Advanced Fiction Writing Blog

Hugh Howey and the Tsunami of Cash

Bravo to Hugh Howey and to his collaborator, “Anonymous Data Guy,” for their recent series of articles at AuthorEarnings.com.

Hugh and Data Guy have done a remarkable series of calculations that work as follows:

  • Data Guy wrote a program to crawl through various best-seller lists on Amazon.
  • Hugh already had data from many indie authors allowing him to correlate a sales-rank to an actual number of sales.
  • Data Guy then used Hugh’s data to estimate author earnings.

You can read all the results at AuthorEarnings.com. We can summarize their results  as follows:

  • Indie authors as a group are selling about as many units as the group of authors published by the Big 5.
  • Indie authors as a group are earning about as much money as the group of authors published by the Big 5.

Edward W. Robertson has also done some recent interesting work to see what percentage of indie authors are doing well in various genres. 

 The Tsunami of Cash

We have been warned for years that indie publishing was producing a “tsunami of crap.” Indie books were supposed to be a vast wasteland of drivel, with perhaps a few “outliers” who were earning a lot of money. But most indie authors were claimed to be struggling along, earning on average just a few hundred (or possibly a few thousand dollars) per year.

Instead, the facts are now clear. Indie publishing is producing a “tsunami of cash” for indie authors. Yes, there are plenty of bad indie books, but the good stuff is easily found by readers. And good writing gets rewarded with money.

What Amazon Really Said

In this blog post, I’d like to look at a single data point that Amazon gave us on December 26, 2013. You can find it buried in this post on Amazon.

Here’s the data point, which has been widely misinterpreted:

“150 Kindle Direct Publishing authors each sold more than 100,000 copies of their books in 2013.”

Virtually everybody has read this to mean that a good indie author is moving about 100,000 copies per year. Which is good, but not great. After all, a good trad-published author moves millions of copies per year. So what’s the fuss about 100k copies? This would mean a total of 15 million copies sold for those indie authors.

The answer is that the top indie authors are moving a lot more than 100k copies per year, and those 150 authors are probably moving nearly 4 times as many units—around 58.5 million copies.

How do I know? I’ll explain how I know in the rest of this article.

The 80-20 Rule and Amazon

Most people have heard of the 80-20 rule, which says that roughly 20% of the people earn roughly 80% of the money.

The 80-20 rule is an example of a “Pareto distribution,” which you can read about on Wikipedia if you’re mathematically adept. I have discussed the Pareto distribution on this blog and in my e-zine in the past. (For a summary, see my blog post Liars and Outliers In The Publishing World.)

In my previous posts and articles, I’ve made a slightly different set of assumptions. I’ve worked with the so-called “Zipf Distribution,” which is a very simple version of a Pareto distribution. In this article, I’m going to work with the 80-20 rule, a slightly different version of the Pareto distribution which I think is closer to the real world.

The 80-20 rule is a good approximation to a lot of situations.

Let’s apply the 80-20 rule to the single data point that Amazon gave us and see what we can learn.

Mathematical Assumptions

Skip this section if you hate math.

We’ll make the following assumptions to create a very simple mathematical model, and then we’ll see what that model tells us. Please remember that we don’t claim this model represents reality perfectly. But if it approximates reality, then the model should give us valuable insights into the “Amazon economy” for writers. I am going to have to get a little mathematical here, so if you hate math, skip down just a bit.

  • Assumption #1: Unit sales of books follow a Pareto distribution: sales of an author are inversely proportional to the author rank raised to a certain exponent. The equation for this is S = C/(R**E), where:
    • S is the unit sales of a given author
    • C is some unknown constant to be determined
    • R is the rank of the author among all the other indie authors
    • E is some unknown exponent to be determined
    • The operation R**E means to raise R to the power E.
  • Assumption #2: We can use the 80-20 rule to compute the exponent E. The result is very well known:  E = log(4)/log(5) = .86135.  (Here, “log” means the natural logarithm.)
  • Assumption #3: Indie author #150 sold about 100,000 units in 2013. We can use this to estimate the unknown constant: C = 7,488,300 units.

Estimates For the Top 10 Indie Authors

Now we can use our formula to estimate the unit sales on Amazon for ANY indie author. Let me emphasize, I’m talking here only about indie authors, so the rank we’ll use is the indie author rank. Note that some authors are hybrid authors—they work for trad publishers and they do some indie work. My model is just a simple model and it doesn’t account for this splitting of effort. So we can’t draw incredibly precise conclusions. But we CAN make some simple estimates that can guide our thinking.

I wrote a simple program to use our formula to estimate the sales for each of a large number of indie authors. I chose the number 600,000, because I know there are at least that many authors on Amazon’s Author Central. The exact number is not all that important, except when you try to calculate the average income or the median income for authors. (But neither of these is a very useful number to calculate.)

Here are the estimates for the top ten indie authors on Amazon:

  • Rank: 1, Sales: 7488296
  • Rank: 2, Sales: 4121828
  • Rank: 3, Sales: 2906786
  • Rank: 4, Sales: 2268803
  • Rank: 5, Sales: 1872074
  • Rank: 6, Sales: 1600000
  • Rank: 7, Sales: 1401055
  • Rank: 8, Sales: 1248831
  • Rank: 9, Sales: 1128348
  • Rank: 10, Sales: 1030457

 Holy cow! Do you see that? This model estimates that the best indie author is moving almost 7.5 MILLION units. That’s a lot more than 100k units. Yes, it’s just an approximation. But it shows us what the 80-20 rule is telling us, if we take the 80-20 rule seriously.

The model predicts that about 10 indie authors are moving more than a million units per year on Amazon.

 Estimates for the Top 150 Indie Authors

Now let’s estimate sales of selected indie authors in the top 150 (the folks selling more than 100k units):

  • Rank: 10, Sales: 1030457
  • Rank: 20, Sales: 567201
  • Rank: 30, Sales: 400000
  • Rank: 40, Sales: 312208
  • Rank: 50, Sales: 257614
  • Rank: 60, Sales: 220174
  • Rank: 70, Sales: 192798
  • Rank: 80, Sales: 171850
  • Rank: 90, Sales: 155271
  • Rank: 100, Sales: 141800
  • Rank: 110, Sales: 130624
  • Rank: 120, Sales: 121192
  • Rank: 130, Sales: 113118
  • Rank: 140, Sales: 106123
  • Rank: 150, Sales: 100000

This is telling us that about 30 authors are selling more than 400k units per year. If we add up the sales for all those 150 authors, we find a total of 58.5 million copies, for an average of about 390,000 copies per author. You can see how misleading it is to assume that all 150 of them were selling 100,000 copies. The Pareto distribution is strongly distorted toward the top sellers.

 Estimates For The Rest Of The Pack

Finally, let’s look at sales of selected indie authors farther down in the pack:

  • Rank: 200, Sales: 78052
  • Rank: 300, Sales: 55044
  • Rank: 400, Sales: 42963
  • Rank: 500, Sales: 35450
  • Rank: 600, Sales: 30298
  • Rank: 700, Sales: 26531
  • Rank: 800, Sales: 23648
  • Rank: 900, Sales: 21367
  • Rank: 1000, Sales: 19513
  • Rank: 2000, Sales: 10741
  • Rank: 3000, Sales: 7574
  • Rank: 4000, Sales: 5912
  • Rank: 5000, Sales: 4878
  • Rank: 6000, Sales: 4169
  • Rank: 7000, Sales: 3651
  • Rank: 8000, Sales: 3254
  • Rank: 9000, Sales: 2940
  • Rank: 10000, Sales: 2685
  • Rank: 20000, Sales: 1478
  • Rank: 30000, Sales: 1042
  • Rank: 40000, Sales: 814
  • Rank: 50000, Sales: 671
  • Rank: 60000, Sales: 574
  • Rank: 70000, Sales: 502
  • Rank: 80000, Sales: 448
  • Rank: 90000, Sales: 405
  • Rank: 100000, Sales: 370
  • Rank: 200000, Sales: 203
  • Rank: 300000, Sales: 143
  • Rank: 400000, Sales: 112
  • Rank: 500000, Sales: 92
  • Rank: 600000, Sales: 79

Notice that the top 300 indie authors in this model are all moving more than 55,000 copies each.

And more than 2000 indie authors are moving more than 10,000 copies each.

Of course, the model also shows that there are at least half a million writers who are moving 370 units or fewer per year.

The 80-20 rule says that most people don’t sell very much. And it says that a certain select few sell incredible amounts.

My program computed a few other statistics of interest:

Total units sold:  about 292 million copies

Average sales per author:  about 486 copies

Median sales:  about 143 copies

The Amazon Economy

So the “Amazon economy” for indie authors is wildly different from Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average. In the Amazon economy, most authors are below average. For this set of numbers, about 88% of all authors are below the average.

Notice that the median and the average depend on how many authors there are. If we increased our estimate to a million authors, then the average would sink to 317 copies sold and the median would drop to 92 copies. But the sales of those people at the top wouldn’t change.

For some reason, many advocates of trad-publishing like to latch onto the known fact that average indie sales are low. This is true, but it’s inevitable if there are a lot of indie authors. There is only so much money to be made. The more authors you have, the lower the average gets sucked. The same is true for trad-published authors.

The average and the median sales of authors are not very useful numbers. What is useful to know is the sales of the top earning authors and the value of the exponent E. Once you know those, you have a very nice way to estimate the earnings for all authors at all ranks.

One clear result is that all those sales add up to a lot. Several hundred million units. There is a “tsunami of cash” coming to indie authors.

Some Cautions

Let’s be cautious here. The Pareto distribution is just an approximation to reality. The Pareto distribution is not reality itself. But it is probably a pretty good approximation, and once we make that approximation, we can make exact calculations. Those calculations are plausible, but of course they don’t correspond exactly to reality. That’s why we call it an approximation.

Furthermore, let’s be clear that we have made a model for unit sales of books, not for revenue. You have to work with what you have, and I’m working with just a single data point from Amazon—their statement that 150 indie authors each moved more than 100k books in 2013.

That’s not a lot of data, but it’s enough to get an approximate picture for all indie authors. If and when we get more data, it’ll be interesting to see how well the model holds up. I expect that the broad shape of the model will prove accurate, but there will probably be some surprises at both ends—for the top performers and the lowest performers.

 The Broad Shoulder

There will always be a few big winners and a large number who don’t earn very much. There is a “high head” and a “long tail.”

But the important point is that there is a “broad shoulder”—a set of writers who are not at the very top and yet are earning substantial money (thousands of dollars per year, or tens of thousands per year). For most of them, this is not enough to live on. But it’s enough to make their life better. That’s cool.

If we had more data, of course we could make a better model. We will always need models, because we will never have all the data.

The calculations we’ve done here would be similar for trad-published authors. The numbers would change, but the same sort of reasoning applies, and the economy is shaped in roughly the same way. There is a high head, a broad shoulder, and a long tail. 

The Future is Bright

As I have said many times, I’m not pro-publisher and I’m not anti-publisher.  I’m pro-author. And the good news is that the future is bright for indie authors. Bright, and getting brighter.

Publishing Your Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

So you’ve finished your novel and it’s a heart-breaking work of staggering genius. You’ve revised it several times, polished it, perfected it. Now you want to unleash it on the world. How do you do that?

McKenna posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

How do you get started in the marketing end of things? I understand writing, but when it comes to finding an editor and getting published, I’m hopelessly confused. Thanks in advance.

Randy sez: McKenna, you’re not alone. Hundreds of thousands of novelists every year face this same question. It’s a big question, and a full answer would take a book. So I’ll give you the big picture and then try to point you in the right direction.

You have four basic options in publishing your novel:

  • Big or mid-size traditional publisher: you get an advance and they cover the costs
  • Small publisher: you get very little advance and they cover the costs
  • Vanity publisher: you get no advance and you cover the costs
  • Indie publishing: you are the publisher

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Big or Mid-size Traditional Publisher

These publishers will publish dozens or hundreds or maybe even thousands of books per year. They have many employees, including editors, marketers, publicity people, sales people.

If you’re looking for a large advance, these publishers are the only game in town. That isn’t to say you’ll actually get a large advance. You’re more likely to get an advance well south of $10,000. But you will get an advance and it’ll represent the publisher’s estimate of what your book will earn in roughly the first year. The publisher will pay you royalties—a percentage of each book sold—and the advance is basically a loan against those royalties. After the advance “earns out,” you’ll continue to get royalties for the lifetime of the book.

Generally, these publishers will do a print run of at least a few thousand copies, as well as producing an e-book edition. They’ll do all the work. You just provide the manuscript and then do whatever revisions they ask for.

The advantages of working with a largish traditional publisher are that you get some money up front (although rarely as much as you imagined) and that you don’t have to hassle with production.

The disadvantages are that you are giving up quite a lot of control of your work (the publisher will own the rights to your novel for as long as they choose to keep it in print). Publishers are not in business to hold your hand. They’re in business to make money, and the contract they give you will be written to favor them heavily. You can shift things in your favor by hiring a literary agent to negotiate the deal, but agents rarely get everything they want.

In fact, if you go with one of these publishers, the odds are very high that you must have an agent even to have your manuscript considered. Publishers just don’t have the manpower to read all submissions, so they rely on agents to deal with the flood. If a manuscript comes to them from a trusted agent, then they’ll make time to look at it. Otherwise, probably not.

And how do you get an agent? That’s a big question. There are zillions of agents working, and not all of them are good. How do you know who’s good? You have to rely on their reputation. Word gets around on who’s good and who isn’t.

Most agents have a web site and you can find out exactly how to submit your manuscript to each one by checking his or her site for submission guidelines. Be prepared for a long wait. Agents often take months to make a decision.

One of my favorite places to meet agents is at writing conferences. You can make an appointment with an agent, spend 15 minutes pitching your novel, and the agent will tell you if she’s interested in seeing more. She probably isn’t, and even if she is, that’s no guarantee that she’ll take you on as a client.

If this sounds discouraging, it is, but the process is fair—in the sense that the odds are heavily stacked against everybody. Every writer starts out knowing nobody. It’s a horrible playing field, but it’s a level field. And if you’re one of the few who get published, you have a chance for glory. It’s not a big chance, but it’s a chance.

For more information on how to get an agent, see Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Rachelle is a very widely read blogger and literary agent and she’s also a friend of mine, so I know she’s honest and good.

All of my own books were originally published with large to mid-size publishers. It took me a long time to break in to this market, and I’ve had some ups and downs. But these publishers are the traditional way to go, and it’s possible to do very well with them. It’s much more likely that an author will have mediocre sales, but that’s the nature of publishing—there are a very few huge winners and then there’s everybody else.

Small Publisher

You may decide that it’s just too hard to get published in traditional big-corporate publishing. In that case, there are quite a number of small, specialized publishers who have sprung up. Typically, these have staffs with just a few employees. They may not pay much of an advance, but they may also offer somewhat higher royalties than a traditional large publisher.

This kind of publisher will pay all the costs of producing the book. This is critical. If a publisher asks you to pay any of the costs of publishing, then they are a vanity publisher (see my comments on these below) and you should be very wary. But a small publisher who bears the costs of publication themselves is usually honest.

A small publisher may do an initial print run or they may release your book as a “print-on-demand” issue, which means that books are printed only as they’re ordered. This costs more per book, but it means that there’s no big up-front cost to the publisher for doing a large print run of books that might never get sold. POD books aren’t printed until they’re sold, so there’s less risk.

You generally don’t need an agent to work with a small publisher. You can usually submit your work directly to the acquisition editor (who may also be the publisher, the typesetter, the mail boy, the marketing team, and the sales staff, all rolled into one.)

The contract for a small publisher is usually shorter and easier to read than the contract from a large publisher. If you have any doubts about it, you should ask somebody who really knows contracts. And you should most definitely find out the reputation of the small publisher. Many of them are honest and very competent, but you don’t want to risk your book on the possibility that they aren’t.

Most small publishers have a web site that will explain how you submit your book.

I would strongly advise you to check out the reputation of a small publisher first. Talk to authors. Talk to agents. Talk to anyone who actually knows the publishing industry. If somebody is a fraud, word gets out. If they’re first-rate, word also gets out.

My friend Jeff Gerke ran a small niche publisher like this until recently, and I worked with him to produce the paper editions of the revised second editions of my novels OXYGEN and THE FIFTH MAN. Jeff had worked at several large publishers as an editor, and I knew he’d do an honest job for me. Jeff very recently sold his publishing house to literary agent Steve Laube (also a friend of mine, and one I trust), and I expect that Steve will continue to do an excellent job of publishing in that particular niche.

Vanity Publisher

I’ll define a vanity publisher as any publisher whom you pay to publish your novel. Most often, there are absolutely no quality requirements to get published by a vanity publisher. No matter how horrible your novel, a vanity publisher will be happy to publish it for you.

And that’s the problem, because if your book is lousy, then nobody’s going to buy it. If you’ve fronted the costs for publishing, then it’s no skin off your publisher’s nose if the book doesn’t sell. The skin comes off your nose.

It’s possible for a vanity publisher to be honest, but the word on the street is that very few of them are. And how do you know which ones are honest?

An honest vanity publisher will team you up with a competent team of editors to do a macro edit, line edit, copy edit, and several rounds of proofreading. They will allow you to take the book out of print at any time. They will not charge you for spurious “marketing opportunities.” They will not charge you outrageous shipping fees when they mail you your books. They will not require you to buy a certain number of books from them.

The problem is that if you’re a novice to publishing, you’ll have a hard time knowing whether the editors you’ve been assigned are competent. And you may be confused by the legalese in the publishing contract. You may even be snookered by completely false claims on the publisher’s web site.

There just aren’t very many honest vanity publishers, from what I can see. If you’re considering a vanity publisher and if you know a good literary agent, you can ask him about the publisher’s reputation. Don’t be surprised if he says they’re crooks, because most agents think the great majority of vanity publishers are crooks.

Before you sign on with any vanity publisher, Google around to see what you can learn about them.

  • Look at the list of recent books they’ve published. How well are they selling on Amazon? (Amazon shows the “sales rank” for any book. The best-selling book on Amazon is ranked #1, the second-best is ranked #2. If a book is ranked in the top 10,000 then it’s selling pretty well. If it’s ranked 50,000 then it’s selling two or three copies per day. If it’s ranked 1,000,000, then it hardly ever sells a copy.)
  • Have the publisher’s books won any awards? Are those awards prestigious awards?
  • Are there lawsuits filed against the publishing company? If so, do the lawsuits look like they have any merit?

If you’re satisfied that a given vanity publisher is not a crook, go to your local bookstore and ask them if they’ve ever ordered any books at all from the publisher you’re interested in. If the store tells you they would NEVER order a book from that publisher, that tells you a lot about your chances of ever seeing your book in actual stores.

I strongly, strongly, strongly urge you to avoid vanity publishers if you are trying to earn money from your book. (If you are just trying to write up your family history so you can make a few dozen copies to give away to family members, that’s a different story.)

But the fact is that you can get published much cheaper and easier by being your own independent (“indie”) publisher. We’ll talk about that next.

Indie Publishing

Indie publishing has become huge in the last few years, and it’s going to get bigger. Here’s how it works:

  • You write your book and edit it yourself (or hire an editor).
  • You create the cover art for your book (or better, hire a professional graphic artist who understands book covers).
  • You format the book as an e-book (or hire somebody to do this for you).
  • You create an account on Amazon  and at Barnes & Noble and maybe also at Smashwords and maybe at Kobo  and possibly also at the Apple iTunes store.
  • You upload your e-book to Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Kobo, and Apple. (They aren’t exclusive, so you can upload to as many as you like.)
  • They sell your e-book for you and they give you most of the money. (Amazon pays you 35% to 70% of the sale price, and the other online retailers give you similar royalties.)
  • If you want your book in paper, Amazon also provides its CreateSpace service to create Print-On-Demand copies for you.

Of course, this is going to take some work, but the benefits are huge. You control the entire process. If you want to remove your book from any of these online retailers, you can do it whenever you want. You set the price. You get most of the money. The online retailers give you worldwide distribution with no upfront cost.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of indie authors have published e-books on Amazon and/or the other online retailers. Most of them don’t make much money—that’s just the reality of publishing. There are a few big winners and then there’s everyone else.

The important point is that the online retailers are not going to cheat you. They won’t hit you with huge upfront charges. They’ll pay you monthly. They’ll give you an accounting of your earnings anytime you want it.

And the remarkable thing is that some authors are doing incredibly well as indie authors. Earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. In some cases, millions of dollars per year. Some well-known indie authors are Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, Bob Mayer, Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey, Colleen Hoover, and Russell Blake.

Will you earn millions per year as an indie author? The odds against it are long. You’re more likely to earn hundreds per year, or maybe thousands. But that would be hundreds or thousands more than you’re likely to earn anywhere else.

If you go with a traditional publisher, you may spend five or ten years learning the craft before you earn a single dime, and you may never find a publisher willing to publish you.

If you go with a small publisher, it’s the same story.

If you go with a vanity publisher, the most likely case is that you’ll spend thousands of dollars upfront which you will never recoup.

So indie publishing is a good deal. And it’s no secret that I went indie a couple of years ago.

You may be thinking that indie publishing sounds too good to be true. Please be aware that if you write crap, then it will sell like crap. But if you write good stuff and if you promote it intelligently, readers will discover you and you can reasonably expect to earn at least a few hundred dollars.

And possibly much more.

This week, indie author Hugh Howey released some data on how well indie authors do financially, as compared to authors who publish with large publishers (the “Big 5”). The results have shocked the publishing establishment.
Hugh teamed up with a web programmer to extract large amounts of data automatically from Amazon. You can read their results on Hugh’s new site about author earnings.

Prepare to be stunned. Indie authors are doing well. Incredibly well.

You Have Options

The great news here is that authors have options.

  • You can go with the large, traditional publishers and hope to become a famous author like James Patterson, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, or Sue Grafton.
  • You can go with a smaller publisher that gives you more personal attention and may be a bit easier to break in at. Tom Clancy published his first novel with the Naval Institute Press, a small publisher who had never done fiction.
  • You can be an indie author and take your shot at glory.

Any of these might conceivably be a good option for you.

What is almost always a bad option is to go with a vanity publisher.

Well, McKenna, I’ve only begun to answer your question, and I’m all out of words for the day. I hope this will get you rolling in the right direction.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

 

What If Your Friends Don’t Support Your Fiction Writing?

What if your friends don’t support your fiction writing? What if they sorta kinda vaguely support your fiction writing? What if they hate your writing? Does that mean you’re lousy?

A girl anonymously posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Dear Randy,

My friends are always really supportive of my writing. One of my friends in particular, let’s call her Juliet, always loves my books and writing in general, but lately hasn’t been showing the enthusiasm she had before.

My other friends seem to like my work, but they aren’t as experienced with writing and I really appreciate Juliet’s opinion because she’s blunt and would tell me if my work sucks. I’m not some sort of I-Think-I-Am-Perfect or I-Can’t-Take-Criticism type of person, I’m open to it. She’s not bashing not praising my work, which confuses me and makes me leave my work after the first chapter. Granted, I sometimes send her fragments that are only a page long and don’t entirely make sense.

~Please help me on what to do, I don’t want to keep hating my books and never finish one. My writing has started to look so awful to myself.

-Thanks

Randy sez: Your letter was anonymous, so I’m going to call you Miss No-Name in this blog post. From the context and from your e-mail signature, I’m going to guess you’re in high school.

If that’s the case, then it’s very likely that none of your friends are capable of giving you a useful critique of your work.

Please, let’s be clear what I’m NOT saying here:

  • I’m not saying that high school students are stupid.
  • I’m not saying that high school students have unimportant opinions.
  • I’m not saying that high school students don’t know what they like.

By the time a person hits high school, their intelligence is right at the peak of what it’ll ever be. And many high school students are voracious readers, so of course their opinions are important. Furthermore, by the time a person reaches high school, they know very definitely what they like.

The problem is that it takes years of full-time effort to become an expert in anything, and high school students simply haven’t lived  long enough to become an expert in critiquing fiction.

Miss No-Name, what you need at this point is an expert opinion. You need someone who can tell you whether your writing is good, even if it’s not the kind of writing she likes.

Some of your friends like what you write. Your friend Juliet seems to be neutral about your writing.

But you really shouldn’t care what any of them think.

This is a lesson that every fiction writer needs to learn. I had to learn it. Every professional novelist I know had to learn it. Stephen King and John Grisham and Nora Roberts had to learn it:

Be careful whom you listen to.

If you want to know whether a car is any good, you shouldn’t care whether your friends think it’s cute. You should care whether an expert mechanic says it’s in good shape.

Let’s remember one key thing. When you’re writing fiction, you are writing for a certain “target audience.” Your target audience is the set of people who would love your book, if only they knew it existed.

When you’re writing fiction, the ONLY people you need to please are the people in your target audience. Nobody else matters. Nobody.

Maybe there are a thousand people in your target audience. Maybe a million.

But there are seven billion people on the planet.

This means that the odds are low that your friends happen to be in your target audience.

So there’s no reason to think that your friends will love your book.

If they’re kind, they’ll say nice things about your fiction writing. If they’re snarky, they’ll say mean things.

But either way, their opinion isn’t really all that useful. Their opinion tells you more about whether they’re naughty or nice than it tells you about whether your writing is excellent or horrible.

This is true, whether your friends are in high school are middle-aged or live in an old-folks home. Most people don’t know enough about the mechanics of writing to tell you whether your work is at a professional level. How could they? Most people know what they like. But they don’t know what your target audience will like.

Professional writers and editors and agents have studied writing enough to guess how a novel will fly with its target audience. And even with all their years of experience, they sometimes guess wrong, so it’s usually a good idea to get several professional opinions.

So Miss No-Name, you asked me what you should do. Here’s what to do:

Keep writing, but stop showing your work to your friends. That’s just asking for trouble. They might like it. They might hate it. But they almost certainly won’t know how it’s going to work with your target audience. You can’t hold your fiction writing career hostage to the whims of your friends.

To whom should you show your work?

Your English teacher, possibly. A lot of English teachers studied English literature in college. The only problem is that English literature majors may like the classics more than they like the kind of fiction that’s selling NOW. So even your English teacher might not be qualified to give you a useful opinion. (Again, this is not to imply that they’re stupid. The problem is just that they probably haven’t been trained well enough in modern creative writing. Five years of full-time training is about what it takes.)

So it’s better if you can get an opinion from a professional novelist or an editor or an agent. Better yet if you can get more than one opinion.

Please remember that nobody writes great fiction when they just start. You might have a few athletes in your high school who are good enough to play college football, but it’s almost certain that they’re not good enough to play for the NFL. But give them a few years and they might.

Give yourself time to learn the craft. Write a lot. Study the craft of writing. Get a critique from an expert.

But don’t worry about what your friends think.

And this is true for writers of any age, so I’ll say it again:

Don’t worry what your friends think about your fiction writing.

If you do that, then you risk letting them kill your dream.

For Further Reading

Here are some recent blog posts on related topics:

How To Find Your Novel’s Target Audience

What If You Hate Your Own Writing?

My #1 Tip For Teen Novelists

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

 

 

 

 

Is Amazon The Big Bad Wolf?

So you’re an indie author and you’ve published your novel on all the online retailers, but now you’re wondering whether you should have gone exclusive with Amazon. Is Amazon the Big Bad Wolf? Is it wrong to leave all the other retailers out in the cold?

Mark posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Howdy!

First off, I just want to let you know that I LOVE your blog, and read each post as soon as it comes out. You have a lot of great knowledge and information, and I’m really thankful that you’re willing to share that with the world.

So, my question is about KDP Select. (Being an indie author, I’m sure you’ve heard of it before.)

What are your thoughts on it? There’s a lot of conflicting opinions out there, and I’m wondering what yours is. I know that you currently publish with smashwords, so that means you’re not presently enrolled in KDP Select, but would you consider jumping aboard in the future? Why, or why not?

I currently have several non-fiction books out (and am planning on self-publishing some fiction pretty soon) and all of them are enrolled in KDP Select, but I’m considering withdrawing some of them.

What are your thoughts?

Thanks!

Randy sez: That’s an excellent question, Mark.

First, let’s talk about what “KDP” and “KDP Select” are, to make sure everybody’s on the same page with us.

“KDP” is “Kindle Direct Publishing.” It’s a web site at kdp.amazon.com, run by Amazon which allows anybody to publish their book online as an e-book at no charge.

KDP is a great program for authors. You can upload your e-book, set the price you want, and Amazon will create a sales page for you, collect the money, and pay you a percentage every month (either 35% or 70%, depending on the price and certain other factors).

KDP has several competitors. Here are the most prominent:

The great thing for authors is that you can work with ALL of these at the same time. This gives you more places to sell your book, and that’s good for you. It’s also good for readers, because different readers like to shop in different online stores.

“KDP Select” is a special option within KDP. If you choose the KDP Select option, you agree to work exclusively with Amazon. This means that if you choose the KDP Select option, you CAN’T also publish your e-book with B&N, Apple, Smashwords, Kobo, or anyone else. You work only with Amazon.

Why on earth would any author agree to do that?

Because Amazon offers you several perks if you choose the KDP Select option. Here are some of them:

  • You get paid when people borrow your book from the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library.
  • You earn higher royalties for books sold in certain countries (currently, Japan, India, Brazil, and Mexico, but this list is constantly changing).
  • You can list your book for free for 5 days during each 90 day period.
  • You can run a Kindle Countdown Deal, where your price is temporarily lowered and a countdown timer shows when the deal will expire.

These have value to you as an author, and Amazon gives you these perks in exchange for giving up the right to sell your e-books on other online retailers.

A lot of people believe that Amazon is evil, that they’re the Big Bad Wolf and they intend to eat up their competition and then jack up prices when they have a monopoly.

My own opinion is that Amazon would definitely like to eat their competition. But I can see no evidence that they intend to raise prices, should they ever get a monopoly. So I don’t consider Amazon evil. They’re just a very strong competitor.

Competition is not bad. Competition is good for readers and for authors. Competition keeps prices low for readers. Competition keeps options attractive for authors.

I won’t tell you what to do, Mark. I think that the markets work best when readers and authors do what’s in their best self-interest. This keeps competition working correctly. It’s a free market and you can do what you want.

My own choice, so far, has been to refuse the KDP Select option. I’d rather work with multiple retailers, because I want my readers to have as many options as possible. Not all my readers want to buy from Amazon. I’ve posted my e-books directly on Amazon, B&N, Apple, and Smashwords.

Smashwords is not just a retailer–they’re also an aggregator, which means that they can get you distribution into other online retailers. So you can use Smashwords to put you onto Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, Oyster, Scribd, Library Direct, and more. So I use Smashwords to put my books into all the places that I don’t deal with directly.

For the last couple of years, some authors have done very well using KDP Select to promote their books for free for 5 days each quarter. This gets them lots of downloads (sometimes tens of thousands of downloads in a single day), which makes their books visible. And some authors have then gotten sales traction because of that visibility. However, the word on the street is that this isn’t working as well as it used to.

In fact, the biggest lure of KDP Select that I can see is this ability to make the price free for 5 days each quarter. Because this is no longer as effective as it used to be, there is less and less appeal to choosing the KDP Select option.

I’m looking at my sales spreadsheet right now for my novel Oxygen, which was the first e-book I released, so I have the most data for it. Here are the percentages of units sold for the various retailers that I can track:

  • Amazon: 84%
  • B&N: 13%
  • Smashwords: 3%
  • Apple: I don’t track sales on Apple because their accounting is such a pain in the ***. Note to Apple: Please clean up your act. Your accounting tools suck.

Why work with Smashwords, if sales are so low there? Several reasons.

  • Smashwords lets you price your e-book free anytime, all the time, with no restrictions. (Amazon and B&N don’t let you do this.)
  • Smashwords is international, and the price they charge is the SAME anywhere in the world. (Amazon sometimes adds a surcharge to certain countries, and you have no control over that. This can be horribly embarrassing when you run a promotion at a special price, and then learn that people in some countries are having to pay a higher price.)
  • Smashwords will sell your book in ANY format, including Kindle, ePub, PDF, RTF, Sony, text, and a web-readable format. (Amazon sells only the Kindle format, and most other retailers sell only the ePub format.)
  • Smashwords lets you create coupons so you can easily give away copies to friends and family by giving them a coupon code.

Why work with Apple, if their accounting tools are so bad?

  • You still get paid, even if it’s a pain to learn which books earned you the money.
  • You can set the price to free on Apple, and Amazon will usually match that price. This is called the “permafree” strategy, because it lets you make your book free ALL the time. I’m told it’s much harder to get Amazon to match a free price on Smashwords. Permafree is a nice marketing tool for the first book in a series, because it gives readers an easy way to try before they buy.
  • Apple sells in most countries and you have complete control over the pricing in each country.

I will note that all of the online retailers do a poor job at making accounting information available. Sure, you can easily find out how much they’re paying you total. But the real numbers you care about are these two:

  1. How many copies did each individual book sell?
  2. How much did I earn in US dollars for each individual book?

The number of copies sold is important for marketing purposes. If your book has sold 100,000 copies, you’d like to be able to brag about that in your ads. But you can’t do that if you don’t know the number. And none of the retailers lets you easily find this out. They do make the information available, but it’s fragmented.

The number of dollars earned is important if you have a co-author. You need to know how to split the money.

It is bizarre that NONE of the online retailers lets you easily get these two crucial numbers, and two of them make it impossible. Smashwords does the best job, but you still have to manipulate a large spreadsheet to get what you want. Amazon gives you all the data, but not all in US dollars. If the book was sold in Europe, you’ll see a line-item for sales in Euros, and they don’t tell you the exchange rate. And ditto for books sold in the UK, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, etc. This makes it impossible to do an accurate split if you co-author some of your books and write others on your own. B&N provides the data you need, but you have to manipulate a spreadsheet. And Apple is simply crazy to work with, so I’ve given up trying to get data out of them.

Well, Mark, I hope that helps. I’ll repeat my advice–do what makes the most economic sense to you. If you believe that KDP Select will earn you more money, then go with it. If you believe you’ll do better with multiple online retailers, then work with them all. The choice is yours.

Mark, you asked if I’d consider going with KDP Select in the future. Yes, possibly. For me, a major concern has been what’s best for my readers. More options for them is better for them, and this outweighs in my mind the advantages of KDP Select. But I might consider a test of one book on KDP Select to see how it works out. Every author would like to get the word out on their books, and one way to do that is to use the 5 days of free pricing on KDP Select.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.