing up on frequently viewed pages. Also, have you ever noticed those “customers who bought this also bought that” sections on popular book websites? The more sales you get, the more product pages you will show up on. It’s all about increasing your product visibility. If people never see your book, chances are they won’t buy it. Plain and simple.
While I’m on the topic of visibility, I want to touch on the various ebook publishing platforms and retailers. I often see people ask “Should I publish my ebook on Amazon or Barnes and Noble?” The answer is both, and don’t forget Sony, Apple, Kobo, etc. The more virtual shelves your books hit the more likely shoppers will see it. My strategy is to be EVERYWHERE (and it works)! If you’re looking for an easy way onto multiple platforms, be sure to check out Smashwords.com. If you find the prospect of publishing an ebook too technically intimidating, then consider letting a digital publisher do the work for you. I have published many ebooks for other authors through my company, White Wolf Press, LLC. We don’t charge any upfront costs and take 30% of the royalty paid by the various platforms.
It’s important to note that royalty rates in the ebook industry are on the rise. In years past, many retailers only paid authors 35% of the retail price; that number has now climbed to 70% on average. Making $3.50 for selling a $5 ebook is not bad at all in my opinion. Because of this, I generate most of my income from ebooks, with print and audio running neck and neck. I sell more audiobooks, but I make more money on each print edition I sell, so it averages out.
Q: Your work is in the genre loosely called “fantasy” — first of all, am I correct about that, and would you care to elaborate any further? And second it seems to me that readers of varies forms of “genre” fiction (Fantasy, SF, Romance, Paranormal, etc) are more open to self-publishing authors than are readers of “mainstream” fiction because they are familiar with and open to the “fan-fiction” tradition. Are avid fantasy fans any more or less open to self-publishing authors than other readers?
I’ve always been a fantasy reader, and I can’t really speak too much toward the tastes and preferences of readers in other genres, but I can say that readers of fantasy and speculative fiction in general tend to be voracious readers. I think this leads to many of them running out of material at the book stores, which may make them more open to independent writers and publishers including small presses and self-published authors.
My work, in particular, is probably best classified as Epic Fantasy with leanings toward YA (young adult), since there is little graphic violence and no explicit language. It tends to be a bit cerebral and may be a bit challenging for younger readers, but I have learned not to underestimate readers. There are some pretty brilliant 10 year olds out there, and they may surprise you with what they read.
I have noticed that many fantasy readers aspire to be writers, which may explain the proliferation of fan fiction. I attribute this partly to one of my favorite things about fantasy and that is the ability for the reader to co-create. When we read books set in our own world we often have existing mental imagery that we simply plug in, but fantasy challenges the imagination by taking us to places that we know nothing about and our brains get to create imagery that often exceeds what the writer has described by a wide margin. This creates a very personalized reading experience. There are those who say that fantasy and other types of speculative fiction are pure escapism, but that is gross overgeneralization and highly inaccurate. What speculative fiction allows writers to do is to explore ethical, political, environmental and other issues outside of existing prejudices and preconceived notions. Often when taken out of the context of our own world we can see these things in an entirely new light. Underestimate the power of speculative fiction at your own risk is my feeling on the matter. Certainly there are some that are light and whimsical and may qualify as escapist, but lumping all of these works into that bucket is doing some terrific writers a great disservice.
Q: You and I got to know each other when we somehow met on Twitter and you began to tutor me in the ways of new media (like Twitter). When we first met, I had something like 200 twitter followers and you had 15,000. (And by the way, thank you again for all your help and advice.) Can you summarize the most important lesson you’ve learned in building a social media “platform”?
I am a self-professed technology junky, but there was a time that I just did not “get” Twitter. Early on, I had more success with Facebook, but then I reached a rate of diminished returns from Facebook, after all: I only have so many “friends”, and they only wanted to hear about books so much before I just became boring and probably a little annoying. The thing about Facebook is that it is best for connecting with people you already know, and “friending” someone you don’t already know can be seen as spammy and even a little creepy. Twitter, on the other hand, is about connecting with people who share common interests with you. When you follow someone on Twitter, what you are essentially doing is saying, “I think you might have something interesting to say.” That’s a lot less creepy than saying you want to be friends with strangers. Therefore, Twitter is a much better way to meet new people.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make on any social network is to use the phrase “buy my book” or anything like it. People don’t want to be sold to. It is far better to engage people with information they might find interesting and let them figure out on their own that you have products to sell. What I do is use my profile background as my billboard. By creating a professional looking profile with information about my books and where they are available along with a link to my website (where additional information is available) I’ve done all I need to do to let people know about my books. As far as my tweets go, I try to share information that I think my followers will find interesting, much of which involves promoting other writers and artists. For many, this seems ludicrous: “Why on earth would you promote your competition?!?”. The answer is simple: they are not my competition. I realized a long time ago that I will never be able to write fast enough to satisfy the appetites of my audience. I also learned that only talking about myself makes me very boring indeed. The best form of self-promotion I’ve found is soft-self-promotion through the promotion of others. Instead of using a megaphone to talk about myself, I provide a service to my followers by keeping them informed of new releases, trends in the publishing industry, and other cool stuff. It’s a lot more fun for them and a lot more fun for me. One other thing to keep in mind is that most writers love to read, so those you might consider to be competition could actually be your audience. The most important things I’ve learned are: say something of value and people will listen, and don’t be afraid to reach out to those around you. Be a real person, and don’t try to automate your social media activity. The world doesn’t need more automated SPAM—trust me on this one. Be REAL and be PRESENT.
Q: When I interviewed Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest, she said that writers, whether self-or traditionally published should plan to spend about equal amounts of time writing and marketing (where marketing includes lots of direct communication with readers). How do you budget your time? How do you fit all your writing, publishing and promotion activities around your day job and “real life”?
I would say that Jane Friedman is wise and has given you some great advice. Some may think that getting a book deal from a big publisher means they shouldn’t have to do all this self-promotion muckety muck, but remember what I said about book store distribution equaling risk for the publisher. When a book goes into distribution there is a very short period of time to capitalize on the shelf space. If your book does not sell well early on, the books will be returned (and be unsellable) and your publisher will lose money. Once you’ve lost a publisher money, they will be much less likely to offer you another book deal, and that’s no good for anyone. Many writers are appalled to find out that other writers spend most, if not all, of their advance on marketing, but those writers understand that their writing career is essentially on the line and the only way they will continue to flourish with traditional publishers is to make sure their book sells. With that in mind, Jane’s advice starts to make a lot more sense.
No matter how you are published, social media is a way to generate visibility by investing time instead of money. Early on, I used Google AdWords to advertise my books, and I had success. It wasn’t easy, and I used a lot of my technical skills to create finely tuned, targeted, and trackable campaigns. I knew exactly how many clicks it took to generate a sale, which ads were performing and which weren’t, and what price to bid per click to get the most for my money. Once I gained traction on Twitter (which I also tracked), I realized that my Twitter activity was generating as much traffic and sales as $500 a month in AdWords. At that point, I stopped using AdWords and concentrated on free social media techniques that actually work.
Tracking the results of your efforts is incredibly important, and there are free tools that can help, such as Google Analytics, Bit.ly link click tracking, and even the sales rank on Amazon, B&N, and other sites. While checking your sales numbers and statistics can be time-consuming and can be taken too far, it is nonetheless important. For example, if I hadn’t noticed that my ebook /Call of the Herald/ had reached #100 on Amazon, it may have never reached #49, but as soon as I saw that I had gained momentum, I took full advantage of that momentum. Since I usually don’t promote my own stuff on Twitter, people didn’t mind when I thanked them for helping to put Call of the Herald on the charts. And since I had been willing to promote other authors, like yourself, those authors didn’t mind spreading the word about my success in topping the charts. The result was that Call of the Herald climbed as high as the #3 Epic Fantasy on Amazon. That achievement has helped to fuel sales ever since. You see? Sometimes the best way to sell books is to sell a lot of books. It snowballs.
As for how I manage my time, the honest answer is that I’m lousy at it. I tend to spend too much time on marketing and not enough time writing, and my “real life” has a nasty habit of getting in the way. Sometimes I struggle to find my muse in the face of life’s stresses, but somehow I find a way, and I’m proud to say that I’m finally getting my next book written. It’s a struggle that I won’t downplay. I respect anyone who can do it successfully. I sometimes envy those like Scott Nicholson, Philippa Ballantine, Scott Sigler and others who have made the transition to full time writer, but most of the time I count myself as lucky for having as much time as I do to devote to this endeavor. I have a plan and I will join them in the future. Until then I’ll work at it every day. It is my passion and somehow I will find a way.
Q: Do you aspire to a contract with a “traditional” publisher, or are you happy to remain your own publisher indefinitely?
I have always aspired to get a book deal with a major publisher, and I was somewhat disheartened when I didn’t find immediate success. Now, I look back and laugh at my own naiveté—I don’t know what made me think it would be so easy. I had this silly notion that all I had to do was write a good book and agents and publishers would be glad to have me. I was thinking more with my heart than my head. What I realize now is that publishing is a business, and agents and publishers need to pay their mortgages just like I do. When I first presented myself to them, I offered them what I now know was a very poor business case. While I still feel my books are well written and have merit, I also know that I have room to learn and grow as a writer. I also know that there are things I could have done to make my work more commercially viable, such as providing a more immediate hook. This is probably secondary to the fact that I had no audience. Writers may lament the fact that publishers crank out celebrity books that they consider crap compared to their literary masterpieces, but I don’t think any of them can argue that celebrity “crap” sells, and I’m betting those sales keep people in the publishing industry fed. Pound that idea into your brain, and you have a lot better chance of succeeding as a professional writer. I’m not saying you need to write crap, I’m saying you need to prove that you have an audience and that they will buy your books. Present an agent or publisher with a good business case and they may just offer you a contract.
In one of my answers above I mentioned that profit is not my primary motivator; audience building /is/. I’m building an author platform and sales record that leaves no doubt that my books will sell. One of the best ways to sell a lot of books to publishers is to sell a lot of books yourself. Track your sales, record your successes, build your audience, and create measurable ways to reach new readers—all of these things will make you more attractive to publishers.
I’ll also note that getting a book deal with a large publisher is not the end game for me. I want to be a hybrid author: both self-published and traditionally published. I’ll continue to use the “freemium” model to drive sales to my self-published and traditionally published works. And I will also self-publish certain works in the future, which I will charge full price for. Traditional publishing does not always pay as well as self-publishing on a “per sale” basis, but having the resources of a big publisher working for you is a good thing. Having a big publisher absorb the risk involved with traditional distribution is a good thing, and using that visibility to drive traffic to high-margin self-published works can also be a VERY good thing. In today’s publishing environment, you often have to be as creative with your publishing techniques as you are with your writing.
If you get stuck and you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, send me an email or contact me on Twitter, I’m @brianrathbone. I don’t always respond promptly, but I do try to respond.
I’d like to extend a great big thank you to John for conducting this interview. He and I are proof that truly valuable and genuine relationships can be formed on Twitter–further evidence that Twitter is not about what you just ate.